Category Archives: Volume I

Recreating a Propaganda Room

Honors students enrolled in Dr. Stephen Norris’s Russian Revolution class transformed the Upham Room in Upham Hall into a propaganda room.  Half of the students, and half of the room, took the form of early Soviet propaganda spaces.  The other half, inspired by a photograph in Miami’s Havighurst Special Collections of Russian emigres, took the form of an emigre club.

Émigré Propaganda Room

By Cameron Devitt

The first stage of putting together any type of propaganda, advertisement, or persuasive material is first understanding your audience and the argument you want to make. In crafting our emigré propaganda room we determined our target audience would be the emigré population in France as the image presented to us of the Gallipoli Society in class suggested. Then, we thought about the historical platform of the emigrés during the Russian Revolution. They aimed to restore the old order by crushing the Bolsheviks and their Red Army and freeing the Tsar. Thus, one could say that our argument was that through our propaganda room we hoped to persuade individuals of the cultural superiority of the old Russian history as well as convince them that the white army and our cause was still powerful with potential for success. Accordingly, we hoped they would be more likely to support the cause as they had in history.

Since the monarchy was symbolic of Russia’s old history, it became a vital symbol to the white army’s platform and propaganda. To blatantly emphasize this, an incredibly large photograph of Tsar Nicholas II in the middle of the propaganda room reminded viewers that to escape the chaos and insecurity with Bolshevism, they needed to restore order as it was. Likewise, a Double-Headed Eagle coat of arms used by the royal family suggested the deep Russian history that was being destroyed. Finally, the Russian flag was symbolic of the historical Russian spirit. When looking though sources to put in the room in special collections, it was interesting to see the extent to which the monarchy played such an extravagant but large role of the people’s lives and for me it reawakened the sense of urgency the émigrés must have felt to restore order amidst chaos.

Equally important propaganda to the emigré cause was white army propaganda. Because the white army quickly became the more decentralized of the two armies, it was important to convince people that there was still hope for the possibility of returning to a secure country. Thus, portraits of Anton Denekin, Alexander Kolchak, Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, and Nikolai Yudenich were meant to reassure the emigrés of their strong leaders. Likewise, pamphlets such as Who Is Denekin? and Who is Kolchak? were available if people wanted to learn more about these leaders and their backgrounds. In addition, pictures such as the Nurses of Kornilov’s Army (1918), the Group of Kornilovtsy (“Followers of Kornilov”), and the pictures of Colonial Schleglov (part of Kornilov’s Army) and General Bazaravich (a military agent in Serbia) served to remind émigrés of the network of people supporting their cause and acted as propaganda showing that the white army was doing well. The designers of the propaganda room in Paris understood the importance of maintaining hope and positivity among the émigrés for continued support and in our replica we tried to do the same.

In the same vein, communication was very important. Since the émigrés were not living in Russia where they could walk out their door to purchase a newspaper about the daily events, they created their own newspapers such as Voennaia Byl., “La Sentinelle,” and Posledniye Novosti which presumably they may have had access to in propaganda rooms. Either way, these newspapers were powerful in keeping the émigrés informed and their goals coherent. White poetry, like red poetry was also key in evoking feelings towards the revolution. Poetry has the ability to connect with people on an emotional level and keeping people attached to the white cause was vital. Thus, we included a white poetry book in the propaganda room and two white propaganda posters suggesting the importance of the white cause.

In creating this propaganda room, I think we reignited the spirit, the tension, and the chaos of the Russian Revolution. I can only imagine the challenges that must have come with trying to manage an army outside of the country you are fighting in with the lack of accessible communication. Despite their ultimate failure, their dedication to the cause is evident through the poems we read and the newspapers published. It must’ve been extremely frustrating to work so hard at protecting an old Russian spirit that so essential to your prior life experiences and yet see it slowly crumble at the expense of the “newness” of the Bolshevik socialist experiment.

Mark Steinberg, in the conclusion of his The Russian Revolution, suggests a theme about the revolution in the present that has helped me to best understand why the propaganda room project was significant to my learning and self-growth. He writes,

 

It is not the work of the historian to predict the future- the past’s futures are hard enough to predict. Yet, somehow in our times we see a remarkable number of people across the world, mostly young, acting as if they believe that one must venture beyond the limits of life as it is to create life as it ought to be…These dreamers challenge all they judge to be negative in the world…and, not least, resist what we tell them is impossible to achieve. (356)

To me, creating this propaganda room was an act of empathy. By forcing me to act as an émigré in the time of the Russian Revolution, I was able to gain insight into the emotional connection all Russians had to the revolution, but especially the connections of those abroad. As someone who is fascinated by entrepreneurial spirit, I admire the ownership the large proportion of Russian’s took in trying to help create their own destiny in this time of disorder as evident in the newspapers and poems. They “resisted” the “impossible” and took a stance. I believe this stance speaks to both their brilliance and lack of identity; brilliance in the action they took and failure in their ability to recognize that radical change has only the slimmest change of long-term success in its first trial. Of course, this failure is understandable due to the oppression they faced and looking at the Russian Revolution through the lens of a first year college student has made me all the more grateful for the emphasis my high school English courses put on exploring self-identity. Thus, the most valuable opportunity the creation of this room gave me was a chance to connect and think more deeply about the spirit of the ordinary actors of the Revolution. While learning about Lenin and Kolchak and Stalin is and Denikin is vital to the context of the revolution, as someone who is still trying to discover and mature the future path of my life, it is neat to look at the 1917-1921 actors and see how their stories are remarkably different, yet remarkably similar to my own. Although I’d never hope to experience the brutality of the Russian Revolution, there is something to be said all of these people trying to find their voice in the wake of freedom to try and make an impact. After all, as John Green said, “What is the point of living if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

 

Recreating a Soviet Space

By Jacob Bruggeman

In the opening pages of his new book, The Russian Revolution: 1905-1921, Mark Steinberg writes: “I want to imagine we can walk through the streets during the ‘springtime of freedom’ [of 1917]: go to the demonstrations and meetings, listen to speeches, talk with people in public […] Above all, I want to imagine we can ask people what they meant by that […] idea that everyone insisted defined the revolution: ‘freedom’.”[1] I would posit that Steinberg’s most recent addition to the historiography succeeds in painting for readers a better picture of the past; yet, for all Steinberg’s efforts, is it always impossible for people of the present to fully understand events from a century ago. Steinberg’s history of the Russian Revolution, like all histories, provides a series of lenses through which we see a recreation of the past fashioned from its sources or “traces,” if you will. A different way of understanding the past is to act it out, to attempt to place oneself in the mindset of our far-back-in-time forerunners; to engage the past by recreating it, not through abstractions in prose, but through informed actions. Through creating our Propaganda Room for class, we engaged with the past in an all-to-often rejected vehicle for learning history: hands-on activities. In so doing, my group—that is, the group representing the Bolsheviks—was forced to grapple with the sense of authorship, newfound freedom, and utter uncertainty felt by Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Propaganda Room was split down the middle to allow for both Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik propaganda rooms, or half-rooms, to be constructed. Our side of the room had many moving parts: there was a banner, posters, Suprematist artwork, excerpts from literature, mass-produced pamphlets, a portrait of Lenin and flag dedicated to his everlasting life, and countless reproductions of Bolshevik propaganda cartons and images (one perk of being on the “right side of history” is an abundance of sources to work with). Stripped of their independent historical contexts, each piece of propaganda in the room carried is own historical gravity, informed by the histories we have explored through class, and its own emotional aura, moving viewers in ways unique to their understanding, or lack thereof, of what we have learned. The room, then, was a sort of amalgam of Bolshevik propaganda, each piece plucked from different places, different points throughout the “springtime of freedom,” and different individuals’ imaginations of what was to come for Russia. As such, our half of the Propaganda Room lacked the cogency and coherency of a museum exhibit; however, in my view, this was for the better.

As Steinberg notes in his book, Walter Benjamin observed that human history contains the possibility “of a ‘springtime’,” and that revolutions, when they occur, are one of humanity’s “strongest expressions of […] desire, vision, and possibility.”[2] I see an interesting alignment between our Propaganda Room project and Steinberg’s argument about the Russian Revolution: as noted earlier, our construction of the Propaganda Room reflects our effort to engage the past through acting it out, yet, in acting as Bolshevik revolutionaries, we felt no compulsion to order our room in any particular fashion; therefore, we voiced “desire[s]” and “vision[s]” for the room with an anarchistic disregard for the contemporary conventions of presenting traces of the past as is done in museums. Instead, we built our Propaganda Room with a random blend of artifacts and artwork, signifying a reconceptualization of time, which, as Steinberg suggests, often results from revolution. Indeed, the unpredictability with which we picked traces of the past for presentation the Propaganda Room speaks to the how, as Steinberg points out, “revolutions “blast open the continuum of history” […] and allow humanity to “leap in the open air of history,”” thereby transforming history into “radical possibility.”[3]

In a world of “radical possibility” the only impossibility can be a singularity of meaning, and so it would be hard to argue that our Propaganda Room had a single thrust, for there were many meanings which could be drawn from the disparate races of the past in the room. As mentioned earlier, many of our traces of the past came from very different contexts, and so they can be said to have different purposes. On one wooden panel, we posted two poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and these works represented the Russian Symbolists’ eschatological vision of “the dreary, rationalistic, thoroughly corrupt world […] [being] swept away by a destructive, “purifying” fire”;[4] yet directly under these poems were piece of propaganda calling upon Russian to engage with industry, and therefore maintain—at least to some extent—the time’s industrial order. The divergent meanings of our traces of the past resulted in each panel, or even each piece on each panel, having its own atmosphere of meaning, its own thrust of propagandizing. Furthermore, a piece of Suprematist art I made, which sat to the panel at the right of the Mayakovsky poems, depicted the sense of dissimilar meanings in the Russian Revolution through triangles colliding with one another, and so, in another odd parallel, may even reflect heady theory interpretation of the room. In this way, the room mimics the cacophony of voices during the Russian Revolution, each with their own “desire[s]” and “vision[s],” and thus demonstrates the utility of learning history through a physical engagement with it.

[1] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 15.

[2] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 17.

[3] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 17

[4] Dralyuk, Boris. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. London: Pushkin, 2016. Print. Pg. 50.

 

Issue 2: 1917 as History

The second issue of Journeys into the Past builds on the first, which featured writing from students in a course on Russia in war and revolution.  The essays in this second issue come from students enrolled in Dr. Stephen Norris’s spring 2017 course on the Russian Revolution.  In this centenary year, students learned about the events of 1917 and its global significance.  The writing you can sample in this issue consists of reflection papers about class role-playing exercises where students think about the past in the present, poems written in the style of 1917, and the journal’s first book review (on Mark Steinberg’s recent Oxford history of the Russian Revolution).  Finally, Jacob Bruggeman, who has joined the journal as an assistant editor, reflects on the week he spent in New York as part of a select cohort of undergraduate history majors.  Enjoy these journeys!

 

History in These Times

John Singelton Copley, Portrait of Mrs. John Stevens, 1770-72.

By Jacob Bruggeman

Devotees to the study of history are quickly becoming a bygone breed.

In early June, I was honored to be one of fifteen undergraduate participants, a group of that bygone breed, in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s 2016-2017 History Scholar Program, through which I was flown out to New York City and housed at New York University with the fourteen other participants in the program.

The program’s length is just short of a week, and each day we engaged with several preeminent American historians, whose myriad specialties ranged from women’s roles in the War for Independence, Lincoln’s life, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s naval policies. The visiting scholars included Richard Brookhiser, Carol Berkin, Kenneth Jackson, Mae Ngai, David Blight, Martha Hodes, and Thomas Heinrich.

This year’s History Scholar cohort, hailing from universities, public and private, scattered across the continental United States, represented a near comprehensive scope of academic training, ideological commitments, and backgrounds.

Yet, in the face of our deep differences, we formed a cohesive group, each of us dedicated to the preservation, understanding, and consistent reevaluation of others’ interpretations, or ‘histories’, of the past. Indeed, our in-class discussions—some of them growing out of the designs of the visiting scholars’ syllabi, many more being approached organically, often being framed in the tumult of our current political climate—were dominated by the cohort thinking through the contrast between constructed narratives and reality.

To make clear the conclusion of the above paragraph, let me share with you an example from the week.

Carol Berkin of the City University of New York gave a presentation on “Women in the Revolutionary War,” the mere title of which contradicts the normative historical narrative of the American Revolution. Indeed, one could easily argue, as some historians have, that the United States’ origins are shrouded in collective mythology, one that excludes the women whose efforts were essential to the winning of the Revolutionary War, focusing instead on the ‘great men’ of the era: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the list goes on.

While there has been a steady winnowing of the number of historians whose principle means of understanding the past is through the deeds of ‘great men’—which is, to be frank, tantamount to a gendered political history—I would argue that the average citizen still understands American History as a story shaped only by men such as Washington. This understanding of the Revolutionary Era, of our past as Americans, is not so much wrong as it is critically incomplete.

Many of the Founding Fathers relied upon their wives’ efforts maintain order in home, on the farm, and all the while care for the family; in other words, the domestic, that sphere of communitas to which most women of the era were relegated. Here come to mind the dynamics of the Adams Household, in which John Adams required Abigail’s counsel and reassurances as much as her hours spent doing the wash, cooking, and caring for the children. Berkin attempts to make more people aware of the contributions of women such as Abigail Adams through one of her books, Revolutionary Mothers.

              Women such as Abigail Adams, women in high places, were not the only women who dedicated their lives to the Revolution. As Berkin noted during our lecture, women across race and class engaged in “political acts of heroism throughout the War,” often funding the War effort itself through its first (and massive) public fundraising campaigns. Women of the era, Colonial women, also moved into many of the vocational roles once occupied by their husbands, whose energies were being harnessed on the warfront, not in the homestead. Colonial women supported the War and maintained the home at the same time, often working hours on end, domestic work always being renewed ad infinitum.

The acts of women in the War—those from New Englander or Virginian elites to those of the common Colonial woman—are oft-forgotten in historical narratives, and certainly left out of our collective mythology of the War.

This lecture challenged the constructed narrative of the American Revolutionary War, instead presenting the realities of women’s contributions to the American Founding, thus reassembling a new narrative of the War—a narrative much truer to the efforts of women to win the War, while still acknowledging the essential contributions of the ‘great men’.

Here we see the power of history to reshape our own reality, to disassemble our understanding of particular people, places, and periods in the past, perhaps even the very foundation of our understanding, from the pieces of our understanding, conceiving, with the Historian’s help, a new image of that person, place, or period in the past.

Each student in the cohort cherishes different moments of American History, but each of us recognizes that stewarding the past is not a zero-sum game, and that attempting to comprehend our past, regardless of the particularities of a certain period, place, or person, is a worthwhile endeavor—indeed, and endeavor upon which rests the stability of our modest Republic.

In times such as these, when constructed narratives about race, gender, and politics seem to contradict our lived experiences, our realities, it is necessary to pull from the shelves the history books. In doing so, we may revisit the past, and thus inform the present, through others’ written interpretations, challenging, if we must, decades-old, oppressive regimes of truth, or even days-old ‘alternative’ realities.

If you are a history student, I highly recommend applying to the program. Through engaging American History, the visiting scholars, and likeminded students, you just might make studying history more interesting, encourage those in your social circles challenge narratives of and then reinterpret the past, and, just maybe, save the Republic.

Remembering Revolution

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 class, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies, participated in a final role-playing exercise that asked them to plan how best to remember the events of 1917 in Russia.  The students were divided into groups and given time- and location-specific guidelines in order for the entire class to see how different groups in different times and places would remember 1917.  One group was tasked with planning the official 1920 celebrations in Petrograd, a second with planning a counter-commemoration in 1924 France (among the Russian emigre community), a third with the 1927 official celebrations in Moscow.  The fourth and fifth groups took contemporary positions, with one planning an American art exhibit and another a Russian exhibit.  Below are sample reflections from students about this project.

Bolshevik Memories

By Mary Jane Fischer

As a Bolshevik party member in 1920, being tasked with designing a “people’s party” was invigorating because the event held so many possibilities. A people’s festival serves the purpose to re-educate the masses. The primary concern when designing the festival was focused on demolishing the “old” and celebrating the “new”. In other words the tsarist autocracy was to be scorched and the emerging Bolshevik government and its new policies and beliefs was to be acclaimed. We felt that this should be the most important takeaway from our festival.

As we learned in class, Anatoly Lunacharsky was appointed the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, making him the head of our committee. When planning the festival, we wanted to make sure that our ideas lined up with his. On describing the people’s festivals, Lunacharsky said, “When organised masses walk in a procession to music, sing in one voice, or complete some great gymnastic exercises and dances– in short, if they hold their own kind of parade, but this parade is not military in nature but rather saturated by content that expresses ideological essence, hope, oaths and all other kinds of peoples’ emotions– when this is the case, then the remaining unorganized masses merge with the organized masses. The whole nation demonstrates its spirit in front of itself,”(Geldern). From this quote, we knew it was important to get the crowd involved, not just watching the processions, but partaking. It was important that they too were using their voices to sing and their feet to march. Only by partaking and being a part of movement would the people would feel like they had a say. They would feel like they had helped create this new government and it was something personal to them, something to be protected, cherished, and celebrated.

To get the people involved, we brainstormed various possible activities. There would be crafts for kids, where they could create suprematist artwork, which consists of relatively simple shapes that kids could conjure (that is not a dig at suprematism). As we learned in class, the Bolsheviks were especially concerned with educating children, as they would grow up to continue the Bolshevik vision and legacy. Additionally, there would be a contest for the “Best Dressed Nicholas II”. Essentially, the participants dress up in a way that ruthlessly makes fun of Nicholas II and his bourgeois lifestyle. The funniest costume wins. We also had the idea to commission Dmitri Moor, one of the Bolshevik’s most notable propaganda artists, to paint a mural where everybody could sign their name, pledging allegiance and showing their support to the new Communist government.

Art, especially the avant-garde, was a primary tactic used to educate the masses and invoke emotions that would support the rebellion. “Avant garde artists remade old streets, buildings, and statues with huge, brightly colored geometric constructions,” (Steinberg, 152). In the Uritsky Palace square, which is neoclassical in design, abstract (cubist) constructions and sculptures would be commissioned. These new structures would represent the new order of the Bolsheviks and would help the spectator visualize the difference between the old and the new and allowed them to physically experience it. Other visual representations of the Bolshevik’s victory over the oppressive tsarist government included a staged fight using actors to depict the struggle between the Red Army and the Tsar, poetry readings, film showings, and avant garde floats.

These people’s festivals were important to the success of the new government because the Bolshevik’s rise to power was not followed with immediate elation. According to Steinberg in The Russian Revolution, “most citizens, including workers, harbored ‘dark,’ ‘sorrowful,’ ‘melancholy’, ‘anxious,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘frightened’ feelings about the past and future,” (148). Despite these general feelings of despair, the festivals had the power to rally the masses and convince them of the good tidings that were headed their way. In order to raise moral and gain the support of the people, these festivals needed to portray the Bolshevik’s new order in a positive light, as something that is hopeful- and above all, infinitely better than the old tsarist government. And these festivals were widely successful. As Steinberg writes, “‘this was not the celebration of an anniversary, not the memory of effort and sacrifice, not the rapture of coming victory and creativity, but the joyful greeting of revolution, the happy laughter of the great masses that made the day of the Overturn great.’ And nothing less than the whole of human history, which had predetermined this revolution across the centuries, inspired the people’s festive delight. Insistent joyfulness would remain the hallmark of official street festivals,’ (152-3).

This assignment helped us to look at the revolution through the eyes of those who actually lived through the revolution themselves. By putting ourselves in their positions, we were forced to take into context what we have learned throughout the semester and apply it to realistic situations that these characters may have had to face in 1920.

 

Work Cited

 

Geldern, James Von. Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920. Berkeley: U of California P., 1993. Print.

Emigre Memories

By Aleah Sexton

Ah – my love for the Brothers of Russian Truth! Due to the events this evening, my confidence in our efforts to educate masses of the True and Honorable Russia is at its peak. Our plan to commemorate Old Russia has reached completion as our proposal was verbally announced to chapter. We will hold a Military Parade to the Eastern Orthodox Church where our script will be recited on the sacred steps. Our blessed Royal Family died through the onslaught of those damned Bolsheviks. Those imbeciles spread the propagation: “Peace, Love, and Bread” but this translates to: “War, Persecution, and Famine!” We acknowledge that Russia’s splendor is long past her. A new autocracy would unite Great Russia and free her from the enslavement of the Bolsheviks. The White Army rushed to revive our traditions. However, the socialist pigs deprived us of a fair war and instead raped our churches of its glory. They brainwash our children to believe in nothing but the “Socialist Revolution”. They destroy our history and fracture unions. Outside nations notice a new weak Russia and demand portions! These socialists are cowards are enemies and build a nation of lies. Our once illustrious motherland has been deprived of her glory and her memory is mocked. Brothers of the Russian Truth will change that perception! We educate Western Europe on the dangers of this socialist union. I swear on Tsar Nicholas II that the True Russia will be revived of her glory!

********

This commemorative project allowed me to take a different perspective on the Russian Revolution. In previous projects, I was a Bolshevik. I played curious about the promises of Lenin and pledged my loyalty to the New Russia. However, as a character of the White Émigré, I was given a new perspective on the revolution and forced to combat previous “realities”.

Before class, I researched the Brotherhood of the Russian Truth and learned they were a counter-communism organization. We decided that members of the Brotherhood of Russian Truth were to be the sole planners of the commemoration. The purpose of our memorial was to recollect on the beauty and stability of a strong Russia and stress the desolation and violence brought on by the actions of few men. We planned a parade of Russian military committees that reached the steps of the Orthodox Church. The Bolshevik ideology was credited as the foolish teachings of one man and his ability to appeal to masses was due to insanity. The commemoration was scheduled on May 18th to honor the Romanov lineage on Nicholas II’s birthday. For the declaration, we incorporated ornate and powerful language to tell the story of the once Great Russia for children and Parisians to easily understand. The motivation of the declaration was to unite as a movement and reminisce on a Russia of culture, wealth, peace, and organization. The storming of the Winter Palace that Bolsheviks highlight as the end of Old Russia was emphasized by our Brotherhood to be a devastating attack on tradition. I believe we accomplished the task of creating a commemoration to both celebrate and mourn Old Russia through our propagandist speech, Old Russian flag, Romanov crest, and distribution of White Army pamphlets.

This exercise allowed me to concentrate on a community that rejected the ideals of the socialist revolution. As mentioned above, I grew comfortable with my usual role of a peasant that supported Bolshevik efforts. However, as an émigré I recognized how the actions of the Red Army had an inverse effect on various factions. As written in Marc Raeff’s Russia Abroad, I was surprised to learn that the elite were not the only Russians that emigrated, but also “artisans, craftspeople, workers, employees, and a fair number of peasants” (5). It is important to note that some of the emigres fled not because they were hunted by the Bolsheviks, but simply because “they were committed to carrying on a meaningful Russian life. They were determined to … work as part and parcel of Russia, even in a foreign environment” (5). This further supports the belief that the Bolsheviks did destroy the Russia that many, even in the proletariat, cherished and respected. I learned that White movement created a society dedicated to merely preserving the Old Russia they believed in. This defied my previous assumption that emigres fled only because they were bourgeoisie. I realized that despite if one was a Bolshevik supporter or not, all commemorations acknowledged the change the socialists implemented on Russia – whether in mockery or celebration.

 

Final Role-Playing Reflection- Émigrés

By Cameron Devitt

One of the most interesting parallels that can be analyzed in terms of the Russian Revolution is the idea of Russia Abroad. In commemorating the events of October 1917 as émigrés, we hoped to capture the hopeful spirit of these abroad communities despite displacement from their homeland. Thus, one could say that our arguments through the commemorative exercise as émigrés in 1921, was to persuade the foreign community that the cultural superiority of old Russia is still alive, despite displacement, and to invoke the idea that with Lenin’s death, the potential of recentralizing the old Russia is still a possibility.

Since the émigrés were scattered throughout many cities in Europe, strong culture in terms of artistic, scholarly, and especially literary creations (which is my focus) were vital to keeping the old Russia alive in exile. In Russia Abroad, author Marc Raeff notes, “centers (of émigrés) formed wherever a significant number of scholarly and artistically productive émigrés found more or less stable circumstances where they could engage in creative work” (7). Through our work in putting together the propaganda room, we came across many periodicals that were equally important to our emigré commemorative exercise. Newspapers and journals such as as Voennaia Byl., “La Sentinelle,” and Posledniye Novosti kept the community alive and functioned well as a means of communication since, “Russia society in exile was relatively well educated, and it was primarily verbal in its cultural manifestations” (Raeff, 11). Therefore, these cultural items were of vital importance to the émigré community as the both served as a unifying measure and played a key role in maintaining the values associated with old Russia.

Of equal importance to the strong culture associated with Russia Abroad is the émigrés belief that they were living in temporary exile and would eventually return to their homeland when the state of old Russia was restored. Raeff states,

At first the exiles organized their lives to be ready to return and to reintegrate into the political, social, and cultural activities of their homeland the moment would be freed…they did not think of melding into the host societies…they wanted their children (whether born in Russia or abroad) to remain Russians and they feared their “denationalization” most. (4)

Likewise, in our speech commemorating the revolution we emphasized this idea by stating “But take great heart brothers, as the future looks bright to returning to our great country! Lenin, the great thief of Russia, has died. It has fractured into factions.” Hence, through pointing to the idea that Russia could soon be restored with Lenin’s death, we highlighted the émigrés certainty that the revolutionary uprising wouldn’t persist long-term and their belief that the factions fighting to control Russia would eventually give up in favor of the old order. Even though history didn’t unfold this way, in hindsight, the idea of Russia Abroad, and their citizens lack of integration into their host countries, is probably one of the greatest gifts to Russian culture; it allowed for the preservation of the old culture in a time where it would’ve been destroyed had it stayed in Russia under the Bolsheviks. It is the spirit associated with the émigrés situation and their fervent desire to retain their values as the years passed that allowed this vibrant culture to persist against dire circumstances.

Because the persistence of the Russia Abroad culture remained strong, it was also interesting to look at the diversity of people living in the abroad communities to gain a better understanding of how they retained their spirit for such a prolonged period. Despite my initial belief, it wasn’t only the wealthy monarchists who formed these Russian hubs abroad. Raeff states,

In the emigration, we not only find the former ruling elites…but also petite bourgeoisie, artisans, craftspeople, workers, and employees, as well as a fair number of peasants, especially if we consider the Cossack’s to be basically peasants. Nor was the Russian emigration homogeneous in its religious, ethnic, educational and economic makeup. (5).

This diversity is key in that it suggests that Russia Abroad was in fact representative of an entire society. Therefore, it was not foolish on their part to believe that they could bring back a fully-functioning society to Russia with all classes were represented (although probably not equally) despite their current decentralized situation.

To conclude, I will reference my favorite quote from Mark Steinberg’s, The Russian Revolution to summarize my understanding of the commemorative exercise. It reads,

It is not the work of the historian to predict the future- the past’s futures are hard enough to predict. Yet, somehow in our times we see a remarkable number of people across the world, mostly young, acting as if they believe that one must venture beyond the limits of life as it is to create life as it ought to be…These dreamers challenge all they judge to be negative in the world…and, not least, resist what we tell them is impossible to achieve. (356)

The émigrés valued their culture and saw the Russian Revolution and civil war as a disruption to a mostly positive existence. Thus, despite a relatively strong seizure of power by the Bolshevik’s, they “resisted” the idea that the might have their opportunity to revive their values within their homeland and pass on that sense of identity to the future generations; they retained hope for what they saw as a better life. In our commemorative effort of the Russian Revolution, I have come to understand both the extent to which Russia Abroad acted as true society and the great sense of hope that comes with being an exile desiring to return to a place where your beliefs feel valued. We all desire to “create life” as we believe “it ought to be” and the émigrés were no exception in trying to re-foster the life they desired for themselves and their loved ones.

 

Preserving the Vitality of the October Revolution—1927

By Mohinee Mukherjee

For years following the Revolutions of February and October 1917, Russians existed in a period of experimentation to determine how political efficacy and svoboda were imbedded in daily life, and how Marxism should influence the Russian state. By 1927, ten years had passed which also witnessed the end of World War I, the Russian Civil War, conflicts with and integration of non-Russian lands, War Communism, the New Economic Policy, and the death of Vladimir Lenin. At this time, the Bolshevik Party was safely in power in Russia but rapidly approaching the cusp of new leadership and an uncertain future. For that reason, the party sought to revitalize the energy of October 1917 and glorify it as a triumphant social revolution, to not only invigorate Russians into fully supporting the Bolsheviks but also stymie any opposition, especially to Joseph Stalin. My committee sought to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution in an all-encompassing, multi-media celebration that drew inspiration from workers and peasants, loathing of the Tsar and bourgeoisie, social movements, and foreign affairs. By reminiscing about the past and providing optimism for the future of Russia, we gained an understanding of what the Bolsheviks, known also as Soviets, truly valued about the Revolution, and how they influenced the memory of past events in attempts to galvanize Russians into unadulterated party support.

Prior to meeting as a group, I researched how the October Revolution was actually commemorated between 1918 and 1927. While there was consistent tension between autonomy of celebration and spontaneity from the Russians and government-approved celebration and order from the Soviets, the commemorations were “noteworthy for their scale” and exhibited “national strength and economic achievements” (Corbesero 125-126). Moreover, the Soviets enlisted different subcommittees to oversee revolutionary material through literature, art, film, theater, children’s programs, marches, and demonstrations (126, 130). These projects were completed with professionals, who had direct Soviet patronage, and amateurs, who performed at workers’ clubs around the country (125-126). Pairing that methodology with the diverse array of revolutionary topics, not limited to the February and October revolutions, heroes of socialist and communist movements both in Russia and abroad, and women’s rights, party officials effectively permeated revolutionary ideology to Russians (130). In this way, the Russians and the foreign visitors, who attended the commemorations, felt that they too were important components of the Revolution (136). In 1927, only three years after Lenin’s death, the Soviets faced intense pressure to “legitimize the new order and mold a new citizenry” to combat counterdemonstrations from revolutionary icons, such as Trotsky and other Left Opposition members (193, 197). The subsequent full-fledged celebration from this period inspired my group’s commemoration proposal.

In class, my group discussed the various media the Soviets utilized to vigorously recall the October Revolution, and we decided to use the same techniques to garner party support. Knowing that Stalin was a rising leader in 1927, we discussed whether to focus on promoting Stalin or the October Revolution, which did not have much activity from Stalin. We decided to plan some events that focused on the key figures of the October Revolution (such as Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai, and Zinoviev) and other events that showcased Stalin as the new leader of the Soviet Union. In this way, we could appease both Stalin and the counterdemonstrators. One way we exhibited this compromise was by hosting a demonstration to re-create the storming of the Winter Palace with all Russians, where Stalin would act as the emcee to kick-off the event.

Beyond the demonstration, we decided to revitalize the Revolution through other channels. We wanted to heavily use cinema to showcase films about the Revolution, such as Eisenstein’s and Aleksandrov’s October, that would play both in the city and the countryside. We also would set up public art exhibitions that promoted Socialist Realist art, industrialization, Lenin, and communism. Per nostalgia about 1917, we would host readings and distribution of significant literature from that era. Our list was not limited to Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Kollontai’s Our Tasks, and Breshkovsky’s Grandmother of the Russian Revolution. Our children’s programs would enlist the Young Pioneers Choir of Lenin’s Komsomol to perform marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity, and The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In addition, the Komsomol would host activities to promote athleticism, discipline, and party loyalty. Our marches and parades across the country would promote revolutionary ideology and music that celebrate the overthrow of the Tsar and the Provisional Government, Lenin, and women’s rights, the last of which would mimic the bread riots on International Women’s Day in February 1917. In addition, for women in particular, we would showcase artwork that promoted Soviet women having agency in political, domestic, and workplace affairs. During this commemoration, we would invite foreign dignitaries and celebrities from all countries, as was done with John Reed in 1917 and Diego Rivera in 1927. We would give tours of Moscow and Petrograd, invite the dignitaries to participate in our commemoration activities, and provide training and resources about revolutions and communism.

In this group presentation, I contributed specifically to theater and music. As discovered in my research, I also wanted to focus on professional and amateur theatrical productions that displayed content about Lenin’s life, the Russian Revolutions, the Russian Civil War, workers’ movements, the French and Mexican Revolutions, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, I learned that Dmitri Shostakovich had written a symphony specifically for the 1927 commemoration called Symphony #2 in B Major, Op. 14 (To October). The symphony provokes the excitement and chaos of the Revolution and industrialization by using crescendos of instrumental dissonance, dominance of brass instruments, factory whistles, and a reading of Alexander Bezymensky’s To October.

Through these different mediums of glorifying the October Revolution, our group strived to reinvigorate Russians into reminiscing about 1917. Not only did we want the Russians to celebrate how the Revolution and communism positively impacted Russia politically, socially, and economically in the last ten years but also showcase how this Revolution extended the legacy of earlier revolutions (such as those in France and Mexico) and inspired a new generation of revolutions worldwide (such as in China). With all this in mind, our ultimate objective with the omni channel and multi-participant commemoration was to unify Russia and gather party support after Lenin’s death. With the threat of opposition from different factions, this October Revolution commemoration can be considered as a “cultural and historical memory intended to legitimize the young Soviet regime,” which situates itself well in our attempt to showcase an optimistic Soviet future with Stalin at the head (Corney 397).

 

 

Commemoration and Confusion: Historical Narratives of the October Revolution as “Winner’s Histories”

By Jacob Bruggeman

One of the reasons our ATH/HST/RUS 254 class has been so engaging has to do with the myriad perspectives we have considered in class. We attempted to hear voices from the periphery of the former Russian Empire, revolutionary murmurs in Central Asia, and the thoughts of workers, soldiers, women, and various ethnic groups. Our class, though, is fortunate enough to have a century’s worth of reflection, scholarship, and historical vetting on our side; the fracas of 1917, and those who found themselves acting within it, did not have this luxury. Indeed, one of the grand takeaways from our class might be that the Bolsheviks’ “winner’s histories”—which are by no means unique to 1917 and the Bolshevik state—are seldom holistic in their inclusion of the myriad ‘voices’ that we have paid due attention to throughout class. As such, planning a commemorative event of the October Revolution was a challenging exercise, for we needed to massage our event’s message so as to fit the Bolshevik, and increasingly Stalinist, history of the Revolution.

As part of Group C, I was charged with constructing the commemorations of the October Revolution in 1927, the 10-year anniversary of the Revolution. This was a challenging task, for in “the 1920s, the Bolsheviks were responding to many of the same pressures – the need rapidly to industrialize, to modernize agriculture, to build defense capability – that had motivated Nicolas II’s regime.”[1] These conditions, in a step back from the rhetoric of the Revolution, were addressed through the NEP, and so attempting to reconcile Bolshevik revolutionary rhetoric with the Party’s actions after their ascendance to power was headache-inducing for my group. Indeed, being only ten years removed from the October Revolution, yet in the midst of Stalin’s rise to power, made planning commemorations particularly difficult, for we had to grapple with Stalin’s inclusion on the October Revolution. To be sure, Stalin was rarely an important figure during the revolutionary goings on of 1917, but his eminence in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1927 necessitates some half-truths about the importance of his role in the October Revolution. Nevertheless, in 1927 the state leadership had not yet gone through the phase, in Trotsky’s words, when “a single ‘dictator’ [Stalin] substitute[d] himself for the Central Committee.”[2] Here again my group was presented with challenge: How do we reconcile the dwindling importance of other Bolsheviks while paying homage to the emerging leader, Joseph Stalin?

We dealt with this issue by, to be frank, avoiding it. Instead of focusing on the shifting political climate in 1927, our group’s commemoration detailed post-revolution developments in theater, music, cinema, various forms of art, literature, children’s programs, marches, women’s rights, a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, and invitations to multiple foreign dignitaries to come and witness our 10-year commemoration of the October Revolution. As these subjects make clear, we attempted to avoid dealing directly with Stalin’s rise to power, the “river of blood” unleashed in his ascendance, and importance of other figures such as Trotsky and Zinoviev.[3]

In commemorating theater, we decided to direct amateur productions on Lenin’s life, workers’ movements, the French Revolution, Mexican Revolution, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, our group would bring in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra to play Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled To October for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, and his Twelfth Symphony, subtitled The Year 1917. Similarly, our commemoration would feature films about the October revolution in every cinema throughout the state, along with temporary outdoor cinemas in the countryside. In terms of the classical arts—paintings and sculptures—public art exhibitions would be held so as to aid the masses in reflection upon the accomplishments of the state and the profundity of the October Revolution. The artwork displayed will be of the Socialist Realist school, each piece working with themes of industrialization, Communism, and the happenings of 1917.

Another series of public events will come in the form of readings of Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”, which will take place in city and town squares; Kollontai’s Our Tasks will be treated in the same way. With an eye to the Soviet youth, the Young Pioneers Choir of the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization shall perform publicly for their fellow comrades, the selected songs for performance include rousing marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity and, The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In the same vein, the Komsomol will host a gathering for the promotion of athleticism, individual discipline, and subordination to the collective for the benefit of the Soviet youth. As was noted above, various marches will be held, and these will be organized around a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, an event to which numerous foreign dignitaries will be invited.

As these subjects make clear, it was difficult to reconcile the ‘official’ histories of the October Revolution with its gritty realities, and it was equally difficult to reconcile 1927’s political changes with the ‘winner’s histories’ told in and immediately after 1917, for these histories involved people other than Stalin. In the end, this activity helped me to understand the complexities of fabricating, in the face of conflicting accounts, a ‘winner’s history’.

[1] Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. New York: Sterling, 2011. Print. 160.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Ibid.

Commemorating Revolution

By August Hagemann

Memory is powerful – only a cursory knowledge of history is necessary for that to become clear.  Especially modern Russian history.  From 1917 all the way up until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Communist Party sought to shape the Russian people’s memory of who they were and why they deserved to lead the country.  Of course, in order to play the hero, they had to have an origin story.  That story lay within the Russian Revolution, and how it was perceived.  Because of this, the Bolsheviks almost immediately began crafting  a narrative of the revolutionary struggle that made them out to be the true representatives of the Russian people.  As time went on, this narrative became grander and more solid still.  My group’s task in class last Tuesday was to step into the mindset of the Bolsheviks in 1927, just as the revolutionary story had finally fallen into place as the Bolsheviks wanted to, and decide how to commemorate it.  In true Bolshevik fashion, we decided the celebration would first clearly portray the Bolsheviks as the inheritors of the will of the Russian people, and second would be used as an opportunity to showcase the successes of Bolshevik ideology.

Such a grand goal required an equally grand celebration, so we decided on a variety of festivities and commemorations which were all to take place simultaneously – demonstrations, some by Communist youth organizations,  reenactments, commissioned works of literature, music, and art were all to have a place in our grand commemoration of 1917.  In order to cover such a broad range, we split our committee into even smaller “sub-committees” of a person or two each, who would focus on their own means of celebrating 1917 as well as how to tie it into our larger theme of Bolshevik legitimacy.  This would be done by focusing all these various celebrations on how happy the working people of Russia were that the Bolsheviks won the civil war, and how much more freedom and equality everyone had.  This was to be the universal cry of Russians everywhere – as a Bolshevik governmental committee, we did not consider the historical truth of this, for as far as we were concerned Bolshevik legitimacy was the only possible narrative, and the celebrations would help the people to understand that.

This was not to be a celebration for only Russians, however, and it was not to be an event focused on the past.  In 1927, the dream of an international Communist revolution was still alive, so we would invite foreign dignitaries from as many nations as possible to our celebrations.  This way, they would be exposed to the cultural and economic grandeur of the Soviet Union, and so would be more likely to foment insurrection in their own countries.  Because of this international aspect of our celebrations, our group did decide to include Zinoviev as a prominent figure in the celebrations.  Stalin was rising in 1927, but there were still old stars in the sky, so we wanted to make sure to include them.  That being said, during the reenactment of the storming of the winter palace, which was to be the crown jewel of our celebrations, we did decide to give Stalin a prominent part.  As an increasingly powerful member of the party, he certainly would have had some influence on our decision making, and we wanted to reflect that.

Such political considerations as that dominated our discussion of what the exact content of the celebration should be, and to me provided the primary lesson of the whole activity – in the Soviet Union, a society free of class struggle, power and politics were an inescapable part of everyday life.  My group made the decision to celebrate in such a broad manner, with the goal only of promoting Bolshevism as a whole at home and abroad, because in 1927 the political climate was far too stormy to give our weight to any one faction.  Had we actually been members of a 1927 celebratory committee, it is entirely possible the balance between Stalin and Zinoviev in our celebrations could have cost us our lives, but in 1927 we would have had no way of knowing that.  In post-revolutionary Russia, memory was power, and power was everything, so no celebration could have occurred without considering to whom it gave the power and why.

Commemorating the Russian Revolution

By Ali Forster

After a semester of learning about the Russian Revolution of 1917, students of HST 254 would finish the semester as they started it; with a role-playing exercise. Through the course, I have learned about the imperial dimensions of the Russian revolution and how different people experienced the revolution and civil war.

The exercise had different groups from different time periods and cities. I was assigned to group D, which was tasked with the official Russian 100 year commemoration. We were to pretend that Vladimir Putin asked our team to address the revolution in the year of 2017. Through working with and observing the group, I realized that the persistent, confident individuals had the most sway in the decision making process.

After discussion with the group and my own research I felt I had a good understanding of Putin’s opinions on revolution. Knowing his stance, I still felt strongly that our group should outright address the revolution in some depth. I knew Putin would dislike my method, but I figured the worst that would happen is that I am fired from my job. After learning about Soviet Russia where people could be executed or exiled from Russia for less, this punishment seemed bearable. Additionally, I did not want some unaffiliated citizen to attempt to commemorate the revolution in a way that we could not approve of.[1]

I wanted to highlight the negative aspects of the revolution by putting out propagandist posters. I had hoped to put out several posters; one would depict a hand in shackles holding a sickle and hammer. This visual propaganda would signify how the revolution only traded one ruler for another and the freedom the people had fought for was nonexistent. I am personally very interested in propaganda and was initially adamant that we use it. However, my group felt that my approach was too loud, too assertive and not sympathetic enough to Putin’s ideals. My attitude is to go big or go home, and evidently, my group would rather have gone home. They decided to play it safe and omit and ignore parts of the revolution. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I joined their ranks and tried to develop ideas along with them. Our group talked at great length about depicting the revolution as a bad thing. We knew we could not completely ignore the revolution, but we had to be careful not to glorify it. We wanted to emphasize that the revolution was a necessary evil in order for Russia to be where it is today. Our focus would be on a united Russia and how strong we are now.

Ultimately we decided to have a somewhat quiet commemoration. We determined that we would advertise minimally, though we would indeed advertise. Our group decided to host scholarly events that would focus on the negative aspects of the revolution like the bloody war, and the thousands of deaths. We claimed that the toppling of the tsar was good, but we wanted to ignore the bolshevism entirely. We planned to use art and culture to commemorate the centennial of 1917. We decided to put on plays and screen movies from 1917, and cultivate exhibitions of art from the time period. I believe it was Stacy who came up with the idea of a poetry competition highlighting how great Russia is today. Everyone loved that idea and jumped to expand upon it. The competition would be for school children, and the winner of the competition would perform it for Putin at the Kremlin. Towards the end of our meeting, Abby asked us if she should draw anything for the project and I joked that we should draw Putin in the artistic style that Annenkov used in his 17 portraits. Stacy coined the term ‘the 18th portrait’ and Abby drew him.

We ended our discussion with the decision to fly Russian flags at half-mast to honor those who died in the protests and really emphasize the honor of those that died fighting in the war. Overall I felt that my groups approach was mild. However, after a semester of learning about the harsh realities of the soviets and the propaganda they used, I feel that I may have been compromised by Bolshevism.

[1] Macfarquhar, Neil. “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later.” The New York Times. March 10, 2017. Accessed May 9, 2017.

The Russian Revolution in America?

By Katelynn Schieve

The Russian Revolution was a significant event in world history, but its complexity and its consequences in the Soviet Union make discussing it controversial. In the 100 years since, people have portrayed the Revolution to reflect the values at the time it was being commemorated. Remembering the Revolution during its anniversary is complicated, particularly in America where people have strong views on communism and Russia but little background on the Revolution itself. Deciding in a group how to commemorate the Revolution in America in 2017 made clear how complex the Russian Revolution was and helped me to understand the implicit biases that are present when people report or write scholarly articles or textbooks on a controversial moment in history like the Revolution.

One of the first components of the project we sought to address was the context: how should the Russian Revolution be presented today to Americans? Our group’s discussions revolved around two problems: the fact that most Americans know very little or nothing about the Russian Revolution and overall, Americans hate communism. Most Americans’ prior knowledge of the Revolution involves the big personalities: Stalin and Lenin, and that the Revolution resulted in communism. However, many Americans may not even be aware of when the Revolution took place or that there were multiple revolutions and revolts. Americans’ view of communism also impacted our decision. They still do not have a very positive relationship with Russia, especially after the 2016 election. Americans generally believe that communism is evil and results in the government trying to control every part of people’s lives. A small amount of academics or more learned people feel communism is good in theory but has never been carried out well. How we framed the Revolution would likely be judged negatively by many Americans if we didn’t criticize communism enough or showed the negative consequences, like at Royal Academy. Art critic Jonathan Jones denounced the exhibition focusing on Russian Art from 1917-1932 as focusing too much on the utopian ideals and not mentioning the evils of the Stalinist regime and what communism lead to (Jones, 2017). Any portrayal we made would reveal our opinions of communism.

We made the decision to have a children’s museum so that we could portray the basic ideas of the Revolution to children and adults who had very little background knowledge. Designing a museum to teach the fundamentals of the Revolution in an interactive experience was appealing to the group. We wanted to be able to express the reasons and different perspectives of the Revolution while keeping it understandable and not being too soft on communism and the grim realities of Stalinism. In order to do this, we decided on having larger exhibits focused on the background and reasons for the Revolution and the consequences of the February Revolution told from the perspectives of children. We looked at the Holocaust Museum as a model for how we could make the Revolution exhibit appealing and interactive for children, while still explaining the seriousness. We had a peasant child walking visitors through her hovel and explaining the peasants’ problems that lead to the Revolution and a bourgeois child show the inequality the February Revolution fought against. We wanted to show the ideals of the Revolution and why it happened. In order for us to have this stance in the US, we decided to have the rest of the exhibits walk through a timeline until the collapse of the Soviet Union. This way, we are able to connect the exhibits to what many adults at least would have more prior knowledge on, having lived through parts of the Cold War. In seeing exhibits based on events they or their parents witnessed on the news, parents are able to build upon their prior knowledge and help their children make connections. In deciding what to include, I realized that when textbook companies and scholars write about the Revolution or when museum curators design an exhibit, they make judgments on what the importance of the Revolution is and what readers and listeners should walk away learning from a simplified version of a very complex period of history. The Royal Academy gallery of the Revolution wanted to portray the stunning new art styles that came out of the Revolution and the idealism of the people. They wanted visitors to come away with a different perspective on the Revolution as having high ideals and potential for a new type of nation. We chose to portray the idealism and reasons behind the Revolution, which may conflict with Americans’ notions of communism and Russia but still include the harsh consequences and what went wrong.

This project helped me to better understand the complexity of the revolution and the difficulty of making decisions of what to portray when remembering the Russian Revolution. The Revolution was a monumental social revolution that changed the course of world history. Most people in the US know very little about it, but by having a children’s museum for its anniversary, we hope to tell the story of the reasons, the ideals and potential, and the outcomes of the Russian Revolution leading up to today to the youth of America and their families.

Works Cited

Jones, J. (2017, February 01). We cannot celebrate revolutionary Russian art – it is brutal propaganda. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/01/revolutionary-russian-art-brutal-propaganda-royal-academy

 

Revolutionary Poetry

Note:  Students in Dr. Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 class, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies, read Boris Dralyuk’s recent edited collection of poems from the 1917 Russian Revolution.  For one assignments, several students wrote their own 1917 poems.  Examples are below.

From the Inferno | Товарищ Иаков Бруггемана

By Jacob Bruggeman

The Worker stands,

Red flag in hand,

Atop the shell of old.

We stand, bold.

 

We scowl Westward;

No longer part

Of that sullen herd;

No longer an Anglo lark.

The German nation, too,

Obfuscates our truth in dark.

This is no longer true!

The truth, now, is stark:

Your days are few.

 

Time propels us,

History pumps our blood.

Proletarian posh lust

Erased by our flood.

The old now at dusk,

Our hour now in bud.

 

O forgotten fools:

Your Parisian bastards abound,

Enslaving souls as mules,

You must be uncrowned.

Beaten by workers’ tools,

O old world, now earthbound.

 

Let your retort be laconic,

Your laws have been drowned.

Ah, how beautifully ironic:

‘Now’ is your burial ground.

The laws of History cyclonic,

Judge without dissenting sound.

 

Hammered into Hell,

Limb to limb, feel the fire leap;

Of burning flesh, the smell swells.

You, doomed to damned sleep,

Married to perdition’s mademoiselle,

This is the fate you reap.

 

Satan rings your death knell,

Yet hope remains. In the thick

Smoke of inferno, you have an air well.

Join your slaves! This is no feudal trick.

Time is of the essence; you shan’t dwell.

Comrades, join our body politic!

 

This poem was inspired by Alexander Blok’s The Scythians. Blok’s poetry was guided by an eschatological vision of the world, through which Blok “fully expect[ed] the dreary, rationalistic, thoroughly corrupt world he had come to detest to be swept away by a destructive, “purifying” fire, which would then give rise to a new, harmonious way of life.”[1] The above poem has attempted—with hardly a simulacrum of poetic talent—to replicate Blok’s eschatologically-informed poetry. Much like The Scythians, From the Inferno espouses a vision of the end of the world in post-Revolution Russia. This poem, mirrored on Blok’s, presents a proletarian thrust into the future, one that would cast overboard—this analogy, used in other poems, meaning the ‘Ship of State’—old, bourgeois cultural artifacts. It makes sense, then, that Blok “had anticipated—indeed, had welcomed—[a] fire” that consumed his library.[2] Similarly, my poem espouses a militarized, even violent, pro-Bolshevik worldview. My poem is even structured in a way that aggrandizes the future, for as its narrative moves forward, the stanzas widen, signifying the growth of proletarian power. Furthermore, towards the end of the poem, wherein the petty bourgeoisie is extended a hand of comradeship, the proletarian body politic is represented as Messianic; an entity whose purpose is to lift the damned out of hell, and thus to preserve life.

[1] Dralyuk, Boris. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. London: Pushkin, 2016. Print. Pg. 47.

[2] Ibid.

Вместе [Together]

By Erica Edwards

в

valiently we march through the land; through towns that lay

vacant. we carry the dream of a bolshevik

victory. we push on with the hope of crushing the bourgeoisie, in all their

vapidity.

м

мaybe we fight so fearlessly, because it is the only way to keep the doubt

мanageable. we believe in the cause, but does it justify all this

мurder? we struggle knowing we have been sponsors in the starving of children, are we all

мonsters?

е

yеsterday we speak of when we were young boys playing in the fields of wheat so

yеllow. we want the bolsheviks to keep their promises; but can they truly satisfy our

yе? we wish for the shelling to quiet; can lenin make voices of our dreams cease

yеlling?

с

stop, we say to the carnage! cease with the talking and

speeches! we ask; why don’t you bolsheviks halt with the lies and the

secrets? we try find an answer; did we agree to be your holders when we volunteered to be your

soldiers?

т

тoday we conspire no longer! we demand you let us return to our farms, our cities and

тowns! we stand still with the socialist ideals; but did anyone consent to this destruction and

тermoil? we reject this ugly despotism; lenin, why don’t you go back to germany with your ravenous

тerrorism?

е

еt, we dream these thoughts all alone in our beds.

еt, we scream these questions till there’s an ache in our heads.

et, we wish these sayings would fall on listening ears.

еt, we march these words into the ground, to be found by later years.

The Explanation:

In my interpretative piece I drew from primary sources found in Mark Steinberg’s Voices of Revolution and Boris Dralyuk’s 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. When I read both of these collections, particularly Steinberg’s, I was struck by how integral the idea of the collective was to the people of the lower classes. That is why in my poem I sought to expand on the idea of the collective, specifically through the lens of soldiers. I also felt that the feeling of betrayal in the writings following the beginning of the year 1918, was an important theme to incorporate into my poem. Synthesizing both of these nebulous ideas into one poem, to me, gives an accurate depiction of how the lower-classes felt as 1917 turned into 1918, and the Bolshevik approach to governance turned from quasi-democratic to outright authoritarian.

Before I dig into the significance of the stylistic decisions I made, and how they work toward building a theme that is shared in the Russian writing of 1917/1918, I would like to give an overview of the structure of my poem. Particularly, I wish to explain why my poem develops the way that it does. I intended the structure of this poem to mimic the historical chronology of the end of 1917 and the beginning of 1918. Specifically, the poem begins after the October Revolution and ends shortly after the violence and closure of the Constituent Assembly on January 5th.

The poem begins with letter “в [v];” here the soldiers are marching through Russia, they are thorough believers in the Bolshevik ideas and are supporters of the Bolshevik cause. While not everyone was supportive of the Bolshevik’s after they first gained full control of the government in October, people of the lower classes generally supported them as a step toward a democracy of all-socialist parties[1]. As the Bolsheviks begin instituting harsher restrictions on civil liberties, the soldiers began to express doubt in the efficacy of the Bolshevik party; eventually, their doubts culminate when one reaches the letter “с [s].” Here is when I intended the violence of January 5th to have occurred, and serves as the incident that changes the soldiers’ perspectives on the Bolshevik government.

Now that the structure has been expounded upon, I will begin my justification for the stylistic decisions I made, Overall, the theme I tried to express in the poem was that of the collective, and the conflicted thoughts and feelings of the average people that made up that collective. To me, soldiers represent a very tangible image of a collective; they are supposed to act as one and help one another reach a common goal. That is why I specifically focus on soldiers in my poem. This idea of a collective can be seen in the repeated use of the greeting “comrade” throughout the letters by soldiers in part one of Steinberg’s Voices[2]. And like the drum in Valentine Kataev’s short-story, there is a push-and-pull relationship between one soldier and the group to which that soldier is a part. This idea of “one as a part of many” is what inspired me to title my poem “вместе [vmeste, or “together”],” and then structure the poem with each letter being broken down into a stanza of its own. To continue the idea of a collective, I chose to include the repetition of “we” at the beginning of each sentence. Further, I wanted my poem to speak to the fact that each letter or poem in Steinberg’s Voices simultaneously represents the whole group of people (ie. peasants, soldiers, workers), but is also a declaration of that person’s particular belief.

So, while I did spend a lot of time thinking about the theme of the collective, I also focused on the idea of betrayal. After the Bolsheviks had been in power for a little while, and especially after they decided to close the Constituent Assembly, there was a feeling of deep betrayal among the lower-classes of society; this can generally be seen in the poems and writing in part three of Steinberg’s Voices, but because my poem focuses specifically on soldiers, I will only provide examples from the “Soldiers” subsection.

I feel that an excerpt from a letter written by a soldier to Lenin, dated January 6th, 1918, most accurately describes the sense of betrayal felt by those that had previously supported the Bolshevik cause: “You lie, scoundrel,…you promised loads, but did none of it. You are deceivers![4]” Another letter to Lenin from a soldier, this one dated January 15th, 1918, states, “Comrade Lenin, did you really seize power so that you could drag the war out for three more years? Comrade Lenin, where is your conscience, where are the words you promised…this is all lies.[5]” I wanted to embody that feeling of betrayal in the stanza succeeding “c.” I wanted to portray the same level of indignation that the soldiers felt (without the colorful language).

As a closing note, I would like to return to the title of this poem. I decided to have the title of the poem in Cyrillic letters because I thought it would be interesting to invert the style in which poems throughout this course have been read; specifically, the fact that we have mainly read poems, letters, and stories written in Russian that have then been translated into English. I also feel that keeping the title of the poem in Russian is a nod to the nationalism felt in the country immediately following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II.

[1] Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 258

[2] Ibid. 106-128

[3] Boris Dralyuk, 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (London: Pushkin Press, 2016), 94-108

[4] Steinberg, 292

[5] Ibid. 292

Seasons of Revolution

By Mohinee Mukherjee

Spring

Chill in the air and

Seeds are sown.

Among the sheep

A lamb—naïve and defiant—

Is born

And watches

As a storm brews in the sky.

 

Summer

Frequent monsoons yield

Emerald fields and

Bountiful crops—more than in years.

Sheep graze with glee.

Among the sheep

A lamb—naïve and defiant—

Learns to walk

Among pastures

So free.

 

Fall

Harvest comes and

Fields turn bare.

Sheep, unsure

Of where to go next,

Follow the shepherd

To unknown pastures.

Among the sheep

A lamb—naïve and defiant—

Frolics

Away from the drove.

Until,

It is herded back

Into the flock.

 

Winter

Blankets of snow

Cover the pastures.

Frost lingers

From every gust of wind.

Sheep can only trail

The shepherd, and

Willingly give their wool.

Among the sheep

A lamb—naïve and defiant—

Unwillingly

Follows the shepherd

To the sickle, and

Warm drops of red

Desecrate

The immaculate white.

 

 

As an allegory to the events transpiring in 1917 into early 1918, my poem follows the initial optimism of many of the Russian proletariat as the socialist revolutions gained fervor. In the end, however, it serves as a warning about blindly following the Bolsheviks until the party becomes totalitarian.

My poem is partially inspired by Mikhail Gerasimov’s Symbolist-style of writing, and attempts also to emulate the Proletkult feel with the pastoral backdrop. While Proletkult writers generally support the Bolsheviks and the proletariat class of factory workers and farmers, as they strive to transform the “‘tender’ pastoral world […] in their own steely, industrial image,” my poem stays true to traditional pastoral imagery and can be interpreted as anti-Bolshevik (Dralyuk 41).

Similarly, the sentiments of Marina Tsvetaeva are reflected in the poem, as she offers “a vivid portrait of the tumult unleashed by the February and October Revolutions […]” (Dralyuk 18). For the poem written during the last days of October 1917, Tsvetaeva initially shows the excitement of people as the revolution unfolds, as she says, “The world and its wine—ours! The town stamps about like a bull, swills from the turbid puddles” (Dralyuk 20).  Then, she suddenly ends the poem with “Deep in wine—a couple has drowned” (Dralyuk 20). While Tsvetaeva is more frank about her disagreement with the revolutions and the aftermath in her poetry, I strive for more subtlety with pastoral symbols. However, like Tsvetaeva, I attempt to show a positive image of the revolution and finish the poem with an unanticipated conclusion.

In one year, 1917, many different political entities vied for control of Russia, which ultimately led to the Bolshevik’s seizing power. For that reason, I divide the poems’ stanzas into seasons to reflect the time periods in which each period has a new party become more prominent. Moreover, the sheep, a common symbol for something that follows an idea or person blindly, represents the proletariat who follow Bolshevik ideas without question. The lamb represents the Russians who are bystanders when the Bolsheviks fight for power against other parties, and who nonetheless face the consequences of a Bolshevik government. The shepherd is the Bolshevik party, which grows in influence over the Russian people.

In Spring, the “Chill in the air” and “storm brew[ing] in the sky” represent the tension that results when the power dynamic shifts from the imperial system to the socialist entities.

In Summer, the “Emerald fields and / Bountiful crops” resulting from the “Frequent monsoons” represent the growing power of the socialists and the rising influence of the Bolsheviks, which provides an opportunity for the peasants to seize land from the bourgeoisie (“Sheep graze with glee”).  Even the bystanders benefit from the redistribution of land (“Learns to walk / Among pastures / So free”).

In Fall, the excitement of the revolution declines as the fighting between the Bolsheviks and the other socialist group increases (“Harvest comes and / Fields turn bare”). Eventually, the Bolsheviks seize power in the Second Congress of the Soviets with the October Revolution, and they create the Sovnarkom. This creates a new era in Russia, and the future of Russians is uncertain. Nonetheless, many Russians obey the Bolshevik decrees (“Follow the shepherd / To unknown pastures”), and those who initially do not must comply or face consequences (“Until, / It is herded back / Into the flock”).

In Winter, as the Bolsheviks establish more authoritarian rule with writing more decrees, creating the Cheka, and dismantling law courts and the Constituent Assembly, the political efficacy of the Russian people diminishes (“can only trail / The shepherd, and / willingly give their wool”). Moreover, punishments for anti-Bolshevik actions are severe, as many disappear or are killed (“To the sickle”). The growing political power of the Bolsheviks over dissenting groups becomes more evident with time (“Warm drops of red / Desecrate / The immaculate white”).

This poem takes an element of the pastoral Symbolist-style of writing from Mikhail Gerasimov and the discontent of the Bolsheviks from Marina Tsvetaeva to provide a warning that a Bolshevik government will result in more harm for the Russian people.

In the year 1917, when revolutionary feelings in the then Russian Empire reached a boiling point and the Tsarist empire collapsed, numerous writings were produced by a wide variety of Russian peoples. They included hardworking peasants that desired the freedom to possess their own land to soldiers wishing to discontinue fighting in a baseless, territory-driven war to essentially anyone with a proclivity toward anti-Bourgeoisie sentiments. The two poems that follow are similar to what one might encounter in “The Voices of Revolution” and “Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution,” compiled by Mark D. Steinberg, and Boris Dralyuk, respectively. However, what has been assembled here has never been viewed by anyone other than myself and those who had authored them; they are the dregs of the faintest of echoes of the collective outcry of the Russian peoples at a time when revolution seemed to be the only means by which they would be delivered to better lives and a United Russia.

 Poems of Revolution

By Tyler Sagendorf

Why We Marched

Olga Andreevna

Baseless coward and treasonous leader,

You barricade yourself in that palace.

While Russia starves and you cannot feed her;

Your words are lies, promise conceals malice.

We stand here now, hoping, begging for change,

The bread is gone, “rationed”; the shops lie bare.

Sovereign unable to provide, how strange,

A crumb, a fragment, nothing you will spare.

You turn your ears away, our cries reach not,

The soldiers came, ordered, to disband us,

We beg, implored, please join; our deaths they sought.

They fired volleys, lives extinguished thus.

Bodies, broken, in Petrograd they lie.

In time, the people will be asking why.

 

Why we marched.

 

“Why We Marched” is a Shakespearean sonnet – 14 lines with an ABAB rhyme scheme ending with a couplet – written by Olga Andreevna, one of the female textile workers who, “took to the streets of Petrograd” to protest dwindling bread supplies (Smith, p. 5). She blames the Tsar, Nicholas II, for his ineffectual leadership as being the cause of many people being unable to feed their families and hates the soldiers for blindly following orders and causing unnecessary casualties. Ostracized because of her love of English and, therefore, capitalist poetry, Olga Andreevna never submitted her work for publication. Her poems and stories were written in solitary, relegated to a makeshift wooden box buried some five meters away from her place of dwelling. That is, until it was unearthed some years ago during the construction of a modern apartment complex. The argument in this piece is that the Tsar is unable to feed his subjects and the rationale behind that is the stores are devoid of the barest necessities such as bread and some people are facing starvation.

 

Abdicated the throne! Abdicate the throne!

Baird Muirland

Abdicated the throne! Abdicate the throne!

Y’ feast on the corse of Russia, sucking the marrow from ‘er bones!

Ye vacuous coward cavorting with sorcerers and demons!

You’re not fit to rule us; ya shall be punished for your treasons!

Hang ‘em, shoot ‘em, slice off ‘es head!

The whole of Russia will rest easy once ye are dead!

 

And as for the fate of yer son, the weak little heir?

His death will come swift. We are merciful, we are fair.

As for your wife, the tsarina? We heard what goes on.

She and that “monk” Rasputin will also be drawn

Up by their necks with a thick cord of rope!

I do not think that will kill him, at least, of that I hope!

We’ll stab him and shoot him and then drown him in icy water!

He’ll bloat like a pig and we’ll revel in the slaughter!

 

From the rotting flesh of these dictators and monsters

Shall sprout the seeds of a new government controlled by the people, and all the much stronger!

Rejoice! Rejoice! For the Tsar’s abdication

Will momentously benefit the next generation!

 

This poem, left untitled with an AA/BB/CC rhyme scheme and heavy usage of exclamation points, was found hastily scrawled on the back of a poster depicting the “greatness” of the Tsar, Nicholas II, and signed by a Scot of the name Baird Muirland that had become embroiled in the political and social tumult of Russia due to familial ties shortly before the Tsar had abdicated the throne. While the language and vehement demands may be a little harsh to some, it pales in comparison to some already-published works, however violent they may appear.

Furthermore, one must look at this through the lens of 1917 when tensions are high and, to many, the Tsar is the only thing standing between them and a utopian Russia. In their eyes, and true to history, he was an irreverent ruler who was not versed in methods of proper leadership and his actions caused many casualties during the Great War due to his insatiable need for amassing huge tracts of land in order to expand his already unstable empire.

The aforementioned information about this man was discovered by cross-referencing his name with records in Scotland. However, what happened after he composed his “Abdicate the throne! Abdicate the throne!” is a mystery, though there are no records of him ever returning to Scotland. One can assume he met a gruesome fate once the writing was discovered and passed on to officials in the Tsarist regime.

Another interesting thing to note is the fact that this man seemingly predicted how Grigori Rasputin would ultimately die. Perhaps it is a coincidence? Perhaps someone read it and thought it was a good idea? We may never know for sure, but the idea is interesting to puzzle over nonetheless.

 

Ode to the Proletariat

Anonymous

Honorable Proletariat!

What is better than to work for your daily bread!

To sweat and toil and earn everything you have in life!

Much better are you than the Bourgeois –

Those, like babes with supple skin and no talent for crafts,

Having weak constitutions unfit for labor.

Come, honorable proletariat!

Seize your place in the sun, bask in its radiance, for you deserve nothing less.

 

Noble proletariat, you who bear the weight of Russia on your back,

Like Atlas holding up the sky,

So that others may be allowed the freedom to have privileged lives.

We are indebted to you.

 

This last poem, an ode – a celebratory poem that utilizes literary devices such as simile and metaphor to make comparisons to a loved person or thing – was written by an anonymous Russian citizen with an apparent deep love for the proletariats. In it, he commends the proletariat for being the one to hold up the entirety of Russian society, like Atlas holding up the sky, and toiling away so that the “higher-ups,” the aristocrats and church members, can afford to have their luxuries in life.

The overarching theme in the first two poems is the ineffectual leadership of Nicholas II and how that causes issues, such as with the bread shortage and how he dealt with it, or how he is treasonous for having dealings with the monk Rasputin. The final poem simply demonstrated the theme of the exoneration of the proletariat, which was the basis for many Bolshevik political stances during the early months of what quickly became the revolution.

CONSISTENCE OF HOPE

By Aleah Sexton

The chaos of 1917 – from the initial revolution on February 23rd when female textile workers stormed the streets of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg again) until December, when Bolshevik forces fatigued the nation with decrees – was captured through the impulsive and hopeful nature of poet Katerina Volkova. Her revolutionary enthusiasm is evident through an ability to document the occurrences with a poetic lens. Russia of 1917 was plagued with a multi-vocal struggle of power from the spheres of influence regarding class, government, and identity. The foundation of the revolution bred an unprecedented nationalism among the proletariat that was irrepressible. The unvoiced suddenly gained a responsibility to express their grievances and visions. As stated by Fyodor Korsun, a private in the infantry in March 1917 and recorded in Mark D. Steinberg’s Voices of Revolution, 1917: “For the people, Hurrah! No longer shall our blood be drained by tsar above. Freedom is ours now” (81). Korsun’s excitement for the revolution and end to the reign of Nicholas II was supported by thousands of Russia’s underprivileged – including Katerina. Her historic presence begins as a regular textile worker at the Putilov Mill in Petrograd. Her diary was found in an abandoned apartment in 1951 and her political poetry was chronicled as a valuable primary source of a women’s take on the 1917 events. Wed to a soldier and mother to two-year-old Anatoly, she dreamt of a united Russia with equal rights for genders and opportunities for the neglected. Her utopian socialistic outlook led her to explore the teachings of Vladimir Lenin and eventually believe his propagandist narratives. Katerina continued to trust the Bolshevik’s policies until the end, although her frustration with their system of governmental legislation is expressed in many of her poems from late 1917 throughout 1918. Volkova’s husband enlisted under the Red Army and was under close command of Leon Trotsky. Eventually, it is believed he was recruited to the Cheka. Katerina continued her work at Putilov Mill throughout the Bolshevik reign and held several chair positions on socialistic industrial committees for women. Katerina Volkova passed away in 1936 due to complications with lung disease. Her dedication to the revolutionary movement is unforgotten. Her ability to capture the radical events through various emotions is crucial to unearthing the chaotic nature of 1917.

 

KATERINA VOLKOVA (1891 – 1936)

 

The Day

 

The shoes we made battered the streets

for all of Petrograd to hear.

-Disgrace! – shouted those with

bread in their pockets and bosoms so

full and endeared.

 

For we: the nameless, the breathless,

the dreadful and crooked stormed

for our children and guardians

and warriors unspoken.

 

Starved and defeated

we had our comforts.

My god we wondered.

Will we be triumphant?

 

Fingertips colored.

Deep hues of violet and light

shades of yellow dripped across

from the dye.

Our hands held up: we lit the

blank sky.

 

We did this for more.

More than bread – more than war.

 

Freedom.

A hum so mute and ignored –

yet somehow – someway –  it played

a sweet chord…

 

3 March, 1917

 

KATERINA VOLKOVA (1891-1936)

 

Imminence

 

Here they come.

Quick!

Hide your books.

Hide your poetry.

Hide your manifestos.

 

Pretend to be the people

we were.

A year ago – a century ago.

Back to our days of chains

and commands.

 

Cover your personas with

the blanket of ignorance.

Maybe then – they will

let us be once again?

 

NO! Shrieked

us following the

likes of Bolsheviks.

 

FIGHT! Cried the

New Petrograd.

 

DO NOT DESPAIR!

 

For we are the future.

You will flock to us

like vultures on

fresh meat.

 

Let our dreams

build a new

Russian oasis.

 

The children of

your children will

be taught about US and

OUR FORTHCOMINGS.

 

22 AUGUST, 1917

 

KATERINA VOLKOVA (1891 – 1936)

 

The Prospect of Warranted Decrees 

 

Every morn I awake with

hope that the paperboy

with the crooked hat will

shout – Decree! – without

the pain in his voice.

 

For once, just once! –

may his accent reveal

the news we all

have pledged for.

 

Peace! Land! Bread!

Alas – but where?

We spread their promise!

 

Naïve? Not we!

We pledged our allegiance!

 

The blood of Russia will

seep the memorandum!

Red! Red! Red! Red!

 

Damn those deserters!

Our new land will

trample upon their

gardens of doubt.

 

Abandonment is

beyond the time.

Move forward – we must.

Bolsheviks: please deliver

us what we have placed in

your trust.

2 DECEMBER, 1917

The goal of this paper was to reveal the numerous emotions a common woman would express throughout the relentless challenges and transformations of 1917 Russia. I decided to build the character Katerina Volkova through three poems to show the reader how Katerina’s own visions, hopes, and frustrations are highlighted. She begins with a poem about the Women’s March on Petrograd. Her anxiety is apparent, but she embodies a tone of excitement and a foreshadowing of something great. Her optimism could be compared to Vladimir Kirillov’s in his poem “We”, “We’ve cast off the oppressive burden of tradition / rejected the chimeras of its bloodless wisdom. / Venus de Milo cannot match the vision / of young girls in our Future’s shining kingdom” (Dralyuk 43). Kirillov writes of a nontraditional Russia with a future of utopianism, much like how Katerina wrote about freedom and also defying the tradition forced upon the underprivileged.

However, the exhilaration after the February Revolution was not personified within every Russian. Alexander Kerensky and the Provisional Government immediately built an institution of hidden bourgeoisie interests of the old conventionalism, and worker A. Zemskov wrote on the obviousness of this. Zemskov goes into detail about this infectious liberty most of Russia is accepting, however, he questions the Provisional Government’s stance: “The whole question, though, is whether it’s freedom’s praises you are signing. Aren’t you singing the praises of new chains that are only going by the name of freedom? (Steinberg 87). This fear of bourgeoisie interests is undermined in Katerina’s second poem, as well. She begins with stanzas that speak of retreating to the command of the Provisional Government but then changes the tone to express a steadfastness for the Bolshevik movement.

The Bolsheviks offered a newness to the revolution that sparked interest among the workers and soldiers. As written by two soldiers, “we need the program of your Bolshevik party like a fish needs water or a man air” (Steinberg 68). The Majority offered 1917 a vision without bourgeoisie intent, but of total socialism. Once the Bolsheviks did officially seize power in October, their supporters were ready for Vladimir Lenin to deliver his promises. Conversely, that was not the case. Zinaida Gippius in her poem “Now” highlights the letdown of the Bolsheviks on November 9th: “Our guardians and warriors / have all retreated. / There’s no one but conformists / with their Committees” (Dralyuk 21). The Bolsheviks newfound power instigated a chaotic need to install a dictatorship. Committees wrote hundreds of decrees to instill their hold on Russia, but the peasants felt their voice had been forgotten. In Katerina’s final poem, she focuses on the anxiety the Bolsheviks have caused and pleads for them to deliver what they promised. Workers in the Putilov factory voiced their discontent with the Soviets in December, stating that “you have earned yourselves enemies in the person of the workers by being more concerned about the bourgeoisies than about the lower class of workers and peasants. For the second month, workers have failed to receive their pound of sugar” (Steinberg 275). The working class expected an immediate resolution from the Bolshevik party. When this was not the case, many became angry and considered the new government another one with interests for the bourgeoisie.

Russia in 1917 was a frenzied nation with a demand to rid the old and establish a modern institution built on the voices of those that remained silent for so long. Poetry was an effective means to deliver the revolutionary spirit as quickly and efficiently as possible. Readers can distinguish the raw confusion, excitement, anger, and distrust that most of the workers and peasants expressed. Though many documents and poetry capture differing opinions on Russia’s governmental needs, most agreed that a change was vital for a united Russia.

Reenacting Revolution

Note:  On February 2, 2017, students in Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 Introduction to Russian Studies course engaged in a role-playing exercise that aimed to replicate the decision-making the Bolsheviks faced when they seized power in October 1917.  One-hundred years after the momentous events of that year, Miami students placed themselves in the shoes of revolutionaries and then reflected on what that in-class exercise helped them learn about the Russian Revolution.  Below are papers written by students in the class.

By Addison Caruso, Adam Cloch, Chelsea Leipold, Katelyn Scheive, Nick Schleter, Mary Seaman, and Brad Terrace.

Addison Caruso

It was a dark and cloudy day, and as the wind rustled all around me I knew it was time to plan a revolution. We had succeeded previously in toppling our autocratic Tsar, and the successor, an autocrat in all but name, Kerensky. The task for building a government was ours on this foreboding day, and it is a task that was to be done in the utmost urgency. Comrade Lenin appointed me to the security council, where I was to, in the face of enemies from everywhere, come up with a way to keep our new nation safe. As there were threats from all around us; the Whites, kulaks, and double agents within our own party, we had to proceed fast. We had a mere forty-five minutes to come up with a plan to protect this government of the proletariat from its enemies. Luckily this was not a barrier for us. Through sheer will and compromise we were able to reach a decision that all were proud of.

In my committee, there were two personalities that were prominent, mine and comrade August. He is a wise and well-read Bolshevik but his ideas of violence are abhorrent to me. I was taught very young about the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed it. The number of people killed in the name of freedom and liberty is staggering, and something that must not be repeated. I believe a revolution can happen without the shedding of blood.  He disagreed. It was hard to reach an agreement given our strong personal beliefs. He shared with me his hatred of the bourgeoisie, as his father had been killed by his landlord when their rent was behind due to a bad harvest that was happening. Despite this we managed to reach an agreement that violence would be used only as a last resort. I guess a little violence is better than no violence. The other two comrades in my committee were not so forceful, and once me and comrade August agreed on a solution, the other two members were happy to follow along.

As a fervent Bolshevik, I have read many of comrade Lenin’s and Trotsky’s writings and treatises. One of the writing’s that inspired me in this endeavor was Lenin’s speech describing the three components of Marxism. His talk of the class struggle and how the new revolution must bring the proletariat into power, caused me to think how we would design a justice system based on this. I decided on a court system based on class, where the proletariat would have the power in tribunals and we would rid ourselves of the bourgeoisie excesses that exist. We also decided that we must rid ourselves of the ruling class who refuse to commit to this new order. While this does sound harsh, as comrade Lenin said, we must destroy the old order to build a new one, and no single victory of political freedom was won without struggle by the capitalist classes. We knew that the old order would resist, but I advocated for letting them declare their support for the revolution. I always support the olive branch over the sword, and it is this idea that I tried to impart on the committee.

After we had decided on a solution I felt relieved. We had solved one of the central problems plaguing Russia. A hundred years from now as students reenact this glorious day, I do hope they can grasp the pressures that we were put under and understand that while our decisions might not have been the ideological ones, we were under tremendous pressure to keep our new government safe from harm. With enemies, all around you it can be hard not to resort to violence, this temptation is there, but to those that want to give into this temptation, I caution restraint as I did during our meeting. Violence only leads to more violence, only through offering reconciliation and a chance to be a part of this new Russia, can we make this socialist utopia we have all dreamed of, a reality.

Adam Cloch

Comrades, as we look back on our last meeting we must remember to proceed with great haste. Time is of the essence if we are to implement our ideas for our glorious revolution. We met and discussed for only a short amount of time, but we accomplished much, especially in our group on economics. Comrades Mohinee, Madison, and Abby all worked diligently to come to our conclusions, but they did not come without great argument and uncertainty. Lenin should also be proud of the work of his we have followed as laid out in his April Theses only five months ago. As we look back on the meeting we have just finished, we must understand that our findings fall in line with what other comrades of ours who have discussed and that moving forward we make haste to ensure our economic goals are successful.

The matter of discussion only being 45 minutes long was a great constraint and burden felt within our group. In order to accomplish the most we could, egos and nonconformist ideas had to be left outside. It was of extreme importance that we had only those in our group that wanted the revolution to succeed and no bourgeoisie spies in the mix. Comrade Mohinee and I had very good discussion on what our goals should be within economics and in doing so, we knew beforehand each other’s biases. I believed, and still believe, that our revolution should happen within the quickest time-frame possible, while Mohinee at first wanted to take a more gradual approach. If I had not understood this beforehand, I would have thought of her as a spy from the wretched bourgeois. I found my job to be persuading my other two comrades, Madison and Abby that my way was the correct one for changing the economy.

Our ultimate conclusions follow Lenin’s plan as laid out in the April Theses including the nationalization of all lands and the seizure of banks so they fall under one collective controlled by the Soviet of Workers Deputies. Our work also follows true on the words of the interpretation of Marx, by Lenin, who talked greatly about the need for workers to understand their position and rise up together. Our plan entails the seizure of the factories and fields by the proletariat and peasants in unison to take back what they deserve from their own labors. As this will be a very rapid turn of events the original job is to be carried out under the watch of the local Soviets, but power will be transferred to a central group of Soviets where we can decide our best course of action within one month.

As I compare the work that my economic group has accomplished compared to others in the party I believe that we can learn much from each other in our short amount of time. One of the biggest points that effected our decision making, besides time, was the biases that were known in our group. As I said earlier, not knowing that Mohinee wished to take a slower approach, one that curtailed no use of violence and the use of elections before seizures, I would have thought of her as a spy. Since I did know that she was on the revolutionary side, I did not call for her execution for her actions. We should, however, remain vigilant to combat any bourgeois infiltration and proposals.  Besides the economic outlook, the groups on executive power and state security had similar, radical ideas to our own. I believe that together, and with considering other factors we can all work together to accomplish the goals of the revolution. Also, the use of the writings by Comrade Lenin proved to be very useful as well as the understanding in the lead up to the events that led us to our meeting in October. I believe some members on economics may have forgotten some details of where we stood since we had seized power before our meetings. It felt as if I spent a lot of time convincing some of my other party members that it was time to move forward with her revolutionary ideas and not get hung up on saying it is what we should do once we had seized the power.

The next coming days and months will tell us if our revolution is successful or not. As we look back on the decisions we have made and if they are carried out effectively I am confident that we will continue to see the rise of the proletariat not only in our glorious Russia, but across Europe and the rest of the world.

Chelsea Leipold

Coming into the role-playing exercise, I was unsure what to expect. The day before, I had gotten an email giving me a side to take and argue to my group. In the Nationalities Committee, I was to convince my group that the Bolshevik state should reconstitute the Russian Empire and oppose any efforts to declare independence. After doing the readings in preparation, I found that Lenin had a viewpoint separate from the stance I was to take. I tried to pick out short quotes that, out of context, would support my argument. I also hoped that some of my group members would come to class having not read the assigned Lenin writings, or wouldn’t have strong opinions on the matter, and thus go along with whatever I said.

I walked into class determined to carry out my mission of reconstituting the Russian Empire. It quickly became apparent that my fellow committee members had read Lenin’s writings, and that I had my work cut out for me. Through our discussion, it was clear that some favored letting the repressed nationalities declare independence, while another was leaning towards my own side of keeping the nationalities on a tighter leash. After some debate and referencing Lenin’s works, we reached a compromise, which was essentially what Lenin had proposed and discussed. As a Nationalities Committee, we proposed what was essentially a veiled independence. We decided that each formerly repressed nationality should be given the option to declare independence, however going along with that, the Bolshevik state should remain incredibly close to this newly formed, independent nation in order to keep them in check. More importantly, there would be a push to ensure that all nationalities see themselves as the proletariat as their main identity, as discussed by the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in their Resolution on the Nationalities Question. The hope is that they identify more as a class than a nationality, therefore uniting all of the workers in our newly formed socialist state. Lenin says in his Resolution on the National Question, “Only the merging of various nationalities… will make it possible for the proletariat to wage a successful struggle against international Capital and bourgeois nationalism.” It is essential that all of the nationalities come together as a working class so that socialism can take hold.

While we did compromise relatively easily, as neither side was very aggressive in getting their own way, I did push for the loyalty to the working class, as well as to the new Bolshevik state. I made sure that the committee was clear that it was pseudo independence, only used to achieve unity among the working classes. I think had our group been composed of individuals with larger, possibly more stubborn, personalities, compromise would have been much more difficult. I imagine that during 1917 this would have been the case. Prominent figures would have duked it out more often than they sat down, talked it out, and eventually reach an agreement. This is what seemed to have happened in several of the other committees during the exercise. Under the pressure of having a country dropped in your lap in need of a new government, I could imagine individuals getting very stressed, and not everyone reacts positively to such situations. I picture tensions running high and many arguments taking place, which again, was not the case in my group. I would say that as a whole, my committee was probably not as representative of what happened in 1917 as some of the others. Filled with calm and levelheaded committee members with willingness to compromise, we drafted a proposal supported by the works of Lenin in which everyone, including formerly repressed nationalities got something that they wanted.

Katelyn Scheive

In preparing for the cultural committee, I read the listed key document and Lenin’s cultural speech on the Marxist website that was given before the Revolution. As a group, we tended to agree that we should use propaganda but struggled to figure out whether we should use any forms of the traditional culture. We also focused much of our discussion on how to implement these policies across the Soviet Union. We decided to use traditional cultural forms and propaganda focused on the proletariat. The time restrictions, given preferences, and different personalities in each committee helped to reflect the certain conditions of the Russian Revolution, but I have a few ideas in how these factors could be improved to more closely resemble the actual committees.

The time restrictions placed on us helped me to understand how quickly and challenging it was to put untested theories into practice. According to scholar Stephen Smith, the restlessness of the people and risk of threat of foreign intervention affected the committee’s urgency. Fast decisions were necessary, which didn’t allow for much debate (Smith, 67). We discussed at great length how we should implement our cultural policies in a timely manner so that the culture would reflect the changes the revolution was trying to make. We wanted to use radio, posters on buildings, art, and the educational system to bring about the new culture focused on the proletariat. We did not focus on the ethical implications of our ideas; we simply wanted to get a solid plan in place that could dictate how the policy would be carried out. We lost the luxury of in-depth debate and democracy, as the real committees did. The time restrictions and other constraints could be adjusted to reflect the changing atmosphere of committees. In 1921, factions were ‘temporarily’ banned, but this was never changed (Smith, 68). This activity could reflect the reduced dissent by giving more time to work on plans of execution after presenting our views to the class, but telling us we couldn’t change our ideas from our original plan. You could also email or give a note to one of the participants telling them that anyone who debates the in-place ideas are bourgeoisie or anti-revolutionary.

The given preferences reflected the many conflicting ideas on how the ideals of Marx should be carried out that the class as a whole new little about. Even though this was only a simulation, the given preference gave me a starting base for research and helped form a strong opinion for what we should do as a committee. I do think there are additional ways to reflect the motivation of the committee. For example, Stalin rose to power through his strong opinions in committees. More power and higher rank were very real rewards for doing well in committees. In this activity, the emails could say that if their idea is agreed upon by the committee, they’d receive candy or extra credit. This would strengthen our given preferences and help reflect people’s motivations and intentions in the committees in 1917.

This activity helped me to understand much more the power of personalities in the committees at the time. Clearly, in hindsight, the ideals of the revolution were not carried out through the committees. In the very limited time that was available, people relied upon their confidence and persuasion abilities, like Stalin. For example, he argued “self determination should be exercised only by the laboring classes, and not by the bourgeoisie” (Smith, 55). Decisions were often based on “pragmatic abilities” when there was not a clear decision (Smith, 55). In my group, another person and I tended to disagree based on our preferences. The other person tended to be more firm and ‘louder.’ And since she was the one who presented our ideas to the class, she focused on the topics she thought were most important. I think our existing differences in personality easily reflected the individual differences in 1917. In both cases, strong and persuasive personalities tended to have their opinions reflected more in policy.

This activity helped me most realize the critical effect of the limited time frame, the differing positions based on Marx theories, and the power of personalities in discussion. October 1917 could have resulted in many different outcomes in a communist government. The simulation helped demonstrate how the ideals of the theories were sometimes lost in committees and lead to the dictatorial communist government that existed for decades.

Nick Schleter

In American history, it is often taught that one of the reasons we were victorious in the Revolutionary War was that we fought harder. We fought harder because we were defending our own land and believed deeply in our cause. Before it happened, it was idealistic – thinking 13 colonies subject to the most powerful king on earth could rebel and win to become the land of the free. Going through the activity of building a revolution of my own, it put into perspective just how much idealism was required for the Bolsheviks to have succeeded in building a revolution.

As late as spring 1917, no logical person could have argued that the Bolsheviks would be able to take over the government. But logic is not revolutionary. Suspension of disbelief is revolutionary. Going into the activity, we were assigned to read Lenin, Lenin, and Lenin. A well-informed decision draws evidence from multiple sources but not if the ideas of Lenin and Marx are the absolute truth without room for interpretation. The revolution could not have carried on upon the will of one man if that one man did not believe unconditionally. Any shred of doubt would have derailed the entire operation.

By trying for a short 45 minutes to replicate this fervor, it became clear that it was impossible to think it. The revolutionary spirit must be felt, and that is why our proposal would not have stood up to light scrutiny. Using the sources, we knew that strikes must be abolished, markets must be closed, currency and ownership of property must cease, and the war must be ended. However, each suggestion was met with a scoff or a discussion of how impossible it would be to implement. As students taught capitalism and its flaws from birth, we were incapable of the idealism required to set such lofty goals. Our proposed timeline was vague and our big questions were merely touched on. Part of this was due to time constraints, but another part was because of an underlying unwillingness to entertain such a fantasy. Without ‘pure’ ideals, the effort and focus required to answer such important questions in such a condensed timeframe was absent.

Lenin lacked nothing in the department of revolutionary spirit. In his work, An Open Letter to the Delegates of the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, he opens with “All the land must belong to the people. All the landed estates must be turned over to the peasants without compensation.” He says this confidently and treats it as a matter of fact. He continues “The dispute here is where or not the peasants in the local areas should take all the land at once…” His baseline is that land that had been in families for generations that collectively is worth millions upon millions of dollars should be stripped without compensation. The only question, to him, is whether or not it should happen overnight. There is no mention of possible upheaval or outrage. There is only a sense that right is right and right must be done.

The most important sense, from my experience in the exercise, which Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries had was that the history progressed in stages and theirs was the next one up. From Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin writes “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” With the most important countries on earth using capitalism in some form or another, it is fair to state that history was in a capitalism stage. And with the globe divided up as it had been among the wealthy, it was believable that that capitalism had evolved into imperialism. Additionally, the chaos and carnage surrounding the Great War enhanced one’s ability to believe that history was on the precipice of change. The relatively stable geopolitical order today as well as the benefit of hindsight robbed our group of that belief. When making our decisions, it was not under the assumption that our proposal would be successful and mark the beginning of global socialist utopia. Many victors in battle have believed that God himself was on their side, and the Bolsheviks had a similarly powerful ideal that history itself was careening down the railroad tracks in their favor.

The activity allowed me to see the faith required for the Bolsheviks to seek power, let alone obtain it.

Mary Seaman

Procrastination is going to kill me; Mary swore to herself as she typed her reflection for an exercise she barely remembered. She flung her head against her desk. English didn’t make sense anymore, which wasn’t surprising considering she’d stayed up all night trying to word her first assignment perfectly. She scrunched her eyes together. Maybe, if I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I’d be done by now and I could sleep. Just…sleep…

She felt a hand shake her shoulder and became alert once more. She rubbed her eyes and turned to thank the person who woke her. Her jaw dropped. Scrutinizing her with an icy glare was Leon Trotsky. There were so many questions she didn’t know how to ask whirling around her brain that she naturally sat motionless, in shock, until he finally said with a barely repressed rage:

“You did it wrong.”

Stupefied, she replied, “D-did what wrong?”

His eyes narrowed. “The exercise. Everything was wrong.”

“Um…how so?”

His head tilted, nostrils flared, and eyes widened in outrage. “How so?” He moved to her desk and stole her laptop. He began to read patronizingly, “Our security committee was able to produce a functional system that didn’t repeat the mistakes of Revolutions preceding it; additionally, by allowing dissenters to be ‘reeducated’ we ensured the peaceful transition to a historically right, Marxist society, with limited bloodshed.” He closed her laptop and flung it at her. She caught it, just barely, and held it protectively to her chest. “I almost pity your ineptitude.”

She put her laptop down and turned to Trotsky with a confused expression, “The Marxist system was, in your view, historically inevitable. If that was truly the case, doesn’t that mean everyone would have caught on eventually? If you wanted to speed up that process – reeducation is the most understandable solution: not execution.”

Trotsky laughed. “Oh, in theory maybe. But we were forced to execute! The ‘dissenters,’” he emphasized with air-quotes, “entered a war against that inevitability and became the enemy of progress. In war the enemy must be made harmless, and in wartime this means that he must be destroyed.”[1]

“One of my groupmates argued a similar point, and I’m positive you know what you’re talking about here, Mr. Trotsky.” Mary said with a cautious glance his direction, “But how can you claim to support a Marxist revolution if you have to use violent oppression to ensure its success?”

He scoffed, “How could you expect to make the enemy truly accept the conditions of its conqueror without violent repression? Repression remains a necessary means of breaking the will of the opposing side. Terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class. It kills individuals, but intimidates thousands. We didn’t have the time to both ensure our supremacy beyond question and subscribe to your lofty idealism.”

For some reason, Mary still wasn’t convinced, “If that’s the case, then wasn’t this Revolution just as morally bankrupt as the bourgeoisie Revolutions before you? A Marxist Revolution, a perfect Revolution, would respect the sacredness of human life more than a bourgeoisie Revolution could ever hope, because it’s the natural progression of the history, right?”

Trotsky gritted his teeth in annoyance, “The principle of the “sacredness of human life” remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.” He crossed his hands over his chest, “You were scared history would repeat itself, and said your piece about the French Revolution during the discussion, but I doubt you actually think that avoiding a Terror would have ensured the survival of our Revolution, given our precarious position at the time.”

Mary averted her eyes; he did have a point. She wasn’t even sure if she would have brought up the French Revolution during the discussion if Dr. Norris hadn’t emailed her beforehand, and, if she hadn’t advocated for that, the group would’ve enacted a policy of extreme prejudice against any dissidents. Still though, it was the only historical event remotely precedent to the Russian Revolution at that time – how could it not be relevant?

Trotsky sighed, “The Bolsheviks held out not only by ideas, but by the sword. It was a new Revolution and we couldn’t afford to be swept up in the idealism of nonexistent historical precedents. I suggest you say as much in your paper.”

And with that, Trotsky disappeared. Mary blinked at the place he’d just stood with a mixture of confusion and horror. She shook her head and opened her laptop to finish her essay, I’m never drinking Red Bull again.

[1] Anytime that the text is underlined, it is a direct quote from the Trotsky reading – albeit, some of them are out of order.

Brad Terrace

Transporting myself from 2017 back to 1917 helped me to understand the circumstances surrounding the revolution and also allowed me to take on a new role as Vladimir Lenin. When I received the email from Dr. Norris, I recognized that he wanted me to take on the role of Vladimir Lenin in my group, a role that I was excited, but also a role with huge responsibility. Ultimately, I was able to convince my group to make the decrees that I was instructed to do in the email. Although I wish I was able to take full responsibility and brag about a superior intelligence, there were factors that I will discuss that I believe contributed to my success. At the end of the day, I believe that I had a much greater understanding of the crucial events of 1917 that would send shock waves through the world.

The first factor that influenced my success in my group was comrade Aleah informing the group that she received an email from Dr. Norris, a fact that I kept secret. Once I knew that comrade Aleah was the “poison” of the group, but didn’t fully believe her argument, I started pointing out passages and quotes from Lenin to sway the group. In the April Thesis, Lenin of course states his opposition to the provisional government in #3, but more importantly for our group, he argued that a return to a parliamentary government would be a retrograde step in #5. Right as we were discussing this point, Dr. Norris handed a secret note to comrade Danny and immediately Danny switched his attitude from a casual supporter of the argument to an ardent supporter of my argument. With Danny and I both arguing the points, Tianyang and Aleah soon agreed that we should establish a dictatorship.

Our next debate centered on whether or not we should allow other parties besides our own to participate in this dictatorship. Once again I turned to the Lenin readings because Lenin stated in From the Political Situation that “the aim of the insurrection can only be to transfer power to the proletariat… with a view to putting our Party program into effect.” Vladimir Lenin obviously believed that only Bolsheviks should rule; he did not trust other socialists because they could try to implement bourgeoisie policies. I conveyed this lack of trust to the group and with Danny so enthusiastically on my side, as well as the pressing time factor, the group decided that our Party would be the only party in power.

I believe that the reason that I, Vladimir Lenin, was successful on both of my major objectives were my previous knowledge, comrade Aleah stating she received an email, and time. Beginning with time, we were able to rush comrade Aleah and pressure her into doing what we wanted because she was unable to think of alternatives to our plan that fit what she was supposed to argue. It also helped that the group knew what she was trying to argue since she revealed her secret about the email and her opposition to the points made her easily persuaded. Another factor, and the reason I was most excited to be Lenin, was taking POL 331 last semester gave me a lot of background information about the history of the Soviet Union and the policies of Lenin. I used this information to persuade Aleah further because I presented myself as an expert on the subject and the true positions of Lenin. Overall, transporting myself back to 1917 was educational and entertaining because it gave us an opportunity to feel what the Bolsheviks felt during that time. We could feel the passing of every second was important and the roles we played allowed us to understand the different arguments and personalities involved in the original process. Most importantly, I learned that in my specific situation, I would have made Lenin proud by achieving the things that he wanted and was able to achieve in 1917. As he was quoted in Smith, “Soviet socialist democracy is not incompatible with one-person management or dictatorship.” In Spring of 2017, Executive Committee Group B was able to put his writings into practice.

All seven students were in HST 254, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies.

A New History of the Russian Revolution

Mark D. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). 388.

Review by Jacob Bruggeman

Mark D. Steinberg’s new book, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921, is a history of the Russian Revolution as an effusion of experiences. The years of the revolution, delineated by Steinberg as 1905 – 1921, compose a period of multi-national and cross-class experimentations, in both political thought and governments, with ideas of freedom, how to achieve it, and the consequences of trying to do so.

Indeed, Steinberg’s explicit aim for his book’s first part, “Documents and Stories,” is to enter the ““springtime of freedom” in 1917,” and to explore “the meaning of “freedom”” (5). To achieve this, Steinberg exhumes numerous “voices”, providing multiple perspectives, from the tumult and uncertainty in 1917. In bringing these myriad voices to the fore, Steinberg imagines that “we can walk through the streets during these first months of revolution,” thus allowing readers to “ask people what they meant by that great, inclusive, and yet vague idea that everyone insisted defined the revolution: “freedom”” (15).

Freedom’s relationship to the revolution is explored through the book’s other two parts, “Histories” and “Places and People,” and both titles allude to different lenses through which Steinberg examines his period of the Russian revolution. Through these lenses, readers look at snapshots within Steinberg’s periodization of the revolution. In “Histories,” Steinberg reconstructs a Russia in the period from 1905 through the outbreak of World War I in 1914, and therein discusses a “bacchanalia” of sex and popular violence, how the press viewed the “darkness” of “these times,” and the portents of World War I (56-63); in part three, “Places and People,” Steinberg pivots back to a telling of the revolution through the subjectivities of human persons—to analyses of the self, or lichnost’ in Russian—as engines of history moving through time, and how “people understood, lived, and practiced “freedom”” (5).

Throughout this three-pronged analysis of the revolution, Steinberg maintains his goal of exploring different meanings of freedom, and in so doing investigates still-important questions about human fulfilment and needs, resistance to power, and truth(s). As he situates these difficult questions in the Russian revolution, Steinberg superimposes the writings of several philosophers—those of Hanna Arendt and Walter Benjamin, and to a lesser extent those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—on the events of 1917. Drawing from Arendt and Benjamin, Steinberg interprets the Russian revolution as an example of humanity’s proclivity to ““catastrophe,”” or at least a natural tip of “the scales of reality … in favor of disaster” (17). Nevertheless, Steinberg sees revolutions, and particularly that of Russia, as “one of human history’s strongest expressions of […] desire, vision, and possibility,” a collective act that, in Walter Benjamin’s words, ““blast[s] open the continuum of history”” (17). In this view, Steinberg argues that the Russian revolution (and revolutions throughout human history) may be interpreted as a “leap in the open air of history,” a rejection of the linearity of time and open embrace of “a sudden new beginning,” of history as “radical possibility” (17-23).

On the whole, Steinberg’s story of the revolution attempts to reorient scholarship and popular perceptions of the revolution to a more nuanced, perhaps appreciative, reading of the ‘leap’ taken by Russians in 1917. But Steinberg complicates the notion of a single ‘leap’, instead suggesting that 1917 was conglomeration of ‘leaps’, for each revolutionary faction—indeed each individual—foresaw different outcomes of 1917’s ‘radical possibility’. Consequently, Steinberg questions the sanctity of singular narratives of the revolution, and history in general. In an era when many believe that society “must venture beyond the life as it is to create life as it ought to be,” Steinberg’s The Russian Revolution is an inspiration and warning both. While many scholars focus on the fall, how the ‘leap’ is landed, Steinberg suggests that, especially in an era in which a ‘leap’ seems possible, more attention ought to be paid to the process of the ‘leap’: the various energies built up before it, the multiplicity of muscles that push off the ground, and the outpouring of thought while suspended in air.

Jacob Bruggeman is a third-year history major at Miami.

 

ISSUE 1: REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES

The first issue of Journeys into the Past features eleven essays, four historical journeys, and one opinion piece (in a section entitled “Past and Present”).  We will continue to publish articles written by Miami students in these categories in future issues.

The essays in this issue come from Stephen Norris’s course “Russia in War and Revolution.”  Timed to coincide with the centenary of 1917, the course required all students to pick one object from the incredible Andre de St.-Rat Collection in King Library’s Special Collection.  These objects are rare materials from the First World War, Russian Civil War, and early Soviet era.  Working with Miami’s incredible Slavic Bibliographer, Masha Stepanova, students wrote short essays that contextualized their source.  As you will see, these sources help us understand the words, images, emotions, and arguments from 100 years ago.

Our four historical journeys come from Miami students who traveled to interesting locales.  Written mostly as visual essays, these pieces allow us to see Prague’s history, the tragic legacies of the Vietnam War in Laos, and the continued relevance of the Great War in France.

Finally, our Past and Present submission draws parallels between the polarized political climate in the contemporary US and Latin American political problems in the recent past.

Enjoy your journeys into the past!

 

RUSSIA’S REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES. PART III: POEMS. “Blok and Revolutionary Aftermath.”

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By Jake Hensh

Блок, Александр. Двенадцать. Blok, Alexander. The Twelve. Oxford : Miami Special Collections, 1918.

Throughout the Havighurst Colloquium series on “Russia in War and Revolution,” one of the most edifying and eye-opening experiences was the reading of primary sources. By examining such sources, one can ascertain the thoughts and emotions of individuals actually experiencing the events firsthand; hardly is there a better lens through which to analyze history. During the years 1914 to 1921, the continuum of crisis that Russia experienced,[1] proved to be a complete watershed event, resulting in the eventual downfall of one regime and the beginning of another. In such a series of events, it could easily be posited that the people of Russia experienced a fundamental shift in their national identity.

The Romanov dynasty, which had been one of the only two ruling regimes in modern Russian history, had fallen. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks filled its place, and the ensuing civil war gave credence to this notion of identity loss. During this time, a variety of different social groups formed under the umbrellas of different colors: The Reds, Whites, Blacks, and Greens, along with other groups that cannot be fit into a revolutionary color palette. In essence, turmoil, chaos, and anarchy had manifested in the wake of the both the war, and the October Revolution. One could ask what this breakdown of infrastructure and outbreak of violence meant for the future of Russia come up with a variety of reactions to these events. One of the predominant ways in which this time period can be analyzed is from a cultural standpoint: how did the intellectuals, artists, and writers react to these events? Alexander Blok provides what could easily be described as one of the most engaging artistic interpretations of this time in his work, The Twelve.

Blok was most widely renowned, and is currently remembered today, as one of the most famous of Russia’s Symbolists. Helen Muchnic describes his work as, “Allusive, mysterious, evocative,” yet “In his lines are the readily understandable Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevskii.” (Muchnic, 17) Anyone who has not studied Russian history should understand the gravity of such a statement; likening a poet to Pushkin is no laughing matter. Written in 1918, The Twelve, or Dvenadsat’ (pictured above) gives the reader a firsthand look into the mind of Blok himself, and has been described as his crowning achievement (Chukovsky, 140). Of all the incredible primary sources in Special Collections, I found this source to be so captivating in two different ways. The first is through an interpretation and comparison of the poem itself in tandem with the illustrations of the different editions. The illustrators of Blok’s story (predominately Y. Annenkov and V. Masyutin) had many conflicting thoughts and impressions of the work. The ensuing results were entirely different depictions of the same parts of the poem. If the reader is interested in this style of analysis, see the essay by Emily Oneschuk, which provides an in-depth look at the points of view of the illustrators, and Blok himself. The second manner of interpretation is to see how this source speaks to the conflicting national identities that were emerging in Russia at the time.

The Twelve has been occasionally deemed the poem of the Russian Revolution. (Muchnic, 16) During my initial reading, I found myself slightly confused. It appeared disjointed, with little to no unity in coherence or themes. It jumps from depictions of a blizzard, to members of the Red Guard marching through the streets, to prostitution, and finally, to Jesus Christ miraculously appearing and leading the twelve soldiers at the end of the story. These themes and the harsh language employed throughout the work served as the basis for a barrage of criticisms from other scholarly writers and the Bolsheviks themselves: some said it was praising the revolution and therefore should be disowned as Russian. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, criticized the poem for being overtly religious. Blok denied both of these accusations. He was not a Bolshevik supporter, but merely supported Lenin’s coup because he preferred it to the military violence seen previously in 1917 (The Twelve, Blok), and furthermore hinted at denial that the poem had religious intent, despite criticisms, in his correspondence with Yuri Annenkov (Chukovsky, 151).

Blok’s work would largely deviate from other depictions and reactions to the revolution in its immediate aftermath. For example, on one hand, in his work Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed provides a Westerner’s account of many of the Bolshevik leaders from a firsthand perspective. He glorified the revolution and Lenin himself praised the work as nothing short of an “accurate” depiction of the events. In it, Reed concludes that, “The Peasants’ Congress expresses its firm conviction that the union of workers, soldiers, and peasants… will consolidate the power conquered by them… and that it will assure in this manner the lasting accomplishment of a just peace and the victory of Socialism.” (Reed, 313)

On the other hand, however, one of the most lauded Russian émigré writers of the time, Ivan Bunin, takes the exact opposite approach. In his work, Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution, Bunin openly acknowledges that he believes the revolution to be a tragedy and a destruction of true Russian national identity. The collection of stories has been described as, “The (mostly) immediate reactions of a man whose instincts have been proved eminently right; who know that, with the victory of the Bolsheviks, the worst would happen.” (Knorr) Bunin largely expresses his detest with the literature being produced during the time of the revolution, and this massive discontent explains his inevitable departure from the country. Both Reed and Bunin’s reactions offer clear and decisive opinions about the events of the revolution and the Bolshevik’s seizure of power; yet, Blok’s work does not.

As aforementioned, there is no general flow of language, his contemporaries harshly criticized it, and his intentions for the poem were largely unclear. This may lead one to believe that The Twelve is merely a tangential poetic work that defied the Russian revolutionary paradigm. However, if one were to consider the general ambivalent sentiment of educated society in Russia at the time of its publication, the disorganized nature of the poem makes perfect sense. Upon its completion, Blok considered himself a genius. What he sought to accomplish was not to portray the revolution from a particular point of view, or make a statement about which side he supported; he simply attempted to illustrate the world around him. In the wake of a continuum of crisis in Russia in 1918, there was chaos, uncertainty, and a general ambivalence that permeated through Petrograd about future of the people’s nation. This landscape is captured in The Twelve, and if one finds him or herself confused and lost throughout a reading of this poem, then Blok certainly accomplished his goal of putting the reader into a first person point of view of the uncertainty that was going to prevail.

Works Cited

Блок, Александр. Двенадцать. Oxford : Miami Special Collections, 1918.

Blok, Alexander. The Twelve. Ed. Avril Pyman. Oxford: Special Collections, n.d.

Chukovsky, Kornei. Alexander Blok: A Man and Poet. Oxford: Special Collections, n.d.

Knorr, Katherine. “The New York Times.” 27 June 1998. The New York Times . 10 December     2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/06/27/style/books-cursed-daysa-diary-of-  revolution.html>.

Muchnic, Helen. “Alexander Blok.” The Russian Review (1953): 16-24.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. Random House: The Modern Library, 1934.

 

Suggested Readings

For further understanding into some of the themes and other opinions on the revolution mentioned in this essay, see to the following material.

         

          Blok, Alexander. Scythians

          Bunin, Ivan Alekseevich, and Thomas Gaiton Marullo. Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution.

            Gorky, Maxim. Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918

            Holquist, Peter. Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921

            Medvedev, Roy. The October Revolution.

            Sanborn, Joshua. Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire

[1] The term is Peter Holquist’s from his Making War, Forging Revolution:  Russia’s Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921 (Harvard University Press, 2002).

Jake Hensh is a first-year MA student in Political Science.

RUSSIA’S REVOLUTIONARY SOURCES. PART III: POEMS. “Indecision and Interpretation A visual analysis of Alexander Blok’s The Twelve”

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By Emily Oneschuk

The following documents were the basis for this paper and can be found in the De Saint Rat collection of the Havighurst Special Collections Library.

Blok , Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. Dvenadtsat’.: Berlin: Neva, 1922.

Blok, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. Dvenadsat’. Skify. Paris, 1920.

 

Masyutin, Vasily. Critique of Dvenadsat. Miscellaneous essay.  Berlin, Feb 1922.

 

In his poem, The Twelve, Alexander Blok captures the squalor and darkness that followed the arrival of Bolshevism in 1917. The “morning after revolution,” to employ a term used by Anne O’Donnell, that Blok depicts was a time after the Bolshevik seizure of power that was characterized by chaos, disillusionment, and confusion. Blok was a member of the intelligentsia, which put him in the unique position of being a separate entity from both the common people and the new ruling party. The publishing of The Twelve forced Blok to be viewed as even more of an outsider; Blok’s literary peers and friends viewed the poem as a pro-Bolshevik work because it did not explicitly denounce the revolution. Despite the sentiments of Blok’s peers, the Bolsheviks took note of the religious undertones of the work and denounced the author because they felt he was promoting the old ways.

The poem thus proved quite contentious after its publication:some of the most interesting analysis of the work can be seen in its illustrations. The Twelve was illustrated numerous times in several countries, each depiction revealing a new way of looking at Blok’s work. Two of the most intriguing Russian illustrators included Vasily Masyutin and Yurii Annenkov, whose works are included on the cover page. Masyutin illustrated the poem in 1922 while living in Berlin, working independently of the author. Unlike Masyutin, Blok personally commissioned Annenkov to illustrate a version in August 1918, seven months after the poem’s initial publication. Blok heavily influenced Annenkov’s illustrations, and Annenkov’s memoirs help to detail exactly what the author wanted his poem to say (which at times is not very clear, even to Blok himself). While Masyutin’s and Annenkov’s illustrations follow the same monochromatic and serious theme, each illustrator was able to convey a very different sentiment by selecting which scenes and characters to depict.

The most popularly illustrated scenes in the poem are Kat’ka the prostitute’s death and Jesus’s appearance at the end of the poem, which not coincidentally are the scenes that Blok discussed most with Annenkov. By looking at Annenkov’s memoirs and his correspondence with Blok, it is evident that Blok had no strong political or religious intentions for his poem. Blok intended to describe the world around him and any political or religious sentiments were seemingly coincidental. Even the appearance of Christ at the end of the poem was not something he intended; in a discussion with Annenkov he lamented that he did not want to place Christ there, he only did so because could not think of something to replace him. Annenkov’s view of the poem is similar to that of Blok’s. He did not find the poem to be especially prophetic, and saw the religious illusions to be portrayals of communist leaders, not a revival of a forgotten Holy Russia.

Masyutin, on the other hand, was obsessed with the religious imagery in The Twelve. He illustrated it for a version published in Berlin and wrote a passionate critique of the poem. In it, he described the poem as monochromatic, with a “bloody red stain of spilled blood.”  Masyutin sees the poem as being an almost religious description of the events of the revolution. To Masyutin, the twelve soldiers in the poem are reminiscent of the twelve apostles, and their march is congruent with the inevitable progression of fate and time. He put a lot of emphasis on Jesus’s role at the head of the procession, a role that he ascribed to the inevitability of salvation. In his final image, Christ is a calm, imposing figure at the front of the military procession, proudly holding the flag of his nation and leading his people to a newfound salvation.

Blok did not share Masyutin’s idea of Christ’s role in the poem. He was  indecisive regarding the topic and had so much trouble deciding how Christ should be portrayed that Annenkov eventually refused to illustrate him. At first, Blok wanted Christ portrayed as a large figure next to a flag, then as a minor figure next to the troops, and at one point wanted him in Kat’ka’s picture, which he wanted to use for the cover of the book. Annenkov recognized that no matter how he portrayed him, Blok would be unsatisfied and in the end, he refused to illustrate Christ alltogether. The final illustration in Annenkov’s collection does not include Christ, but instead focuses on the march of the soldiers into the night and emphasizes the vast and empty spaces that they are patrolling.

Blok simultaneously loved and disapproved of Annenkov’s illustrations. Through the course of their correspondence, he changed his opinion on the image of Kat’ka and Christ numerous times. At first, he raved about the image of Kat’ka, saying she should be blown up to full poster size and that the book should be printed larger to accommodate the grand scale that this image required. Then he decided he did not like the model and that a healthier, plumper Russian girl was needed. She was supposed to be a vibrant, cheerful girl and Annenkov had portrayed her in an overly cynical, realistic manner. The resulting picture is striking and very emotional; Ka’tka is dramatically sprawled on the ground, while her lover Petruhka looks on, distraught and heartbroken. Masytin does not focus on Kat’ka at all in his illustration, but instead puts emphasis on the soldiers leaving the scene and moving on through the city. There is a lack of feeling in Masyutin’s imagine; Petruhka appears to look only mildly shocked at the death of his lover and there is nothing remarkable about the dead girl strewn about on the street. Again, Masyutin’s focus here is mainly religious and very different to that of Blok and Annenkov. The march of the twelve (and thus, the progression of life and salvation) continues on, regardless of what terrible tragedies befall mankind.

The focuses of these two artists are based on very different interpretations of Blok’s writing: one guided by the author himself, and the other, a passionate manifestation, totally unaligned with what the author intended. As demonstrated by Masyutin’s interpretation, Blok’s vision was very different from what his peers and rivals ascribed from the poem. His work can be seen as a parallel to the revolution; its intentions not fully understood by its creators or its audience, and its effects unpredictable, controversial and contradicting.

 

Works Cited

 

Annenkov, Yurii, George Waldemar, Aleksis Rannit, and Evgeniĭ I. Zami︠a︡tin. Dnevnik Moikh          Vstrech: T︠s︡ikl Tragediĭ. New York: Mezhdunarodnoe literaturnoe sodruzhestvo, 1966. Print.

Emily Oneschuk is a senior Mechanical Engineering and REEES major.