From 1969, the of revolution, the brilliant Firesign Theater’s How Can You Be In Two Places At Once, When You’re Not Anywhere At All? Prepare to be offended.
100 years ago today, the women factory workers of St. Petersburg (Petrograd) walked out on their jobs and took to the streets of Russia’s capital in protest of food rationing and the general mess their country had descended into. The movement they started quickly spiraled into a revolution that brought down the 300 year old Romanov dynasty within days. The date was February 23 (Old Calendar) March 8, 1917.
No one thought such a turn of events possible. At the time, Russia was the most repressive police state on Earth. The Kaiser’s Germany, which was portrayed as the villain in World War One, was a jolly summer camp beside Russia. France and Great Britain were embarrassed to claim Russia as an ally. Tsar Nicholas II was a total autocrat who enjoyed the power to ignore any legislative “suggestions” offered him by his Duma (Parliament). He hired and fired cabinet ministers with reckless abandon, while the psychotic holy man Rasputin dictated candidates for office to Empress Alexandra. At Nicholas’s direction, the country had blindly plunged into war with Germany and Austria in August 1914, triggered a global conflict.
By early 1917, the Russian nation was exhausted, having sacrificed millions of lives into the inferno while bread was rationed in the capital. Rasputin was murdered in December, but nothing changed. Nicholas was sedated, chain smoking hashish cigarettes at the Front while he played dominos with the generals and Alexandra called for him to hang anyone who dared criticize the regime. The level of anti-Semitism that permeated the country would not be matched until Hitler’s Germany.
When the demonstrations began, Nicholas was begged to return to Petrograd. His response, “Put down the rebellion with force. Instead, the Army mutinied and refused to carry out his orders and joined the strikers. Soon, there was no government. As the Tsar’s train crawled along sidetracks attempting to get back to the city, the tracks were blocked. A delegation arrived informing him that the government had fallen. He abdicated that day.
And so the reign of the Romanovs ended. But the Revolution was only just beginning. And so we remember, with a gaggle of Pop songs about revolution. From the raucous to the sublime.
And of course, the Russian Version. Slightly better. Probably because I can’t understand the language. Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I can’t see Zhivago as a musical. Sure, they made Victor Hugo’s depressing Les Miserable into one, but at least it has a happy ending. Zhivago is purely Russian. Everyone is miserable in the end. The New York Times reviewer seems to be in agreement.
I should warn the jumpy that those warnings about the sound of gunfire in the lobby and the program are meant in earnest. With a world war and a bloody national revolution to depict, “Doctor Zhivago” regularly rattles the rafters (and your nerves) with the sound of explosions and gunshots. The cynic in me wondered whether all this artillery was a dramatic choice, to inject notes of harsh realism as a corrective to all the swooning romanticism, or a practical one, to keep the audience from nodding off, and Broadway wags from dubbing the show “Doctor Zzzzhivago.” Oops. Too late. ~ From The New York Times
From The Guardian as Russia attempts to deal with the 100th Anniversary Of The 1917 Revolution:
“There is no officially approved narrative of 1917; it’s too difficult and complicated,” said Mikhail Zygar, the journalist who is running the reconstruction project. “But it’s a very important period to help understand what’s happening in Russia now, and very important for the national consciousness.”
Modern Russia has never properly dealt with the legacy of 1917. Across the country, the iconography of the revolution and its leaders is still confused. Visitors to Moscow can still pay their respects to Lenin’s mummified corpse, which peers sinisterly out of its glass box inside the marble mausoleum on Red Square. But across the cobbles from the founder of Russian communism, a flashy department store draws rich Muscovites to its expensive fashion departments.
The last tsar and his family have been made into saints by the Russian Orthodox Church, and yet a Moscow metro station is still named after Pyotr Voikov, the man responsible for organising their execution.
A recent survey by the independent Levada Centre of pollsters showed that 53% of Russians have a positive view of Lenin’s role in history, compared with just 27% with a negative view (20% said they didn’t know).
February 22/March 8 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Russian Revolution. As with most events of the First World War, it’s likely to go unnoticed and unremarked, which in itself is a sad commentary. The failure to remember the sacrifices, follies and triumphs of the generations before us, makes it unlikely we will remember the cost of modern conflicts once the slogans have slipped away.
The Russian Revolution is one of the most complex, influential and misunderstood events in human history. Volumes have been written about it, and avoided by the general public. Hollywood has found it incomprehensible and even Russian cinema has struggled to recapture it. Literature has fared little better, finding it mostly barren ground. Pasternak came closest with Doctor Zhivago, but even that sprawling tale can offer only a narrow window into one, isolated, imagined life.
As an American who grew up during the Cold War, I had no interest in Russian history. Even after the Soviet Empire had fallen, Russia held no curiosity for me until I began to have a series of dreams that I took to be memories, if one believes in reincarnation, which I do.
The dreams led me from the ruins of cities destroyed by war, backward into other times and possibly other lives, until I had arrived at my destination, Russia of the late Tsarist Era just before the Revolution. The reconciliation of these dreams and possible lives was difficult for someone who had been so indoctrinated into the cult of Cold War America. It began another journey of exploration into a time and culture I knew nothing about until twenty years ago.
The focal point of this journey has become the Russian Revolution. And within its education, I have found a terrifying tale of how a nation, its culture and religion, can be obliterated by economic collapse and war. What happened in Russia could happen anywhere given a perfect storm of events. For people living in times as uncertain as these, the Russian Revolution takes on meaning beyond that of a history lesson. It is a cautionary tale of how idealism can be hijacked and subverted by opportunistic political vampires. It is the story of the hubris of government and the stark realization that all forms of government are finite. In the end, the Romanov Tsar, Nicholas the Last, was replaced by, as Simon Sebag Montifeore has so accurately portrayed him, Stalin the Red Tsar.
The Russian Revolution is the story of the end of a civilization and the beginning of the modern police state. Its coming was universally applauded, as the rule of Tsar Nicholas II was, in its time, the most repressive on Earth. Within months, it had betrayed its promise and become a prison-nation governed by a madman; one that has been emulated, in some aspects, by virtually every nation on the planet in the century since. Travel back with us now into the chaos of 1917. It may look surprisingly familiar.
I will attempt to update this blog as often as possible, marking dates and events as the anniversary nears, but will not limit the blog to just those events.
Note on dates: As every novice student of Russian history knows, the Russian Empire was still using the Julian calendar in 1917, which by then had left them 13 days behind the rest of the world. This apt metaphor was retired in February 1918 when the new Bolshevik government moved the clock ahead to catch up to the rest of the world. For dates prior to this change, both dates will be used when possible.