History Now!: Reflections on “Living Through” the Russian Revolution in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927)

As I was making my way to the Friday night film screening of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), I thought to myself, “Wait, what is the Romanov Dynasty? Why did it fall? What is this film even going to be like?” I was attending this event, part of the“1917: Ten Days that Shook The World / 2017: Ten Days that Shake the Campus”series, as a requirement for a course I am enrolled in called History Now!. History Now!, taught by Mark Steinberg (History) and Jessica Greenberg (Anthropology), is a course that follows revolutions backwards through time and also covers social and political movements throughout the world. It starts out with the budding revolutions and movements of today’s society such as Black Lives Matter, and then moves back in time through revolutions such as Arab Spring and Gay Liberation Movements, and eventually ends with the revolutions across the Russian Empire. As of early October, we are finishing up the end of communism in the USSR, and are about to move on to Apartheid in South Africa in the 1960’s through the 1990’s.

From what I knew about the class syllabus and the title of the 1917 series, I did know that this film dealt with two things: Russia and the Revolution. When I walked in, there were not a significant number of people in attendance. I mean, what did I expect? It was a Friday night, there was a football game, and we were right in the middle of midterm season. I took my seat in the back of the Armory Room 101 and got my computer out to take notes. I hadn’t done any prior research on the film or the series, and in my mind, for some reason, I was expecting this History Channel – like documentary about Russia that would feed me all sorts of facts and information that I could quickly jot down to remember for later. But little did I know, it was not exactly what I was expecting.

Esfir Shub

Marina Filipovic, PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures, introduced the film and led a brief discussion on the history of the film and filmmaker, Esfir Shub. I was immediately interested in the fact that the filmmaker was a woman, and was impressed by her accomplishments during this time period. She went on to us how Shub went through many lengths to create this film. Over a number of years, Shub collected a significant amount of news footage that had been archived in Russia along with film reels she had obtained from the U.S. government and even some she had went on to make herself. The result was a silent film (with the occasional text blurb), all black and white, made sort of chronological documentary, about the events of Russian involvement in WW1, and the events leading up to the eventual resignation of Czar Nicholas II and the Revolution of the Russian people who opposed their involvement in the war. Now, there was this complete visual record of the fall of the Romanov Dynasty in the Russian Revolution, which had never been done before.

Yep, you heard that right. I watched a black and white silent film for an hour and a half about the Russian Revolution. It certainly wasn’t anything like I was expecting, but I even surprise myself by confidently saying that I genuinely enjoyed viewing this film, along with the discussion that followed. While watching it, it was hard to follow at first because it was silent (along with a lot of piano music). However, after the first couple of scenes, it was so easy to dive right in and let my imagination take me to the time and place of what I was watching. After hearing that Shub spent months collecting over 60,000 meters of film as well as making over 1000 meters herself, viewing the film seemed so much easier for me to draw connections. I tried to picture myself in that time period with her, and imagined what it must’ve been like for her to collect all of it, the lengths she had taken to obtain the films in the first place, and then finally put it together and create such an iconic piece for the time period that had drawn such praise from Soviet film theorists.

I knew very little about the Russian Revolution as it was, but this film gave me a glimpse into the actual events themselves. It was an unexpected twist on how I would have viewed this event in world history, and it was nice to sort of “live through” (most) of these events almost exactly as they happened instead of watching someone in a history documentary feed me information on the subject. It gave me a sense of what it was actually like to live it. The film also gave me a better understanding for the buildup toward this revolution that we will end with in the History Now! class, as well as helped me connect this revolution to revolutions and movements today. It made me realize that the way in which people go about them and experience them, are not too different than how revolutions played out throughout history, and even today.

Rachel Thompson is an undergraduate history major at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. 

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