Updated 8:08 AM ET, Tue August 15, 2017
Emily Parker is the author of “Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground” and a former member of the Policy Planning staff at the US State Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
(CNN)Russian President Vladimir Putin would rather ignore the Russian revolution, which marks its 100th anniversary this year. But in the Internet age, it’s impossible to erase history. Ordinary Russians are commemorating the revolution on social media, the last platform for free expression in Russia.
Why is Putin worried about something that happened 100 years ago? For starters, Russia’s strongman does not want to draw attention to a popular uprising that toppled an empire.
The Russian revolution was, in fact, two revolutions. The February Revolution of 1917 bought down Czar Nicholas II and ushered in a period of liberal reforms. Months later, in what is known as the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government. The October Revolution led to years of civil war and ultimately, to the creation of the Soviet Union.
The Russian Revolution was one of the defining events of the 20th century. Yet Putin reportedly told his advisers that it would be unnecessary to commemorate the anniversary. There was no national holiday to mark the beginning of the uprising. Russian television followed the Kremlin’s lead in playing down the event.
But Russian social media users refused to observe the official silence.
The journalist and author Mikhail Zygar founded Project 1917, which creates daily social media feeds featuring the statements of those who lived through the events a century ago. You can follow revolutionary figures like Lenin and Trotsky on Facebook, Instagram, VKontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) as well as on the Project 1917 app and Web site, which has an English version. The project describes itself as “The best social network in history: all the users died a long time ago.”
Project 1917’s content comes from diaries and other historical documents, converted into social media posts. The posts span the events of 1917, covering the February Revolution, the October Revolution and all the turmoil in between.
Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne as a result of the February Revolution, and he and his family were executed the following year. What did he do in the meantime? In August, the deposed czar posted a status update in which he took a pleasant walk, learned he was being sent away to an unknown location, and also read some Sherlock Holmes:
“It was a wonderful day, and we took a walk with a great deal of pleasure. After lunch I learned that we are being sent, not to the Crimea, but to one of the distant provincial towns three or four days’ journey to the east. But where I could not learn. The Palace Commander does not know. We all tried to guess. We chopped down and knocked over a large fir tree in the clearing near the path. There was a short, warm storm. During the evening I read aloud A Study in Scarlet by C. Doyle.”
Project 1917 has journalistic roots. Zygar is founding editor-in-chief of the independent media outlet Dozhd. He wanted to start Project 1917 because he was he was tired of covering Putin’s official line. “The current news agenda sometimes looks like, as (US President) Trump says, fake news,” he said in an interview. “A lot of events that have to be covered by Russian news media have nothing to do with reality.”
Hundred-year-old history, by contrast, has valuable lessons for the present. Project 1917 aims to change the way history is learned. Russian history tends to focus on the rulers, not the people. Zygar explains that Russians learn about emperors, secretaries general of the Communist Party and presidents, not ordinary people. This approach can make people feel that they can not influence their political situation, and that “it’s up to President Putin to decide.”
Project 1917 doesn’t simply broadcast history: it also provides a forum for Russians to have conversations about the past. People can discuss posts by musicians, artists and journalists. A post from the poet Marina Tsvetaeva says: “politics is perhaps even more passionate than passion itself.”
Zygar stresses that the project is about ordinary people, not just those in power. Alexander Zamaraev, a peasant,observed: “Heat. The earth is like a stone. Nothing grows.” Everyone matters. More broadly, Zygar says, “this project is against the stereotype that Russia’s destiny is to be a dictatorship, that Russia’s destiny is to be an empire. No, that’s not true. We had a lot of people who were fighting for Russia’s democracy and freedom, and we can be proud of that as well.”
It’s not hard to understand why Putin would not like this historical interpretation. Earlier this year opposition protests swept across Russia, and Putin has shown little tolerance for dissent.
This is not to say, however, that Russia today is reminiscent of 1917. Today’s economic conditions, for one, are not nearly as bad. “As Bolsheviks were saying 100 years ago, workers do not have anything to lose but their chains. Now workers have their cars and plasma TV sets and mobile phones,” Zygar says.
Nor is Russia’s main opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, a modern-day Lenin. Navalny is a blogger and anti-corruption activist who intends to run for president of Russia in 2018. Navalny sparked protests by making a viral YouTube video alleging that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev had secret riches, including palaces and yachts. “Lenin was much more about comforting the afflicted, while Navalny is more about afflicting the comfortable,” Sam Greene, director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, explained in an interview.
Still, 1917 poses a narrative challenge for the Kremlin. How do you frame this momentous event? The Bolshevik revolution led to civil war and later to the terror of Joseph Stalin, whose legacyremains controversial in Russia. Some people remember the Soviet Union fondly, others see it as a dark period. Open debate could spark divisions in society.
So for now, Project 1917 will have to live on the Internet. Zygar says that this kind of project simply couldn’t happen in the traditional media. A major television channel approached Project 1917 about doing a show based on its content, but then apparently got scared.
“Those in power are quite conservative, they consider television to be the method to control minds…We don’t have any quality newspapers, we don’t have any normal TV channels,” Zygar says. “All the independent journalism is on the Internet. All the investigations, all the real news, all the really important issues are discussed there.”
Project 1917 has hundreds of thousands of followers on the social network VKontakte, proving that social media remains a relatively free oasis in an increasingly repressive environment.
But for how long? Since the opposition protests of 2011 and 2012, largely organized on social media, Putin has been cracking down on the Internet. Authorities can block web sites, for example, without a court order. A state-friendly oligarch took over VKontakte. Just last month Putin banned virtual private networks, which can be used as circumvention tools enabling Russians to see censored Web sites. Project 1917 is not blocked, probably because it is not calling people into the streets.
But as Project 1917 demonstrates, social media is not simply a tool for sparking street demonstrations. It also helps ensure that history will not be forgotten.
The Russian Revolution won’t be televised, but it will be discussed.