In the shadow of Red October
A century ago, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and created the world’s first Marxist state.
The dramatic events of 1917 still reverberate.
But what legacy of the revolution can be seen in four cities in Vladimir Putin’s Russia?
The portrait with the holes
Soviet propaganda would portray what happened as a mass uprising of workers, peasants and soldiers who – led by the Bolsheviks – stormed the Winter Palace to seize power for the people.
That was the picture dutifully painted by Soviet cinema. A decade later, film-maker Sergei Eisenstein re-enacted the revolution for his epic entitled October.
Filmed on location at the Winter Palace, it depicted Red October as Russia’s Bastille moment, with thousands of people breaking down the gates of the palace and pouring inside. The cruiser Aurora was accorded a starring role – firing the shot that signalled the start of the uprising.
It was a magnificent spectacle. But it wasn’t true. The Winter Palace is widely believed to have suffered more damage from Eisenstein’s film crew than from the actual revolution.
In 1917 there was no dramatic storming of the Winter Palace. Most of the Red Guard revolutionaries who had got inside did so through an unlocked door.
As for claims of a mass uprising, this was fake news from the Bolsheviks. Red October was a coup. Vladimir Lenin’s party had seized power in Russia.
Its slogans, though, were attractive to people trapped in poverty: “Land to the peasants! Factories to the workers!”
American journalist John Reed witnessed the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. In his book Ten Days That Shook the World he described the chaos before the coup.
“The peasants… were burning manor houses and massacring landowners. Immense strikes and lock-outs convulsed Moscow, Odessa, and the coal mines of the Don. Transport was paralysed; the army was starving, and in the big cities there was no bread.”
But the revolution plunged Russia into the bloodiest period of its history. Civil war, world war, famine and Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror would claim tens of millions of lives.
“It is our historical fate,” Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovsky tells me of his country.
“We make experiments. We show how things shouldn’t be done. Just having a good goal or a good idea doesn’t mean the results will be good. We gave a lesson to the world.”
The Bolsheviks wanted to do more than just teach the world. They wanted to change it. They believed their coup would set the dominoes tumbling and spark a global uprising of workers.
“Proletarians of the world, unite!” was the rallying cry of communism.
The new world was to look very different. Portraits of tsars gave way to posters of factory workers. Newborn babies were given revolutionary first names, like “Barricade”, “Kim” (short for “Communist International of Youth”) and “Ninel” (“Lenin” backwards).
The new world would sound different, too.
In a tiny St Petersburg art studio, Petr Theremin demonstrates the exotic instrument his great-grandfather Leon invented soon after the revolution. Without touching it, Petr is producing haunting tones, simply by moving his hands up and down near two antennae. Invisible electromagnetic waves conjure up a sound reminiscent of a lilting voice or violin.
The theremin was one of the world’s first electronic instruments. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was captivated by it. He enlisted the machine and its maker in his campaign to spread electricity across Russia. Lenin gave Theremin a free pass for the railways, so the inventor could display his masterpiece – and promote electrification – across the country.
Read more at BBC.