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Politics

Rethinking the Russian Revolution

“We have imagined how things would have been at that time if there was an internet and people were using social media,” said Mikhail Zygar, the creator of the biggest-ever interactive historical website. It’s called “1917: Free History”, and it’s a quietly subversive attempt to make Russians think about how they ended up where they are now.

Zygar is one of Russian’s best journalists. He was the editor-in-chief of Dozhd (Rain), the only independent TV news channel in the country, until he resigned – or more likely was force to resign – last year. But he’s back with an extraordinary project: to relive the events leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 as if the people involved, from statesmen to private citizens, had been posting daily on social media.

More than one hundred journalists, historians and web professionals worked for a year, trawling through letters, diaries and archives to come up with authentic material written by people who were living the history one day at a time.

The characters include all the big figures from the Tsar and Rasputin to Lenin and Trotsky, but also artists, writers, soldiers, workers and housewives. And they were all following current events closely, because it was the middle of the First World War.

There are 1,500 characters, each posting Facebook-style updates on their activities and impressions, their hopes and fears, all drawn from what they actually wrote at the time. You can “like” specific characters and follow them on a regular basis. You can even ask them questions and send them messages. (Tsar Nicolas II has already received several warnings that he and his family will be killed by the Bolsheviks.)

“1917: Free History” has no obvious political stance. It offers no conclusions, and the comments of the various characters come without any interpretation. The public justification for this massive undertaking is simply that next year is the centenary of the Bolshevik (Communist) Revolution, the biggest turning point in modern Russian history. And yet…

And yet Mikhail Zygar is a very political man, a liberal who has consistently resisted the lies and manipulations of the Putin regime. So what is he really up to? What would Zygar like people to conclude after their fifteen-month journey through Russia’s hundred-year-ago history?

All he will say is that “Everything that happened to us in the 20th century and is happening now is a consequence of the events of 1917.” That includes not only of the crimes and tragedies of the Soviet era but also what “is happening now.” And now is not a good time in Russia either.

Russians are not enthusiastic readers of history, but any intelligent Russian who follows “1917” through to the end will know that while the first (democratic) revolution in March 1917 was probably inevitable, given the Tsar’s gross mismanagement of the Russian war effort, the second revolution was not inevitable at all. It was a fluke, a “Black Swan”, a highly improbable event that happened anyway.

The October Revolution that brought the Communists to power was not really a revolution. It was a coup d’etat, led by a small goup of ruthless Bolsheviks with the support of some troops in the capital.

When the election that had already been scheduled took place two weeks later, the Bolsheviks won only 175 out of 715 seats in the parliament – but that didn’t matter by then, because the Bolsheviks immediately dissolved the parliament and ruled by decree. And the point of bringing up this old history is not to prove that the Communists were bad; it is to show that they were not inevitable.

Most Russians are fatalistic about their history. They believe that it’s all their own fault, because they are the kind of people they are. If you believe that, then you believe that seventy years of Communist dictatorship were inevitable, that the civil war, the famines and the great purges were inevitable, that tyranny, corruption and poverty are inevitable – and that Putin or somebody like him is inevitable now.

But none of that is true. Change just one little detail in the run-up to the October Revolution – for example, what if the Germans had not shipped Lenin to Russia in the hope that he would seize power and take Russia out of the war? – and the improbable Communist seizure of power becomes impossible.

Once you have realised that the Communist coup was just bad luck and not Russia’s inevitable fate, all the subsequent bad history ceases to be inevitable too. The country just turned down the wrong road in 1917, but another turn could put it on the right road.

Is that the message Zygar is trying to get across? I suspect it is, although he is far too intelligent to believe it will have any immediate effect. It’s just a drop in the bucket – but it’s a pretty big drop, and eventually the bucket may overflow.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paras. 5 and 11. (“There…Bolsheviks”; and “When…inevitable”)