Remembering 1917: the impossible task

As 2017 draws to a close, the centenary of the Russian Revolution — arguably the founding event of the contemporary world — has famously passed off without much fuss. This is quite different from the headline-grabbing commemorations of the half-century in 1967. It’s become a commonplace that there must be something absent in the way that Russians remember their own revolution, though they remembered it obsessively for decades.

Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution (image from Wikimedia Commons)

For some commentators, it all comes down to fake news: the government has orchestrated a campaign of memory-avoidance because revolution is a touchy subject. Other observers suggest that Russian public culture has become incapable of a critical engagement with the past. And others too have recalled that the complexity of the Russian Revolution — its regional, national, and ideological kaleidoscopes, its countless individual stories — make any act of memory a wilfully selective one.

Yet when people remember 1917, what they really remember is not their ancestors, but themselves. They are almost bound to reflect on their own experience of Soviet life. ‘I hate Soviet power,’ says Anatoly Chubais, who governed Russia at the right hand of Boris Yeltsin in the early 1990s, and went on to work at the heights of Russian business. For him, 1917 was something to regret. ‘My God! Chubais,’ exclaims Elena, a former provincial apparatchik and still a relatively young woman, to Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich. ‘What a great country they destroyed! Sold it off at bargain prices. […] We’ve left the Soviet regime in the dust. And what do we have in its place?’ When these two people reflect on 1917, they might as well be casting their gaze on different solar systems.

1917 is historically recent, part of the family folklore of many Russians. When we in the contemporary world look back at recent historical events, we probably never look directly at what we claim to be remembering. Instead, we focus on a blur of associations. We feel emotions that we’ve borrowed from other experiences. In historical terms, we perhaps remember the consequences of an event, reaching to the present, not the event that we are apparently commemorating. This is surely what people across Europe, including in Russia, do when they remember the world wars. For instance, this year’s controversies in Britain about the wearing of poppies derive from an anxiety about remembering wrongly and too much, which is not less dangerous than remembering fitfully and too little.

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