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CONFERENCE REPORT: Russia's Failed Democratic Revolution, February-October 1917

CONFERENCE REPORT: Russia's Failed Democratic Revolution, February-October 1917: A Centenary Reappraisal


March 11-12, 2016

Rome, University of Notre Dame Global Gateway


'Russia's Failed Democratic Revolution' is one of the first major conferences to focus on the centenary of the 1917 revolution.  Bringing together scholars from around Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, it examined the international historiography of the revolution, revolutionary personalities, crime and punishment, and the workings of revolutionary power.  Although casting its net widely, the conference shed light on the provinces and nations of the collapsing Russian Empire at this time, particularly with regards to the question of state power.  The papers which were presented will be published in The Journal of Modern Russian History and Historiography in October 2016.


The first day, March 11, was devoted largely to discussions of historiography.  Papers were presented by Lutz Haefner, on German historiography, Vera Kaplan, on Israeli, and Hannu Immonen, on Finnish.  Engagement and exchange of ideas were watch-words, and Haefner ended his papers with a plea for greater engagement with German-language scholarship (much of which, he noted, focuses on the Russian provinces).  This was a welcome call for collaboration, which received sympathy.  However, it is clear also that shared research agendas are emerging in different areas of historiography.  Lively discussion was provoked, in particular, over the issue of violence as a medium of revolutionary politics. which highlighted the commonalities between German, English-language, and other scholarship.


Rex Wade, who was unable to attend in person, provided a paper offering an extremely detailed and insightful overview of English-language historiography on 1917.  He separated the scholarship into three periods: the first, from 1917 until the 1960s; the second, up to 1991; and the third, since the end of the USSR.  More specific focus was given by Semion Lyandres and Andrei Nikolaev, whose paper investigated Russian historiography on the role of the State Duma in the February Revolution.  Their meticulous study revealed the complex historical biases and political concerns still at play in assessments of the Duma's role, despite a growing body of literature on the subject.  Finally, Taras Karaulshchikov, PhD student at the University of Notre Dame, provided a fascinating insight into the impact of revolution on the discipline of history.  His paper analysed the changing conceptuations of Russian historian, Polievktov, towards the autocracy during the last years of Tsarism and the months of revolution.


The final session of the day was given over to discussion of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa's ambitious and highly impressive study of crime, violence, and 'the crowd' in revolutionary Petrograd.  Drawing on research from his forthcoming book, Hasegawa painted a vivid picture of collapsing security in the capital, which in turn gave rise to urban samosudy ('mob justice' or 'people's courts').  His work provoked lively and prolonged debate on the question of violence, taking up the thread begun by Haefner's earlier paper.  Key questions were raised, touching on historians' own conceptualisations of the revolution.  Is violence privileged and sought out by historians in their research of 1917?  If so, do we miss instances where violence is lacking?  How far does violence during the revolution signify a broader breakdown of society during this time?  And what are the commonalities between the urban experiences of violence and the long-established phenomenon of rural samosudy?


The second day, March 12, began with a discussion of revolutionary personalities.  Adele Lindenmeyr gave a detailed discussion of Panina, 'the first woman of Russia', providing insight into female participation in the revolution.  Panina was involved in revolutionary politics throughout 1917, as part of the Kadet Party, the Petrograd city Duma, and the Provisional Government.  Nonetheless, there were clear limitations to her influence.  In the most part, she was the long woman in the organisations to which she contributed, and her participation was framed repeatedly by explicitly masculine discourses.  In such conditions, asked Lindenmeyr, what could a woman's impact be on revolutionary politics?  Sarah Badcock's contribution focussed on a male Socialist-Revolutionary, Zenzinov, who was likewise deeply involved in the politics of revolution as a party activist and editor of SR newspaper, Delo Naroda.  Badcock's paper carefully traced Zenzinov and other SRs' revolutionary politics through the last years of Tsarism, in emigration and exile, and into 1917, considering especially the personal relationships which underpinned their careers.  Ekataerina Gavroeva's meticulous paper likewise examined personal relationships, focussing on Prince L'vov, head of the first Provisional Government, and Rodzianko, chairman of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma.  In many ways, however, the paper served as an exposition of revolutionary power in Petrograd, demonstrating how the two individuals' organisations interacted with, conflicted, and limited one another in the months after February.  Gavroeva's findings challenge the common understanding of 'dual power' between the Petrograd Soviet and Provisional Government by highlighting the importance of the Provisional Committee of the State Duma; in so doing, they echo recent research into the provinces in 1917, which has demonstrated that 'dual power does not encapsulate the multi-layered and complex power relations' which operated across Russia in 1917.  This would be a dominant theme for the rest of the conference.


Discussion of the workings of revolutionary power began with Ian Thatcher's paper, on revolutionary pamphlets.  Highlighting the importance of pamphlets to the reading culture of revolution, the paper raised important methodological and research questions.  Who wrote pamphlets and for what purposes?  Who read them?  What were their reactions?  Meanwhile, Michael Hickey and Alistair Dickins' papers, covering Smolensk and Krasnoiarsk, respectively, again turned the conversation to the question of arrangements of revolutionary power.  Both challenged the idea of 'dual power' in a provincial context.  Hickey's superb and illuminating study emphasised that administrative and governmental structures which had developed in Smolensk during the pre-revolutionary years continued to function in 1917; they did not, as is commonly argued of the state in revolution, collapse.  Dickins presented similar findings.  Although focusing on the Krasnoiarsk Soviet in particular, he argued that the Soviet closely interacted with other organisations, including the Duma and wartime provisions organisations.  Despite the Soviet's own growing authority, these organisations continued to operate, exercising power in key areas in conjunction with the Soviet.  Bringing the conference to a close, Daniel Orlovsky's paper presented similar themes.  Considering conceptualisations of power in Petrograd in late-summer and autumn 1917, he contended that many socialists looked seriously towards the construction of power on the basis of a coalition between multiple social and administrative forces.


While this conference is amongst the first of many to discuss the centenary of revolution, it may prove to be one of the most important.  The themes which it addressed - including personal relationships and the construction of power - closely relate to research agendas in the study of Russia's provinces in 1917.  When the conference papers are published, in October 2016, they will certainly make an important contribution to scholarly knowledge in this area.


A free edition of The Journal of Russian History and Historiography (2012) is available for download from Brill.

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