A Silent Centenary: Students, Travellers, and the Collapse of Revolutionary Historical Awareness

Josh Black, University of Wollongong
History in the Making, Vol 6 (December 2018)


The centenary of the Russian Revolution passed by with little acknowledgement in the Russian Federation. The state opted for a minimal role in the initiation of commemorative events and practices, leaving individuals and groups to reflect on the anniversary on their own. As a result, economic and demographic forces intervened in, and indeed undermined, the commemorative experience to a significant extent. Certain demographics such as youth and young adults in Russia opted out of meaningful commemoration of the centenary, turning instead to think about the nation’s military history, recent political history, or — sadly — no history at all. International travellers and heritage tourists, by contrast, engaged with the centenary in an exchange dominated by the economic logic of commercial capitalism rather than with the considered sincerity of historiographic principles.

The experience of the Revolution’s centenary reveals something about the condition of historical consciousness in the contemporary world, and particularly in contemporary Russia. In the absence of official commemoration, demographic trends and economic logic govern historical awareness and commemorative practice. This article explores the commemorative experiences of youth and international tourists in Russia during the centenary, and sheds light on the demographic and economic forces that governed them. That such a significant historical anniversary for the nation was ignored by youth and ‘purchased’ by travellers is a testament to the collapse of authentic historical awareness in modern societies; that is, the collapse of the social desire ‘to make the process of recall as accurate as possible, so that our knowledge of the past is not confined to what is immediately relevant.’[1] It also pays to consider Hexter’s conception of historical understanding as “verisimilitude”, as a representation of ‘the happenings of the past as glimpsed through consideration of the surviving record.’[2] For youth, an authentic historical awareness would constitute a worldview not skewed by political dogmas or imperatives embedded in pedagogical programs and textbooks; for tourists, a satisfactory historical awareness is facilitated by some modes of tourism and not others. Adopting the silent centenary of the 1917 Revolutions as a case study, this paper examines the problem of historical engagement in Russian pedagogical and touristic spaces.

Russian Youth and the Problem of Historical Engagement

The first contentious point that must be raised is this: that students generally in contemporary Western and European societies are no longer adequately engaging in historical studies. In offering this problematic claim, I note that such generalisations are inherently fraught. However, scholars and educators have been debating this trend for decades. Bob Davis in the 1990s described what he felt as ‘the marginalization of history as a high school subject’ in Ontario, Canada.[3] Studies in the United States in recent years have found that high school students are struggling to ‘reason about historical topics in writing or convey an underlying understanding of the topics about which they [write].’[4] If a general trend of decline in Western students’ historical understanding and awareness can be perceived, it is not a trend which is foreign to the Russian Federation. Polling among the most successful students from Moscow’s leading universities in 2012 showed that ‘the majority rated their comprehension of the history of the Soviet Union as very superficial’.[5] When asked why this lack of awareness was the case, students suggested that they ‘did not know the historical facts’ and that ‘“there was never enough time at school to cover them.”’[6] The detectable trend of historical disengagement for students in the West is arguably paralleled in modern Russia.

A vast literature exists on the value of history education and curricula for inculcating specific socio-political values in young people. As Thomas Sherlock says, political bodies ‘attempt to socialize youth by crafting historical narratives that instil patriotic support’.[7] While this point is absolutely valid, and has been offered in countless articles and texts previously, it must be said that state promotion of an historical narrative is only one side of the inculcation process. On the other side, the youth and students need to be attentive and receptive to the narratives being given. Their disengagement has received comparatively little attention in scholarly debates. Bruce VanSledright has suggested that American history educators ‘teach defensively’, which can ‘redouble students’ desire to sleep, fidget, and otherwise disengage.’[8] Students are not without agency or autonomy. The extent of their reception of an historical narrative will often be determined by the level of interest which they have in the topic holistically. In this light, it is not insignificant that young people on the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg can actually be heard and quoted as saying that they ‘do not care about the Revolution anymore.’[9] This anecdotal evidence cannot be treated as a general representation of every young person Russia’s major cities, but nor should it be neglected as part of a growing trend of historical disinterestedness among youth. History programs in Russia may successfully instil patriotic and nationalistic political values, but they appear not to be instilling an effective historical awareness among the nation’s youth.

At this junction, it is important to delineate a model of historical awareness which is predominantly organised and hierarchized by age. Certain historical themes, events and periods are particularly striking to those older Russians who remember vividly their lives in the USSR and who shared a common, Soviet-era education and lifestyle. The Soviet historical awareness and nostalgia which permeates this older demographic does not apply to those who were born under Gorbachev and who developed political consciousness in the late Yeltsin or early Putin years. Put most simply by Boele, ‘post-socialist nostalgia is a generation-bound phenomenon.’[10] As a general rule, then, within this model, it is those younger generations who will understand less about the USSR and its revolutionary origins, and will therefore be more likely to opt out of commemorating an event which means little to them intellectually or personally. Surprisingly, this model is not altered profoundly when disparities in wealth, education and class structures are factored in. The aforementioned 2012 poll surveyed students from ‘the top three leading educational institutions in Russia’, studying in ‘different departments’, with an average age of 18.[11] Given the profile of these universities, it is deducible that young people in Russia are particularly disconnected from their national past, and that this trend transcends socio-economic divisions. The question of Russia’s disconnect with the centenary of the revolution begins to make sense in demographic terms when refracted through this aged-focused, generational model.

Furthermore, part of this problem of youth historical disengagement is structural in nature. Scholars have noted that history texts and curricula for the past ten years have dramatically favoured very recent Russian political history at the expense of the early twentieth century. These texts have been sponsored, vetted and editorialised by “Kremlin ideologists” such as former Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov.[12] In 2007, the Putin regime sponsored a set of texts written and co-written by controversial nationalist historian Alexander Filippov. These texts have been charged with ‘using the Soviet past to legitimate [the Kremlin’s] anti-West perspective’ in the mid-2000s.[13] One of these contested books included ‘a flattering final chapter on ‘sovereign democracy’ [which] served as an unsubtle promotion of Putin’s leadership.’[14] Likewise, two recent history textbooks published by Drofa and Prosveshchenie in 2015 enabled Putin’s years in power from 2000 onwards to ‘escape critical analysis’.[15] Importantly, Sherlock has pointed out that a series of more politically moderate textbooks released in the 2010s were still heavily critical of the late Boris Yeltsin and his years as President of the Russian Federation.[16] Again, students are autonomous enough to critique or ignore the narratives put before them. However, it is important to recognise that they have been delivered less than the fullest picture of Russian and Soviet history, with an overemphasis on the very recent or contemporary political past for the purpose of regime-strengthening.

The paradox here is one of simultaneous interference and silence. Having systemically influenced political history education in Russian classrooms for more than a decade, the Russian Federation in 2017 quietly opted out of revolutionary commemoration. With their focus on international relations and the Yeltsin-Putin years, the Kremlin-sponsored textbooks have fostered a culture among Russian students which concerns itself more with current politics and recent political history than the bigger picture of Russia’s turbulent twentieth century. Some have euphemised this process as “patriotic education”.[17] A 2010 study concluded that the critical stance towards the Yeltsin years and the high levels of pro-Putin political activism among urban youth were causally connected to the nuanced politics of Russia’s high school history textbooks.[18] In the quest to produce a ‘positive’ history education system with the image of Putin at its centre, the Russian state has left its younger generations with little understanding of that which preceded modern Russia, especially that difficult episode, the 1917 Revolutions.

For those young Russians who do indulge in historical interest despite the social and structural odds stacked against them, the mode of engagement typical to their generation presents further challenges for commemorative sincerity. More traditional media such as the written page or carefully curated museum exhibition are constantly supplanted by new and innovative platforms of information. In the ‘information age’ museums are akin to libraries insofar as both are shunned by youth. Where museums, exhibits and public lectures can be seen as constituting the presentation of an institutionalised historical narrative, online media such as the internet has facilitated a direct and personal contribution by young people to historical dialogues. Though often rewarding for the online participant, this creates significant issues regarding accuracy and information authenticity. In the blogosphere, information does not always need to be quoted or cited properly, and simplified narratives can be offered which are substantially incorrect in an academic sense. For example, serial blogger [berni777] writing on popular Russian blogsite LiveJournal confidently declares that in the year prior to the 1917 Revolutions, it was ‘the henchmen of the American financial circles that controlled many sectors of the Russian economy’ (@berni777, ‘Little Known Facts About the 1917 Revolution’, 27 February 2017). This model of the revolution’s causation is conspiratorial, possibly influenced by the Cold War rhetoric of the past and the hyper-nationalist sentiments of the Putinist present. Published historians contend, by contrast, that as the Tsarist Government’s budget deficit deteriorated during the First World War, the British were the key facilitators of international loans and credit.[19] The discrepancy between sound historical information and unsound online rhetoric is obvious. Hence, while the internet should never be neglected as a platform for historical interactivity, it ought never to be the sole mode by which an entire segment of the Russian population connects with significant national histories.

Beyond the accuracy of the information presented online, there are also trends surrounding content which heavily favour certain historical topics at the expense of others. As an inherently populist medium, popular history websites and blogs are often skewed toward representations of and discussions about military history. This is especially true of Russia. Trubina has observed that Russian online blogs have seen ‘an outpouring of personal recollections written by and collected from those who experienced the war and the victory first hand’.[20] In each of these blogging networks, it appears that experiences of wars, and especially of the Great Patriotic War, take pride of place because they inspire an empathetic connection to history on the part of both blogger and reader. The blogger named [labas] used a post on LiveJournal in 2007 to share a collation of translated and rudimentarily typed German primary sources with the blogosphere (@labas, ‘Sovetskie plennye’, 23 February 2007). Entitled ‘Soviet Prisoners’, the post generated significant online conversation, attracting 34 responses over four months. These responses included queries and theories about the nature and extent of German and Soviet behaviour in the war. One blogger [denmes] posted a testimonial from a grandparent about a Soviet worker placing a German corpse in a female toilet as a practical joke, ‘so that the corpse fell on the one who would open the door’ (@demnes, ‘Sovetskie plennye’ [comment], 24 February 2007). A further responder [boghdan] commented on the value of the reproduced sources celebrating ‘the fact that they are not submitted from the injured party, which would give doubts about their exaggeration’ (@boghdan, ‘Sovetskie plennye’ [comment], 24 February 2007). The issue of relatability in internet content has also been highlighted by Trubina, who writes; ‘There is something fundamental about wars that forces people to relate them’.[21] By contrast, the revolutionary history post by blogger [berni777] referred to above generated just 19 comments after the initial posting date. The first response constituted a lengthy historiographical commentary on the nature of the Russian Civil War (@kwakin_misha, ‘Little Known Facts About the 1917 Revolution’ [comment], 27 February 2017). Beyond this, the comments centred on the perceived pervasiveness of the US in Russian political history: [sunny_yuri] commented, ‘So the latest revolution in Russia is the work of the American government. All these Gorbachev-Yeltsin fed with one hand!’ (@sunny_yuri, ‘Little Known Facts About the 1917 Revolution’ [comment], 27 February 2017). For the Russian blogosphere, the War is infinitely more topical, more readily accessible and far more relatable than the Revolution, which itself feeds into other highly politicised discourses about foreign affairs and Russian sovereignty. It appears to be far easier to attract and entice meaningful historiographical conversation about the Second World War than the 1917 Revolutions in Russian cyberspaces. Given that today’s youth spend significant amounts of time there, we can infer that the history of the Revolution, from the collapse of the Romanov dynasty to the surprisingly farcical October Coup[22] is ignored by a significant cohort of Russian youngsters.

Commercial Tourism as Commemorative Engagement

There is, obviously, a comprehensive set of demographic pressures driving students and young people in Russia away from Revolutionary historical awareness. An even stronger threat to authentic historical awareness is posed by the relentlessness of commercial capitalism and its interference in cultural awareness. In making this statement, it is helpful to turn to the theory of post-postmodernism put forward by Jeffrey Nealon in his seminal text, Post-Postmodernism, Or the Cultural Logic of Just-In-Time Capitalism (2012). Reflecting on society’s current relationship with its commodities, he makes a radical distinction between the postmodern world of the late twentieth century and the post-postmodern world of our present:

…you take up a “postmodern” position if such rampant commodification remains, strictly speaking, a “problem” for your analysis…Conversely, if rampant commodification functions as a more or less neutral beginning premise for your analysis of popular culture, your position is “post-postmodern”…[23]

Essentially, Nealon suggests that we ought to have accepted the total economic commodification of our cultural existence by now, and that those who embrace this as a basic principle of popular culture are by their very nature post-postmodern.

In reflecting upon historical anniversaries such as the centenary of the Revolution, it is worthwhile asking the following question: when we surrender our historical understanding and awareness to the economic logic of popular culture and commercial capitalism, what are the consequences? When the analytical lens is focussed on the experience of tourists in cosmopolitan Moscow and St Petersburg, the case can be made that the collapse of public historical consciousness into commercial economics has the effect of limiting the potential experiences of the historical student or observer for commemoration and reflection. Tourists and international travellers contribute significantly to the cosmopolitan demographic of Russia’s political and ‘cultural’ capitals, Moscow and St Petersburg. In the months preceding the centenary, the historical engagement of this noteworthy demographic was confined to two distinct economic spaces, that of the ‘heritage tourism’ industry and that of the marketplace. In economic terms, this means that an entire demographic in both major cities connected with the nation’s revolutionary past only through a sensationalised sector of the tourist industry, or through a superficial purchasing of commodity goods. In both cases, the possible historical meanings of the Revolution become limited to a set of highly aestheticized icons and spatial settings. In one of history’s great ironies, the history of the world’s first Marxist Revolution has become tangible for some people only through the constrictive prism of commercial capitalism.

In discussing the economic principles and logic of heritage tourism, it should be acknowledged that significant differentiation can be made between definitions of heritage tourism and a more specific ‘historical tourism’. Writing in the late 1990s, Alzua et al. vaguely defined heritage tourism as ‘the consumption of art, monuments, folklore, or in other words, built heritage and cultural manifestations,’ as well as the ‘experiences pursued and motivations of travellers at destinations.’[24] The pivotal term in this definition is “consumption”, for heritage tourism is first and foremost an attempt to purchase and consume a cultural experience or understanding. It is a set of financial investments that might potentially yield a cultural and historical understanding, more about which is discussed below. Conversely, ‘historical tourism’ is a completely different phenomenon. This type of travel is, in principle, an act of studying and thinking about history and historiography in situ. It treats landscapes, exhibitions and institutions as opportunities for primary research. The travel experience is part of a broader platform of primary historical investigation. Australian war historian John McQuilton defines “history tourism” as ‘an attempt to come to grips, in part, with the broader historical framework that can give meaning to a site.’[25] Importantly, historical tourists enter the field with a clearly defined historiographical framework and historical terms of reference upon which to draw. The heritage tourist experience is governed by free market capitalism rather than historiographical analysis.

Heritage tourism is a crucial mechanism by which historical cognition in Russia has been economised and commodified. In Russia, as in most national economies, there is an international and domestic market for heritage tourism services such as guided city tours, specific experience-based tours and sight-seeing adventures. Prompted by the natural competition of the free market, tourist companies have devised Free Tours which offer short introductions to major cities across Europe, with the end goal being to inspire a generous tip from tourists. Such tips are inevitably more likely to be paid when the tourist’s domestic currency is in appreciation, rendering the exchange rate between their domestic currency and the Russian Rouble favourable to them. In making this point, it should be noted that the decisions of tourists in situ are profoundly governed by economic logic, far more so than by a desire to ensure first-class historical integrity. Even at the basic level of completing a transaction, monetary and market forces govern the decision-making processes of heritage tourists, thereby dramatically narrowing the potential prospects for a diverse and meaningful historical engagement.

The market’s job is to then satisfy the tourist’s economic logic, whilst also striving to satisfy their desire to ‘buy’ or experience a piece of Russia’s history. One Moscow-based company, ‘Moscow Free Tour’, advertises its services in explicitly economic terminology:

Always best prices in Moscow
No prepayment
No cancellation fees
100% satisfaction guarantee.[26]

One would expect such lexis from a car sales representative rather than a group of historical and cultural pundits, and yet their work does in fact constitute an industry with a very clear market demand to fill. This economic motive does not necessarily ‘hollow out’ the tourist experience; on the contrary, the information disseminated during the guided walks of ‘Moscow Free Tour’ are historically accurate and passionately delivered. What is crucial though, is that this mode of engagement with the past is entirely premised on the risky capitalist game of profit and loss. If satisfying market demand results in financial gain for the service provider, then all is well; if fortunes change, and satisfying demand does not provide financial gain, then the service cannot keep being provided. Thus, the traveller whose experience of Russian history is limited to the tourist industry loses an affordable opportunity for historical engagement.

Furthermore, if a heritage tourist surrenders control of their ‘historical adventure’ to a tourist company, free or otherwise, the risk inherent in the opportunity cost is amplified. If a tourist dedicates their day to a perusal of two or three major museums or exhibitions, they are more likely to encounter a degree of “verisimilitude” or authentic historiography in their experience. Even in Putin’s Russia, there are institutes and exhibits designed to fully reveal the turbulence of the Romanov decline and collapse, the Revolutions and the horrors of Stalinism. As the State Museum of Gulag History informs its visitors:

On October 14, 2014, President Vladimir Putin supported the initiative of Russian activists to create a monument to victims of political repression…On August 15, 2015, the Government of the Russian Federation approved a proposal for an official policy on the remembrance of victims of political repression.[27]

This is not to say that museum exhibits are without problematic political biases; one encounters dogmas in any state-sponsored version of the past. However, when one surrenders control of their tourist agenda to a commercial enterprise, the risk of a dissatisfying or historically unsound experience is higher, with the consequence being a higher opportunity cost; essentially, a day wasted. Clearly, the economic principles which govern the tourist’s historical experience carry significant risks in genuine historiographical reflection and exposition.

Along with issues of market demand, there are historiographical and aesthetic issues surrounding the public’s dependence on the tourism industry for historical engagement. Unlike an exhibition, which can present contrasting viewpoints, perspectives and interpretations in precise detail and through a variety of sensory vehicles, a tourist ‘hotspot’ relies disproportionately on aesthetic communication, an over-emphasis on the visual at the cost of historical authenticity, and sometimes at the cost of historicity altogether. The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg is one such case; formerly the Winter Palace of the Romanov dynasty, this is where the most pivotal events of the Bolshevik Revolution took place. In 2014, this institution was the tenth most visited museum in Europe.[28] Of the multiple millions of people who passed through its halls that year, however, the vast majority attended the Hermitage to sample and peruse its art collection. In fact, Russian scholars, presumably educated enough to know the Winter Palace’s significance in the Revolution, describe the Hermitage as one among many ‘famous Russian art museums’.[29] Demonstrable among academics and evident in the long queues of art enthusiasts who line up outside its gates, the Hermitage’s crucial revolutionary past is almost entirely negated by the cultural tourist project whose demand the curators seek to satisfy. This is not to say that the Hermitage’s magnificent art collection ought not to be celebrated: it is among the finest in the world. Yet, the growing popularity of the space as an art museum has occurred at the expense of touristic historical awareness of the pivotal events which took place there in November 1917.

While there is always capacity for commercial tourism to muffle and dampen the historical significance of a site or space, it is also capable of distorting and overemphasising others. For those embarking on a specifically ‘historical tourist’ endeavour, there are monuments and spaces which continue to be popularly marketed long after their historical or ideological significance has faded. This prolonging of a landmark’s touristic attractiveness is good for cultural exposure and therefore commercial activity, but can often reduce the site’s historical meaning to a set out of aesthetic properties and features. Lenin’s Mausoleum is a case in point. There are countless complex historical and historiographical questions to ask of Vladimir Lenin, his life and times, and his shrine beyond the Kremlin Wall. For many tourists, though, his Mausoleum will not raise questions about authoritarian leadership, dictatorship, ideology and history, or the uniqueness of Russia’s political past. Instead, the Mausoleum will refer only to its own image. It becomes an aestheticized touristic space, one which must be ‘seen’ and ticked off a bucket list in order to satisfy the tourist’s vague historical expectations. Writing in the 1990s, Trevor J. Smith got it terribly wrong when he claimed that in 1992 the waiting queue for Lenin’s tomb ‘disappeared altogether.’[30] It may have temporarily receded, but before long it made an astonishing comeback. Lenin biographer Sebestyen wrote in 2016, ‘two and a half decades after the collapse of the USSR, it seems the strangest of anachronisms that Vladimir Ilych Lenin can continue to draw such crowds.’[31] Sebestyen reminds us that his status as dictator is well-recognised, and ‘few people now believe in the faith he espoused.’[32] I suggest that the answer to Sebestyen’s conundrum lies in the ability of the historical tourism industry to maintain an advertising-fuelled market interest in spatio-cultural landmarks whose initial ideological significance has already petered out. These landmarks become self-referential and ‘iconic’, being regularly seen but rarely understood.

The most insidious commodification of historical memory has occurred in the form of physical memorabilia and the souvenir commodity trade. This is where the victory of capitalism over communism functions most ungraciously. Stephen Norris has written about the signs of a highly commodified history on display at the 2010 Victory Day celebrations in Russia, declaring the event’s pop concert Songs of Victory to be ‘a performance dedicated to consumption, celebrity, and a new Russia.’[33] He describes this consumption at length:

Throughout Moscow vendors sold flags and pilotki, the cap worn by Red Army soldiers. Stores had their salesclerks dress up in Soviet-era or Soviet-inspired military attire…Other stores offered free souvenirs and other Victory Day paraphernalia for making purchases. Anton Elin…declared that Russians today “consume memory like yoghurt”…[34]

Even in the context of an academic journal, Norris was compelled at the time of writing to paint a scene of unbridled commercialisation in public engagement with the Great Patriotic War. It is one thing to dress in Soviet military attire, for although this reduces the memory of the war to the aesthetics of an institutional dress, it also suggests a relatively genuine cultural commitment to preserving a national mythology about those who first wore that uniform. It is the flags and caps that make Victory Day events look more like a capitalist celebration of exuberance than a ritual of meaningful patriotic memorialisation. Even worse is the gifting of free souvenirs and knick-knacks, as if the memory of those who served in the war is without any kind of value either monetarily or socially. This is how the commercialisation and commodification of World War II in Post-Soviet Russia has been carried out. The public memory of Russia’s part in the war has been caught in the commercial web, caught by reductive forces that would happily transform the deaths of up to 20,000,000 Soviet citizens into a ‘free souvenir’.

So has this process of commercialisation influenced the thinking about and reception of Revolutionary history as well? Yes, and inarguably so. At metro stations across Moscow and St Petersburg, in public souvenir shops and in museum outlets, in shopping centres and at information desks, there are tokens and talismans that proliferate the symbols and iconography of the Revolution without any attention to its significance. This mass reproduction of Communist iconography takes place in direct opposition to the practices of government authorities in Moscow, who have begun to remove revolutionary and Soviet icons from public spaces and building facades. In stark contrast to this reimagining of public space in Russia, commodity goods are being sold with the faces of Lenin and Stalin plastered across them. The Red Star continues to make appearances in posters and postcards, the ‘hammer and sickle’ on souvenirs and small goods designed for meaningless and tokenistic consumption. In most cases, there is no historical comment printed on these objects, no historical epitaph in commemoration of the victims of political repression. There is only the commercial mass reproduction of visual and aesthetic icons whose complex and historically important meanings are negated.

A drinking mug (Figure One), purchased by the present author for analytical purposes at a Moscow metro station, is a noteworthy example of such commercial commodification in action. The portraits of both Lenin and Stalin are printed on the sides of the cup, forming a diptych separated only by the Red Star. The commodity is cheap to make, the design effortless to mass-produce industrially. Ultimately, the mug is meaningless; it can be purchased trivially and without any historical awareness or commemorative impulse, and its market appeal is centred on a set of aesthetic features which are decontextualized and reproduced for profit. Many a tourist will depart Russia with one of these purchases in their possession, and with absolutely no comprehension of the world-changing and often life-destroying actions of the individuals whose faces are printed on their souvenir. By way of this process of commodification, the history of the Revolution, like that of the Great Patriotic War in some quarters, has been reduced to a series of aesthetic icons and kitsch objects, lacking any genuine historical meaning or cultural significance. In this remarkably obnoxious gesture, capitalism celebrates its victory over communism by taking the imagery of revolution, hollowing it out, aestheticizing it, and then reproducing it for the purpose of shallow economic transactions across the Russia, and indeed the entire European continent.

20181020 #426 Russian Revolution - Lenin mug image high res

Figure One


While it is not necessarily the role of the state to set a standard historical narrative with which to brainwash younger populations and international travellers, there is clearly a void of historical unawareness left behind when state actors are not complicit in commemorative practices. Young Russians, and young people generally, are susceptible to skewed representations and histories of questionable integrity when left to engage with and commemorate the past using only school curricula, textbooks and digital platforms. Certain topics are also far more likely to escape the awareness of the young person if historical exposure is limited to the blogosphere, with blog posts about the Great Patriotic War vastly outnumbering blogs about the 1917 Revolutions. Furthermore, if the basic national narratives propagated in Russian schools are not received positively by students, then the result is nothing other than a disinterested generation of youth for whom the centenary is hardly noteworthy. With respect to Russia’s youth and student historical understanding, the consequences of state aversion to public commemoration are severe.

If the youth’s historical understanding and centenary commemorative practice are held hostage by demographic-specific pressures, then the historical and commemorative experience of international tourists in Russia is equally held hostage by commercialism. At its simplest, the consequence of abandoning commemorative practice to the economic logic of post-postmodern capitalism is one of extreme reduction: that is, a reduction in the potential experiences of heritage tourists and travelling consumers, and a reduction in the depth of the historical engagement they can have. Perhaps even more concerning, the rapid rise of souvenir commodification means that complex historical and historiographical issues are reduced to meaningless mass-produced consumer goods. As Nealon’s work demonstrates, the collapse of cultural logic into an economic logic is neither new nor should it shock us in popular culture. One would think, however, that it is still justifiable to be shocked to see public historical remembrance and commemoration morphing into a process of economic exchange on a scale as insidious as this. Surely we are used to history serving a political function, but it has in the past been a cultural space capable of resisting the forces of commercial commodification. Even as retailers sought to milk Victory Day for all it was worth in 2010, many perceived this commodification as ‘a tawdry show that kills memory.’[35] Yet, for the tourist and international populations of Moscow and St Petersburg, these economic exchanges will have formed the farthest extent of their commemorative experience in 2017. Individuals did not face extensive government propaganda and politicized media regarding the centenary, but as I have endeavoured to prove here, they remained far from autonomous in choosing their commemorative experiences. Certainly, as far as Russian youth and international travellers were concerned, their historical experiences were predetermined by the demographic and economic forces that ultimately govern them.


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——-‘Russian Politics and the Soviet Past: Reassessing Stalin and Stalinism Under Vladimir Putin’. Communist and Post-Communist Studies 49, No. 1 (2016), 45 – 59.

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[1] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of History (London and New York: Routledge, 2015 [1984]), p. 2.

[2] J. H. Hexter, ‘The Rhetoric of History’, History and Theory, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1967), p. 4.

[3] Bob Davis, Whatever Happened to High School History?: Burying the Political Memory of Youth, Ontario 1945 – 1995 (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1995), 2.

[4] Bruce VanSledright, ‘Narratives of Nation-State, Historical Knowledge, and School History Education’, Review of Research in Education 32, No. 1 (2008), 130.

[5] Valeria Kasamara and Anna Sorokina, ‘Post-Soviet Collective Memory: Russian Youths About Soviet Past’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 48, No. 2 (2015), 140.

[6] ibid.

[7] Thomas Sherlock, ‘Russian Politics and the Soviet Past: Reassessing Stalin and Stalinism Under Vladimir Putin’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 49, No. 1 (2016), 47.

[8] VanSledright, ‘School History Education’, 126 – 27.

[9] Quotation of statements made to the present author by tour guides and Russian tourists in Moscow and St. Petersburg, 2017.

[10] Otto Boele, ‘Remembering Brezhnev in the New Millennium: Post-Soviet Nostalgia and Local Identity in the City of Novorossiisk’, The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 38, No. 1 (2011), 5.

[11] Kasamara and Sorokina, ‘Russian Youths About Soviet Past’, 140.

[12] Thomas Sherlock, ‘Confronting the Stalinist Past: The Politics of Memory in Russia’, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2011), p. 96.

[13] Sherlock, ‘Russian Politics and the Soviet Past’, 48.

[14] Matthew Rendle and Anna Lively, ‘Inspiring a ‘Fourth Revolution’? The Modern Revolutionary Tradition and the Problems Surrounding the Commemoration of 1917 in 2017 in Russia’, Historical Research 90, No. 247 (2017), 236.

[15] Sherlock, ‘Russian Politics and the Soviet Past’, 51.

[16] ibid.

[17] Sanna Turoma, Saara Ratilainen and Elena Trubina, ‘At the Intersection of Globalization and “Civilizational Originality”: Cultural Production in Putin’s Russia’, Cultural Studies, Vol. 32, No. 5 (2018), p. 659.

[18] Ekaterina Levintova and Jim Butterfield, ‘History Education and Historical Remembrance in Contemporary Russia: Sources of Political Attitudes of Pro-Kremlin Youth’, Communist and Post-Communist Studies 43, No. 2 (2010), 163 – 64.

[19] Peter Gatrell, Russia’s First World War: A Social and Economic History (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), 143.

[20] Elena Trubina, ‘Past Wars in the Russian Blogosphere: On the Emergence of Cosmopolitan Memory’, Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media 4 (2010), 65.

[21] Trubina, ‘Past Wars in the Russian Blogosphere’, 70.

[22] Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 1996). For adoption of the term ‘Coup’, see 144 – 146.

[23] Jeffrey Nealon, Post-Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-In-time Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), 62 – 63.

[24] Aurkene Alzua, Joseph T. O’Leary and Alastair M. Morrison, ‘Cultural Heritage Tourism: Identifying Niches for International Travellers’, Journal of Tourism Studies 9, No. 2 (1998), 3.

[25] John McQuilton, email with the author, 24 January 2018.

[26] Moscow Free Tour, ‘Home Page’, http://moscowfreetour.com/, (accessed: 20 June 2017).

[27] The Gulag and Memory [wall text], General Exhibition, State Museum of the History of the Gulag, Moscow, Central Federal District, Russia, 2 July 2017.

[28] A. Aleksandrova and E. Aigina, ‘Modern Aspects of Cultural and Historical Heritage Involvement in Tourism Activities in Russia’, Almatourism – Journal of Tourism, Culture and Territorial Development 8, No. 7 (2017), 246.

[29] ibid.

[30] Trevor J. Smith, ‘The Collapse of the Lenin Personality Cult in Soviet Russia, 1985 – 1995’, The Historian 60, No. 2 (1998), 337.

[31] Victor Sebestyen, Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017), 1.

[32] ibid.

[33] Stephen M. Norris, ‘Memory For Sale: Victory Day 2010 and Russian Remembrance’, The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review 38, No. 2 (2011), 202.

[34] ibid, 223 – 24.

[35] Slava Taroshchina quoted in Norris, ‘Memory for Sale’, 227.