1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Revisiting the Russian Revolution

October 18, 2017

The October Revolution changed the world. The consequences of the historical event were complex and politically intriguing. Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum shows how in an exhibition.

Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin | Ausstellung 1917 Revolution Russland und Europa
Image: Staatliches Museum für Zeitgenössische Geschichte, Moskau

Lenin is exceptionally present. His larger-than-life iron statue dominates the foyer of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum), grabbing the attention of photo-snapping Chinese tourists. They appear to be happier about the revolutionary figure than compatriot and Russian President Vladimir Putin often is.

But then again, the entire Russian Revolution does not really suit Putin's narrative of Russia, points out historian Jan Claas Behrends, of the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, near Berlin. "Under Putin's reign, the cult surrounding the Great Patriotic War [Editor's note: during World War II] has become so massive and widespread that it leaves little room for other ways of thinking," he said.

Furthermore, Russia's approach to the 2014 Ukrainian revolution or to the Arab Spring in 2010 reveals that the country rejects such upheaval. "People in Russia have a problem with revolution as a phenomenon and thus do not really appreciate or celebrate it," Behrends noted.

Read more: From Che Guevara T-shirts to prefab houses: How the Russian Revolution changed the world

Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin | Ausstellung 1917 Revolution Russland und Europa
Soviet poster, "What the October Revolution has given the worker and peasant woman," from 1920Image: Deutsches Historisches Museum

Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum sees things differently. Though it is not officially responsible for the politics surrounding public memorials, it does consider itself as a place of "enlightenment and understanding about the shared history among Germans and Europeans." Hence the exhibition entitled "1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe," running from October 18, 2017 to April 15, 2018.

"With this exhibition, we aim to convince visitors of the relevance of the Russian Revolution for the course of 20th century history," said curator Kristiane Janeke.

Quotes and displays on the walls as to why the Russian Revolution is so important
Politicians and philosophers have their own view of the Revolution's importanceImage: DW/Julia Hitz

The exhibition begins and ends in a white room in which they can reflect on the meaning of the Russian Revolution.

From there, visitors can follow the zig-zag path of the main part of the exhibition along dark grey walls, where artifacts, photos and information depict the history of the revolution.

Read more: Estrangement from history: 100 years since Russia's February Revolution

Great attention is given to the period before the revolution, including the Tsarist autocracy, its prohibitions and the First World War, before the main event of the Revolution takes center stage: The Bolshevik uprising of October 25, 1917 (November 7 in the Gregorian calendar).

Though that overthrow and revolutionary transfer of state power was quickly ratified by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, the country soon erupted into a bloody civil war in 1918, which continued until the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. 

Yellow zig-zag on floor at the exhibition
The Russian Revolution changed the course of historyImage: DW/Julia Hitz

Red October in Europe

Not only did political power structures fundamentally shift on an international scale following the founding of the Soviet Union, but after the October Revolution, mass migration also took place. New, independent states such as Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland sprang up. Other countries, however, reacted varyingly to these events — from fearful to renunciatory.

In his book "The Age of Extremes," British historian Eric Hobsbawm sees the 1917 revolution as a defining event of the "short 20th century," just as the French Revolution ultimately was for the 19th century. "The October Revolution prompted the most turbulent revolutionary movement of modern history," he said.

The exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum focuses on its consequences in six European countries: in Germany, Poland, Italy, France, Great Britain and Hungary.

Among quotes by famous thinkers such as Hannah Arendt on revolution, the show displays around 500 objects from more than 80 international lenders, including revolutionary posters and flags.

In contrast to Lenin's iron representations, contemporary artworks by Alexander Kosolapov, Werner Schulz and Georg Baselitz humorously show that the revolutionary figure has long integrated mass culture.