Revolutionary Film series: The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty

As part of the University of Illinois’s “1917: Ten Days That Shook the World /  2017: en Days that Shake the Campus” program series, a group of dedicated students and film buffs gathered in the Armory on September 29 to watch Esfir Shub’s pioneering 1927 Soviet documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh). Commissioned and produced for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Shub’s film tells the story of the final years of the Russian Empire, the First World War, and the revolutionary events of 1917. Our screening was introduced by Marina Filipovic, a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures whose dissertation includes a chapter discussing Shub and her work. Marina’s introduction highlighted the pathbreaking nature of Shub and her documentary.

Born in 1894, Shub started out in literature and theatre, where she worked with both famed director Sergei Eisenstein and Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, before becoming a film editor in 1922. In 1926, she was commissioned to produce a film about the revolution. Other directors, including Eisenstein, were at the time making avant-garde films that were difficult for ordinary viewers to comprehend, whereas Shub’s work was more realistic and intelligible for wider audiences, with less of a distinct artistic authorial voice.

Shub decided to look through archival film footage to make her film on the Revolution. There were numerous problems with this approach, including a lack of material, extensive damage to much of the film she wanted to consult, and the need to purchase additional material to supplement what existed in Soviet archives. Shub invested a massive amount of time and research into her film, reviewing 60,000 feet of film despite including only one tenth of that in her final product, including a significant amount that she filmed herself.

Nevertheless, as one of the first women in the Soviet film industry it was extremely difficult for her to gain the recognition her work deserved. She was denied royalties from the success of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and it took an intervention by Mayakovsky himself just for her to be credited as its director. Despite her struggles at the time, we now recognize this film as one of the best early examples of a documentary composed by compiling archival film clips with some framing narration, in this case with intertitles providing context for each scene. The pioneering nature of her work helps explain its dramatic success at the time, beloved in the Soviet Union for its wide appeal and its pro-Bolshevik narrative of the Revolution.

The film divides into three acts: a depiction of pre-revolutionary life, Russia’s experiences in the First World War, and the 1917 Revolution. Shub’s vignettes of Imperial Russia focus on the empire’s deep inequalities, pointing out its political domination by the upper classes. She rapidly cross-cuts between images of the gentry enjoying tea and being waited on by servants, compared to peasants working in the fields; or wealthy nobles on a pleasure cruise dancing until they perspire, compared to the lower classes perspiring from arduous agricultural and industrial work. For a ten-year celebration of how the revolution overthrew an unjust and corrupt regime, Shub’s work would have been an ideal fit with the Bolshevik narrative of 1917.

A still from the film

She then portrays the horrors of war, from graphic shots of dead soldiers to images of hardship on the home front. Once again, she stresses the sacrifices made by ordinary Russians while the generals and aristocrats work at luxurious desks or laugh and converse far from the front. Finally, she moves to the revolutionary year of 1917, where she highlights the role of the masses of workers and soldiers in the fall of the old regime. Condemning politicians of all stripes in Russia’s Provisional Government as well as the moderate socialist leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, Shub’s film sets the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power despite ending before October. As Marina mentioned in the Q&A session, her film builds up “the inevitability of the Bolshevik Revolution.” Shub’s film serves as a sort of Soviet-approved short course in the revolution, as revealing of attitudes towards the old regime and 1917 in the Soviet 1920s as it is about the revolution itself.

In our Q&A, we discussed the difficulty of distinguishing Shub’s filmed material from the archival footage, given that it is blended in with no distinctions. In addition, Marina pointed out how Shub’s editing style highlighted the difference between the slow, deliberate time before 1914 and faster-paced shots of soldiers, peasants, workers’ marches, and so on in the war and revolution, emphasizing the speed and vitality of popular action. Perhaps most importantly, we discussed how Shub first established the idea of film as memory-keeping, its own kind of archive. In composing a documentary by compiling archival film (rather than primarily filming new material on a subject), she helped invent the modern documentary genre. Even today, it is easy to recognize the value of her work to modern audiences unaccustomed to seeing the Russian Empire and its revolutionary years in motion. The positive responses from our audience in the Armory demonstrated that Shub’s work remains striking a century after the events she documented.

Felix Cowan is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include poverty, inequality, and newspapers in Imperial Russian cities during the revolutionary era.

REPOST: The Russian Revolution from Behind Bars

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of NewsNet (News of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies).

As scholars, we sometimes ask ourselves whether what we study and teach matters outside the walls of academia. When the public thinks at all about the meaning of the Russian Revolution at its centenary, judging by scattered op-ed pieces and reviews of some of the new books on the subject, the assessments have mostly returned to familiar, and mostly negative, arguments about the leaders of the revolution and the tragedy of communism. Questions of meaning and relevance for those involved and us today have often been overlooked.

But this was not the case for the incarcerated men we taught in courses on the Russian Revolution at Danville Correctional Center, a medium security men’s prison in Illinois, as part of the Education Justice Project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Of course, prisons and prisoners made their appearance in the first days of the revolution when crowds stormed the Peter and Paul and Shlisselburg fortresses in Petrograd to free their inmates. In many parts of the empire, jails and police stations went up in flames. Some of the beneficiaries of this revolutionary act responded exuberantly to the crowd’s invitation to “join us in freedom.” One released prisoner recalled, “I was overcome by an inexpressible, incommunicable feeling of joy, my heart hammered, it was ready to burst and fly away, to be engulfed by this whole mass of people and never to be separated from them… Hurray! Long live the revolution!”1 The emotion in this response was as important as the facts of what happened. The revolution unleashed a flood of feelings, ranging from hope to fear, from joy to anger, from enthusiasm to disappointment.

These personal and subjective experiences were also prominent in the way our incarcerated students encountered the revolution. Historical experiences of inequality and injustice, traumatic encounters with power and violence, the madness of the street, the emotional toll of oppression, and dreams of freedom and a new life—though unfolding a century ago in distant Russia— were certainly not lost on these incarcerated men, who persistently asked hard questions about why the history of a century ago in another land might matter to us now.

One of us, Andy Bruno, became involved with the program as it was getting off the ground in 2008, first as a tutor and then as an instructor, while the other, Mark Steinberg, has recently finished a class timed to mark the centennial of the revolution. Introducing these students to the world of 1917 and the debates about its contentious outcomes was invigorating for both of us. Rarely have we seen students so engaged, so philosophical, so hungry for the life of the mind, and so eager to draw lessons from the past. As one student put in his final paper, studying the Russian Revolution was “a search into humanity, theirs and my own.”

Since the beginning of the year, students in the most recent class pondered the ideas, hopes, and disappointments that animated the revolution across the empire. The course focused on human “experience”: what people lived through and understood, how they made sense of events and choices; the role of belief, faith, and desire in all of this. Stories of individual experience in the streets, in villages, in the corridors of revolutionary power, in the distant corners of the empire served as windows for exploring the weightiest issues of the day, including justice, freedom, power, democracy, and the future.

Students were at first dismayed by the “madhouse” (as one student put it) complexity of the revolution. In time, they came to appreciate the reality of historical complexity. This also meant eschewing simple moral lessons about who is good and who is evil in difficult times. And it meant recognizing how people with distinct experiences—women, non-Russians, workers, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals—can differently understand contested ideas such as democracy or justice.

The earlier class took a slightly different approach. It used historiographical interpretation to encourage the students to “think” through the revolution and learn the art of scholarly debate. Was the revolution a workers’ uprising? A Bolshevik coup led by a steadfast Lenin? The evil doings of that maniacal monk Rasputin? The revenge of rural society for generations of oppression? A cultural re-enactment of the French Revolution? The collapse and rebirth of a decrepit empire? The emergence of a new modern state forged in war? A propagandistic project of memory creation?

These are some of the rich tapestry of explanations that have been advanced over the last century by historians trying to account for Russia’s upheavals. Students at Danville proved remarkably apt at dissecting some of the logic and implications of historians’ competing claims.

One of our favorite moments came when discussing an influential research article by Peter Holquist that contends that mass surveillance should not be attributed simply to Russian authoritarianism or Bolshevik totalitarianism. Across Europe and the United States, the First World War spawned the modern monitoring of populations by states. Revolutionaries in Russia were to a considerable degree following a transnational pattern.

The class looked around at each other and their surroundings after talking through this argument. “You mean the modern state focuses on population surveillance,” said one of the students, considering the guard outside of the room. “Well, obviously,” he continued with the agreement of his peers. In a moment, these incarcerated students cut to the heart of how the techniques of control that accompanied modernity are ones they experience every day.

While many taking classes in the Education Justice Project were eager to join an intellectual community regardless of the content, others were in fact more skeptical about the value of studying the history of a country on the other side of the world from a century ago. Professional historians are not used to justifying the worthiness of their subject matter, especially when it involves such cataclysmic events as revolutions and wars. These classroom encounters made us think freshly about history and, indeed, about the purposes and methods of our work. Engaging with the question of the relevance of the revolution for people in prison led to some of the greatest insights, including for us.

There are many reasons to teach about the Russian Revolution in prison, but high among them is that it serves as an avenue for contemplating a distinctive, yet familiar, set of experiences, emotions, and desires. At the heart of these is surely the question of humanity—theirs and ours. Recognizing that their humanity was debased inspired people to challenge and overturn tsarism and capitalism ago. Desiring a life in which their humanity is respected, including by themselves, motivates many incarcerated students today. Freedom, which elated the released prisoners of the Russian Empire, is a dream of more than broken shackles: it is also often a vision of a life in which human dignity and capacities can thrive. This is a potent aspiration for many men and women behind bars. Our current criminal justice system makes this hard to attain, even for those who have served their time. Reforms to harsh sentencing and restoring the abrogated rights of the formerly incarcerated could go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of a more humane order without the chaos of revolution.


Andy Bruno is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History.




Mark D. Steinberg is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Vice President and President-Elect of ASEEES in 2018, and most recently author of The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 and of the forthcoming ninth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia.


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. 

REPOST: Article Written: 1917 for 2017 by Kristin Romberg (Assistant Professor, Art History)

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of NewsNet (News of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies).

When the editors of NewsNet asked me months ago to contribute something on the current state of scholarship about art produced in the context of the Russian Revolution, I planned to write about the repositioning of the field in the past ten years; how the receding relevance of the Cold War paradigms that once made our work “topical” in Title VIII terms has been as much an opportunity as a challenge; how a decreasing appetite for Manichean hero/ villain structures has allowed new figures, histories, and questions to become visible and opened up a new set of discursive frames. As I sat down to write, however, the ghosts all returned in the form of the question that haunts this centennial year: how do we think about the Russian Revolution in our current political predicament?

Among scholars whose work touches on the revolution, I am probably not alone in experiencing this year’s commemoration with oscillating feelings of elation and unease. After devoting a large portion of my adult life to digging in archives and carefully crafting a narrative about how the revolution mattered (in my case, to aesthetic modernism), it has been a giddy delight to see the issues that motivate my work actually matter both to a broader audience and in relation to world events. At the same time, that brighter spotlight and larger pool of participants have been accompanied by the discomfort of misrecognition and the awkward illumination of some of the quirks of academe. The disciplinary boundaries and psychological compartmentalizations that gird scholarly endeavors (in my opinion, necessarily) appear less like an infinite horizon and more like the “silos” that administrators keep telling us that they are.

In this sense, the past year has felt like an “event” in the Badiouian sense of an unsettling encounter with the “Real,” that thing that requires us to change our thinking.1 Part of that “Real” is the real of the field described above. Yet, even more Real is the way that the year’s commemorative festivities have unfolded in tandem with political events that feel uncannily similar to the unraveling of governmental institutions that we know well through our historical work. Words that have long stuck out as exotic markers in our sub-field—“revolution,” “civil war,” “inequality,” “anarchism,” “socialism,” “resistance,” and so on—have come to seem strangely normalized and contemporary of late, yet in ways that do not map onto the usual academic forms for articulating topicality or “policy relevance.” In this context, the slate of symposia, exhibitions, film series, etc., to which we have committed our time and energy seems inadequate to the task at hand. Ironically, it is precisely at the moment when our work has become most relevant that we are forced to question its value. What is our role as scholars of the art, literature, history, cinema, etc., of revolution in this current situation? Are there new forms that our work needs to take? Most of us are already stretched thin by another Real, the pressures involved in holding open any space whatsoever in this world for the work that we most care about. Given limitations on time and resources, the question of how real we should get, and with which reality, is existential.

In my field, art history, the figures who populate our narratives are legendary in their political commitment. This is a large part of what has motivated interest in their work. We know them as heroically attempting to transform reality beyond the frame of a canvas with terrific zeal and self-sacrifice. When they recall their conversion to the revolution, their statements are decidedly resolute: “To accept or not accept? For me…this question never arose. It was my revolution,” wrote the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.2 Constructivist Aleksandr Rodchenko remembered that he “became utterly engrossed in it with all [his] will.”3 Such unequivocal statements served as inspiration in the 1990s for those who still wanted to believe that another world was possible after the triumph of a capitalist-realist rationality that insisted that this world was without alternative or end. They were an index of possibility, proving that another way of being and feeling could happen, because it had. Of course, this kind of usable past is the product of heavy editing. To use constructivist terms, it is shaped in accordance with a purpose. It functions on a utopian model, drawing on a mythic construction in order to imagine an alternative to the present. Something like this structure is built into the etymology of revolution too. As Hannah Arendt notes, the word entered political terminology in the seventeenth century from astronomy, where a complete “revolution” of a celestial body referred to its return along a circular path to the place where it began. In her analysis, modern revolutions have nearly always been carried out in the name of restoring an old order, of bringing things back to where they began.

Perhaps we need these epic tales and mythic pasts. They certainly have their political value. It is notable that similar structures are currently invoked in some activist contexts, in which indigenous ways of knowing and being become models on which to envision alternative futures.5 For me, in 2017 that kind of story of the Russian Revolution has not felt “usable” as such, however, in part because it has become increasingly difficult to believe that there were ever any old days that were unqualifiedly good. Perhaps there is something usable, however, in other sorts of historical narratives, ones that allow us to attend to the day-to-day of those who lived through that revolutionary year of 1917. The artist Nadezhda Udal’tsova’s published writings provide great material in this regard. She described her experience retrospectively in a memoir in terms as unwavering as those quoted earlier: “October broke out and suddenly threw us into constructing another form of life. We gave ourselves in those years to the elimination of the old and the construction of new forms.”6 Reading through her diary of 1917, however, one sees the morass of sleepless nights, conflicted feelings, and difficult decisions condensed in phrases like “suddenly thrown” and “gave ourselves.” The entries reflect an artist with an already precarious hold on a precarious profession thrust into a crisis in which there was no longer space for the contemplation and craft that had defined the vocation.

Not long after the February Revolution, she writes, “What a difficult and nightmarish life… You wait several years for rest, to work quietly, but no.” Later the same day, with exasperation: “We [leftist artists] are so few and we don’t stick together.” On April 22: “It is necessary to work with all one’s might. The journal article isn’t written, and the works aren’t done”; next paragraph: “the international proletariat somehow doesn’t unite…O god, when will this war end.” Three days later: “My soul aches,” but “nine works are ready” and “the articles are written.” In the days surrounding October: “Russia is anarchy…and there’s no end.” “Our house came under fire…My nerves no longer work.” “When can we begin creative work and live a little?” “No one is right. There is blame and spilt blood on both sides.” “I just want to live and work.” “I’ve gotten into some very free work. The works come one after another.” Finally, at the year’s end, December 30: “If this exhibition happens, what will it matter to me?”

What is affecting in this writing is what is familiar: the vacillations, the doubt that turns to determination and then to exasperation; how she laments her inability to concentrate on her work in one moment and the fact that the proletariat failed to unite in the next. It represents not evidence of revolution’s possibility, but rather an index of revolutionary reality. Utopian aspirations for intersubjective harmony register only as unrealized (the world proletariat does not unite; leftist artists cannot seem to stick together). Paradise is never regained, but only lost and lost again. If I find something usable in this chronicle of everyday struggle and defeat, it is that it makes me feel slightly better about persisting in slogging through my own. In this sense, it is “relatable.” Yet, there is more in it, I think, than that questionable virtue. Udal’tsova’s story is also full of her attempts to organize solidarities of artists to have some power over the way that their working conditions were constructed within a succession of governmental regimes. Scholars of the early Soviet period have nearly forgotten the organizing work done by artists in 1917 under the Provisional Government.8 What is there to remember? They all failed relatively quickly, if only because they became irrelevant as one political field evolved into another. The concerns of spring 1917 all seemed naïve by December, at least in relative terms.

Still, that is what organizing movements is like. We have written a history of the revolution as a victory, however quickly betrayed, when it was just as accurately a string of ephemeral solidarities and counter-hegemonies that never lost their prefix and then dissolved into something else. What would happen, or how might it matter now, if we wrote another kind of usable history, one that attends as carefully to those failures and losses?

Kristin Romberg is an Assistant Professor of Art History at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is also affiliated with the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, Slavic Languages and Literatures, REEEC, and the European Union Center. Romberg contributed to the Art Institute of Chicago exhibit entitled Revoliutsiia! Demonstratsiia! Soviet Art Put to the Test, and curated an exhibition at Krannert Art Museum entitled Propositions on Revolution, which explores revolution as a broad conceptual category. 

REEEC Receives Competitive State Department Title VIII Grant

The Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center at Illinois is pleased to announce that it recently was awarded a $225,000 grant from the State Department’s Program for the Study of Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the Former Soviet Union (Title VIII).

The grant provides support for REEEC’s innovative Summer Research Laboratory, and will provide 55 short-term fellowships for researchers who wish to come to Urbana, consult with our Slavic Reference Service, and work in our famous library collections.  The Summer Research Laboratory also features training workshops, mini-conferences, and other scholarly programming.

The new grant will also support short term grants for researchers who wish to come to Urbana during the Fall and Spring semesters, in a new program called the Open Research Lab.

In awarding the grant, the Title VIII Advisory Committee praised the Summer Lab and the Slavic Reference Service as “a unique, cost-effective program.”

We owe a round of congratulations to our colleagues across campus–at REEEC, the Slavic Reference Service, and beyond–whose collaborative work on this grant led to such a well-deserved success.  Thanks to their efforts, Illinois continues to serve the most basic mission of a public research university: to make advanced study in any field accessible to the largest possible pool of scholars.

– Dr. John Randolph, Director, REEEC

CAS/MillerComm Lecture: Vijay Prashad, “The Russian Revolution as the Mirror of Third World Aspirations”

There was plenty of revolutionary sentiment at the opening lecture of the CAS/MillerComm 2017 Lecture Series on Wednesday, September 6, where Dr. Vijay Prashad gave a lecture titled “The Russian Revolution as the Mirror of Third World Aspirations.” In a show of solidarity with groups currently fighting oppression in all its forms, Dr. Prashad attended the rally on campus in protest of the Trump administration’s decision to repeal DACA earlier in the day with Dr. Harriet Murav. Prashad’s talk along with the campus’ protest movements and display of solidarity with groups currently fighting oppression was a perfect way to to kick off REEEC’s Fall event series “1917: Ten days that shook the world / 2017: Ten days that shake the campus” commemorating the anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

At the reception before the lecture, Dr. David Cooper made a champagne toast to the heroes of the revolution; and also to those who resisted it, to its dead, and to its students. Murav noted that, although there was little to no working Illinois State budget, the resultant 1917-2017 program is evidence that when we work together, we can still accomplish things. 

That such an event was taking place on an American university campus was telling, as Dr. Prashad’s lecture opened with a story about foreign journalists interviewing Lenin, asking whether the revolution had more chance of success in the East or the West. Lenin famously said that, while real communism could only succeed in the industrialized West, the West lives at the expense of the East while also raising armies there and teaching them to fight. In this manner, the West digs its grave in the East. He used this story to set up a dichotomy between the East and West that he followed throughout the lecture.

To this end Dr. Prashad quoted many political and social revolutionaries who, along with Ghandi, maintained that the 1905 uprising taught important lessons about the power of non-cooperation and politics of the masses. He argued that in India, and in other parts of the Third World, the lessons of 1905 and 1917 remain alive. He went on to outline Lenin’s tactics that were most successful in the East, arguing that Lenin’s revolution sought to draw workers alongside workers. In this new form of communal politics, which demanded rights over land and labor among other freedoms, he argued that other peasant societies—those in India, China, and Egypt for example—saw their own aspirations. The social and economic similarities among these diverse countries are striking: vast agricultural land, limited industry, little access to electricity, mass hunger and poverty. The new social fabric of Soviet society, with its newspapers, fairs, clubs, libraries, and youth societies, brought the chance for social advances that were every bit as important as addressing the systemic problems of hunger and modernization.

Women’s rights were also greatly expanded under communism where women held highly visible and important roles in early Soviet political structures. Prashad drew on photographs of women from all over the world attending political delegations to insist that the particularities of their struggle toward liberation and freedom be recognized; listing their own demands, which included access to employment and education, the abolition of polygamy, among other protections of rights. One photograph showed a female delegate from Turkey addressing the assembly with the list of demands for equality. Another showed a group of women from India marching with a banner representing a union of “Social Health Workers” (pictured left). These early forms of gender equality are still a vital part of women’s movements in the Third World today. 

While many of the exciting international movements were abandoned by the USSR by 1918 in favor of socialism in one country, the momentum for revolution was still building in other parts of the world. At this point Dr. Prashad turned his attention to José Carlos Mariátegui who argued that socialism in the Americas must be its own heroic movement and must include indigenous peoples, most of whom were not industrial workers. He pointed to the Indigenismo movement, which saw the past as an origin rather than a program. This idea is integral to Dr. Prashad’s conception of the Third World’s inheritance of the Russian revolution. Despite the many atrocities committed in the name of the revolution, he insisted that its legacy was rooted in the anti-imperial aspirations and solidarity movements that sprung up in the Third World in its wake.

He did note that the Thaw was particularly damaging to the USSR’s reputation in the Third World where the political image of Stalin stood for class struggle, not purges. Serious debates in communist parties around the world led leaders of different movements to break from party-line as they struggled to reconcile their own political aspirations with the violence of Stalinist suppression and the subsequent invasion of Hungary. Many of these leaders pushed for “polycentric communism” in an effort to hang on to the desire for emancipation and anti-imperialism, and to commit to a greater cause within their own dream of socialism. This, Dr. Prashad argued, is how the revolution is remembered in many parts of the Third World. 

In a moment of such cynicism and easy despair, especially in intellectual circles in the US, his reparative reading of hope, idealism, and belief in the possibility of revolution is refreshing. As the lecture came to a close, many questions revolved around his sometimes problematic idealism. He was quick to accept this label and made no effort to excuse his idealism or answer for it. In fact it seems embedded in his worldview and vital, not just to his rendering of the Russian revolution, but to his continued belief in the revolutionary power of politics of the masses. In response to concerns about basing one’s revolutionary hopes on fantasy, he aptly noted that historical inspiration is always a mix of fantasy and reality and that this is really a good thing because if all politicians were historians nothing would ever get going. It’s perhaps too easy to toss out a quip like this to gloss over the heroic celebration of incredibly violent histories, but Dr. Prashad seemed less interested in arguing for or against any particular historical interpretation of the effects of the revolution and more interested in simply highlighting the lasting importance of the revolutionary movement itself. He argued that, in peasant societies, revolution seemed inevitable after 1917 and, just as importantly, it offered an option aside from either the violence of terrorism or the tedious games of petitionism. That sense of the inevitability of mass political movements was and is important, especially given recent events. He cited the Trump administration’s rescinding of the DACA program as evidence that even the loftiest democracies waiver between fantasy and reality at their best and, at their worst, can easily fall victim to authoritarianism and political terror. “If centralized planning doesn’t work, okay,” he says, “how about something else? We have hope and creativity. Put it to use.”

Meagan Smith is a PhD candidate in Comparative and World Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the representation of border walls in twentieth and twenty-first century dystopian fiction from the US, Russia, and Mexico. 

Revolution and Renewal: a Review of the Revolutionary Poetry Slam

It was grey and hot and the air was heavy with an electric presence, the humid harbinger of a storm we first sense with our noses. I parked my ‘96 Oldsmobile outside of the Channing-Murray building in Urbana just as the first mists of this late summer rain began. I put my camera, notebook and laptop into my waterproof backpack and walked around the charming half-garden and down the stairs that lead to the Red Herring, a non for profit vegetarian restaurant which also serves as a performance space.

2017 marks the centennial of the pair of revolutions in Russia which toppled the imperial autocracy and paved the way, later, for the establishment of the communist Soviet Union. This Revolutionary Poetry Slam, part of the events series Ten Days that Shook the World, Ten Days that Shook the Campus, began a little late, with Professors Valeria Sobol and David Cooper clearing their throats and reading poems by the eminent Russian and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Professor Sobol read first, in Russian, followed by Professor Cooper, who read a translation in English.

Mayakovsky himself was an early supporter of the ideals of the Revolution and an admirer of Lenin, though his later relationship with the Soviet Union was tumultuous at best. He committed suicide in 1930, leaving a body of work that was unevenly criticized and confusingly praised by Soviets for decades to come.

Click here for a full biography and more poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky


“Left March” (Левый марш). Does the eye of the eagle fade? Shall we stare back to the old? Proletarian fingers grip tighter the throat of the world! Chests out! Shoulders straight! Stick to the sky red flags adrift! Who’s marching there with the right? LEFT! LEFT! LEFT!


The performances, which became an open-mic affair after Professors Sobol and Cooper, were eclectic. W. H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg were snuck in, two poets who weren’t Russian but were certainly revolutionary in their own spheres. There were twelve performers in all, about evenly split between students and professors. Several of the students were reading original works, on topics ranging from femininity, food, relationships, and hidden messages, to the idea of revolution, not of men a hundred years ago in a far away place, but revolution of compassion, revolution of the body. One student declared, in a nervous but determined voice, “My body is a revolution.” I published poetry as an undergraduate, and I have been to many readings, both as a performer and a listener — these words from her stayed with me, hooked in.’

“My body is a revolution.”

After about an hour, the last round of applause came, and it was time to return as we were, back to our lives, back to our routines. I said goodbye to the few people I knew and stepped into the rain, now falling hard and heavy. I turned away from my car and walked slowly across the street, maybe to get something to eat. I didn’t have an umbrella and I didn’t want one. I let myself be soaked in this, a strange baptism of Urbana rain, and I couldn’t decide if my body was revolting or revolving. Maybe I was just hungry, but I felt different.

Little revolutions like these happen every day if we are keen to them.

It is easy to look at revolutions as political events, stemming perhaps from a set of ideals which one may or may not agree with. After all our country exists because of this type of revolution. But what of the revolution of self, the revolution of poetry, the revolution of sharing your burdens, of learning how to cook, changing your name, starting a new career in a new town? A year ago I was working a 9-5 desk job in a joyless, windowless office. And here I was, in a new place, with a new self, committed to studies of a strange folk in a strange land. Little revolutions like these happen every day if we are keen to them. And what a wonderful thing it can be, feeling uprooted, changed, renewed by rain, head to toe.

Jesse Mikhail Wesso is a first-year graduate student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and an Outreach Assistant at the Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center. His creative work has previously been published in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Contrary, and Bluestem.