1917-2017: the social legacy of a socialist revolution

By Andy Willimott, Lecturer in Modern Russian and Soviet History, University of Reading

With the centenary of the 1917 October Revolution approaching, historians who focus on this period, like me, find ourselves in demand. As well as highlighting the facts of Russia’s second revolution that year, we often find ourselves focusing on the turning points, the personalities, and the politics.

Of course, it’s impossible to view the events of 1917 without considering those that followed. The popular uprising of that momentous year could be viewed as a mere punctuation mark in a story that takes in five-year plans, Stalin, the Gulag and a reign of Terror.

But the socialist revolution in Russia was about more than just Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the birth of a new state.

It provided the opportunity to dream of a completely different society—a new approach to the way people lived and interacted. Centuries of tradition and entrenched assumptions were swept away. Young revolutionaries, in particular, were encouraged to call into question social institutions, the family, the home, and marriage in a mission for equality.

“It was a moment when nothing was off limits and everything was called into question”

Among other things, 1917 precipitated a youth revolution. Young people organised themselves into committees and communes, looking for new approaches to everything they could think of. It was a moment when nothing was off limits and everything was called into question: education, law, religion, work, sex.

For a country that had until a few months before been run by an absolute monarch with feudal powers, the speed of the switch was astonishing. While the methods were uniquely socialist and specific to the context of Russia at that time, many of the ideals to which participants strove appear remarkably modern to our eyes. Feminism, racial equality, and freedom of speech can all be identified. Attempts at communal living were designed to free women and children from the drudgery of the kitchen and the laundry. Chores were split fairly between men and women. The same thinkers who motivated Henry Ford’s approach to industrial production in the US, inspired a managerial approach to timetabling recreation and fun in Russia.

Of course, the utopia was short-lived, imperfect, and never universal. And while new freedoms for some opened up, many others were soon crushed under the weight of central control.

Yet there was something beautiful and remarkable in the efforts inspired by 1917. It was a rare moment in time when anything seemed possible.

Read more about the social aspects of the Russian revolution in the article ‘People of the Future’ in the October issue of History Today magazine, and in my new book Living the Revolution: Urban Communes & Soviet Socialism, 1917-1932, out now.