The Russian Revolution as Past Made Present

Mikhail Zygar, The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917.

Revolutions are about questions of time. They look to rectify injustice for a just future built from the ashes of the past. Revolutions break time and rewind the calendar to year zero. Revolutions speed up time by driving the apocalypse to the present. But revolutions are also objects of time—they become moribund when the revolutionary clock slows down, reinvigorated when it’s sped up, or become petrified with age. Revolutions are about narrative time with beginnings and ends. Revolutions are also about commemorative time by honoring martyrs, rehabilitating villains, and remembering victims. Revolutions also resurrect time as events of inspiration or foreboding in the present.

The centenary of the Russian Revolution evokes all these questions of time. Many books published to mark this world historical event reflect on its origins, meanings, and legacies. Mikhail Zygar’s The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917 is no different in this regard. It’s a book about time too. And not just to establish a narrative timeline for the Russian Revolution—1900 to 1917—but as an allegory for Russia’s present. For Zygar, today’s Russia is a modern remake of the death of the Russian empire a hundred years ago.

Written for a broad readership, The Empire Must Die will certainly attract attention, especially in Russia where Zygar’s status as founding editor-in-chief of Dozhd and his incisive All the Kremlin’s Men: Inside the Court of Vladimir Putin has garnered him a wide audience among Russia’s educated classes. Zygar has spent the year shepherding an allegoric memory of the Russian empire’s death as the mastermind of Project 1917. This incredibly innovative website provides a day-to-day retelling of the Russian Revolution through the voices of its witnesses. (Full disclosure: I do volunteer translations for the English version of Project 1917). Project 1917 also fills a broad vacuum left by the Kremlin. When asked if the Kremlin had any plans to commemorate the October Revolution, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov replied, “What’s the point of celebrating, anyway?” This has been the government’s position all year and serves as a tacit admission that the Russian Revolution is best forgotten in the sands of time.

The Empire Must Die synthesizes the methods and tone of All the Kremlin’s Men with the voices from Project 1917. The book, as Zygar explains, is “written according to the rules of journalism” and narrated “as if the characters were alive and I had been able to interview them” (ix). In another temporal twist, The Empire Must Die’s narrative is entirely in the present tense giving the reader the impression that Russia’s tumultuous first septemdecimal of the 20th century is unfolding in real time. This journalistic method, the drama of the period, the dramatism of Zygar’s characters, and his engaging and sometimes wry prose makes The Empire Must Die a pleasurable read.

The Empire Must Die tells of the story of the Tsarist governing elite committing slow suicide. But this death drive was part fate, part intransigence, and part incompetence. Indeed, Russia’s leadership at the turn of the 20th century was ill equipped or just simply unwilling to manage the three “Ms” of modernity—mass production, mass media, and mass politics—and all its tangents. This is not to say there weren’t some bright lights or forward-thinking individuals. The autocratic system produced brilliance despite itself, and Zygar brings many of these to life: Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Witte, Peter Struve, Gregory Gapon, Pavel Milyukov, Maxim Gorky, Piotr Stolypin, Leon Trotsky, Irakli Tsereteli, Alexander Kerensky, and even Vladimir Lenin among many others. The intransigence of the Tsarist system split these men into two camps: cautious reformers and fervent radicals. Each represents an age-old debate about change in Russia: will it be “from above” or “from below.”

Fate, myopia, hesitance and stupidity—yes, stupidity—stymied the former and fostered the latter. For Russia’s great Tsarist reformers—Alexander II, Sergei Witte, and Piotr Stolypin—it was too little too late. Russian terrorists assassinated Alexander and Stolypin. The hapless and aloof Nicholas II sacked Witte. The great pains the autocracy’s best and brightest went to keeping reform from above from becoming revolution from below only made the latter only more palatable, not just for the radicals, but for moderates as well. Tsarist repression further greased the slide toward revolution: the arrest and exile of revolutionaries big and small, troops shooting on peacefully protesting crowds, and the furious application of the infamous “Stolypin necktie.” Between 1907 and 1909 alone, 3,770 people were sent to the gallows. As Zygar writes, “The ordinariness of the death penalty is a sign of the times” (259). The Tsarist government’s repeated “wars on terrorism” may have scattered Russia’s revolutionaries for the short term; but it hardened their resolve for the long haul.

It is here where temporality has an interesting function in Zygar’s text. His reliance on the present tense fast forwards his characters and the world they inhabit to the present. In this respect, The Empire Must Die is an allegory on the now as much as it is a rumination on the yesterday. This past as present is further highlighted in Zygar’s footnotes which make repeated comparisons between his characters and their contexts with those of 21st century Russia. With this book, Zygar is saying Russia inhabits an eternal return of its own making. As Zygar’s final lines state, “Russian history is an illness. Our history has made us all sick. I do not want to die from this illness.” Here, the past made present transforms into premonition.

Given this, who then is Zygar’s real audience? It’s clear it’s not the Russian people—they’re presence is hardly felt. They’re cast as either an amorphous Greek chorus or voiceless subalterns with little agency. Revolution is the folly of great men with some women sprinkled along the way. Perhaps the audience is Russia’s present day middle classes and intelligentsia, who have historical agency but swing wildly between solidarity and fratricide, foresight and resignation, despair and impatience. But for the most part, Zygar’s book is for Russia’s current ruling elite and those politically active non-systemic elements that seek to change Russia. The Empire Must Die is a portal into the past where these two groups are supposed to see their reflections and take time’s lesson to heart. And the message for each is one Zygar garnered from reading those century old memoirs and documents: “All believe that their intentions were good, but, alas, looking back, they recognize the road that their good intentions have paved—and where it leads.” For Zygar, the tragedy of the Russian Revolution is “imprinted in Russia’s cerebral cortex” and it must be excised.