When Russia’s new Bolshevik rulers decided in 1918 to adopt the ‘Gregorian’ calendar, leaving the ‘October Revolution’ as something to be henceforth commemorated in November, they created a new sense of time within which the events of 1917 were to be viewed. A regime that soon cracked down on the Orthodox Church paradoxically endowed its formative year with quasi-religious significance, as though it happened ‘out of time’ and completely redrew the chronology of the world in which Soviet power was established. Ever since then, historians of the Russian Revolution almost always feel obliged to include a note to this effect in their work, explaining the temporal displacement of events that seem to have occurred, literally, in a different time to that of the years that followed.
The idea of 1917 as a ‘Revolutionary year’ also conflates the February Revolution – the protests leading to the abdication of Nicholas II and the establishment of a Provisional Government – with the events of October, in which the Bolsheviks seized power for themselves. Exercising the victors’ prerogative to shape the subsequent narrative, Soviet celebrations of ‘October’ stressed that it was a clean and clear break with the compromised Provisional Government, usually depicted as doomed from the outset, and only clinging to power until the Bolsheviks realised their revolutionary destiny. In re-enactments, parades, paintings, and Sergei Eisenstein’s monumental film, 1917 was ten-month prelude to the Bolsheviks’ triumph. This narrative, like the staged ‘stormings’ of the Winter Palace that commemorated the original event, manipulated a great deal of its source material, and discarded a great deal else.
The 2017 centenary of Russia’s Revolutionary upheavals offered many opportunities to revisit and reassess what actually happened in 1917 and, particularly, what people thought and felt as events played out around them. Set up beforehand so as to be ready to come alive as centennial dates aligned, the Eyewitness 1917 project allowed the Revolution(s) to unfold day-by-day, seen through the experiences and thoughts of those either caught up in events or trying to make sense of what they saw and heard.
To convey the sense of time passing, the project made innovative use of social media as its platform of choice. Its witnesses and participants would be members of a social network, and their words would be posted to Twitter and Facebook where they could be followed in the same way that the user would keep up with the posts of a contemporary friend or contact. With each day a fresh set of experiences and thoughts would appear, and the reader, following them, would derive a sense of the confusion, the hope, the anxiety, and the excitement of those living through such turbulent and monumental times. Thus, the reader sees the accumulation of events that instigate the February Revolution but then work to undermine the fragile and compromised parliamentary democracy that it produces. As the summer months wear on, and the onset of autumn sees crucial issues either unaddressed or discussed to no-one’s satisfaction, the countdown to the Bolshevik seizure of power begins in earnest.
Having run throughout 2017 online, the archive of what one might call ‘status updates’ is now preserved at https://project1917.com/ and can still be studied daily. This book gathers together a useful selection of that immense resource, enabling the reader to follow the trajectory of 1917 through a sample of the eyewitness thoughts and responses. It is fascinating reading, and if the reader – unlike the participants – knows the ‘outcome’ there is much to intrigue along the route. With a cast list (over 500 different contributors in all) drawn from available archive sources, we find the thoughts of everyone from Tsar Nicholas II and his family to the Bolshevik activists plotting against them. Army officers, regular troops, beleaguered politicians, journalists, writers, actors, and others alternate between being observers and participants. Around them, the Provisional Government finds itself unable to secure the gains it made early in the year and a summer of unrest, punctuated by street violence, flows into an autumn where an armed coup secures control of Petrograd and with it what had once been a vast empire.
That is not, of course, the end of Russia’s Revolutionary narrative: years of Civil War, state-sponsored murder, inter-Party factionalism, and slowly consolidated power are to follow, but by the close of 1917 the essential components of Russia’s twentieth-century political landscape are in place. Many of the ‘eyewitnesses’ have become participants, unable to remain detached from events around them. Some are, or will soon be, casualties of those same events; their voices heard less and less, and then not heard at all.
As the narrative surrounding the Hermitage Museum’s 2017 History was Made Here exhibition reminds us, the commemoration of 1917 inside Russia was a complex affair, with ambiguity at the official level as to what exactly should be celebrated at a distance of a century. Eyewitness 1917 was an immense undertaking, and the gratitude of all those interested in these events will be due to the project’s designers and organisers for many years to come. This book-length summary will hopefully serve as a gateway to the online archive and a reminder of the complexities of a year the repercussions of which continue to echo after their centenary has passed.