The revolution Putin wants to ignore

Story highlights

  • Emily Parker: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a defining event of the 20th century.
  • Russia's President Putin is refraining from celebrating the revolution, writes Emily Parker
  • But Project 1917, which was founded to create social media forums about the revolution, is allowing Russians to celebrate it, she writes

Emily Parker is the author of "Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices From the Internet Underground" and a former member of the Policy Planning staff at the US State Department. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)Russian President Vladimir Putin would rather ignore the Russian revolution, which marks its 100th anniversary this year. But in the Internet age, it's impossible to erase history. Ordinary Russians are commemorating the revolution on social media, the last platform for free expression in Russia.

Why is Putin worried about something that happened 100 years ago? For starters, Russia's strongman does not want to draw attention to a popular uprising that toppled an empire.
The Russian revolution was, in fact, two revolutions. The February Revolution of 1917 bought down Czar Nicholas II and ushered in a period of liberal reforms. Months later, in what is known as the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government. The October Revolution led to years of civil war and ultimately, to the creation of the Soviet Union. (The 100th anniversary of the "October revolution" actually occurs in November due to the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars.)
    The Russian Revolution was one of the defining events of the 20th century. Yet Putin reportedly told his advisers that it would be unnecessary to commemorate the anniversary. There was no national holiday to mark the beginning of the uprising. Russian television followed the Kremlin's lead in playing down the event.
    Emily Parker
    But Russian social media users refused to observe the official silence.
    The journalist and author Mikhail Zygar founded Project 1917, which creates daily social media feeds featuring the statements of those who lived through the events a century ago. You can follow revolutionary figures like Lenin and Trotsky on Facebook, Instagram, VKontakte (the Russian version of Facebook) as well as on the Project 1917 app and Web site, which has an English version. The project describes itself as "The best social network in history: all the users died a long time ago."
    Project 1917's content comes from diaries and other historical documents, converted into social media posts. The posts span the events of 1917, covering the February Revolution, the October Revolution and all the turmoil in between.
    Czar Nicholas II abdicated the throne as a result of the February Revolution, and he and his family were executed the following year. What did he do in the meantime? In August, the deposed czar posted a status update in which he took a pleasant walk, learned he was being sent away to an unknown location, and also read some Sherlock Holmes:
    "It was a wonderful day, and we took a walk with a great deal of pleasure. After lunch I learned that we are being sent, not to the Crimea, but to one of the distant provincial towns three or four days' journey to the east. But where I could not learn. The Palace Commander does not know. We all tried to guess. We chopped down and knocked over a large fir tree in the clearing near the path. There was a short, warm storm. During the evening I read aloud A Study in Scarlet by C. Doyle."
    Project 1917 has journalistic roots. Zygar is founding editor-in-chief of the independent media outlet Dozhd. He wanted to start Project 1917 because he was he was tired of covering Putin's official line. "The current news agenda sometimes looks like, as (US President) Trump says, fake news," he said in an interview. "A lot of events that have to be covered by Russian news media have nothing to do with reality."
    Hundred-year-old history, by contrast, has valuable lessons for the present. Project 1917 aims to change the way history is learned. Russian history tends to focus on the rulers, not the people. Zygar explains that Russians learn about emperors, secretaries general of the Communist Party and presidents, not ordinary people. This approach can make people feel that they can not influence their political situation, and that "it's up to President Putin to decide."