Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Holy October

Although I have been obsessed with the Russian Revolution for several years now, it's only now that I have gotten around to watching Sergei Eisenstein's classic silent film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World. Created in order to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, Eisenstein's great film (now set to Shostakovitch's music) distorts history in order to create a powerful mythology of socialist insurrection.

In October, we see all of the iconography of St. Petersburg, cradle of the Revolution. We see Bolshevik Party headquarters, the Finland Station, the Winter Palace, the Neva River, the Smolny Institute, the Tauride Palace, the Bronze Horseman, the Aurora, the Kazan Cathedral, the Peter and Paul Fortress, and the Nevsky Prospect. We also witness many of the great events of the era, including the February Revolution, Lenin's return to Russia at Finland Station, the July Days, Kornilov's alleged counter-revolution, and the storming of the Winter Palace.

The film chronicles both the February and October Revolutions, although the bourgeois heroes of the first revolution quickly become the villains of the proletarian second one. With the rise of the Provisional Government, we see a sinister but also somewhat clownish Kerensky, whose ambitions are inevitably compared with those of Napoleon who, like Kerensky, cynically betrayed a popular revolution.

Eisenstein's Provisional Government is bourgeois, dictatorial, and closely aligned with church and monarchical ceremony. It's also a little bit ridiculous. As the Bolsheviks are seizing power, the film depicts one of John Reed's most famous vignettes: a parade of old bourgeois dignitaries is turned back by a proletarian solider with the threat of a good spanking. The film also pretends that Kerensky, leader of the Provisional Government, was spending his time in tsarist luxury (he's ensconced in Alexandra's bed for instance) which was only mired by his fear of the Bolshevik future.

In contrast to Kerensky's absurdly isolated antics in the Winter Palace, Lenin, when he arrives at Finland Station, is greeted with overwhelming popular support. As a speaker, Lenin is portrayed dynamic, popular, and steadfast. In the Party's Central Committee meetings, Lenin is bold and decisive. When his proposal to seize power succeeds, we watch as Mensheviks cower and Bolsheviks bravely move toward their date with destiny. And that destiny is encapsulated in the film's ending. As Lenin returns to power, a clock in Moscow--and indeed clocks around the world follow suit--is frozen at 25 October 1917.

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