Russian Revolution: An awkward moment for Putin 100 years on

Story highlights

  • Russian Revolution began on International Women's Day in 1917
  • A liberal government ruled for 8 months before Communism took hold

Moscow (CNN)One hundred years ago on Wednesday, a food shortage in Russia triggered riots on the streets of the capital Petrograd and kicked off the Russian Revolution, a chain of events that would change the course of world history.

But those very same streets in what is now St. Petersburg have been quiet all week -- there are no plans for the kind of parade or flyby put on for World War II commemorations, and certainly no president around to pay his respects to the fallen.
    That's because 1917 is an awkward year in history for the Kremlin, especially President Vladimir Putin, who oozes nostalgia for the glory days of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union but would rather not remind his people of the power of dissent.
    "The Russian government won't mark the 100th anniversary," said Sam Greene, Director of the Russia Institute at King's College London.
    "They are trying to construct a narrative of uninterrupted power and stability. So something like 1917 is an uncomfortable fact that doesn't fit in with that."

    The Russian Revolution on Twitter

    Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky (left) led the Russian Provisional Government after the February Revolution.
    The Russian Revolution was carried out in two parts -- the one that began in March is known as the February Revolution, as the old Julian calendar showed the month to be. It is the better known October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power and ushered in communism under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.
    There is a fear that this first phase, however, will be lost from the Russian consciousness -- many Russians, especially the youth, think the country went from an empire under tsarist rule straight to Lenin's communism, according to journalist and author Mikhail Zygar.
    Zygar is behind the digital Project 1917, which tells the stories of the revolution in real time, in a blog-like format and on social media through hundreds of historical characters.
    "We tried to present it as if everyone during the Russian Revolution had a Twitter account. So it's now a bit like following the revolution live on a Facebook news feed," Zygar said.
    "Young Russians aren't reading books the same way older Russians did, so we are bringing them these stories to their mobile phones in a way they can understand."
    The site launched in Russian in November and an English site followed in January, and has since then been building up to the March 8 protests.
    The project will follow the revolution through the whole year, but Zygar wants to highlight the time that followed the February Revolution, when Russia was ruled by a provisional government. It lasted just eight months, but many historians say it was the most liberal period in the country's history.
    That government abolished the death penalty, gave women the right to vote, and confirmed freedom of speech and freedom of the press.
    "It's very important for the young generation to know that part of Russian history, that democratic republic that only existed for eight months, and the tragic end of that first Russian democracy," he said.
    "It's 100% non-fiction," Zygar said, adding that he and his team had been collecting diaries, letters, telegrams and articles for the past year.
    But Project 1917 is not just a history lesson -- it is a colorful celebration of Russia's artists, intellects and philosophers of the time and a reminder of how international the city of St. Petersburg once was.

    International Women's Day

    The Russian Revolution began when women protesters marked International Women's Day on the streets of Petrograd, calling for bread and peace as World War I raged on and food stocks dried up. Others joined them and 100,000 people were soon on the streets, clashing with police.
    The is reflected on Project 1917, when on Wednesday French poet Maurice Paleologue "live posted" that there was "great agitation in Petrograd all day."
    "Processions have been parading the main streets. At several points the mob shouted for 'Bread and peace!'" he wrote.
    A week later, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, ending more than 300 years of autocratic tsarist rule, leaving the Russian Empire to crumble.
    Vladimir Lenin led the the Bolshevik October Revolution and became leader of the Communist Party.
    After the eight-month rule of the provisional government, Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks took power and rebranded as the Communist Party and formed the Soviet Union. And after Lenin's death, Josef Stalin became the nation's leader, as well as one of the world's most brutal dictators in modern history -- tens of millions are believed to have been killed under his three-decade rule.
    But his government also brought stability to Russia and led it to victory during World War II, parts of history President Putin prefers to remember.
    "This government has tried very hard to portray itself as the heir of both the Soviet Union and tsarist Russia," Greene said.
    "But it doesn't want to explicitly take a side in the revolution. If it says it was or was not justified, it is going to make friends among some and alienate a lot of others."
    Putin has sent mixed messages on his feelings about communism, but his love for a powerful Russia is clear. He has described the union's dissolution as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century and in 2000 his government revived the Soviet national anthem, with revised words.

    Russians divided

    A committee tasked with marking historical events in Russia said it was planning some low-key cultural events and a conference toward the end of the year.
    Committee member Konstantin Mogilevsky, from the Russian Historical Society, said they preferred to consider the revolution, the civil war that followed and the formation of the Soviet Union as a whole, as scholars had agreed to several years ago when redesigning the school curriculum on 1917.
    Russian Communist Party members marked the 99th anniversary of the October Revolution last year.
    He said there was no need to mark the beginning of the revolution, nor to celebrate the eight-month provisional government as a time of liberalism and democracy.
    "I wouldn't throw around this term 'liberalism' about this short period. There was an Imperial Duma functioning in Russia before 1917 for 11 years and not one law could pass through without its approval," he said, referring to the Russian parliament.
    "A few months under the Russian provisional government does not compare with this."
    Ignoring the February Revolution may be a politically savvy decision -- according to a poll by the Levada Center in January, 43% of 1,600 respondents said they had either never considered the importance of the February Revolution or that it was "difficult to say" what they thought of it. Only 13% said it was a progressive step forward.
    And Zygar's fear that many young Russians may not know about these events is not unfounded.
    Yan Bakanov, a 17-year-old IT student at the St. Petersburg State Technological Institute, admits he knows nothing at all about the February Revolution.
    When asked about the impact of revolutions in Russia, he said: "Revolutions have both sides. I'd say they've had neither a positive nor negative impact."