“The street has already spoken, gentlemen.” The Russian revolution, replayed in real time

The Russian revolution is unfolding in real time on its centenary, via Project 1917, an on-line serial set out like a social network.

The Russian version of Project 1917 has attracted more than a million subscribers since its launch in November last year. The English version started up last month.

All the material on Project 1917 – from diary entries, articles and letters, to photos, paintings and recordings – has been sourced from archives by a team of Russian journalists and historians. It “includes not a trace of invention”, the “About” page states.

This week is 100 years since the first revolution, triggered by women workers demonstrating on international women’s day. (That is, the February revolution, so-called because the tsarist empire was on the Julian calendar, 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere). And things are hotting up.

The entries for yesterday, 9 March, included ones from:

Alexander Spiridovich, a police general in the imperial guard, who wrote: “They sing revolutionary songs. Chants of ‘Down with the government!’, ‘Long live the republic’, ‘Down with war!’ can be heard.” As the police fought demonstrators, Cossack troops – who had always previously been loyal to the empire – stood aside, he noted. “The police are infuriated. One phrase was passed around among groups of dispersing workers: ‘the cossacks support us, the cossacks support the people!’.”

Maurice Paleologue, the French ambassador to the empire, who wrote: “This morning the excitement in industrial circles took a violent form. Many bakeries were looted, especially in the Viborg Quarter and Vassili-Ostrov. At several points the Cossacks charged the crowd and killed a number of workmen.”

■ And the Social Democrat (Menshevik) Nicolas Chkeidze, who would within days become the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, who wrote: “Disregard of streets is a feature of government and many among us. But the street has already spoken, gentlemen, and this street is now to be reckoned with.”

Project 1917 was set up by the journalist Mikhail Zygar, who is nobody’s puppet. Between 2010 and 2015 he was chief editor of Dozhd TV, one of the last outposts of opposition in Russian broadcast media and the target

Demonstrators in Petrograd (St Petersburg) during the February revolution. Photo: Project 1917.

of Kremlin-friendly witch-hunters. Before that he co-authored Gazprom: the New Russian Weapon, an account of political influence over Russia’s biggest company. His latest book All the Kremlin’s Men, about president Putin’s inner circle, was published in 2015 in Russian and last year in English.

Sponsors of Project 1917 include Yandex, the largest Russian search engine; Sberbank, the state-owned savings bank; and Vkontakte, a facebook-type social network. It is subject to no form of censorship, Zygar said in an interview earlier this year. He enthused that it is winning a big audience among under-25s.

From what I have seen of Project 1917 so far, I think it’s brilliant. It gives those under-25s – and the rest of us – the opportunity to get to know the way that people acted, and the ideas that moved them, and to sense the rich plethora of contemporary views of the revolution.

Project 1917 is a breath of fresh air compared to the responses to the centenary – often stony-faced and narrow-minded – from Russian politicians.

The Kremlin has carefully avoided proscribing the way that teachers, the media or historians should treat the centenary, Kommersant newspaper reported – but president Putin made clear that “national reconciliation” should be the overriding theme, in his annual address to parliament in December last year.

With unbounded cynicism, the authorities are to erect a monument to this “reconciliation” in Crimea – which Russia annexed in 2014, in the course of supporting the separatist militia in eastern Ukraine and stoking a conflict that has claimed 10,000 lives and displaced about 2 million people.

Some “reconciliation”!

Putin, speaking in southern Russia in January last year, offered a largely negative view of 1917 – and claimed that it had “planted a bomb at the foundation of our statehood”. That “bomb”, he said, was the federal structure of the Soviet Union and the idea that its national components had the right to secession. It was “pure nonsense” that the Donetsk basin – now controlled by Putin’s favoured separatists – had been made part of Ukraine.

Let’s leave aside the fact that the Don basin from the 19th century was, socially and economically as well as geographically, part of Ukraine, and wasn’t put there by anybody. In my view, the interesting thing was Putin’s emphasis on denouncing the revolution as an event that undermined and weakened the Russian state.

In the same speech, Putin deplored the Bolsheviks’ role “in the collapse of the World War I front lines”. He has expressed his disgust at Russia’s withdrawal from the first world war before: in 2014 he said that Russia was “betrayed from within” by Bolshevism, and compared critics of Russia’s current policy in Ukraine to these Bolshevik traitors of 1917.

For me, it makes sense that an authoritarian 21st-century president should express his loathing for a revolution that confounded Russian state militarism.

But Putin was not really accurate when he blamed the Bolsheviks for Russia’s withdrawal from the first world war. That was above all the action of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors who, in the wake of the February revolution, decided that the Russian state – whether an empire or a republic – was not worth dying for.

Those servicemen refused to participate in the offensive ordered in June 1917. They held mass meetings and refused to advance. They arrested, and sometimes lynched, their officers. They fraternised with opposing (mainly Austro-Hungarian and German) troops on a huge scale. The Bolsheviks were almost alone among political parties in supporting these actions – but the initiative came more from the ranks than from political leaders.

Hopefully, Project 1917 will help us all better follow, and better understand, events such as the mutiny in the tsarist army in the summer of that year. GL, 10 March 2017.

“Social histories of the Russian revolution” – a series of talks in London

An awkward moment for Putin – a story on CNN

People & Nature site contents

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