100 Years Later: Reflections on Revolution

By: Will Chim, Reporter

Photo Credit: LiberationNews

One century ago this year, revolution rocked the Russian Empire, resulting in its collapse and the rise of Bolshevik rule and the Soviet Union. Throughout this past century, the Russian Revolution has been a topic of analysis and debate by historians and policymakers. In January, the Mortara Center for International Studies, co-sponsored by the Russian History Seminar of Washington D.C., the Georgetown Institute for Global History, and Georgetown’s Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies, hosted “The Russian Revolution: A Centennial Symposium.” The symposium featured presentations by six leading scholars in Russian history, each offering a novel reflection on an aspect of the revolution and its global impact.

Katya Pravilova, Professor of History at Princeton University, offered an analysis of the revolution oriented around the concept of the “revolutionary situation,” a framework used to assess when a political climate may be ripe for revolution. Revolutions, according to Pravilova, are ripe under three conditions: the impoverishment of the masses, the crisis of the elites, and the growth of revolutionary activity, all supplemented by mass mobilization for action. Pravilova argued that key pre-revolution events, like various troubled reform efforts and subsequent crises among both the masses and elites, led to the fomenting of this “revolutionary situation” and created the very climate of the revolution of 1917 itself.

Peter Holquist, Associate Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, focused on the contexts in which we discuss revolution itself and the role of war and empire as revolutionary foundations. Recent publications focus on the importance of the Russian Empire’s collapse, but Holquist emphasized the need to focus on the role of unrest in the revolution. “I’m not convinced that the collapse of empires is necessarily the same process as decolonization,” Holquist declared. “By placing the study of revolution within the study of war and emerging nationalism, we preclude the dynamics of peasant and labor unrest in the country’s core.” Holquist concluded by asserting that while the dynamics of war and empire shaped the course of 1917, the revolution itself grew out of its own unique dynamic.

Eric Lohr, the Susan E. Carmel Professor of Russian History and Culture and Chair of the Department of History at American University, examined the role of mobilization and demobilization. Contrary to the belief that mass mobilization of socialists and the lower class was critical to revolution, Lohr argued that the key was in fact the total demobilization of Russian society, government, and the military post-World War I. Demobilization led to the failure of the Russian state and a “chaotic and massive collapse of order.” According to Lohr, previous scholarship ignored this aspect of the revolutionary timeline. He further cited the Petrograd garrison revolt as a major point in the breakdown of state’s authority and ability to function. Those revolting soldiers, Lohr argued, “mobilized to demobilize” and convinced other soldiers and police to openly rebel, undermining the state as the only legitimate authority and user of force, paving the way for the revolution.

Evgeny Finkel, Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at the George Washington University, argued that current knowledge of the Russian Revolution is akin to Swiss cheese—“we have lots of information but there are still many holes.” There is an uneven history on the revolution itself, with most data coming from the national level and major Russian cities and a severe dearth from the revolutionary countryside. Considering that Russia at the time was overwhelmingly rural, Finkel argued that it is necessary to recognize the glaring lack of research on how the revolution affected the majority of Russians. Finkel further cited the role of historical legacies, asking what other factors led to 1917, including previous peasant uprisings and mobilizations in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

Sarah Cameron, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maryland, spoke on the revolution in Central Asia and its differing consequences. Cameron cites class, tempo, and environment as the major differences of the revolution in Central Asia. Those countries had much heavier proportions of peasantry and also were affected by differences in economics, labor, and the geography, and the revolution subsequently followed different timelines than in Russia. For example, the New Economic Policy and other Soviet programs were not introduced in Kazakhstan until the mid-1920s. Finally, the volatile weather and lack of rain in Kazakhstan hampered crop yields, posing an early challenge for socialism in the arid climate, and efforts to push the grain frontier of Kazakhstan south eventually resulted in mass starvation in 1931.

Michael David-Fox, event host and Professor in the School of Foreign Service, concluded the event discussing the revolution’s historiography. David-Fox noted the lack of comparative revolution studies, as the Russian Revolution is often considered unique but is just one of many historical incidences of revolution. New research has examined comparative cases and the history of revolution as a recurring method of political change. David-Fox emphasized 1917 in Russia as comprised of many revolutionary parts—rural, urban, regional, national, and popular radical actions all contributing to the main revolution. Describing revolution as a “coil of energy or a spring,” David-Fox further asserted the revolution was far more than just 1917-1921 and highlighted the pre- and post-revolution contexts as part of the revolutionary process. He concluded that the transnational character of the Russian Revolution should be further linked to comparative and multidisciplinary studies.

The symposium offered fascinating perspectives on the Russian Revolution a century later and emphasized that our understanding is far from complete; there are many aspects of the revolution yet to be studied in detail. Each presentation highlighted an alternative perspective on a traditional viewpoint or offered a new understanding of a largely ignored aspect. These serve as reminders that the understanding of major world events requires flexible thinking and often a multidisciplinary approach in order to truly understand these complex events.

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