Appraisal of a commemoration
Directeur de recherches (INED) et directeurs d'études (EHESS-Cercec)


The image of the Red Square parade on November 7, 2017, one century to the day after the Bolsheviks took power in Russia, speaks volumes about the centenary commemorations. For these marked a clean break with all the celebrations throughout the twentieth century1, the objective being to celebrate not the revolution, but the November 7, 1941 parade when German troops were at the gates of Moscow. In 2017 there was no suggestion of any revolutionary dimension. What was foregrounded was solely the greatness of an eternal combative Russia, whose origins, far from being Soviet, stretched back to imperial times (E. Koustova). The Russian authorities’ dithering over how to celebrate this moment shows the extent of change in just a few years, as does the low-key political engagement elsewhere in Europe (Bronnikova et al.). The centenary was when a revolutionary mythology was definitively laid to rest, not reactivated for political usage. 1989 and 1991 had intervened. And if we look at transformations in October anniversaries from 1918 to 1991 in comparison to subsequent changes, then the passage of time between 1917 and the present day seems to have suddenly accelerated.

In recent years, 1917 was already no longer truly at the heart of commemorations in Russia. In 2013 an exhibition supported by the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Culture was opened with great pomp in a prestigious venue in central Moscow, in the presence of Vladimir Putin and the patriarch of Russia. Its theme was the dynasty of the tsars: “The Romanovs. My history”2. 1917 was portrayed as an accident caused by the Russian Empire’s allies, who had triggered a bloody war in which Nicholas II, as a matter of loyalty, had had no choice but to participate, despite attempting to intercede for peace. The last of the Romanovs was depicted as in no way responsible for the escalation imputable solely to his allies, particularly France and Great Britain. He was portrayed not as a weak and diminished monarch, but as a great tsar who fell victim to foreign powers. As for the social and political situation in the Empire, it was shown in the most flattering light. The revolution and fall of the tsar represented a catastrophe, comparable to the “reign” of Boris Yeltsin, the man who dug the USSR’s grave. Stalin was presented as the man who had managed to re-establish order and power after the collapse of 1917, Putin as having reendowed Russia with its international clout after the disaster of perestroika and breakup of the USSR. Logically enough, the exhibition closed on a video in which Putin figured as the worthy replacement to the tsars.

For decades, political opposition in Western Europe united around 1917. It provided a “revolutionary model”, deeply rooted in the mythology of October and the erasure of February, with the popular uprising of the early months of the year being subsumed into the taking of power by the Bolsheviks. This model influenced South American revolutionary movements together with communist rhetoric in the West, even though Warsaw, Budapest, and Prague had already cast certain doubts on the Soviet model, while Stalinism projected a most troubling shadow over the very nature of October. Yet 1917 continued to be taken up in political rhetoric, while historians debated the nature of power, the place of society, the extent of its genuinely popular dimension, and the authoritarian or totalitarian nature of the Soviet world. Yet during the centenary in Europe, the issue of the lasting contemporary pertinence of the 1917 revolutionary movement was only rarely present. In Russia, the distancing was particularly pronounced, even among protest movements, who take 1968 as their point of reference more frequently than 19173. In France, this muted political engagement transpired in the somewhat minimalist exhibition staged by the French Communist Party, displaying a handful of reproductions of posters4. In France once again, only two or three political works by leaders of far-left parties were published5. And while many books about Lenin came out, the great majority had little broad political ambition, being mostly biographies by historians6.

Admittedly, in the United States the centenary was a pretext for official commemoration before a monument to the victims of communism. But it does not seem to be a major element of American remembrance policy (Koposov). Equally, the model continued to be borne aloft in several demonstrations in Latin America, arguably the part of the world where left-wing political movements refer most frequently to the revolutionary model of October (Herrera & Acha)7.

Even in Russia, how are we to explain within a broad social and political history the pace at which a day of commemoration has been transformed (Fayet, Koustova)? The characteristic linking ceremonies of the Stalinian period to those of 2017 is the international showcasing of power regained. In the earlier period, this power was still rooted in the spirit of October. The revolution had caused the country to be weakened, but only for a time (that of civil war, the loss of territory, and the failures of war communism), before Russia regained its power. In the later period, it was a matter of showing that Russia had got over another collapse, that of perestroika, the breakup of the USSR, and the deep social and economic crisis of 1990-1993. Commemoration of 1917 became a way of asserting the rediscovered power and unity of a country which deserved its place on the world stage – not as a socio-political model but as a power, for there was in fact but little to retain of the revolutionary model. What was presented to the watching world was the rebirth of a power with roots stretching back 1000 years, not the universality of some political model.

Apart from this assertion of Russia’s place on the international stage, the many events to mark the centenary – characterized in Western Europe (Bronnikova et al.), Russia (Koustova), and the United States (Koposov) by the predominance of academic conferences and exhibitions about artistic movements – chose to foreground particular aspects of society, artistic circles, and so on. Very few took the opportunity to celebrate October, rather than just evoke it.

These various events, conferences, and exhibitions placed 1917 in its time, without seeking to lend it any universal or atemporal dimension. The Et 1917 devient révolution… exhibition8 adopted this sort of approach, for instance (Blum). This is not to say that these cultural and academic events were shorn of any political dimension, but this pertained more to present-day relations between Russia and the countries where they were staged, than to any interpretation of the revolution itself (Bronnikova et al.).

Does this mean that 1917 is already history, a bit like any other revolutionary movement, anchored in a specific territory, regime, and society, thereby losing its universal character? What are we to do with the great reverberations of October, which resounded for decades? Have these become a separate topic of historical enquiry, largely divorced from the history of the revolutionary year? The explosion in available documents in the wake of perestroika completely transformed the task of historians, together with debates about 1917 and the Soviet regime. Certain pursued a clearly political agenda shortly after this opening, subsequently taking advantage of the breakup of the USSR and the end of the Eastern Bloc to plow this far from novel furrow. But most historians, particularly a younger generation whose fieldwork began with the opening up and the collapse of the Bloc, paused, turned their backs on a history too firmly rooted in the present, and instead began to write a rich and complex history that no longer gave any direct contemporary political lessons. The history written by this new generation as of the mid-1990s is that of a long twentieth century, combining social, political, and cultural histories. It also includes international history reconsidered in the light of this event, such as Latin American history (Acha & Herrera).

The year 2017 was also an opportunity to cast light on the historical rewritings that may be observed in states issuing from the USSR and countries in the former Soviet sphere. This rewriting is driven primarily by the desire to extricate national histories from Soviet history and so build up an autonomous account. In Ukraine, this has taken the form of erasing any idea of revolution from analysis of 1917 even, in favor of a history devised in terms of occupation and invasion, bringing out the continuity between the country’s imperial history and “decolonization” (the term is used on occasions) that was fleetingly initiated, before being put on hold for over seventy years (Podkur). This type of reading privileging imperial- or colonial-type political domination, in which popular uprising no longer plays any part in the upheavals, is of course open to discussion, bearing in mind the multifarious nature of the war-exacerbated violence sweeping through these places, involving social and ethnic conflict (antisemitic pogroms, violence between Polish and Ukrainian populations), opposition between town and countryside, and so on.

This rewriting, which may also be observed elsewhere (in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for example, as well as in Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries), is also very much present in Russia, where there is a desire to re-establish continuities between the history of the Russian Empire and contemporary Russia. This phenomenon is not limited to 1917 and the years immediately subsequent. The Second World War lies at the heart of Russia’s memories of the past. But this is also the case in Western states issuing from the USSR, in the form of a history of “dual occupation”. Yet the revolutionary years still play an important place in these states’ historical narratives, as indicated by commemorations of 1918 (the year of Ukrainian and Baltic independences). After the USSR collapsed, focus shifted to the initial though soon interrupted steps towards leaving the Empire in 1917, and to the ephemeral constitution of a Europe born of the Revolution and First World War which, for a few years, was very similar in its component nations and states to that born of 1989-1991.

So what are we to make of these reappraisals of the past being conducted across Europe? Are we to take them seriously, or should we view them as simply arising from a wish to write new national histories in states long subjected to a history marked by the revolutionary movement? These various readings, often guided by “national stories”, nevertheless raise some interesting questions. They decenter historians’ viewpoint, and bring into perspective issues pertaining to several territories (by placing, for instance, various regional variations in the revolutionary movement and upheavals of these years within the broader issue of the end of Empire).

This centenary has made it possible to formulate many questions about the contemporary relevance of this revolution, how to interpret it in the light of what has become of the USSR one century later, and how to insert Soviet history into European history and world history. To close this presentation, I wish to present two among many other issues.

First, is the “normalization” of the history of 1917 and its aftermath in the USSR helpful, or does it on the contrary cloak the impact this event had throughout the twentieth century? In scaling down the exceptional nature and universal scope of this movement, are we able to do justice to twentieth-century history? Or does it rather lead to an impoverishing reduction in focal length? If “October is only one revolution among others. That which got the upper hand. That which took power, then became a myth and ideology, a party and state technique” (Orecchio), then can we understand how it became a myth, and do justice to its great reverberations echoing down through the “Soviet century”9? Today, we write this history within the framework of an implicit distinction between understanding the revolutionary year, and understanding how the myth and its ideology were constructed. The centenary has been an opportunity to re-immerse ourselves in the history of a revolutionary year, of popular uprisings, and of those who, for a moment, held power in their hands. But it was not the occasion for any consideration of those great reverberations.

Second, may we conclude that 1917 is to some extent marginal to the contemporary world? Can this revolutionary movement provide any keys for understanding current social conflicts? Why was 1917 so rarely evoked in France in analysis of the gilets jaunes movement – including by historians and intellectuals sympathetic to it – even though certain of the radical forms taken by these conflicts, and the transformations or breaks between various interpretations and various moments, are reminiscent of the distance travelled between February 1917, a time of near universal enthusiasm, and July or August 1917, when various fears about the sometimes extreme nature of this movement crystallized and came into conflict? The same question could also be raised about what was known as “the Arab Spring”. Is it because the ideological reading that had submerged interpretations of October had long erased its genuinely social dimension, its short-term popular dimension, pushing into the background, though without entirely effacing, the political authorities’ lack of response to a profound social crisis? 1917 might no longer be a model underpinning a universal ideology, but it can still throw light on how social and political protest unfolds today, driving political upheaval despite their many contradictions, opening up multiples possibilities, before being progressively reduced by political decisions out o kilter with the movement initially bearing these political forces. Looking closely at the past of 1917, stripped of the October myth, we may in fact see that it still has much that is present, and maybe even many futures.

Unfold notes and references
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In addition to the articles presented in this issue, the reader is referred to the work by G. Bordiugov (ed.), Революция-100: реконструкция юбилея [Revolution-100, a reconstruction of a commemoration], Moscow, Airo-XXI, 2017, which sets out extensive analysis of the commemorative year throughout the world, providing a broad overview. It is however incomplete, being published in mid-2017.

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See the presentation of the exhibition on the Moscow Manege website and on the Moscow Historical Park website (consulted March 2019).

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Among various works analyzing these movements in the light of revolutionary pasts evoked as models, see in particular the forthcoming article by Natalia Smolianskaia in Politika (based on her paper presented at the “Trajectories of October 1917: Origins, Reverberations, and Models of Revolution” held in Paris in November 2017).

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“Sur les murs du fil rouge d’Octobre. 1917-2017”, espace Niemeyer, October 12-November 4, 2017.

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In particular: Olivier Besancenot, Que faire de 1917? Une contre-histoire de la révolution russe, Paris, Autrement, 2017.

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Such as the book by Dominique Colas, Lénine (Paris, Autrement, 2017).

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Without entering into examination here of the very particular case of China. See for example: Inna Li, “Залпы Октябрьской революции в Китае: мониторинг китайской политической, общественной и научной рефлексии в год столетия Октября” [On the October Revolution in China: monitoring Chinese political, public, and scientific analysis of the October centenary], in G. Bordiugov, Революция-100 : реконструкция юбилея [Revolution-100, a reconstruction of a commemoration], Moscow, Airo-XXI, 2017, p. 638-656.

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See the catalogue: Et 1917 devient Révolution, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017.

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Moshe Lewin, Le Siècle soviétique, Paris, Fayard/Le Monde diplomatique, 2003.