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.
But what happens after Revolution obtains power? Hegge explains that Lenin first declared that everybody could participate in the government of the new revolutionary society and predicted that the professional bureaucracy eventually would fade out. Lenin suggested that “in socialism, everyone should take their turn to govern and quickly get used to the fact that there is no one who is in charge.” Even a kitchen assistant should be able to take on the political leadership. But then Lenin wrote that during the transition they will need “a special machinery of oppression. The ‘State’ is still a necessity.”
The freedom did not last long. The movie Taurus (Alexander Sokurov, 2001) points to the fanatics and the struggle that was fought to keep the power. Here, a weak, wheelchair-dependent Lenin is being manipulated by those around him, including Stalin, who comes to visit him in his dacha in Gorkij. Sokurov presents a caricature of the helpless, infantilized leader (possibly syphilitic, Hegge points out). Notice, for example, how Lenin pretends to shoot his private drivers in the neck with his finger – the man who quickly introduced a strong central power and overruled the people, which he told them had to be for their own good. But free political participation became impossible, and Lenin ordered massacres: “It is necessary to hang [underlined three times] no less than one hundred known kulaks, rich people and bloodsuckers. Make it so that people can see it from hundreds of kilometres away.”
As mentioned, power corrupts, also when it comes to Joseph Stalin. The Norwegian Knut Løfsnes wrote at the last anniversary: “However, it is un-Marxist not to include the valuable work he did in the 20s and early 30s.” For “a people of illiterates”, the progress in education, science and technology was of positive importance. Without the “heavy industry, the Soviet Union would have been crushed by Hitler’s Germany”, Løfsnes concludes.
But such leaders got the taste of power and, most often, totalized their surroundings. Not only through direct eliminations and murder but also through hijacking “hearts and minds”. Parents, schools and society all helped create willing subjects in this allencompassing political system.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt describes in On Revolution (1963) modern revolutions as failed. Either, one has not been able to establish a space for free political participation, like Lenin, or this aspect crumbles with time. The Revolution gave hope of better progress to come, but not of freedom. Lenin’s solutions with electricity and technology improved people’s living-conditions, but his centralist supremacy didn’t bring liberty to the individuals. According to Arendt, the problem of poverty is rarely solved. The leaders of the Russian Revolution followed the pattern of the French, and “used” the misery of the people in their struggle against the oppressors, ending up like the tyrants of the people. Rousseau got his tyrannical Robespierre, and Marx his Lenin. Tragically, according to Arendt, a failed revolution can exhaust the very potential for freedom.
Finally: The philosopher Slavoj Žižek uses Freud’s concepts of remembering, repeating and working-through (1914), in the new afterword of The Great Year of Revolution. The remembering is the stories, we have in books and films mentioned above. The compulsive repeating is often our habits, which we know are difficult to change. But we can detect the grotesque side of power – and, by working-through it from a distance, we may analyse and change ourselves. Some would argue that the Stalinist aspect was inherent in the Communist project – a truly tragic vision doomed to fail as it prevailed. But after all, Žižek believes that we can still find liberating potential or opportunities in some new knowledge gained from the Revolution.
Today, many reject Lenin’s statement that human nature “cannot refrain from submission, control, and rulers.” Lenin “failed in a monstrous manner”, Žižek writes. I would add “fall not in love with power” or, as Zižek writes, do not use a revolution as a “lever for absolute power.”
Now, 100 years after the Russian Revolution, we are still surrounded by elitist execution of power and an increasingly controlled society. But we can still learn from the councils (Soviet), large affinity groups, new pragmatic anarchists and networks of solidarity with oppressed minorities. Here, the seed to “avoid a totalitarian closure” lies as Žižek puts. However, such a source is not to be found at the centre of power.