Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1917 Russia's Year of Revolutions

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1917 Russia's Year of Revolutions

Article excerpt


The Russian Revolution that began with the overthrow of the Czar and ended with the Bolsheviks in power holds many lessons for today. Among them: Russia has lived under authoritarian rule for much of its history; and building a free and democratic society from the ruins of authoritarian rule is not an easy task.


* Discuss one of the lessons historians take from 1917: that getting rid of dictators is the easy part of revolution and building a democracy from scratch is difficult. Ask why students think people may not always simply embrace democracy when they are given the chance.


* Next, ask students to relate that lesson to what's going on today in Russia, and in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.


* Discuss the power of history and culture in shaping people's ideas and values. [Remind students that democracy requires faith in a country's laws and institutions, which is missing from the lives of many Russians and Iraqis at the moment.)


* Czar Nicholas II once said that if reforms brought Russia close to being a democratic republic, "that would be senseless and criminal." Why do you think he would say something like that?

* Why do you think Lenin's promise of "peace, bread, land" was so effective in rallying people to the Communist cause?


* Have students write an essay on the statement that history often repeats itself. If they agree, can they cite examples?


* Bolshevik in Russian means majority.

* During the overthrow of the Czar, Lenin was living in exile in Switzerland. Hoping he would help take Russia out of the war, the Germans sent him back to Russia.

WEB WATCH historic_figures/lenin_ vtadimir.shtmt Brief BBC biography of Lenin.

Nicholas II, the Czar of imperial Russia, was commanding his troops in the World War I struggle against Germany when the message arrived from Petrograd: "The situation is grave. Anarchy reigns in the capital."

It was March 2, 1917, and Nicholas rushed back to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). But at the Navy's headquarters, his last loyal troops had already surrendered to pro-democracy forces representing both Russia's poor and its intellectual elite. The imperial tricolor had been yanked down, and the flag of the revolutionaries rose in its place.

Nicholas saw the handwriting on the wall. He abdicated--and a long legacy of unchallenged rule and unimaginable riches came to an end.

The promised democracy, however, proved to be short-lived. Within months, Communists took over and established a dictatorship that would swallow half of Europe and threaten democracy and the West for most of the 20th century.


The Soviet Union itself collapsed in a new democratic revolution in 1991. Communism, once a grave threat, is now a discredited ideology. So why should anyone care about the events of 1917?

For one thing, because history often repeats itself. Russia had a chance at freedom in 1917 and it slipped away. Could that happen again today in the Russia of Vladimir Putin? (See previous story.)

Nor is Russia the only place where 1917's lessons might apply. The world has other new, foundering democracies, like Iraq, where some of the same stresses that tore Russia apart nine decades ago are evident today.

Back in 1917, the Czar's fall was greeted with great excitement. "London Overjoyed at News," said a New York Times headline. Russia "had joined the democracies of the world," the article stated. But it also noted anxiety among some foreign diplomats in London that "troublesome developments may occur."


During the hundreds of years of czarist rule, Russia was mainly a feudal society: Millions of peasants tilled soil owned by a small landed class that was loyal to the Czar. …

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