St. Petersburg may boast many sights, such as the Hermitage Museum and its Rembrandts, the bustling stretch of Nevsky Prospect, the stunning theatres with ballet and opera, or the Orthodox Cathedrals. But a very different city beckons anyone who is interested in its red history. This was the place where the Russian Revolution first happened, the home of massive strikes, protests, the overthrow of the tsar, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary waves, especially the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. What parts are ‘left’ of Red Petrograd, as it was known?
Arrive by train from Finland, or simply walk over the Neva River. Finlandskii, the Finland Station, will greet you. Or rather, Lenin’s statue will greet you – with his arm outstretched, addressing the gathered crowds as he did on his arrival at the station in April of 1917. He and other Bolsheviks had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in the ‘sealed train’. They were stunned by the sheer enthusiasm of the massive crowds, including many soldiers, who greeted them on arrival. But Lenin was to stun the crowds in return, calling on the people to complete the revolution that had merely begun in February of that year with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. No one was persuaded at the time, but by October he had done so. The rest, as they say, is history. If you are prepared to search more diligently, the original train engine that hauled their carriages into the station may be found in a glass shed and the armoured car from which he delivered his speech is held in the Russian Museum.
Slightly away from the centre of town lies the Smolny Institute, now the residence and offices of the governor of St. Petersburg (one of two cities in the Russian Federation, the other being Moscow). But Smolny’s claim to fame is that it was the buzzing nerve centre of the October Revolution. At that time in 1917, 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.
Here too Lenin stands at the foot of the steps leading into the institute. He is poised in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face. Behind his back, in the institute itself, is a Lenin room, his office during the revolution. It still has many of the memorabilia from the time, but you need to make an appointment. But he faces the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral. Engels looks across to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Beneath them both children play with each other.
On the Neva sits the cruiser Aurora at anchor, a ship more than a century old. On board you will find that it was the ship that came up the river in support of the revolution, firing the shot that was the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace, where the government (Provisional Assembly) was holed up. Its crew was run not by officers but by a soviet (council) of sailors, which made all of the decisions. The ship itself came from Kronstadt naval base, the radical core of the military that had gone over to the Bolsheviks (and a reminder that any successful revolution needs to win over the military). Wander the decks, stand by the gun that fired the famous shot, ponder how 570 men made a small ship their home, and encounter item after item that commemorates its role in the revolution. Flags, medals, plates, insignia, all with hammers and sickles aplenty.
Crossing the Neva you cannot miss the stunning gold spires of Peter-Paul fortress. It was a place of dread for revolutionaries before October 1917, for here they were incarcerated while awaiting sentence (usually to Siberia). With little warmth, dreadful food and over-crowding, it took a sturdy soul indeed to hold up under what was regarded as ‘normal’ punishment at the time. Siberia was a holiday by comparison. Every single one of the Bolsheviks spent time here, Lenin included.
But come the revolution and Peter-Paul became a vital point, for here was the all-important Petrograd military garrison. Would they come over to the revolution or not? They met and met again, discussing the question endlessly. Members from the communist movement would address them and so would opponents. In the end, some of the garrison went over, while the rest decided not to assist one way or the other. (At this decision, the Aurora, which has trained its guns on the fortress, swung them over to aim at the Winter Palace.) When the revolution was won, they all joined in to defend the new order.
Less known but well worth a visit is Mars Field, where political protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. In the centre of the vast open space is square a surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. An opening in the middle of each wall, three fir trees and a red flag in each corner, an eternal flame burning in the centre in 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.
Each entryway has poetic texts engraved in stone, using religiously inspired language of martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, the new world that was being created, the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe. But who was the author of these texts? Look carefully and you will find the plaque that tells you they were penned by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. He was the ‘poet of the revolution’, but also a ‘God-builder’, 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, 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’.
St. Petersburg may have returned to its former name after 1989, but is Leningrad still to be found? Arrive by plane and look closely at the international airport code. LED it is, short for Leningrad. And go into the country outside the city; there you will find that it is called Leningrad Oblost (region). But the greatest surprise is to depart the port by ship. Not a passenger ferry or liner, which leaves from the other side of the port, but the container terminal Ro Ro. If you are lucky, a container ship carrying passengers may be about to set sail (I took a Finnlines ship, full of Russian truck drivers with massive guts and huge, bristling moustaches). If it is winter, or even on the edges of winter, the port and the Gulf of Finland in which it lies may be frozen over. So as the ship crunches its way out of the port, keep a watch for the headlands. There, in massive letters, welcoming and farewell sailors and their ships, is the word ЛЕНИНГРАД.