The Russian Revolution and Public History: Expanding America’s Story

Susan Smith-Peter

This article is part of a SEEB series written and organized by Jennifer Wilson on the “Public Humanities.” For more information on this series, see this post.

All of Russia was talking. At every street corner and shop, Russians were taking part in a flood of debate. So say many eyewitness accounts of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. As an associate professor of history at the College of Staten Island in the City University of New York, I wanted to recreate this dialogue, at least to some degree, both in my class and by presenting the story of the Russian Revolution to the public. Later, this experience informed my ideas of how Slavists can interact with the larger field of public history as part of public humanities.

The class I chose for my experiment was HST 701, Historical Methods, the introductory class for our History MA program. As a class, we learned about different historical schools and then saw how these approaches shaped how historians wrote about the Russian Revolution. In addition, because our department had recently received approval for its Advanced Certificate in Public History program, I decided to share the class’s work with the public through an exhibit at the New York Public Library (NYPL). The library’s rich collection of Slavic materials has been an inspiration for my work, as well as that of other scholars, and presenting a selection of this collection would draw attention to these holdings, which have been distributed among different divisions since the closure of the Slavic and Baltic Division in 2008.  

While working on the rich collection of Russian photography at the NYPL for another project, I had come across an album from Bessie Beatty, one of the Americans who wrote about the revolution in her book, The Red Heart of Russia, which the class could read and compare with the photographs in the album. From this beginning, an exhibit focusing on American perspectives on the Russian Revolution took shape, through which we would explore how Americans presented the March and November Revolutions to the world.  

Halfway through the class, a routine catalog search showed that the NYPL had the John Reed collection of posters and proclamations. Among them was the printed declaration from Lenin announcing the fall of the Provisional Government and the arrival of the new Bolshevik government.  Reed had described in Ten Days that Shook the World how he had tossed these proclamations out of a car the night of the November Revolution.  Now, here was a copy of this proclamation that he had saved himself. It was an easy choice for the exhibit.

The Russian Revolution: American Perspectives,” an exhibit at The New York Public Library, Nov. 8-19, 2017.

Creating the exhibit itself required a synthesis of researching the history and selecting the objects that could convey that history. The class, in addition to reading classic works of history including on the Russian Revolutions, also analyzed the Americans’ photograph albums about the Russian Revolution held at the NYPL, and collectively came up with a checklist of items to exhibit. One of my students found a poster representing the Bolshevik Revolution as a red wave sweeping away the clergy and bourgeoisie, and successfully argued that this Soviet poster should be the central visual piece of the exhibit. We met with members of the NYPL exhibitions team to discuss our vision for the exhibit, providing the students (and myself) with real-world experience in the process of curating an exhibit.

The show, titled “The Russian Revolution: American Perspectives,” was open November 8–19, 20171 during which time I gave tours for college students and found that there was a real interest in the topic. I also organized a one-day event at which I and other scholars of U.S.-Russia relations (including William Bensonhunt, David Fogelsong, Lyubov Ginzburg, and my MA student Peter Scasny) took part. It was well attended and the audience had many questions about Russian-American relations, both in 1917 and today. The semester after the class had ended, my colleague at the College of Staten Island, who was teaching many of my former students in his MA class, asked me, “What did you do to them?  All they want to talk about is the Russian Revolution.” It seemed a little bit of the festival of talk that marked the revolution itself had made its way across time and space.

This semester, as I taught HST 718, Public History, I began to think more about what this particular experience might have to offer the field as a whole. As it is presently practiced, public history is a field that trains professionals to present history to the public in museums, historical societies, parks and elsewhere. The professional body, the National Council on Public History, provides a framework of case studies and theoretical works on its website that helps to define it.2 One of the aims of public history is to provide communities with access to their own history by collecting and presenting it..

The 1917 exhibit on the other hand provides a framework by which to have a public history that brings in global as well as American stories.

Russian-American relations are not without consequence, both in the past and today and so it is important that it also be included in public history. This is an opportunity for Russianists and other Slavists to get involved in reaching the public. Public historians are committed to telling a diverse range of stories, but few of them have a background in the histories or languages of other countries.  Slavists could partner with public historians in institutions around the country to show that America has been engaging the world for a long time. Programs like the College of Staten Island’s Advanced Certificate on Public History can teach its students how to tell the many stories of America in the world and the world in America. In this way, we can get Americans talking about the world.

Susan Smith-Peter in front of the NYPL exhibit.

1 (Accessed May 25, 2018).

2 (Accessed May 25, 2018).

Susan Smith-Peter is associate professor of history at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York. She is the author of Imagining Russian Regions: Subnational Identity and Civil Society in Nineteenth-Century Russia (Leiden: Brill, 2018) and has published widely on regions and regionalism.

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