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Journal of Cold War Studies 2.2 (2000) 122-125

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Book Reviews

Interpreting the Russian Revolution:
The Language and Symbols of 1917

Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999. 198 pp. US$24.95.

Analysis of nonverbal communications is a tricky business, especially when such communications took place 80 years ago and are recorded only in written (hence verbal) sources. Signs and symbols have ambiguous meanings, as do catchphrases and rumors, and people with diverse convictions can appropriate them as their own. The flexibility of symbols increases their effectiveness and power, and it leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

A good example of the flexibility of symbols is found in the red flag: How did Russians understand the red flag and whom did it represent in 1917? In the 1905 and March 1917 revolutions, demonstrators often tore off the white and blue stripes of the Russian flag, leaving only the red portion. After March 1917, Petrograd was festooned with red banners. Is it then possible to claim that the red flag connoted vast popular support for the Bolsheviks?

In Interpreting the Russian Revolution, Orlando Figes and Boris Kolonitskii analyze the role of flags, symbols, and songs in 1917. They demonstrate that the red flag had a "polyvalent nature"--it was a universal symbol of the revolution and a general call for change rather than a symbol of Bolshevik power. It was thus a symbol with [End Page 122] 122which all disaffected people could identify. To support this claim, the authors note that those flying the red flag often sang the Marseillaise, which was not Lenin's favorite song (he preferred the Internationale). When the Bolsheviks took power later in the year, they usurped the symbol, which the authors believe was a crucial advantage for the Bolshevik side during the civil war. The flag, as a well-known symbol, might have won the support of people who would never have approved of Bolshevik manifestos.

Presumably, very few people study pamphlets during revolutionary events. Why should they? They assume that they already understand the situation in the streets. They piece together information from rumors; they read meaning into banners, songs, and slogans; and they try to interpret the gestures and phrases of the revolutionaries. Symbols are not merely evidence of the mood of a crowd; they also can assume an active role, serving "to sanction and legitimize the actions of the crowd" (p. 3). As Figes and Kolonitskii explain: "People were prepared to die for these symbols. They would literally risk their lives to attach a red flag to a Tsarist building" (p. 32).

In societies undergoing rapid transformation, the meanings of signs, symbols, and even words can change quickly. Russia's recent history provides us with many examples. For instance, displaying a Soviet republic's pre-Soviet flag was forbidden before 1988. Even the mention of such a flag could incur the risk of punishment, and anyone who tried to fly a republic's national colors was considered a fool (though perhaps a heroic fool). After 1989, such flags could be seen at demonstrations everywhere, in the republics as well as in Moscow. Communists and nationalists, Russians and non-Russians, all rallied behind old pre-Soviet flags, which had become the symbols of democracy and change. Then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, these same national flags antagonized the Russians who remained in the former Soviet republics. For Russian speakers, the flags became a symbol of deprivation rather than liberation. Words such as "glasnost," "democratization," and "market" underwent similarly dramatic transformations. "Perestroika" was at first a widely welcomed call for renewal, but it soon became the label for a hated policy of failure and missed opportunities. It is now difficult to know what the Russians mean when they say "perestroika."

The situation was very similar in 1917. Figes and Kolonitskii show that the term "democracy" was as much an open catchphrase then as it was in 1991: "Democracy was politically correct...