February 22/March 8 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Russian Revolution. As with most events of the First World War, it’s likely to go unnoticed and unremarked, which in itself is a sad commentary. The failure to remember the sacrifices, follies and triumphs of the generations before us, makes it unlikely we will remember the cost of modern conflicts once the slogans have slipped away.
The Russian Revolution is one of the most complex, influential and misunderstood events in human history. Volumes have been written about it, and avoided by the general public. Hollywood has found it incomprehensible and even Russian cinema has struggled to recapture it. Literature has fared little better, finding it mostly barren ground. Pasternak came closest with Doctor Zhivago, but even that sprawling tale can offer only a narrow window into one, isolated, imagined life.
As an American who grew up during the Cold War, I had no interest in Russian history. Even after the Soviet Empire had fallen, Russia held no curiosity for me until I began to have a series of dreams that I took to be memories, if one believes in reincarnation, which I do.
The dreams led me from the ruins of cities destroyed by war, backward into other times and possibly other lives, until I had arrived at my destination, Russia of the late Tsarist Era just before the Revolution. The reconciliation of these dreams and possible lives was difficult for someone who had been so indoctrinated into the cult of Cold War America. It began another journey of exploration into a time and culture I knew nothing about until twenty years ago.
The focal point of this journey has become the Russian Revolution. And within its education, I have found a terrifying tale of how a nation, its culture and religion, can be obliterated by economic collapse and war. What happened in Russia could happen anywhere given a perfect storm of events. For people living in times as uncertain as these, the Russian Revolution takes on meaning beyond that of a history lesson. It is a cautionary tale of how idealism can be hijacked and subverted by opportunistic political vampires. It is the story of the hubris of government and the stark realization that all forms of government are finite. In the end, the Romanov Tsar, Nicholas the Last, was replaced by, as Simon Sebag Montifeore has so accurately portrayed him, Stalin the Red Tsar.
The Russian Revolution is the story of the end of a civilization and the beginning of the modern police state. Its coming was universally applauded, as the rule of Tsar Nicholas II was, in its time, the most repressive on Earth. Within months, it had betrayed its promise and become a prison-nation governed by a madman; one that has been emulated, in some aspects, by virtually every nation on the planet in the century since. Travel back with us now into the chaos of 1917. It may look surprisingly familiar.
I will attempt to update this blog as often as possible, marking dates and events as the anniversary nears, but will not limit the blog to just those events.
Note on dates: As every novice student of Russian history knows, the Russian Empire was still using the Julian calendar in 1917, which by then had left them 13 days behind the rest of the world. This apt metaphor was retired in February 1918 when the new Bolshevik government moved the clock ahead to catch up to the rest of the world. For dates prior to this change, both dates will be used when possible.