Utopia Dystopia, the Russian Revolution One Hundred Years On
9 March 2018 - One of the most popular lecture series this academic year at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute concluded on March 5 with a panel discussion on ‘The Legacy of the Russian Revolution 100 Years On’.
Russia has been in the news even more than usual over the last year, as investigations into the manipulation of the 2016 US election gain pace. And even as the March 5 panel discussion went on, news was breaking of the poisoning in the UK of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.This renewed international focus on today’s Russia has coincided with the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution and has intensified the ongoing debate around the driving forces and legacy of those 1917 events that set Russia on a new path: the February revolution which led to the collapse of imperial, Tsarist rule and the establishment of a democratic provisional government, and the October revolution when Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik party in overthrowing the provisional government and establishing the first Marxist state in the world (both events named in line with the Julian calendar used by Russia until February 1918).
"the Russian Revolution is one of contemporary history's black holes - no longer there, but still exerting a powerful effect on our present, a vortex around which swirl the remnants of its collapse in the shape of personal memories, political practices and, in some quarters, nostalgia for a failed utopia." – John Horne, MRIA, Emeritus Fellow, former Professor of Modern History TCD
The Utopia Dystopia monthly lecture series, organised by TCD’s Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies and Department of History in association with the Trinity Long Room Hub, has reflected on the Russian Revolution and its legacy from a variety of different angles including the spread of communism and the decline of colonialism around the world; the relationship between Bolshevism and the Irish left in the 1920s-30s; the role of Ukraine in the Revolution and the Soviet project; the direct line from Bolshevik revolutionary principles to the Russian intelligence tactics still being used around the world today; and the literary and cultural heritage of the Revolution.
The series kicked off last October with an exploration of literary responses to the revolution chaired by Sarah Smyth, Associate Professor in TCD’s Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies: an evening of readings from texts by poets, prose writers, dramatists and historians who either witnessed the events first hand or observed their aftermath. Some welcome the dawn of a new era; some express disillusionment, anxiety and fear as history unfurls; some are confused or ambivalent. Readers selected texts which have fashioned their understanding of the history of Russia and its neighbouring countries over the past hundred years.
Lenin the man and Leninism the ideology were the subjects of the November lecture by Dr James Ryan, lecturer in Modern European (Russian) History at Cardiff University and author of Lenin’s Terror: The Ideological Origins of Early Soviet State Violence (London, 2012). Dr Ryan appraised Lenin’s significance in 1917 before exploring the purpose of the October Revolution and the content of Leninism as a body of political thought and whether it has any relevance today.
The Russian revolution in the global perspective of 1917-28 was the subject of the December lecture by Steve Smith, senior research fellow at All Souls College Oxford, a professor in the Faculty of Modern History in the University and author of Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1927 (Oxford University Press, 2017). Although the Bolsheviks believed that the October Revolution would trigger the overthrow of capitalism worldwide and social turbulence did indeed convulse parts of Europe between 1918 and 1923, the depth of revolutionary crisis was never as great as in Russia in 1917. Dr Smith argued that the principal impact of the Bolsheviks’ revolution lay not as they had anticipated, in the heartland of the Industrial Revolution, but rather in the challenge it raised to colonialism and imperialism and that it was in Asia (Persia, Korea, China, India) that the effect of the Bolshevik Revolution was most enduring, at least in the immediate aftermath.
In January the focus turned to Ireland, with a talk examining the relationship between the Irish Left and Soviet Russia from 1917-43. Emmet O’Connor, lecturer in History in Ulster University and an honorary president of the Irish Labour History Society, captured the extraordinary level of interest in Ireland in the Bolshevik uprising with vivid descriptions of events such as the 1918 Mansion House meeting that drew a 10,000-strong crowd. He went on to examine how Moscow shaped the politics of Irish socialism and left republicanism in the 1920s-30s in the context of the Comintern’s influence on smaller communist parties.
The February event traced the impact of the October Revolution in art and cinema through the anniversary commemorations of the Revolution in the first decade of Bolshevik government. Dr Justin Doherty, Assistant Professor in TCD’s Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies, explored the relationship between art, politics and propaganda in the work of avant-garde artists and film-makers, with a particular focus on Sergei Eisenstein's 1927 film October.
In the culmination of the Utopia Dystopia series on March 5 a distinguished panel chaired by Professor John Horne (former Professor of Modern History at TCD) reflected on the legacy of the Russian Revolution right up to today and how it changed the course of world history.
"Revolutions are often brief and ephemeral, but their legacies could be monumental. The Bolshevik revolution of October 1917 illustrates this paradox perfectly: it was a small scale event, but it defined the course of global history in the 20th century." -Dr Balazs Apor , Assistant Professor in European Studies, TCD
Dr Apor examined the meaning of historical ‘legacy’ and how the legacy of the Russian Revolution is inseparable from the legacies of military conflicts in 20th century Europe. The outbreak of the February revolution in 1917 was triggered by wartime shortages, just as the end of the second world war provided the conditions for the beginning of the global spread of communism. He went on to examine the important symbolic connotations carried by the term ‘revolution’ up to the present day, despite the failure of the Soviet project: “Meanings associated with the term have changed drastically over time and are now detached from the Soviet experience, but the term endures in post-Communist political discourse. The continuing relevance of the notion of 'revolution' is one of the main legacies of the revolutions of 1917."
Dr Orysia Kulick (research fellow in TCD School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies) focused on Ukraine – its role in the Revolution and the ensuing Soviet project. She argued that the tendency to view Ukraine as peripheral to the centre of Soviet power is a misrepresentation of how the Soviet Union was formed and governed, and that selective amnesia about Ukraine’s role is now a factor in the region’s tumultuous ‘memory politics’. However, the current crisis in Ukraine has encouraged scholars to revisit the role of the region as far back as 1917, a process that will reshape what we thought we knew about the reasons for the Soviet collapse and the factors shaping the post-Soviet transition.
Dr Molly Pucci (Assistant Professor of Twentieth Century European History, TCD) explained why recent ‘revelations’ on Russian intelligence operations are not surprising in the slightest. The methods being used are not new, but are a direct legacy of the Russian Revolution and can only be understood by placing the roots of Russian intelligence in the context in which it was created. Fundamental to the Bolshevik Revolution was the belief that not only would revolution spread globally, but that the Russian Revolution would not itself survive if this did not happen. This conviction made its way into the nature of the Russian security and intelligence services, who from the 1920s developed the tactics of ‘Disorganisation, Disinformation and Exploitation of Social Division’ that they would use to create conditions of chaos and unrest in other countries, with the aim of fomenting the conditions that would bring about revolution. The tactics being used to manipulate elections abroad by today’s Russia, led by former KGB official Vladimir Putin, are therefore part of the legacy of the Russian Revolution.
Dr Judith Devlin (Professor of History in UCD) examined how the legacy of the Russian Revolution has been shaped not only by the impact of the Soviet state on world politics, but by the meaning ascribed to the revolution by different generations in different times and places. In the last 15-20 years, as historians have focused a renewed attention on the Russian Revolution, the diversity of what it meant even to its participants has uncovered its complexity and fluidity. She identified two levels on which the legacy can be understood: the symbolic and the practical. The initial Utopianism that envisaged not just a social, economic revolution but a complete reimagining of how humankind lived, may have been gradually eclipsed in the Soviet Union but revolution as a romantic dream would inspire future generations around the world and in practical terms, the Russian Revolution structured political life and international affairs for much of the 20th century.
The Utopia Dystopia series was part of the Signature Events series at the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute and was organised by TCD’s Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies and Department of History in association with the Hub.