Tag Archives: Bolshevik

Tomorrow – Kronstadt

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring some of St. Petersburg’s 20th century historical sites.

Tomorrow, I’ll be venturing outside the city to the island and naval base of Kronstadt, about 20 miles west in the Gulf of Finland.

Kronstadt was the linchpin of St. Petersburg’s naval defenses at the turn of the twentieth century, and a line of forts on and near the island defend the city from the sea.

But in 1917, during the Bolshevik Revolution, the sailors at Kronstadt mutinied, killing their commanding officers. Due to this revolt, the sailors became known as some of the most pro-Red forces in Russia.

In 1921, however, as Lenin solidified control over the Soviet Union, the sailors became disenchanted with heavy-handed Bolshevik tactics, such as the violent suppression of strikes and the imposition of censorship. In early March, the sailors issued a set of demands, angering Bolshevik leaders.

Days later, 60,000 Red Army troops were ordered to attack Kronstadt across the ice from Petrograd (St. Petersburg). The troops suffered heavy casualties in their assault—the ice offered no protection from Kronstadt’s guns—and some had to be forced into battle by the Cheka, the KGB’s precursor.

By mid-March, the rebellion had been suppressed, at the cost of at least 10,000 Red Army soldiers and perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 Kronstadt rebels.

The 1921 Kronstadt rebellion was seen in the West as a sharp rebuke to the Soviet manifestation of Communism. On March 1, 1956, the 35th anniversary of the revolt and a few days after Khrushchev’s (not-so-secret) Secret Speech denouncing Stalinism, the New York Times wrote in an editorial:

In sorrow tinged with hope friends of freedom the world over today marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the beginning of the Kronstadt Rebellion, which, though drowned in blood by Lenin and Trotsky, serves even today to remind us of the Russian people’s love for liberty.

Beyond a large and beautiful cathedral, I’m not sure what there is to see at Kronstadt. But there’s no way I could leave St. Petersburg without spending a day on an island steeped in so much history.

Irony, Russian Style

The Aurora

The Aurora

I was going to try to write something witty about revelations that a Russian billionaire threw a party last week on the cruiser Aurora, which famously fired a blank shell at the Winter Palace during the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, and is now a museum of Communist propaganda. But seriously, just read this article about the “Capitalist Orgy” from the St. Petersburg Times. I have nothing to add.

Proletarian lace

Victory to the USSR

Lace: Victory to the USSR

Vologda is known for a few things, namely monasteries, dairy products, and lace.

Come October 1918, being an agricultural center famed for making such a bourgeois thing as lace wasn’t a mark in favor of Vologda in the minds of the Bolsheviks. Neither, of course, was Vologda’s pro-White (that’s Anti-Bolshevik) political orientation during the Russian Civil War.

Indeed, Vologda suffered heavily during Lenin’s Red Terror, and later during the collectivization imposed by Stalin (Not so much for making lace, but more because the area was largely populated by farmers).

In any event, the lace-makers of Vologda faced a challenge: how to reconcile their decidedly upper-class product with the Soviet Union’s proletarian ideals.

The solution: Lace glorifying industry, agriculture, and the Soviet Union, as we saw at the Vologda Lace Museum. Click here to see a few pieces of Soviet lace.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.

Photos from The Hermitage

 

The Winter Palace, also called The Hermitage, houses a huge number of pieces of Western art. In front of the palace is Palace Square, site of the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre.

The Winter Palace, also called The Hermitage, houses a huge number of pieces of Western art. In front of the palace is Palace Square, site of the 1905 Bloody Sunday Massacre.

The Winter Palace, or Hermitage, now houses a massive collection of European art. Prior to 1917, it was the official residence of the Russian Tsar. It was also the site of the provisional government following the Tsar’s overthrow, and was stormed and ransacked during the Bolshevik Revolution.

Click here to see a few photographs from inside The Winter Palace.

City Tour

We saw the old KGB headquarters in St. Petersburg today; or rather, we saw the FSB building. It’s called большой дом, The Big House, and from the windows you can see Siberia, our guide joked.

Speaking of law enforcement and such, we also passed by the Peter and Paul Fortress, a low hexagonal island defense against the Swedes that was never used in war. Instead, it held political prisoners to 1917. Only one person, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, has ever escaped from the island, and he did it by getting transferred to a hospital.

Perhaps the coolest thing we glimpsed from the bus during our driving tour of the city was the cruiser Aurora. The Aurora, which survived the Russo-Japanese war, fired a blank at the Winter Palace at the start of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and has therefore been immortalized for its role, however small, in bringing down the provisional government and carrying Lenin to power.

The ship has become a tourist trap of the highest degree. As we drove by, I noticed the row of stalls beside it hawking t-shirts and souvenirs to tourists. People posed for pictures sitting on the deck gun that fired the famous shot. The ship serves as a museum of Communist propaganda; across the river, however, stands the massive St. Petersburg Bank.

As we drove, we saw a few other interesting sites, like the St. Petersburg Mosque, built in the early 1900s, and a whole bunch of statues. The variety of statues here is pretty impressive, but it’s hard to keep them all straight (other than the Lenin statue in front of the Palace of Soviets. He’s pretty distinictive. I really want to take my picture in front of Lenin, but we’ve only driven by so far; we haven’t stopped.). Particularly impressive was The Bronze Horseman – a huge statue of Peter the Great on horseback.