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Symposium Offers Perspectives on the Russian Revolution

Each fall, Middlebury College organizes an academic conference in honor of Professor Emeritus Nicholas Clifford, who was instrumental in the creation of the Chinese Department at Middlebury. Past symposia have looked at the legacy of Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, the art of translation, and the art and science of mindfulness. This year, for three days in September, the Clifford Symposium focused on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

The 1917 revolution fundamentally transformed the global landscape, ushering in a new era of human history. Its effects continue to reverberate in the contemporary world. Despite its historical centrality, however, there is no single accepted narrative of the Russian Revolution and its meaning. Interpretations have ranged drastically depending on the political views, social background, nationality, and temporality of the interpreter. From the “Glorious October Revolution” celebrated in Soviet school textbooks to the “Red Menace” that loomed over Cold War-era America, the significance of 1917 continues to elicit intense debate and reinterpretation.

The Clifford Symposium marked the centenary of the revolution by exploring some of the key questions that surround 1917 and its aftermath. What was the Russian Revolution? What were the causes of this historical rupture? How was the revolution “lived” by participants, bystanders, and victims? How was the revolution translated into art, culture, politics, and economics? How did the “Soviet Experiment” translate into other cultural and historical contexts? Finally, what can 1917 tell us about our own time? What are its legacies for us today?

During the symposium on “The Soviet Century: 100 Years of the Russian Revolution,” experts from Middlebury and other institutions explored some of the key questions surrounding the revolution and its aftermath. Lecture topics included the following:

  • “Revolution Today” by Susan Buck-Morss, distinguished professor of political science at CUNY Graduate Center
  • “The Russian Revolution as Utopian Leap” by Mark Steinberg, professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  • “The Black Vanguard of Internationalism: C. L. R. James and the Black Radical Response to 1917” by Minkah Makalani, associate professor of African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin

  • “The Soviet Economy, 1917–1991: Its Life and Afterlife” by Mark Harrison, professor of economics at the University of Warwick

In addition to the lectures, the symposium included several panel discussions: “Middlebury School in the Soviet Union, 40th Anniversary,” “Art and Revolution,” “The Revolution Abroad,” and “The Dark Side of Utopia.” Pianist Matthew Bengtson presented an evening concert titled “Music in Revolutionary Russia: Rachmaninoff, Medtner, Scriabin.” The Middlebury Museum of Art had a special exhibit featuring the museum’s holdings of Russian art, and there was an exhibit of Soviet-era posters in the Davis Family Library Atrium.

You can read more about the symposium here.

Poster courtesy the Middlebury College Museum of Art: Vera Adamovna Gitsevich (Russian, 1897–1976), Za Kultumuyu Sovetskuyu [To the Cultured Soviet Trade], 1932, two-color lithograph, 34 x 23 3/4 inches. Purchased with funds provided by the Memorial Art Acquisition Fund.

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