The Memory of the Russian Revolution

 An Empire in Transition

The week beginning the 6th of November 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the  beginning of the 1917 Russian revolution, a major turning point in Russian, European and World History, that saw the last great bastions of Ancien Régime-style imperial monarchism begin its transformation into a 20th century communist global superpower. As Imperial Russia transformed itself first into the Soviet Union, and then the Russian Federation, it reinvented its political and economic structures, its mythology, and its place in the world.

Coat of arms of pre-1917 Russian Empire (above), Coat of Arms of Soviet Union, adopted in 1923
Coat of Arms of pre-1917 Russian Empire (above), Coat of Arms of Soviet Union, adopted in 1923 (below)






October 1917-November 2017

Tsar Nicholas II, Ilya Repin, Oil on canvas, 1896.

The October Revolution (so-called because it took place in October according to the now-abandoned Russian Orthodox Julian calendar) that saw Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks take power followed the February Revolution that occurred earlier in 1917, bookending months of civil and political unrest and uncertainty that had gripped St Petersburg, the Imperial Russian Capital. This first revolution was motivated by a variety of factors, notably frustration over the glacial rate of political change among Russia’s growing middle-class and the radicalization of a disenfranchised intelligentsia. Other major factors include the long term economic and social tensions brought on by rapid demographic growth  at the end of the 19th century among the peasants leading to calls for more just redistribution of land, and the poor working conditions of the still small but rapidly growing working class. Another contributor was the more immediate frustration with Russia’s performance in the ongoing First World War and the hardships that the conflict had brought including high inflation, food shortages, mass conscription and high war losses. The February revolution saw the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II – the last autocratic Emperor of the Romanov dynasty that had ruled Russia for three centuries – and the installation of a moderate Provisional Government tasked with overseeing Russia’s transition from nigh-feudal autocracy to democracy.

Lenin, photographed here in 1920
Lenin, photographed here in 1920

The instability of this government – and Russia’s continued involvement in WWI – led to popular demonstrations and further strife throughout the summer and autumn of 1917. This in turn gave way to the rise of the Marxist Bolshevik party that, emboldened by the return from exile of their charismatic leader Vladimir Lenin, led an armed insurrection in St Petersburg that culminated with the storming of the Winter Palace (the historic seat of Romanov power and the temporary home of the Provisional Government) on the 7th of November 1917. After months of instability and uncertainty Russia finally had a new strong man at the head of a new and radical government.

100 years of the Russian Revolution at QUB

To mark the anniversary of the 1917 revolution, QUB Special Collections will be displaying photos, texts, and other artefacts that chart the transition that Russia underwent a century ago and continued to undergo into the 20th century. These include photos of iconic St Petersburg buildings as they were in the 19th century, when the Russian Empire was at its largest extent, and that later served as the backdrop against which the 1917 revolution was to play out. On a more human level, the exhibition also includes examples of both pre- and post-revolution bank notes and coins, examples of the way in which the Russian national myth changed and developed from the 19th to the 20th century. Grouped with these are original examples of the kind of communist memorabilia that could be found adorning homes, workplaces and labels throughout the Soviet Union – commemorative badges, sashes, medals, and a miniature bust of Lenin. Finally, the exhibition also includes some texts from Special Collections archives, notably a sample of Lenin’s handwriting and early editions of both Marx and Lenin’s printed works in Russian and English.

In addition to this display hosted by Special Collections and curated by members of staff from the School of History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy, there are a number of other events taking place on campus in November 2017 to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.

–          At 1pm on Thursday 16th November QFT will host a free screening of Sergei and Georgi Vasiliev’s 1934 film Chapaev, a fictionalised biography of Vasily Chapaev, a Russian Revolutionary who died in the civil war that would later engulf the country, only to later be immortalised in Soviet propaganda of the 20s and 30s. The screening will be preceded by an introduction by Dr Aleksandr Titov of HAPP, and followed by a discussion.

–          Friday 17th of November will see QUB’s Senate Room (Lanyon building) host a day of talks on the memory of the Russian Revolution. Panels start at 9.30 and will include papers from researchers from England, Switzerland, Scotland and Germany, as well as academics from QUB’s School of History, Anthropology, Politics and Philosophy.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Aleksandr Titov, lecturer in Russian History and Politics in QUB’s School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics.

Special Collections

In addition to the materials presented in this display QUB Special Collections houses an archive of particular interest to researchers interested in looking at the history of the relationship between the Soviet Union and the Irish Labour Movement, known as the Comintern (Irish labour movement) Collection. This collection comprises copies of files held in the Russian Archive for Social and Political History (RGASPI), Moscow. The files pertain to the Irish labour movement and the history of Communism in Ireland, comprising documents from the departments and standing committees of the Executive Committee Communist International (ECCI) including speeches, reports, letters, agendas, fliers, handwritten notes, lists, telegrams, minutes and posters. The papers provide considerable insight into the personalities, organisation and policy development of Irish Communism during the 1920s/1930s. Included in the collection are ten microfilms (representing approximately 4,000 pages) detailing contacts between the Communist International and Irish groups between 1919 and 1943.

Special Collections reading room
Special Collections Reading Room

Our thanks to Modern Languages PhD student and Special Collections and Archives Intern Tom Murray for this guest blog post on “The Memory of the Russian Revolution”