Mar 12, 2017 | 13:02 GMT

5 mins read

Russia Reconciles Its Histories

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Lauren Goodrich
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
March 15 marks 100 years since Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne, ending the Romanov dynasty's 300-year reign in Russia.
(Library of Congress/Hulton Archive)

Russia takes anniversaries seriously. Each year, the country commemorates its momentous dates in grand style, holding spectacular celebrations to honor events such as the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II or the beginning of Russia's post-Soviet reforms. But as the tumultuous events of 1917 reach their centennial anniversaries, Russian leaders are nonplussed. March 15 will mark 100 years since Czar Nicholas II abdicated his throne, ending the Romanov Dynasty's more than 300-year reign in Russia and, with it, the Russian Empire. As the year wears on, Russia will also face the 100th anniversaries of devastating bread shortages and factory strikes, the October Revolution, the ensuing five-year civil war and the dawn of the Soviet era. The events recall an uncertain period in Russia's history when the country and its people were at their most divided. Deciding how best to commemorate them 100 years later has proved challenging for the Kremlin. 

Revisiting History

Russia's leaders have often harkened back to the Soviet Union's glory days in the 25 years since its collapse. By highlighting the Soviet Union's strength and stability and downplaying its darker moments, the Kremlin has rallied support from the public while appealing to its sense of national pride. But recently the Russian government has started turning to earlier periods in Russia's history to boost its legitimacy. As President Vladimir Putin's rule becomes more and more autocratic, the Kremlin is increasingly resurrecting and romanticizing personalities from Russia's czarist days. Putin, an astute student of history, understands that his country faces many of the same problems today that have plagued it throughout its existence. Its economy is stagnant, much of its population is dissatisfied and rival powers are closing in on its borders. And considering the number of former Soviet republics that have reckoned with unrest and political upheaval over the past two decades, the memory of Russia's now 100-year-old revolutions is weighing heavily on the Kremlin.

To coincide with the anniversary of the October Revolution, Alexei Uchitel, one of Russia's most popular directors, will release an extravagant historical film depicting Czar Nicholas II's love affair with ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska. Trailers for the film promise a melodrama focused on romanticizing and humanizing Russia's last czar, with only rumblings of the revolution that would unseat him. Russian media outlets, meanwhile, have reported stories that a bust of the czar located in Crimea is weeping, drawing people from Russia to the region to witness the alleged miracle. Some politicians are touting the phenomenon as a sign that God has consecrated Russia's annexation of the territory — an accomplishment that inspires more pride in Russians than having sent a man to the moon, according to a recent poll.

A picture of a statue of the Russian Empire's last ruler, Czar Nicholas II.
The Kremlin has increasingly been romanticizing figures from Russia's czarist period, including the Russian Empire's last ruler, Czar Nicholas II.

But now the Kremlin is concerned that the wave of nostalgia for the czarist period may be surging beyond its control. In fact, polls show that roughly a quarter of Russians support reinstating the monarchy. And so, the Russian government has stepped in once more to redirect the conversation. In December, Putin emphasized the need to reflect on "the causes and nature of the [1917] revolutions" while remembering that "we are a single … united people." The Kremlin then launched a social media campaign this year to reconcile the different perspectives on the events of 1917 and to frame their relevance to contemporary Russia.

Live Tweeting the Revolution

State media juggernaut RT (formerly known as Russia Today) also began a campaign on Twitter, #1917_Live, to recreate the events of 1917 in the age of social media. According to one of the project's creators, the network has resurrected hundreds of important figures from that year — including the doomed czar, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Each personality gets his or her own Twitter account, which is updated several times a day to replicate the turmoil of 1917 in live tweets. RT then collates the tweets, complete with photographs and newsreel footage from the time, on a separate account called the Russian Telegraph. The campaign will continue through 2018; RT even plans to rebrand the Russian Telegraph as the Revolutionary Times once the anniversary of the October Revolution has passed.

The project has enabled the Kremlin to shape the public's view of the events of 1917 without taking a stance on them itself. By including such a vast and diverse cast of characters in its social media campaign, the Russian government has covered the full range of perspectives on the momentous year. The resulting campaign allows its followers to simultaneously revel in the bygone glamor of the aristocracy, sympathize with the disgruntled workers and revolutionaries, and reflect on the trials and triumphs of the Soviet period.

One hundred years after the revolutions of 1917, the Kremlin's campaigns to reconcile its Soviet and czarist periods reflect the underlying contradictions in Russia's history. The last czar of the Russian Empire, now hailed as a martyr, was an unpopular and ineffectual ruler in his day. The Soviet system, envisioned as a utopia, was forged through a bloody revolution. And today, Russia is a powerful actor on the global stage with an increasingly tenuous grasp on its domestic affairs. By celebrating both sides of 1917, Russia's current administration may be hoping to overcome the divides that brought down its predecessors.

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