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The Language and Symbols of 1917

by Orlando Figes & Boris Kolonitskii

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-300-08106-5
Publisher: Yale Univ.

            An original but not very successful attempt to illuminate the political culture of the Russian Revolution by looking at its language and symbols.

            The book purports to be about “the ways in which language was used to define identities and create new meanings in the politics of 1917,” but much of the text relates to subjects only peripherally connected with this definition.  The initial chapter, for example, deals with the ways in which the tsar was undermined by the rumors that the tsarina was pro-German, or that Rasputin was running the government, or that Russian defeats were caused by treason in high places.  Similarly, the semireligious cult of revolutionary leaders, first Kerensky, and then Lenin and Kornilov, seems marginally a linguistic phenomenon.  More relevant is the discussion of what was meant by “class.”  Figes (History/Birbeck Coll., England;  A People’s Tragedy:  The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, 1997) and Kolonitskii (a researcher at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg) argue that the concept of class didn’t exist until it was defined by language.  There was instead a strong sense of Russians as “laboring people” united by a common sense of injustice and exclusion from society.  The authors argue convincingly that class was a term flexible enough to unite diverse groups in a common struggle for human rights.  They also believe that the terminology of revolution was foreign to most peasants but that they were not monarchists.  The authors’ most original argument may be that the peasantry shared a strong belief in “socialism,” and that hatred of the bourgeoisie had a “strange mass appeal.”  They conclude that the symbolic language of revolution came from the socialists, and “theirs was not a discourse of compromise.”  Perhaps that helps us explain, they suggest, why the Russian Revolution was so violent.

            Not a bad idea, but still a theme in search of evidence.