Notes from Moscow: Remembering (and Forgetting) the February Revolution After 100 Years


by Hilah Kohen
Merle Kling Fellow, Center for the Humanities
Class of 2018

It is Thursday in Petrograd — a workday — but the factories of the Russian imperial capital are empty. The temperature outside is about 17 degrees Fahrenheit, and snowstorms have been keeping food and fuel stuck on trains outside the city. In the end, hunger has proven a more important factor than the weather: Tens of thousands of people, factory workers included, are marching downtown, chanting for the end of Tsar Nicholas II’s widely unpopular reign and for an escape from the European War.

Their most longstanding slogan (“Bread!”) has been sounding in the streets for a couple of days. At first, its meaning was quite literal, but the women who were waiting in bread lines on February 21 are building barricades between themselves and the police on February 23. Within a few days, they will trigger a turning point in Russian history: As military regiments join the revolution and tear down symbols of tsarist rule throughout the city, the tsar himself will be forced to abdicate the throne. The February Revolution will be hailed abroad as Russia’s democratic awakening, but the shaky balance of power that results will open the door to the Bolshevik Revolution in less than a year and the founding of the Soviet Union in five more.

It is hard to imagine the 20th century without February 23, 1917, in Petrograd.

Precisely 100 years from that day, there is a new calendar system (it is March 8), what was then Petrograd has been Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg, and the Russian capital is not there, but in Moscow. Among the enormous changes that have taken place in the institutional memory of the Russian state, those are just some of the most visible. For its part, the February Revolution has, in official parlance, spent about 75 years as the “February Bourgeois-Democratic Revolution,” significant only as a predecessor to October. Still, one might expect that incredibly significant event to make an appearance in public life upon its centenary, at least in the bustling political, cultural and economic center that is Moscow.

By March 8, I have been living here for about a month. The weather has reached about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the snow on the sidewalks is almost gone (thank goodness). The metro is packed with people holding enormous bouquets of flowers. Feminist protestors are hanging banners from the Kremlin walls. If the factories are empty, it is because work days and classes are canceled. Young men treating young women to a nice dinner abound. In other words, it is just another International Woman’s Day in the Russian Federation, and the words “February Revolution” (that is, fevral’skaya revolyutsiya) are hardly on anyone’s lips.

This is not typical of Russian historical commemorations. In 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, memorial parades across the country drew an estimated 12 million marchers. The Second World War holds such an enormous significance in contemporary Russian society that it is simply called “the war,” but even less widely remembered events tend to be given their due. For example, the Decembrist Revolt, an 1825 uprising that unsuccessfully attempted to instate a constitutional monarchy in Russia, is marked annually on St. Petersburg’s Senate Square by the Decembrists’ descendants.

The February Revolution’s centenary, meanwhile, brought no parades and no public ceremonies. A roundtable discussion on the revolution’s causes was covered briefly on Russian television, but the discussion itself took place in Paris. Only a couple of museum exhibits on the topic gained enough attention to be mentioned in the press.

Underneath the near-absence of the February Revolution in the physical space of Russia’s capital, however, lies a quiet but fascinating online presence. Among the hundreds of thousands of stories available on Russia’s media outlets on March 8, I can find a handful of pieces about the February Revolution’s centenary on each of the country’s most prominent news sites. Many are short paragraphs of the “today in history” sort, but some are in-depth “special projects” designed to give their users a firsthand look at the revolution’s events. Although nearly all of these are unavailable in English, they are worth a scan just to get a sense of their elaborate visuals: RIA Novosti’s project comes with head-spinning infographics, Kommersant’s includes scans of the newspaper’s century-old issues, and Radio Liberty’s allows us to flip through photos of landmarks of the Revolution then and now.

In my view, the most compelling projects have a common theme: They are designed to meld with social media. Arzamas, a self-service academy for the humanities, has created a quiz called “Who are you in 1917 Russia?” in a Buzzfeed-like vein. Perhaps most remarkable is “1917: Free History,” a project that replicates the letters, diaries, art and gatherings of 1917 on a social media feed day by day. Both of these projects feature English-language versions.

Their actual impact in Russian society, however, is visible only in the comment sections of their Russian-language sites, which one can access by logging in through VKontakte (a site similar to Facebook in both feel and popularity). Especially on “1917: Free History,” I find answers about Russian memory of the February Revolution that I can’t even search for in person. In today’s especially touchy political climate, I can ask my teachers and acquaintances about this topic, but my go-to question is, “What do people think about the February Revolution?” (answer: they rarely do) rather than “What do you think about the February Revolution? What would you have done had you lived then?” The relative anonymity of these social media-based projects allows those barriers to dissolve and the divisions that complicate current opinions about the February Revolution to emerge on a personal level. It turns out that when people do think about it, they have a lot to say.

On March 11, 1917, Mikhail Rodzyanko, the head of the Russian Duma, writes an urgent post on the tsar’s wall while the sovereign is on a trip out of town. Rodzyanko writes that the situation in Petrograd is becoming existentially dangerous for the Russian Empire and begs him to comply with some of the protestors’ demands (the tsar, meanwhile, has been posting photos of his stylish accommodations). One commenter, Marion, parodies the ruler’s mindset (“Don’t interrupt the sovereign’s game of dominoes. How are you not ashamed?”). In the same thread, Yaroslav and Arkadiy hold a heated debate about the political minutiae behind Rodzyanko’s motives. Sergey chides the Emperor and Empress for “failing to learn how to compromise with the opposition from their English and Danish relatives.” Nina, frustrated with everyone else’s lack of sympathy for the royal family, points to their rhetoric’s Soviet roots and laments, “People just don’t get that the Russian Empire was at war and the revolution was organized in secret by the enemy. People just don’t get it.”

Their conversation reflects wider divisions in contemporary Russian society. Devotion to Russian Orthodoxy (and reverence for its tsars) is increasingly trendy, but so is nostalgia for the atheist Soviet Union. Moscow’s newest history museum is plastered with quotes by President Vladimir Putin about the dangers of unexpected power grabs, but the memory of his own sudden rise has hardly disappeared. On an institutional level, those complexities make the February Revolution too sensitive a subject to discuss as anything more than a distant historical fact, and the long shadow of the October Revolution makes that distance appear all the greater. However, in new forums enabled by new media, it is obvious that the events of 100 years ago are both remembered and deeply felt.