2016 Archives

SMU professor helped organize St. Petersburg conference on lessons of Russian revolution

What happens to idealistic revolutions and why?

July 11, 2016

DALLAS (SMU)One hundred years ago, a world that had long known monarchy, empire, and briefly democracy and a republic, was introduced to a new form of government: Communism, which rose to power with the fall of Tsarist Russia.

SMU history professor Daniel T Orlovsky
Daniel Orlovsky 

On the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a gathering of the world’s leading historians of Russia met at the European University St. Petersburg, Russia, from June 9-11 for a conference co-organized by Southern Methodist University (SMU) history professor Daniel Orlovsky with colleagues from The European University and the Institute of History, Russian Academy of Sciences. The international colloquium was titled “The Epoch of War and Revolution, 1914-1922.”

“There’s a new round of confrontation and diplomatic conflict between Russia and the west,” Orlovsky says. “The real question is how official Russia, the government, Putin, the media and the academic establishment in general will treat this centennial, and how this may manifest itself in our sessions among participants or from the audience, which will be large,” Orlovsky adds.

While contemporary interpretations of the centennial may vary, the impact of Russia’s revolution on the past century is undeniable.

“The Russian Revolution was actually two revolutions, the collapse of Tsarism in February and the rise of the Bolsheviks in October,” says Orlovsky, who helped fund the conference with a prestigious grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

“The February revolution is a model of revolutions that collapse authoritarian regimes and attempt to build a liberal or socialist world, but often don’t work and lead to new authoritarian regimes,” Orlovsky adds. “It’s an important question: Why does a regime fall apart, and why do more liberal successors fail?”

The Russian story has been echoed in other idealistic revolutions in the 100 years since – most recently in the color revolutions of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and in the Middle East.

Studying where Russia’s revolution went off the democracy rails is important, says Orlovsky, because in many ways the modern world has similarities to 1916.

“Nationalism is still a big issue, ethnic problems persist, the threat of domestic upheaval and terrorism were there then as they’re here now,” Orlovsky says. “The Russian Revolution itself has endured as a powerful model for people, but outcomes differ. The biggest controversy of the conference will be over the larger questions: What did the revolution means for Russia and the world, what is its significance for today and is it a model for change around the world?”

Spirited debate took place at the conference over the parameters of the Revolution, its periodization, the role of such factors as ethnicity, leadership cults, foreign policy, the role of language and symbols, gender, the nature of power, emotions, etc. The concluding discussion praised the renewal of scholarly interest in Revolution as an enduring script in historical memory.

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