Mikhail Zygar used to run Russia's premier independent news channel. Now he's turning to the past with an ambitious online project that reimagines 1917 through the lens of social media. Here, Mikhail explains how he arrived at the idea and his hopes for the future of Russian civil society
In today’s Russia the space for real journalism is very limited. Not because of a lack of press freedom, but because of a lack of political process: we have no events to cover, nothing is happening. Most journalists cover pseudo-news. In 2015 I was editor in chief of TV Rain (an independent TV station), and I was planning to resign. TV Rain used to cover major events live – the protests in Russia in 2011-12, Maidan in Ukraine – but by 2015 it seemed that everything was over. I decided that it would be great to find a completely novel news agenda, to have my own parallel universe to observe and to cover.
This is simultaneously the most important and the most forgotten period in Russian history
A lot of people do not watch the news and do not follow major political topics but still need some profound analytical information and background about what is happening and why. With all this in mind I started thinking about undertaking a huge historical project – an art and a media project, really – about the revolution. This became Project1917.
Why go back to the same old historical events? Because this is simultaneously the most important and the most forgotten period in Russian history. It is not discussed at all in Russia. It’s easy to see why 1917 has been officially neglected. Before 1991, the revolution was the sacred page in history. But to be honest, during perestroika it wasn’t taken seriously. It was a joke. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union Lenin had already lost his halo as a communist saint and became a source of humour. During perestroika and in the 1990s, new materials were being published on the repressions and the bloody phase of the revolution. That was the last time that 1917 and its aftermath were discussed in public. After that, society lost interest in history – and that part of history in particular. Until Putin.
Now, history has once again become an instrument of national ideology and propaganda. And in this sense, 1917 is a very uncomfortable period, one without role models or obvious “good guys”. Nicholas II is obviously a loser, not a great emperor to be proud of: he made so many terrible mistakes that he cannot be used as a propagandistic symbol. Lenin, on the other hand, was a revolutionary who destroyed the tsarist empire, which still serves as the basis for claims to Russia’s superpower status today. At least Stalin managed to restore the empire. And on top of all this, 1917 was the year of the birth of Russian democracy. Between the February and October revolutions in that year, we had the first Russian republic. That brief window of Russian democracy is not very well known at all, either inside or outside Russia – for obvious reasons.
Given all this confusion and forgetfullness, we wanted to use Project1917 to revolutionise the process of speaking about history. So we used the social network as a genre. We transform private resources – letters, documents, memoirs – into the format of a modern social network. It’s comprehensive, and at the same time, it appeals to younger people. Younger generations do not consider the process of getting information from their mobile phone to be “reading”: it’s something different for them. When we transform the information we have into a social network format we make it much more readable for a huge number of people. I really believe that it’s a powerful genre for telling a historical story.
Our core team are young historians, people who have just graduated from Russian universities. When we started collecting raw material, we had something like 100 people to watch. Then it was 200, then in a couple of months we had 900, then 1,500. We could not stop the process. The more we looked for sources the more incredible diaries we came across. Professional academic historians act as our consultants. Now we have something like 20 people working for us almost on a daily basis, including designers, IT specialists, photographers, video producers, plus dozens of volunteers who are still collecting primary sources, still looking for new things in the archives.
The revolutionary period was shaped by the people. It’s important to draw a picture of every character who participated
This popular-academic approach to the individuals of 1917, I think, carries an added significance. In the events of 100 years ago, Russian civil society played a great role. These days there is a presumption that the “people” didn’t matter when it comes to Russian history: major decisions were always taken by “rulers”. But the revolutionary period was actually shaped by the people. It’s important to draw a very generous picture of each and every character who participated, and this is what the Project1917 format allows. This is also where our work chimes with contemporary Russian society. Our project is not about today, and I do not see any real parallels between the governments of Nicholas II and Putin. But the changing role of civil society is once again key.
In 2011-12, when we saw huge protests in Moscow and other cities, many people had the illusion that political transformation could be quick. But nothing happens overnight. Russia is a very big country and that process should take longer. Since 2012, civil society has shown its face for the first time. People are trying to do their best to make the nation more educated, more comfortable to live in: there are new volunteer projects, new charity funds, citizens who understand that they can be responsible for others, that they can change anything they want to be changed.
In this sense, our work is a popular education project. It does not affect the political process: the elections are still considered useless. No one believes in any electoral political success, but people do believe in the possibility of developing real cultural, educational, scientific, business and charity projects in a way that simply doesn’t hold for political activity. This might not be a revolutionary change just yet, but I see society becoming much more responsible. And that’s good news.
Text: Mikhail Zygar
The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution runs until December 2017 at the Calvert 22 Foundation