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Interpreting the Russian Revolution

The Language and Symbols of 1917

Orlando Figes Boris Kolonitsk, II Boris Kolonitskii, II



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Yale University
11 October 1999
"This is the first book in any language to offer a comprehensive analysis of the political culture of the Russian Revolution. Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii examine the diverse ways that language and other symbols-including flags and emblems, public rituals, songs, and codes of dress-were used to identify competing sides and to create new meanings in the political struggles of 1917. The revolution was in many ways a battle to control these systems of symbolic meaning, the authors find. The party or faction that could master the complexities of the lexicon of the revolution was well on its way to mastering the revolution itself.

The book explores how key words and symbols took on different meanings in various social and political contexts. ""Democracy,"" ""the people,"" or ""the working class,"" for example, could define a wide range of identities and moral worlds in 1917. In addition to such ambiguities, cultural tensions further complicated the revolutionary struggles. Figes and Kolonitskii consider the fundamental clash between the Western political discourse of the socialist parties and the traditional political culture of the Russian masses. They show how the particular conditions and perceptions that colored Russian politics in 1917 led to the emergence of the cult of the revolutionary leader and the culture of terror."
By:   , , , ,
Imprint:   Yale University
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 235mm,  Width: 156mm,  Spine: 2mm
Weight:   544g
ISBN:   9780300081060
ISBN 10:   0300081065
Pages:   208
Publication Date:  
Audience:   College/higher education ,  Professional and scholarly ,  Professional & Vocational ,  A / AS level ,  Further / Higher Education
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Reviews for Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917

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 only marginally a linguistic Phenomenon. More relevant is the discussion of what was meant by class. Figes (History/Birkbeck 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 had idea, but still a theme in search of evidence. (Kirkus Reviews)

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