Reliving the Russian Revolution online – “Project 1917” was also about 2017

In 2017 Finland overflowed with projects, events and publications celebrating the 100 years of independence. Meanwhile in Russia, 2017 marked the centennial of the Russian Revolution. Compared with the general hullabaloo in Finland, the commemorations in Russia seemed astonishingly low key. Some fascinating things went on in our neighbour too, however. One of them was Project “1917 – Free History”.

Project 1917 — Free History is an innovative and ambitious Russian public history initiative by Mikhail Zygar, a journalist, writer and former editor-in-chief of independent television channel Dozhd’. The idea of the project was to give its followers an opportunity to ‘relive’ the Russian Revolution in real time online  — 100 years after the events. The project presented diverse archival materials from 1917 in the format of a Facebook feed allowing users to experience what ‘really’ happened back then, from multiple perspectives.

— What makes the project particularly interesting is that the Russian government seemed to be quite unwilling or unable to address what 1917 means for Russia today, says Mariëlle Wijermars, a Rubicon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Aleksanteri Institute. For example, the government did not host a single event to mark the centenary of the October Revolution. In a way, this is not surprising — the idea of revolution is diametrically opposed to the promise of stability on which the Putin presidency is based. It seems that the very notion of revolution was rather ignored in the year leading up the presidential elections of March 2018.

Zygar’s project, however, presented a wide array of points of view on the events of 1917. In the article, Wijermars analyzes how the project mediated the public remembrance of the Revolution, and what role the social media feed format can play in societal processes of coming to terms with traumatic legacies.

From reliving the past to grasping the present

The year 2017 turned out to be a year of mass protests in Russia. Video investigations published by Aleksei Navalnyi’s Anti-Corruption Foundation inspired the largest protests in Russia since the 2011-2012 protest movement. Project 1917 became increasingly entangled in these current political debates.

— In my article ‘Project “1917 — Free History”: Reliving the Russian Revolution in the Digital Age’ I track the development of the project to show how, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, the temporal dynamics in the project’s approach to history appeared to have been reversed: Whereas reliving the Russian Revolution first served to improve the general audience’s understanding of the historical events, by now the digitally revived past had come to serve explicitly as a prism for understanding what goes on in Russia today.

In addition, Wijermars found that the ‘free history’ that Project 1917 promised to provide was, from its very outset, conditioned by the characteristics and limitations of the formats, online platforms and mobile applications it chose to employ. In other words, media are not just a passive tools — they affect the message.

Memory politics meets social media studies

Mariëlle Wijermars did not stumble across the topic accidentally. She has been conducting research on memory politics and mass media in Russia for some years and written a book on the topic, Memory Politics in Contemporary Russia: Television, Cinema and the State, that will be published by Routledge in July. More recently, her research has shifted towards online media and freedom of speech – central themes of Russian Media Lab project that the Aleksanteri Institute has been hosting since 2016.  The article on Project 1917 emerged from the intersection of these two research lines.

The article has been published in Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media (2018, no 18: 54-65) as part of the special issue ‘Digital Trauma in Eastern and Central Europe’ edited by Mykola Makhortykh and Anna Menyhért. It was published in open access and is freely available on the journal’s website.

Wijermars, M. 2018. ‘Project “1917 – Free History”: Reliving the Russian Revolution in the Digital Age’. Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media no. 18: 45-65.