OCTOBER 1917: What can books and films tell us about the 1917 revolutions?
On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Kåre Selnes’ Norwegian book from 1967 The Great Year of Revolution – The October Revolution and Its History has been republished. Behind the republishing lies a desire to provide a reliable account wherein, as the new preface says, “the sympathy lies with the revolutionary Bolsheviks.”
Similar to, Per Egil Hegge’s new Norwegian book Russia 1917 on the same topic, we have detailed reviews of the events running up to, and during, the days of the October Revolution. And both releases show, like Sergei Eisenstein’s film October (1927), that there was a chaos of violence, divisions, improvisations and factions that led to the two revolutions that year – firstly, the Tsar’s abdication during the Spring of 1917, followed by the fall of the new government the same autumn. A small group of well-educated Bolsheviks, including Vladimir Lenin and Leo Trotsky, mobilized tremendous support for the Revolution in a time characterized by the exhaustion of war and starvation.
At the 50 year anniversary a prominent editor in Norway, Sigurd Evensmo, reviewed John Reed’s eyewitness observations in the novel Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). He also states “how chaotic and uncertain the situation was from day to day” with “leaders gambling for high stakes.” But what about the movies that retell what happened? We remember Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981), based on Reed’s novel – about the struggle to gain followers for the Revolution. As a journalist, Reed had access to “everyone”. As Reed mentions in the preface, his sympathies were not neutral but in his account he “tried to see events with the eye of a conscientious reporter, interested in setting down the truth.” The book was published in two million copies after Lenin vouched for it. But the Bolsheviks also demanded that Reed set his free personal life aside, thus the author’s ideals soon collided with reality.
Both Czech Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival and German DOK Leipzig have the revolutions and Communism as a theme this October. But do we see truth in some of these the old movies? For example, in The Storming of the Winter Palace (Evreinov, 1920, cf. the internet), thousands of extras from this chaotic time are being shown, and many have mistakenly perceived this short film as a documentation of the events.
Or what about Sergei Eisenstein’s Ten Days that Shook the World (1927)? Here, we see a caricatured upper-class triumphantly throwing piles of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda into the river, and its name (“Truth”) is ridiculed. The major event of the film also finds place in the Winter Palace. However, in Hegge’s book, one can read that “the storming of the Winter Palace (…) never happened outside the film screen, where they run across the palace courtyard from the South side.” He points out that the government surrendered there without a battle, that only five people were killed, and that most of them were only hit by stray bullets. Since the Tsar family had moved out of the palace in 1915, the former residence was in 1917 mainly used as a military hospital. As mentioned in the documentation from the Jihlava festival, the ministers were arrested by only ten revolutionaries, unlike the “storming” shown in the film. However, the siege also led to the death of a dozen helpless patients.
«In Sokurov’s Taurus a weak, wheelchairdependent Lenin is being manipulated»
What about the consequences of 1917? Lenin’s revolutionary Soviet power quickly recruited no less than five million people to the Red Army – peasants, workers and soldiers – to defend the Revolution. They opposed the counterrevolutionary interventions from the outside, from the Western, tsarfriendly, American, British, French, Czech, Japanese and Italian troops. Although they all recaptured large parts of Russia, these economic elites failed to regain their foothold in what became the Soviet Union.
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