It is one of the seminal and seismic events of the last 100 years—“Ten Days That Shook the World,” as a young American eyewitness, John Reed, so memorably called it—yet the Russian Revolution of 1917 has receded from collective memory, certainly in America. With the centennial of the Revolution taking place this month, the students and faculty of Vassar’s Russian Studies Department are making a determined, multifaceted effort to change that on campus. That effort encompasses a film festival, a distinguished visiting historian, and a conference organized by the department with the intention of engaging students.
The department’s 1917 Revolution Film Festival, featuring a half-dozen classics by some of the most famous names in early Soviet cinema, is already well under way, with 7:00pm screenings every Wednesday through December 6. Campus filmgoers still have the opportunity to see the 1934 documentary Three Songs About Lenin (Dec. 6, Rocky 300), which sought to portray the impact of the late Soviet leader on the liberation of Central Asian women. Perhaps most fascinating of all, on November 29 in Taylor 203, the festival will showcase a 1924 comedy that parodies American stereotypes of early Soviet Russia and even includes a gun-toting cowboy creating havoc in the Bolshevik capital. It’s called The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.
The final two days of November promise to be the height of the centennial observance on campus. That same Wednesday, November 29, Vassar Russian Studies students will convene the conference “1917-2017: Contexts and Consequences of the Russian Revolution,” at 3:30 pm in Rocky 300. All-student panels will discuss various aspects of three topics: “Getting Behind the Roots and Actual Events of the Revolutions of 1917”; “Understanding Revolutionary Aesthetics of the New World: Cultural Impacts of the Social, Ideological, and Political Metamorphosis”; and “Politics, War, Intervention: What Were the International Reactions to the Events of 1917?”
The next day, Thursday, November 30, at 5:30 pm, Professor Paul Bushkovitch from Yale University will deliver the lecture “Making Sense of 1917: Origins and Consequences.” Bushkovitch contends that changes in the interpretations of Russian history that have happened since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 1991—particularly in regard to the view of 19th-century Russia—make it more, not less, difficult to understand the events of 1917 today.
The range of centennial events means that Russian Studies majors like Zachary Brashear ’18, who will present at the conference, will be kept pretty busy through November. Brashear did not study Russian back in high school in Sterling, Kansas, but when he arrived at Vassar his sister Anna, of the class of 2015 (a German major), told him the Russian Studies department was “lots of fun,” and he decided to check it out. By the time he was a sophomore, he was a research assistant in the department, and the past year found him studying in both St. Petersburg and Moscow, which were appropriately eye-opening experiences.
“There’s a lot of fascination with Russia,” he says, “and a lot of it has to do with the phenomenon of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, which lingered into the ’90s. The global conflict between the U.S. and Russia has its roots in the Revolution and what the Soviet Union morphed into.”
Brashear’s presentation will combine his interest in Russia with another passion: music. “The music of the Revolution was electrifying,” he says, “rousing anthems with lyrics that can be quite graphic, and very descriptive, full of pathos. There’s a heightened sensibility of the importance of what was happening then, that your life was but a small part of a big movement. The feeling of a collective movement was absolute.”
Having met people who can still remember waiting three hours in line for bread, Brashear is skeptical of “fellow American liberal arts students fascinated with communism who are unaware of the consequences for Russians.” But, he adds, the Revolution was “a movement with huge effects on the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s incredibly interesting to study the root.”