Project 1917

Mikhail Zygar on predetermination, hindsight and the history of everyday minutiae.

Tsar Nicholas II in Darmstadt, Germany (1899).

Mikhail Zygar is a journalist, writer, filmmaker, and the founding editor-in-chief of  Russia’s only independent news television channel “Dozhd” (rain). Zygar’s documentary project “1917: Free Story” presents a day-by-day account of the most important year in 20th-century Russian history. His team has used letters, memoirs, diaries, and other historical documents to tell a polyphonic story of what people were doing and thinking exactly 100 years ago.

NS: Project 1917 is a novel form of telling history. Can you start by telling us where the idea came from?

MZ: I had run TV Rain for almost six years, and I was fed up with events… especially in the last year. It was possibly not the fault of the events themselves, but that the approach had changed. It is now necessary to cover everything live, and faster than everyone else. But doing so kills the point and you lose interest, because an event worth following second-by-second doesn’t happen every day. I decided that I wanted to create news that was important and interesting to me. I created a parallel reality for myself – a media project that covers news about another world.

People know little, especially about deep history. Yet this history is alive, it directly affects how people see themselves today. They think that throughout all of Russian history, society has never been able to influence anything; that everything has always depended on the leadership; that what the emperor or president said was how it would be, and nothing else mattered. Or that Russia has always been surrounded by enemies, always facing an anti-Russian plot. These modern stereotypes are supposedly based on historical fact. But it’s complete nonsense! And I thought it would be important to make a key era of history like the year 1917 more alive, more comprehensible, more contemporary – to somehow bring people inside the history so that they stop operating based on myths. 

Photo by Igor Klepnev

I also wanted to come up with a new genre, a new means of telling history that would suit the 21st century. To try and translate history into a modern language, with modern technology, rather than reading a lecture or writing a book for the hundredth time.

NS: What are the main myths about 1917 that you’re hoping to destroy or correct with this project? 

MZ: With 1917, the overall situation is a bit better because the year contains so many complicated storylines that no one has really tackled it. It’s largely free of interference from the government. There’s no official line; there’s no official version. It’s not the Great Patriotic War [Russian term for the country’s World War II conflicts – Ed.], which you can’t touch because it’s sacred. That’s such a bundle of nerves that if you even breathe on it, you end up in hell. But with 1917, the authorities don’t have “their guys,” there are no official heroes. And that’s good. There’s no official myth.

But there are many conspiracy theories. And I see how old conspiracy theories are rehashed in commentaries now. There are two main ones, and they feed into each other: the first is about British spies, the second about German spies. One hundred years ago, half of the population suspected the empress of working for Germany, and the other half suspected the opposition in the Duma of working for the British. I hear from many people now – people who claim to be sane – that the February Revolution was organized by the British. That it was a “color revolution” funded by the British. And that the October Revolution was, in turn, funded by the Germans. It’s remarkable how easily you can apply that simple but catchy scheme everywhere. 

Tsarevich Alexei and Tsar Nicholas II.

NS: What you said about the lack of an official line strikes me as the most interesting moment of this centenary – it’s fascinating to follow how it is noted, covered, and explained. At a forum last year, a schoolteacher asked President Vladimir Putin what to think about the revolution and Lenin. And his answer is still unclear. Why do you think there’s no official line? 

MZ: Well, the current authorities are concerned with tradition, with positioning themselves within a system of Russian values. They don’t want to be standing on untrodden ground; they want to feel the presence of great ancestors behind them, and these traditions are important for them. In large part, they try to base themselves on the Russian Empire more than on the Soviet Union. Despite the widespread myth that Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, he’s really not a fan. Aesthetically, he prefers the Russian Empire. A small symbol of that is the monument to [Pyotr] Stolypin outside the White House. They have also erected monuments to Alexander I outside the Kremlin, and now even Prince Vladimir

NS: Which is its own story entirely… 

MZ: Yes, and despite all of that love for the Russian Empire, Tsar Nicholas II is a most unlucky figure. You can’t associate yourself with Nicholas II – he was extremely soft. He carried himself like [Viktor] Yanukovych – that is, at every turn, he made the worst possible move. And against him you have [Alexander] Kerensky, with whom it is also impossible to associate because he ruled so briefly and so unsuccessfully. And then there’s Lenin, who was a revolutionary. And a revolutionary with German money at that! 

Lenin’s not a figure with whom you can associate because he destroyed an empire. There’s a hellish paradox in this, because, for contemporary Russian ideology, Lenin was a destroyer of empire, while Stalin was a builder of empire. And Stalin is a much more winning figure than Lenin. Lenin is the defeated. Stalin is the victor. So in 1917 there’s this complete hole: there’s no one, not one positive figure. That’s why there’s so much silence around this year. 

NS: The link between Nicholas II and Yanukovych is interesting, because one of the most striking things about this project is how nearly everyone, including the imperial family, did not see what was coming. You get the sense that they’re sitting there calmly, Nicholas writing about his breakfast, about banal little things… 

MZ: That’s normal. No one expects it. No one ever expects it. 

The Romanov family (1914).

NS: It’s an important lesson for today, because we have a tendency, especially when looking at traditional methods of historical inquiry, to try to understand how certain events unfolded, and to construct an unbroken line. With this project, it’s especially interesting how strongly it comes through that people at the time completely misunderstood what would happen. 

MZ: It’s lack of foresight, I’d say. Nothing is predetermined, nothing must happen. There are no messages written in blood on the wall that would indicate that someone knew exactly how something terrible would begin. Throughout the year, as the revolution is unfolding, absolutely everyone is on another wavelength. They aren’t expecting a second coup. They’re expecting something terrible or maybe something wonderful, but not what ends up actually happening. Everything ends up happening unexpectedly. 

And I think that’s especially clear when we look at what’s happening now. Those who remember Russia in 2011, remember perfectly well that no one on the day of the Duma elections, December 4, could have predicted that such protests would kick off on December 5. On the eve of the Brexit vote, everyone thought it wouldn’t happen, and everyone was shocked when it did. I won’t even mention the [U.S.] presidential elections… 

NS: Who do you see as the audience for the project? Do you plan on introducing it in schools? 

MZ: We have a few different audiences because we’re on a few different platforms. Probably the most interesting audience, and the one I understand least well, is on VKontakte. We have a page, and almost all of the historical heroes have their own accounts… and this rather niche audience on VKontakte that might not follow the news or even read books has started following their lives. It’s mostly people under 20, who grew up with cell phones, who see social networks as a normal part of their personal space. And we were able to get into that space. We even have a real pop-star – a Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé wrapped in one – in Marina Tsvetaeva. On VKontakte she’s the most popular hero. Her posts get tens of thousands of reposts. 

NS: Why do you think she’s so popular? 

MZ: I’m not sure. Girls love Marina Tsvetaeva. We had always assumed that if you were to pick from the stars of Russian poetry, you would obviously choose [Anna] Akhmatova. She’s closer to a rock diva. People drew pictures of her in robes… but Tsvetaeva was a bit more girlish, a bit gentler – like pop music. 

The Romanov children in Livadia, Crimea (1912).

NS: Do people respond to political statements on VKontakte as well? 

MZ: They do. But they react more strongly to poetry and human things. People are most interested in the things closest to everyday life today: texts about food, or cats, or how they’re going to parties and drinking champagne, or going to the theater, to the movies. Such everyday details bring [historical figures] closer, and show that they’re people just like us, they have the same habits. On VKontakte another superstar emerged in the form of a little-known silver age poet, Ryurik Ivnev. He’s a fourth-rate poet, but he wrote an extremely detailed diary. It’s a classic, almost teenage diary. He’s always putting himself down, whining… and sometimes making fun of himself. He has built up this superstar status, receiving tons of likes when he writes about his bad moods – how he wanted to sob and fall down on his knees, but remembered that he’s wearing new pants and shouldn’t dirty them, and then his mood improved, and he decided not to cry. It’s just so close to modern life, the reverential relationship to clothes. Through that backdoor, that unexpected portal, people can enter the life of that generation. 

NS: How do you go about choosing what material ends up on the site? 

MZ: It’s mostly common sense. We pick what interests our editors. We try to keep track of some main storylines. We add everything connected to especially important events: for example, Rasputin’s murder, the premier of the ballet “Parade” with Diaghilev and Picasso in Paris, the entrance of the United States into World War I – important stories that should be covered from different sides. Who is making decisions? How do they affect regular people? What are the newspapers writing? We’re trying to compose it like a movie shot from several cameras. 

NS: Who is responsible for all of this? Historians? Journalists? 

MZ: We have a big team. Mostly journalists, young historians, and screenwriters who work in film. The editing process is a bit like that of a television series. In large part this is a series, just in the form of a social network, rather than film. Everything is taken from original sources. All of the quotes are from real agencies, real newspapers. From start to finish, there’s nothing made up. That complicates the work, but it’s much more interesting when you don’t have to come up with anything, you’re just an editor, a sculptor, chipping away the excess without adding anything yourself. 

Grand Duchess Tatiana aboard the imperial yacht “Standart” (1907).

NS: Have your impressions of 1917 changed while working on this project? 

MZ: Not really. I’ve been interested in this period for a long time. I want to write my next book about it. It’s not a new sensation per se – but it’s what we just talked about. History distorts reality, because any historian writes in view of everything that happened consequently. As a rule, they’re not trying to look at the events through the eyes of someone on the inside. They always know how it ends, and that leads to invention. Serious people, serious scholars invent motivations. They believe that everything was planned out in advance, that crafty Lenin saw ahead. But he didn’t. A large number of conjectures are written after the fact. 

It’s stunning to what extent everything happens spontaneously. No one has any sort of plan. The smartest people, the cleverest and keenest strategists are those who are mistaken only nine times out of ten. No one can see ahead. 

NS: Yes, history is largely a montage. We think of it as a continuous narrative, but in fact… 

MZ: In fact it’s the sum total of concrete moments, each of which is its own tipping point, and each of which can be won back at the next step. Nothing ever happens once and for all.