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IU scholar in demand as historians mark 100th anniversary of Russian Revolution

Nov 3, 2017

Indiana University historian Alex Rabinowitch has been traveling the world this year. He has made several trips around the United States and to Europe and has journeyed to Moscow and St. Petersburg three times in recent months to participate in international conferences on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He has also been interviewed for news articles and podcasts.

Alex Rabinowitch
Alex Rabinowitch speaks at the Russian Historical Society in March 2017.

“It’s been a very busy year,” he said.

A professor emeritus of history, Rabinowitch is a leading scholar of the revolution, especially in 1917 Petrograd when the Bolsheviks came to power. The anniversary year is being widely commemorated by historians, who still try to decipher its historical and contemporary significance.

“We’re talking about one of the single most important events of the 20th century, maybe the most important event,” he said. “So much of what happened in the 20th century can be traced back to it.”

Rabinowitch is the author of three widely praised books on the revolution: “Prelude to Revolution: The Petrograd Bolsheviks and the July 1917 Uprising”; “The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The 1917 Revolution in Petrograd”; and “The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd.” “The Bolsheviks Come to Power” was the first Western study of the revolution published in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and it has been published in close to a dozen foreign languages.

As one of the first Western scholars to conduct extensive archival research in the Soviet Union and later in Russia, Rabinowitch found evidence that challenged the idea of the October revolution as no more than a well-organized coup without significant popular support. He continues to conduct research, spending about two months each year working in Russian archives, with a focus on the evolution of the Soviet political system during the Russian civil war.

His interest in Russia came naturally: His parents fled Russia after the Bolsheviks took power. His father was a prominent scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and later co-founded the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which warned of the dangers of nuclear weapons.

Rabinowitch and his twin brother were born in London and moved at a young age to the U.S. They grew up among an East Coast Russian émigré community that included novelist Vladimir Nabokov; Alexander Kerensky, prime minister of the Russian Provisional Government that was overthrown by the Bolsheviks; and Michael Karpovich, one of the founders of Slavic studies in America.

His parents and their friends had high hopes for Russia’s February Revolution, which deposed Czar Nicholas II, and were bitterly disappointed by its outcome.

“People like Kerensky were the losers in a power struggle after the fall of the czar,” Rabinowitch said. “The Bolsheviks won out in a revolution, supported by workers, peasants and soldiers.” Rabinowitch’s parents were forced to leave, and they had a very negative view of the revolution.

He embraced that view as a young man, but later he developed a more nuanced understanding as a scholar conducting research in original sources. However the revolution began and evolved, it led eventually to the brutal regime of Josef Stalin. Reaction to Bolshevism helped bring Hitler to power in Germany and led to World War II, followed by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race.

It remains important today, with would-be revolutionists looking to Russia for inspiration and others citing it as an example of the dangers of extreme ideology. For Rabinowitch, a key lesson is “the importance of solving social and political problems before they reach a point where a significant part of the population sees revolution as its only alternative for achieving a better life, which is what happened in Russia.”

While historians around the world are using the centennial to re-examine the revolution, the meaning of the event remains deeply politicized, especially in the United States and Russia.

The anniversary has had relatively little serious attention in American news media. Rabinowitch said that reflects remaining hostility from the Cold War and anger toward the current authoritarian Russian government for its meddling in U.S. elections.

The Vladimir Putin regime, concerned most of all with maintaining political stability, has discouraged commemoration of the revolution. Rather, it promotes the traditional Russian values of nationalism, political order and religious orthodoxy. At the same time, Russian scholars have begun producing high-quality contributions to the historiography of the revolution. And there is a great deal more for historians to discover, including how the revolution played out in rural areas and among minorities.

“Based on my continuing research in Russian archives, I happen to believe there’s an awful lot of important source material in Russian archives that hasn’t been studied to this day and that can help us better understand the revolution,” Rabinowitch said. “We’ll never know exactly what happened or why, and all our reconstructions – including mine – are influenced by our experiences. But we can at least try to get a fuller and more accurate picture than we have now. I hope that the centennial helps to achieve that.”

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