Snow blanketed the sky, swirled around buildings, cut visibility to a few metres. Petersburgers huddled deeper in their coats, heads ducked in an attempt to see their way through the driving snow. It was supposed to be spring. In fact, spring had begun not a couple of weeks before with mild temperatures, chattering birds returning to nest, trees budding, first crops sprouting, human beings with inquisitive eyes romping about (and over each other) with the broadest smiles and the randiest bodies. But now winter was back, with its snow storms, bitter winds along the Neva and icy footpaths to negotiate.
I had not come to see a white St. Petersburg; I had come to visit Red Petrograd, home of the first successful communist revolution in October, 1917. For then, after an unsuccessful revolution of 1905 and later the toppling of Tsar Nicholas II in February, 1917, the Bolsheviks had seized power and begun the arduous and infinitely challenging task of creating a communist society and economy. And it had all happened first in what was then Petrograd – later to become Leningrad.
How much of that defining moment of the twentieth century would remain in the city, especially after two decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991? Western news reports at the time presented images of toppling statues of Lenin, the banishing of the old order from memory and history, the divesting of all that had happened since 1917. Locally, Lenin’s memory was trashed by the new order and an effort made to connect with the political path taken by the bourgeoisie after the first revolution in February of 1917. Stolypin had become the hero, the man who attempted to reform the country in a mild middle class manner, but who was swept away by the situation generated by the First World War, widespread economic and social collapse, and the fiery, revolutionary fervour of the masses.
So I set out to find Red Petrograd, with the help of Sergey, who had returned to his beloved city some years before and who walked its streets endlessly.
First would be Finlandskii, the Finland Station at which Lenin and the first group of exiled revolutionaries came back to Russia in April of 1917 (I was there at the same time of year, 95 years later). They had arrived here in the famed ‘sealed train’, travelling from Switzerland, through wartime Germany (the Germans did not object to assisting those who may end the Russian war effort), over the Baltic Sea to Sweden and then by train through Finland to Russia. To their surprise, Lenin and Krupskaya and the rest were met by a massive crowd of workers, soldiers and Bolshevik leaders. They had expected possible arrest on their arrival, perhaps an unnoticed arrival, but not this.
And then Lenin shocked them with his speech on arrival, delivered from the top of an armoured car: the February Revolution was but the preamble, he said. We have not won yet, for we must seize power ourselves. Even his closest comrades listened with open-mouthed surprise, thinking Lenin had gone perhaps a little mad. Had they not already had a revolution? Had not the tsar already abdicated? Were not the various socialist parties already represented in the Provisional Assembly? Lenin would be proved correct, but he spent the next few months persuading his wary comrades.
Before the Finland Station he still stands, captured by a sculptor as he addressed the stunned crowd. Arm outstretched, mouth open to speak, the chin of history jutting forward. But one also notices at his crotch a well-defined fly and a prominent bulge. A joke by the sculptor, or perhaps another signal of his revolutionary virility? But the statue is by no means the only mark of that crucial moment. The armoured car on which he stood to deliver his speech is also to be found, ensconced in a room of the Russian Museum. Inside the Finland Station, preserved within its own glass shed, is the locomotive that pulled the train into the station. Even the second-hand bookshop, upstairs at the station, is reputed to have copies of his Collected Works in Russian. Unfortunately, the upstairs region was closed for renovation when we called, so I was unable to grab my copy (all 55 volumes!).
Walking back over the Neva River, with a view of the gold spires of Peter-Paul Fortress (where Lenin and many other revolutionaries had been imprisoned for a shorter or longer time), we spied the grey outlines of the cruiser Aurora.
Now this is a ship with a history. We were led around by an old fossil who seemed as though he was on the Aurora when it was first launched, late in the nineteenth century. The ship was one of the few that survived the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. Ill-fated was that war, at least from the Russian Imperial perspective, but not for the Japanese or even the revolutionaries, who revelled in the humiliation of the tsar’s regime. That unpopular war was one of the factors that led to a crucial radicalisation of the armed forces, so that significant sections went over the communists in 1917.
But Aurora, and the garrison of Kronstadt where it was housed, had gone over long before. Forming their own soviet, voting on all issues, keeping the commanders on a leash, Kronstadt was a hive of revolutionary activity (it was to suffer for being almost too revolutionary after the Bolsheviks seized power, for the Kronstadt rebellion of 1918 was crushed with much desperation).
Back in 1917, the Aurora etched itself into the annals of history by sailing up the Neva River on the night of the October Revolution and aiming its guns at the Peter-Paul fortress. The garrison there soon enough decided to join the Bolsheviks, so the ship turned its guns on the Winter Palace, where the Provisional Assembly (formed after the earlier revolution in February Revolution of the same year) was making a last stand. A blank shot was both the signal to storm the Winter Palace and a reminder that significant firepower was on the side of the communists.
By the time the palace fell into Bolshevik hands, the Aurora had ensured that it would not be turned into scrap metal. Our guide told us of its subsequent duty, its use as sleeping quarters and a training facility for naval cadets and the many honours bestowed upon it. I marvelled at how 570 men could make such a small space their home (hammocks were slung above the dining table at night), at the demountable chapel that could be moved up on deck during fine weather, at the corner in which the two bears on board slept, and at the endless Soviet insignia, badges, posters, flags and honours. Hammers and sickles abounded throughout the ship.
Above all, I stood at the foot of the gun that fired that round in the Revolution itself.
‘What about Mars Field?’ said Sergey as we disembarked.
‘Mars Field?’ I inquired.
‘Yes, it used to the place where protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. But it is often deserted these days’.
I pulled my scarf tighter around my neck and intercepted a drop from my nose as the cold took its effect. After negotiating the windy streets, we walked out into the vast space of Mars Field while the snow continued to flurry about. In the middle is a square surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. In each corner are three fir trees and in the centre of each wall is an opening. At the central point of the square stone wall is an eternal flame that burns to the memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.
But we were in for a surprise: a plaque announced that the eight poems engraved on each side of the entry points to the square were penned by none other than Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. But who in the world is Lunacharsky? He was a poet, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project of constructing communism, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’. He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’, as the representative of ‘the spiritual dictatorship of the proletariat’. In short, Lunacharsky was one of the most fascinating figures of the Russian Revolution. But he was also the most articulate spokesman for God-building (bogostroitel’stvo), in which he sought to harness the ‘warm stream’ of Marxism in terms of enthusiasm, passion, art, the communist elements of religions such as Christianity, so much so that communism would itself draw upon the best features of religion.
His poems engraved in stone spoke of martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, of the new world that was being created, of the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe.
In each corner of the commemorative square a red flag still flew. A bouquet of flowers lay by the eternal flame.
‘I have not seen that in quite a while’, said Sergey, pointing to the flowers. He also told me how at the most recent annual festival of the paratroopers (held in August, which I had witnessed in all its bacchanalian glory on my previous visit), a section of the parade had veered off and come here to pay its respects.
‘And Smolny?’ I asked.
‘Smolny?’ said Sergey. ‘I’ve never been there, so perhaps it is about time’.
He asked a thick-set policeman, who pointed us to Smolny Institute, a little away from the centre of town. Smolny, hard by a cathedral of the same name (now a concert hall, as it was in Soviet days), was taken over by the Petrograd Soviet, the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Bolsheviks in those heady days of September and October, 1917. It became the nerve centre of the revolution – cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded. Smolny was a hive buzzing with urgent activity.
Now it is – believe it or not – the Governor of St. Petersburg’s residence and office. As one of the two cities in the Russian Federation (the other is Moscow), here still lies the seat of power.
‘Is there a museum?’ We asked the guard. There is a Lenin room, he told us, but you need to make an appointment to see it. And appointments could not be made for five minutes hence. Next time, we vowed. I was content enough, for before Smolny stands Lenin, in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face.
Lenin looked out over the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches out before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral – appropriately, for he may have lost his Reformed faith as he became a communist, but he maintained a lively interest in the revolutionary possibilities of religion until his death in 1895.
Engels faces across the avenue to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Unlike Mars Field, the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship is full of people; or children, to be precise, for parents bring their children here to play and meet other kids.
‘Future revolutionaries’, said Sergey with a smile. ‘There’s hope yet’.