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Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917

Interpreting The Russian Revolution: The Language And Symbols Of 1917

This is the first book in any language to offer a comprehensive analysis of the political culture of the Russian Revolution. Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii examine the diverse ways that language and other symbols - including flags and emblems, public rituals, songs, and codes of dress - were used to identify competing sides and to create new meanings in the political struggles of 1917.

The Revolution was in many ways a battle to control these systems of symbolic meaning, Figes and Kolonitskii find. The party or faction that could master the complexities of the Revolution's lexicon was well on its way to mastering the Revolution itself.

The book explores how key words and symbols took on different meanings in various social and political contexts. 'Democracy', 'the people', or 'the working class', for example, could define a wide range of identities and moral worlds in 1917.

In addition to such ambiguities, cultural tensions further complicated the revolutionary struggles. Figes and Kolonitskii consider the fundamental clash between the Western political discourse of the socialist parties and the traditional political culture of the Russian masses. They show how the particular conditions and perceptions that coloured Russian politics in 1917 led to the emergence of the cult of the revolutionary leader and the culture of the Terror.

Extract from Chapter 2, 'The Symbolic Revolution':
In the absence of any obvious counter-revolution - without a real enemy to fight against - the destruction of the symbols of the old regime was, at least for the revolutionaries, the destruction of the old regime itself. Iconoclasm was a central part of February. Demonstrators attacked the visible incarnations of Romanov power: the double-headed eagle; the national flag; portraits and statues of the Tsar; monuments and symbols of Imperial power; and prisons, symbols of its tyranny.
For the crowd of 1917 the two-headed eagle symbolized Imperial rule, so taking control of the image of the eagle was a potent sign of the people's victory. The initiative for this symbolic revolution came from below. As early as 28 February, people had been 'roasting eagles' - a popular joke referring to the setting alight and melting down of Tsarist monograms. Several of the US eagles were also taken down and destroyed by crowds. In a desperate attempt to save their emblems from a similar fate, foreigners attacked billboards to their statues and buildings with please such as: 'This eagle is Italian'. But it did not deter the crowds. Shops assistants knocked down the eagles from the signs of pharmacists and other retailers who supplied the court. Rags and soldiers' greatcoats were thrown over eagles to large to remove. The eagles on the gates and railings of the Winter Palace were covered with red material. The physical and symbolic removal of the Romanov double-headed eagle was perceived by some to be a sign of the actual establishment of a republic.

Extract from Chapter 3, 'The Cult of the Leader':
The political culture of the revolutionary underground, which emerged as the defining influence on the February Revolution, encouraged the cult of the revolutionary leader. The cult of the fallen revolutionary hero was essential to that underground, as each successive generation of recruits looked to them as model 'fighters for the people's cause'. As in pre-revolutionary France, there was a huge illegal literature of hagiographies, histories and legends, broadsides and prints, celebrating the exploits of Pugachev and Razin, the Decembrists, Nechaev, the SR terrorists and other martyrs of the revolutionary underground in Tsarist Russia. The 'freedom fighter' (borets za svobodu) figured in almost all revolutionary songs and poems of the underground. He or she was a symbol of 'the cause' - an embodiment of the courage and self-sacrifice demanded of its leaders - from which people derived inspiration and support.
The Menshevik leader Tsereteli recalled the almost religious veneration of the revolution's leaders by the common people during the spring of 1917. Peasant soldiers looked upon the leaders of the Soviet as Christ-like figures who had liberated them. 'They related towards us', he wrote in his memoirs, 'as if we were saints, since in their eyes we and our comrades in Petrograd had created the miracle of the revolution'. Kerensky, in particular, was worshiped like a saint. The Mogilev Peasant Soviet, for example, sent its greetings to him on 20 May, calling him the 'apostle of the revolution and the liberator of the peasantry'. The cult of Lenin, too, although better known for the extremes it reached in later years, had already assumed similar proportions in some quarters of his party during 1917.

© 2011 Orlando Figes | All Rights Reserved