Interview with Mikhail Zygar — 1917-2017: An ominous anniversary for Russia; Here is why the Kremlin is not eager to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution and use it in its political goals.

File Photo of Revolutionaries Marching in Moscow in 1917, adapted from image at state.gov

[Interview conducted, transcribed and adapted by Pavel Koshkin, Former Editor-in-Chief, Russia Direct]

Mikhail Zygar, the author of the project “1917.Free History”, talks to Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) about the reasons why the Russian authorities don’t use the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution in their political goals. He also discuses the lessons the Kremlin should learn from these dramatic events that took place 100 years ago.

“1917. Free History” is an interactive project dedicated to the 1917 Russian revolution. It is presented in the form of the social network like Facebook, with historical characters, which lived 100 years ago, being the participants of the network. They share their thoughts and numerous articles from leading world newspapers about the events before and during the 1917 revolution. The project is based on the primary sources of that period, including documents, letters, memoirs, diaries and the like. The project is the result if the work of journalists, experts, historians, designers and illustrators.

What key lessons could today’s Russia learn from the 1917 February and October revolutions?

Mikhail Zygar: The lessons are in the ways of how we look at history in general. Since the times of Karamzin Russian history has been always focusing on the narratives about the Russian rulers [Nikolai Karamzin was a XIX-century Russian writer, poet, historian and critic, well-known for History of the Russian State, a 12-volume national history – editor’s note].

In fact, History of Russia was the history of the government and its leadership, and this is a very vicious tradition, because there are no ordinary people and their interests behind such history. In this regard, the 1917 February revolution is interesting because this is the period when an emerging civil society in Russia took the initiative. Many historical figures that took the lead in 1917 are not familiar to ordinary Russians today, but they played a very significant role in Russia’s politics. Remarkably, these people defended not their personal ambitions, but they defended the interests of society.

Thus, the main lesson of the 1917 February revolution is the understanding that every member of society can contribute to the development of a country’s history, that every member of society is important for history, that everybody is a part of the historical and political processes.

Traditionally, ordinary Russians are inclined to think that cannot have an impact on politics and history: “We can’t change”. And such apathy, in part, stems from their perception of history, which imposes such thinking.

Could Russia be seen as the first republic after the 1917 February revolution, when the first attempts of democratic reforms were initiated?

M.Z.: If one looks at today’s Russia, its only “predecessor” will be the government that existed between March and November of 1917. This government was in the establishing process: there were no democratic institutes and the Constituent Assembly, but in fact it was republican in its nature, it was the first republic indeed [the Constituent Assembly was a constitutional body convened in Russia after the October Revolution of 1917, it was recognized as the first democratically elected legislative body in Russia, but was dissolved by the Bolsheviks in 1918 – editor’s note]. The same happened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s and in 1917 the emerging government was driven by democratic values – it prioritized human rights and introduced popular suffrage. It is a pretty interesting precedent.

Do you really mean that Russia between March and November in 1917 became democratic?

M.Z.: It failed to become fully democratic, because it didn’t elect the Constituent Assembly at that time, but it was on the way toward it.

What official position does the Kremlin take today toward the 100th anniversary of the 1917 revolution?

M.Z.: The Russian authorities don’t have any official position on this event and this is good, because coming up with the state’s official position will mean an attempt to use history in one’s political goals and this will inevitably lead to the distortion of history and cherry-picking.

Yet why don’t the Kremlin use this anniversary to promote its agenda, if the Russian authorities and politicians in general are used to imposing their agenda through informational campaign?

M.Z.: First, 1917 is a very difficult period of the Russian history to use it for propagandistic goals. The problem is that today’s authorities see Russia as a great power: being a superpower, an empire is good for them. But 1917 is the year when the Russian empire collapsed and the civil society emerged as a result of the February revolution. To come up with an official position on the 1917 revolution, one should associate oneself with the key historical figures of that period.

But Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot associate himself either with weak emperor Nicholas II, or revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Kerensky. They failed to turn Russia in a superpower and that’s why they cannot be seen as the good role models for Putin. As a consequence, only experts and historians discuss and analyze the 100th anniversary of the revolution, while ordinary people prefer to ignore it.

Although there is no official position on the 1917 revolution, there is a sort of tacit agreement that media should focus on the conspiracy narrative: according to it, all revolutions result from a foreign plot – Englishmen allegedly orchestrated the February revolution, while Germans sponsored the October revolution. And this conspiracy mania reveal a lot about the way of how the Russian authorities and society think today.

Well-known Russia writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn implied in his article about the February revolution that the key lesson from the 1917 events is the understanding of how dangerous a weak ruler could be: the weak authorities and government led to the disaster. In accordance with such logic, the nation needs a strongman. Isn’t such narrative popular among the Russian authorities that perennially fight with and fear “color revolutions”?

M.Z.: No, the February revolution is not about the consequences a weak ruler leads to. It is much more complicated. There is no cause-effect relation between a weak ruler and the disaster of 1917. It is not a matter of a strong leader being good and a weak leader leading to the catastrophe. In reality, the most tragic and horrendous events in Russian history took place because of the strong leaders – what happened after the 1917 October revolution was because of the strong power assumed by the Bolsheviks – Lenin and then Joseph Stalin.

The thesis about the weak and strong power is the example of oversimplification and cherry-picking. The society should have not strong rulers, but strong institutions to be viable and powerful. Society should respect the institutes and the rule of law, but not dictators. The February revolution and democracy failed not because of the weak emperor, but because the 1917 interim government had a very bad legacy from the Russian empire: the absence of effective political and public institutes. And this problem is relevant for today’s Russia and this is very dangerous. It is the biggest factor of instability.

What other reasons, except the absence of good institutes, led to the 1917 upheaval?

M.Z.: There was also the external factor: the World War I. This led to a greater instability and unpredictability. The reliance on patriotic euphoria, which war could nurture, is dangerous, because sooner or later this euphoria comes to an end. Initially, the war was very popular and people were ready to sacrifice their own lives, driven by patriotism. Yet it was very difficult to maintain for a long time. When the war became protracted in 1917, the euphoria disappeared.

Are there any reasons to draw parallels between 1917 and 2017, given a lot of debates about the international instability, the buzz about a new global war and the Kremlin’s attempts to use Crimea’s annexation, the Syrian campaign to spur patriotic swag in society?

M.Z.: I don’t think it is correct. There are no the same situation, every situation is unique, but there could be the same problems. And we should analyze the past to draw lessons, not parallels. Any attempts to describe the events that took place 100 years ago through the lens of modernity and look for mysterious coincidences are superficial.