CONTACT: Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor, 217-333-2894
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Russia’s revolution that “shook the world,” in the title words of a famous book, turns 100 this year.
What was it like to live through it? The experience of both chaos and possibility of 1917, as well as of crucial years before and after?
University of Illinois history professor Mark Steinberg channels a wide diversity of that experience in “The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921.” His new anniversary-year book tells the story of those years with a focus on “people thinking and feeling about history as it unfolded in their own lives.”
Steinberg starts with the “springtime of freedom,” a flowering of open thought and discussion following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II early in 1917. That marked the first of actually two revolutions that year, the Bolshevik Revolution coming in the fall.
Steinberg wants the reader to imagine walking the streets, going to demonstrations and meetings, listening to speeches, talking with people and reading everything available – taking in the “flood of words” from the time.
Above all, Steinberg wants to imagine asking people there what they meant by “freedom,” the idea everyone said defined the revolution.
He then pulls back to a broader history of the period, starting with the 1905 revolution of a dozen years before, through the civil war that ended four years after. He treats these years as an era of linked crises, upheavals and possibilities – including possibilities for democracy.
Even here, however, Steinberg supplies two perspectives: that of the historian looking backward and of journalists writing at the time. “I like the way newspapermen are trying to tell the story of history without knowing where it’s going,” he said. “They're living and experiencing the present.”
Later chapters take in varied perspectives from varied places – from the cities and the streets, from peasant women in the countryside, from ethnic writers and activists in Russia’s empire, and from a “trio of rebels” who devoted their lives to revolution and building a new society.
Steinberg said he knows the multiple perspectives are a risk, that they muddy up the narrative. But he doesn’t want to keep it simple; he wants readers to “revel in the complexity,” he said.
Through these voices of experience, the revolution can appear to have been a “madhouse,” as students in a recent class observed, Steinberg said. “But when we spend long enough in that madhouse, we begin to realize there’s method in everybody’s madness, there’s a reason for what they’re saying and doing. Confusion is actually an insight.”
The experiences of individuals also bring readers into the story, Steinberg said. “For most people, for most students, what makes history important is the way it connects to human lives, to their own lives.”
Steinberg said we shouldn’t be surprised that Russia is doing little this year to publicly remember the revolution of 1917 – even as anti-government street protests have broken out in recent weeks and months. When Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about the revolution, he focuses on the disorder, chaos and conflict, all of which he hates, Steinberg said. Even the fall of Nicholas II, in Putin’s thinking, “might have been a bad thing.”
Many Americans may not want to remember the revolution either, since it led to decades of communism and totalitarian rule in Russia, as well as the Cold War and ongoing tensions with the U.S. Perceptions also persist that Russians, by nature, want only a strong leader and have little interest in democracy.
Steinberg, however, sees the Russian story of 1917 as a universal one in which human beings in an unfree and highly unequal society say “enough is enough” and seek ideals of freedom, justice and equality, even if they fall short. The 1905 revolution brought democratic reforms that Nicholas II then gradually reversed, he said. The Bolsheviks originally espoused many radically democratic ideals, but abandoned them for the sake of power.
Steinberg also tries, in his final chapter, to reclaim the idea of utopia, often disparaged in the wake of the revolution and communism. Rather than seeing it only in negative terms – fanciful ideas imposed on society, with catastrophic results – he makes the case for seeing it as a “boldness of imagination,” using examples from his “trio of rebels.”
In this way of looking at it, utopia “isn’t fanciful, but really says our minds are sometimes too restricted by the reality around us to realize the world could be different, could be very different. It could be as it should be, not as it is.”
To reach Mark Steinberg, call 217-300-4104; email firstname.lastname@example.org.
His book “The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921” is published by Oxford University Press.