Revising the Revolution. The Unmaking of Russia's Official History of 1917

Holmes, Larry E.
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XXI, 220 S.
$ 20.99
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Bartlomiej Gajos, Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding, Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw

Putting history and politics together and trying to accommodate both usually makes scholars raise their eyebrows. History and politics strive to achieve different and irreconcilable goals. At stake are, respectively, “historical truth” (let’s leave aside all the debates whether such a creature exists) and power. Under which conditions is this marriage even conceivable? These dilemmas hovered above the famous Istpart (Komissya po istorii Oktiabrskoi Revolutsii i RKP(b)). The institution that existed in the Soviet Union between 1920 and 1928 was in charge of narrating the October Revolution’s legacy, and, as Larry Holmes shows us in his book Revising the Revolution. The unmaking of Russia’s official history of 1917, failed to accomplish the task. At first glance, this task might seem simple—to write a history of 1917 that would satisfy both the political and academic spheres.

Although Holmes underscores that his publication is not a comprehensive study of Istpart in Moscow and Viatka, he nevertheless provides us details about not only the personal relations and management but also the finances of the most important historical institution in the USSR. The book is yet another publication that draws our attention to the centre, but also one that takes a look at the Russian province. This is its biggest advantage because since 1991 we have learnt a lot about Istpart, which Holmes acknowledges.1 Less was known about the regional perspective. Therefore, chapters on the Viatka (today’s Kirov – 1000 km northeast of Moscow) branch of Istpart are of high interest as they complicate the assumption still held by many that the provinces in Russia always blindly follow the centre. Well, not in the case of writing the history of 1917. This claim has a ring of truth to it, at least until Stalin came to power and successfully monopolised and centralised the whole narrative, although, as Holmes argues, the monolithic story about 1917 had started to appear before.

The book covers the period from 1920—the establishment of Istpart—to 1938 when the Stalinist version of the Party’s history was published, which may seem confusing. The end date is artificial, as Istpart, the main subject of Holmes’ book, was dissolved in 1928. Perhaps this would be a better year to finish the story.

One may characterise the years 1917–1920, which are hardly reviewed in the book, as a period of grand improvisation and ad hoc actions undertaken to commemorate the October Revolution and forge a narrative about 1917, as has been argued earlier.2 The establishment of Istpart was the first attempt to overcome this spontaneity. However, this task was very far from being achieved, as Holmes shows us. The story of Istpart was one of the continuations of improvisation in the face of underfinancing (particularly in the province branches). The constant tensions caused by the adherence of some members to the famous saying by Ranke to present the past “how it actually happened”, i.e., the code of conduct of historians and the militant policies pursued by the party at present did not necessarily help.

Symbolical figures representing the two approaches were Mikhail Olminsky, the head of Istpart in 1920–1924, and Vladimir Nevsky, the head of the Petrograd Istpart until 1924. It was also a rivalry between two cities: Moscow and Petrograd. Although Petrograd had lost its capital status, it was trying to preserve at least the title of the “revolutionary capital”, which had manifested itself in the actions of local Bolsheviks as early as 1918–1920.3

Interestingly, as Holmes discusses in Chapter III, the first official narrative that appeared under Istpart stated that the October Revolution had two faces: the bourgeois and the revolutionary. This claim was validated by historians and had serious political consequences, as the story of the October Revolution was relatively inclusive, and not only the Bolsheviks were the heroes. There was also some space for the other parties, for instance the Mensheviks. Here, I see continuity with the period 1918–1920 when the Bolsheviks, during the anniversaries of the October Revolution, commemorated not only the usual suspects, Marx and Engels, but also Ivan Kalaev (a member of the SRs) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Their politics of memory at that time was surprisingly open to others, as they had to reckon with the current unstable political situation. This approach allowed such regions as Viatka to write its own history of the October Revolution (chapters III and IV).

Every city and village had its own, specific October that represented the local dynamics. This posed a serious threat from the political point of view. The claims made by the Viatka historians that the local Bolshevik party had hardly even existed in 1917 actually delegitimised the narrative that Lenin’s party had enjoyed high support among the masses (chapters III and IV).

If we add to this that the history of 1917 was very often written by the participants of the events, which Holmes details, we shouldn’t be surprised that the task was far more complicated than it appeared at first sight. The conflict in Viatka between Kuchkin, Kapustin, and Novoselov, all involved in forging the local narrative, seems strikingly similar to what happened in the centre. The fight between Trotsky and Stalin over the past had its imitators in the regions.

Chapter V deals with a very timely issue, namely how many books produced by Istpart were actually sold. Holmes discovers the zig and zag of Istpart in terms of its financial records. His conclusion is not surprising: Istpart would not have survived in a market economy. However, the complaints about “junk literature” on the 1905 revolution stacked in warehouses did not lower the pressure from local branches to sustain the circulation figures. It raises a question that Holmes does not address, which is when, if at all, had Istpart become an institution that existed for its own sake and the salaries of its workers. The issue of the underfinancing of Istpart may be one of the answers: the party centre was not interested in spending money on publishing books that no one wanted to read. This in turn makes us ask how influential and successful Istpart really was in terms of shaping the memory of Soviet citizens? One may look at numbers of sold copies, organized conferences and public events (turnout) and try assess to what extent Istpart became recognizable among the Soviet society. It is another question that is not fully answered.

The last three chapters deal with the growing atmosphere of militancy among people involved in writing the history of 1917 and the dissolution of Istpart. We all know the result: The History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)(Short Course)–the narrative of the October Revolution that was monopolised by Stalin. However, it was interesting to learn that the local branch of Viatka (pp. 117–121) opposed the national template of telling the story of the October Revolution. It would be great to learn if in other regions the situation took the same path.

Revising the Revolution is an interesting contribution to specifics of history and politics in the Soviet Union supporting the claim that the province did not follow the centre. It was a sort of specific mimicry: The local conflict over biographies and involvement in the 1917 revolution resembled the discussion sparked by Trotsky’s article “The lessons of October”. In other words, the writing on the October Revolution in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s was about one’s own biography. That does not bode well for a historian, as overcoming the temptation to attack the contemporary political opponent and embellish one’s own involvement is very hard if not impossible. Time and distance are needed, as well as a lack of political pressure. This is the lesson of Holmes’ book.

1 See: Mikhail V. Zelenov, Apparat TsK RKP(b)-VKP(b), tsenzura i istoricheskaia nauka w 1920-e gody, Nizhnii Novgorod 2000; Vladimir M. Mosolov, IMEL - Tsitadel’ partiinoi ortodoksii. Iz istorii Instituta Marksizma-Leninizma pri TsK KPSS, 1921–1955, Moskva 2010; Frederick C. Corney (ed.), Trotsky’s Challenge: The ‘Literary Discussion’ of 1924 and the Fight for the Bolshevik Revolution, Boston 2016.
2 Konstantin Godunov, Prazdnik 7 noyabra v politicheskoi zizhni Sovetskoi Rossii epokhi Grazhdanskoi voiny (1918–1920 gg.), Sankt-Petersburg 2018, p. 64.
3 There are actually very few books and publications that cover extensively this period. See: Godunov, Prazdnik 7 noyabra; Svetlana Malysheva, Sovetskaia prazdnichnaya kultura v provincii: prostranstvo, simvoly, istoricheskiye mify (1917–1927), Kazan 2005; James von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals, 1917–1920, Berkeley 1993.

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