The Russian Revolution Behind Bars

By Andy Bruno, Northern Illinois U; and Mark D. Steinberg, U of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

This article was originally published in the October 2017 edition of NewsNet. 

As scholars, we sometimes ask ourselves whether what we study and teach matters outside the walls of academia. When the public thinks at all about the meaning of the Russian Revolution at its centenary, judging by scattered op-ed pieces and reviews of some of the new books on the subject, the assessments have mostly returned to familiar, and mostly negative, arguments about the leaders of the revolution and the tragedy of communism. Questions of meaning and relevance for those involved and us today have often been overlooked.

But this was not the case for the incarcerated men we taught in courses on the Russian Revolution at Danville Correctional Center, a medium security men’s prison in Illinois, as part of the Education Justice Project of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Of course, prisons and prisoners made their appearance in the first days of the revolution when crowds stormed the Peter and Paul and Shlisselburg fortresses in Petrograd to free their inmates. In many parts of the empire, jails and police stations went up in flames. Some of the beneficiaries of this revolutionary act responded exuberantly to the crowd’s invitation to “join us in freedom.” One released prisoner recalled, “I was overcome by an inexpressible, incommunicable feeling of joy, my heart hammered, it was ready to burst and fly away, to be engulfed by this whole mass of people and never to be separated from them… Hurray! Long live the revolution!”¹ The emotion in this response was as important as the facts of what happened. The revolution unleashed a flood of feelings, ranging from hope to fear, from joy to anger, from enthusiasm to disappointment.

These personal and subjective experiences were also prominent in the way our incarcerated students encountered the revolution. Historical experiences of inequality and injustice, traumatic encounters with power and violence, the madness of the street, the emotional toll of oppression, and dreams of freedom and a new life—though unfolding a century ago in distant Russia— were certainly not lost on these incarcerated men, who persistently asked hard questions about why the history of a century ago in another land might matter to us now.

One of us, Andy Bruno, became involved with the program as it was getting off the ground in 2008, first as The Russian Revolution from Behind Bars Andy Bruno, Northern Illinois University and Mark D. Steinberg, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign a tutor and then as an instructor, while the other, Mark Steinberg, has recently finished a class timed to mark the centennial of the revolution. Introducing these students to the world of 1917 and the debates about its contentious outcomes was invigorating for both of us. Rarely have we seen students so engaged, so philosophical, so hungry for the life of the mind, and so eager to draw lessons from the past. As one student put in his final paper, studying the Russian Revolution was “a search into humanity, theirs and my own.”

Since the beginning of the year, students in the most recent class pondered the ideas, hopes, and disappointments that animated the revolution across the empire. The course focused on human “experience”: what people lived through and understood, how they made sense of events and choices; the role of belief, faith, and desire in all of this. Stories of individual experience in the streets, in villages, in the corridors of revolutionary power, in the distant corners of the empire served as windows for exploring the weightiest issues of the day, including justice, freedom, power, democracy, and the future.

Students were at first dismayed by the “madhouse” (as one student put it) complexity of the revolution. In time, they came to appreciate the reality of historical complexity. This also meant eschewing simple moral lessons about who is good and who is evil in difficult times. And it meant recognizing how people with distinct experiences—women, non-Russians, workers, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals—can differently understand contested ideas such as democracy or justice.

The earlier class took a slightly different approach. It used historiographical interpretation to encourage the students to “think” through the revolution and learn the art of scholarly debate. Was the revolution a workers’ uprising? A Bolshevik coup led by a steadfast Lenin? The evil doings of that maniacal monk Rasputin? The revenge of rural society for generations of oppression? A cultural re-enactment of the French Revolution? The collapse and rebirth of a decrepit empire? The emergence of a new modern state forged in war? A propagandistic project of memory creation?

These are some of the rich tapestry of explanations that have been advanced over the last century by historians trying to account for Russia’s upheavals. Students at Danville proved remarkably apt at dissecting some of the logic and implications of historians’ competing claims.

One of our favorite moments came when discussing an influential research article by Peter Holquist that contends that mass surveillance should not be attributed simply to Russian authoritarianism or Bolshevik totalitarianism. Across Europe and the United States, the First World War spawned the modern monitoring of populations by states. Revolutionaries in Russia were to a considerable degree following a transnational pattern.

The class looked around at each other and their surroundings after talking through this argument. “You mean the modern state focuses on population surveillance,” said one of the students, considering the guard outside of the room. “Well, obviously,” he continued with the agreement of his peers. In a moment, these incarcerated students cut to the heart of how the techniques of control that accompanied modernity are ones they experience every day.

While many taking classes in the Education Justice Project were eager to join an intellectual community regardless of the content, others were in fact more skeptical about the value of studying the history of a country on the other side of the world from a century ago. Professional historians are not used to justifying the worthiness of their subject matter, especially when it involves such cataclysmic events as revolutions and wars. These classroom encounters made us think freshly about history and, indeed, about the purposes and methods of our work. Engaging with the question of the relevance of the revolution for people in prison led to some of the greatest insights, including for us.

There are many reasons to teach about the Russian Revolution in prison, but high among them is that it serves as an avenue for contemplating a distinctive, yet familiar, set of experiences, emotions, and desires. At the heart of these is surely the question of humanity—theirs and ours. Recognizing that their humanity was debased inspired people to challenge and overturn tsarism and capitalism ago. Desiring a life in which their humanity is respected, including by themselves, motivates many incarcerated students today. Freedom, which elated the released prisoners of the Russian Empire, is a dream of more than broken shackles: it is also often a vision of a life in which human dignity and capacities can thrive. This is a potent aspiration for many men and women behind bars. Our current criminal justice system makes this hard to attain, even for those who have served their time. Reforms to harsh sentencing and restoring the abrogated rights of the formerly incarcerated could go a long way toward fulfilling the promise of a more humane order without the chaos of revolution.

Andy Bruno is an Associate Professor of History at Northern Illinois University and author of The Nature of Soviet Power: An Arctic Environmental History.

Mark D. Steinberg is a Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Vice President and President-Elect of ASEEES in 2018, and most recently author of The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 and of the forthcoming ninth edition of Nicholas Riasanovsky’s A History of Russia.

¹ V. Simonovich, V novom Shlissel’burge (Moscow, 1934), 187. Quoted in Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? : Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 173.