“My dear, I’m not sure that I’ll have time to write to you tomorrow morning, so I’m writing at night. It’s bad. Very bad. The food issue is terrifying. Hunger is at the gates. Something’s going to happen.
And so it would be good to be able to work.” Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Marxist revolutionary and newly appointed People’s Commisssars for Education posted from Petrograd on 27 October 1917.
Meanwhile, Nicholas II, seemingly unalarmed, tweeted from the Governor’s Mansion in Tobolsk, “It has already been two months that we have lived in this house. It was a wonderful sunny day and it passed as usual.”
As 2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolutions, Project 1917 is providing a unique way of experiencing the events of 1917. Mock social media accounts update posts giving a voice to more than 300 historical figures from Lenin to Alfred Knox, and even a simple peasant: Alexander Zamanaev.
Driven by a team of young historians, writers and journalists, Project 1917 is the brainchild of journalist and documentary maker Mikhail Zygar, who founded Russia’s only independent news TV channel Dozhd. The organisers write, “Our main aim is to make history popular – to bring a multitude of voices from a diverse array of historically significant figures to as wide an audience as possible.
“That is why we do not always observe all those standards which are normally considered inviolable in serious scholarship”. Drawing on some previously unpublished primary sources; diary entries, poems, letters and telegrams, the website presents an innovative, immersive way of reading about the revolution as if events were unfolding today.
Whilst it would be easy for the project to slip into becoming too ideological, or even ahistorical, instead it seems to provide a new and engaging way of looking at a range of first-hand accounts side by side.
In the Russia of 2017, the Kremlin is refusing to officially acknowledge the anniversary of the revolution. At this year’s Valdai speech, Putin said of the Russian Revolution of 1917: “Let’s ask: was it not possible to follow an evolutionary path rather than go through a revolution? “Could we not have evolved by way of gradual and consistent forward movement rather than at the cost of destroying our statehood?”.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Zygar expressed his desire to provide a new way of looking at history, and said: “Access to the original sources is a kind of value system in itself. It shows you that society makes its own choices and is the master of its own fate.”
As well as way of looking at the key events of the revolution, the site also draws upon the daily minutiae and banal details of the world at war. The profile page of Joseph Stalin provides an interesting juxtaposition.
On 26 October, Stalin updated his status: “Power to the Soviets means a thorough cleansing of any and all governmental agencies, from back to front and top to bottom.”
The previous update had been his wife tagging him in her post ten days earlier: “Stalin somehow fell asleep with the pipe in his hand still smoking. When he woke up, the room was already filled with smoke: his blanket was smoldering with flames from the pipe. “It’s not the first time this has happened,” Stalin explained exasperatedly, “No matter how hard I concentrate, I still drift off.”
The Russian media of this age seem largely to be cherry-picking pieces of both imperial and Soviet history to patch together a history of the 1917 revolutions to service their own ideological concerns.