Tag Archives: lenin

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.

Off to Moscow

We’re heading to Moscow tonight by overnight train. We should reach the city around 8 a.m. tomorrow. We’re spending two days in the city before heading back to St. Petersburg Thursday night.
I’m not sure what exactly we’re doing in Moscow, but I have no doubt that various art and cultural museums are on the schedule, along with the Kremlin, and hopefully, the Lenin Mausoleum.

The St. Petersburg Palace of Soviets

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

Lenin stands before the Palace of Soviets in St. Petersburg.

The Saint Petersburg Palace of Soviets was built by Josef Stalin in an attempt to relocate the city center away from the bourgeois downtown area. Stalin also hoped to have a magnificent building of his own to counterbalance all the Tsarist palaces in and around the city, such as The Hermitage and Tsarskoye Selo.

However, World War II stalled Stalin’s relocation plans, and the center of St. Petersburg remains in its bourgeois location. But even the area around the Palace of Soviets, on Moskovski Prospekt, is looking pretty upscale these days.

The massive statue of Lenin now glares at a Nike store and a Sberbank. Just down the road, hungry former party members can pick up a Big Mac and fries at McDonalds, and contemplate the massive hammer and sickle atop the palace while eating the best of American capitalism.

Even the palace fountains add to the upscale atmosphere. I mean, who ever heard of proletarian fountains?

Click here for more photos from the Palace of Soviets.

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.

Museum Night, Missiles, and Tanks

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

People eat next to a Soviet T-80 tank.

Tanks! Missiles! Cannons! Rockets and rocket launchers!

The Artillery Museum in St. Petersburg is billed as a great place to go to climb on and marvel at military equipment, and in this role, it definitely doesn’t disappoint. The place is full of fighting machines, from historical cannons to the RT-2PM Topol, a massive mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launcher, complete with (mock?) missile.

Kids, and more than a few adults, were climbing on the artillery pieces near the entrance and posing for pictures. Bunches of people walked around, checking out anti-aircraft guns, spinning Topol’s wheels, or watching a free concert set up in the middle of the outdoor museum for Museum Night.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

I thought these anti-aircraft missile launchers only existed in video games.

Even cooler than the tanks, though, were the running battles in the museum’s backyard. As part of the Museum Night festivities, reenactments of Russian military history up to World War II were staged in a large treed yard, dug through with trenches and strung with barbed wire.

Sadly, we were only able to watch the World War One reenactment, but it was plenty awesome. Spectators cheered as Russian soldiers charged out of the trenches, guns spitting fire, cutting down German soldiers.

After the Russians won the battle, kids quickly ran out onto the field, looking for spent casings and mingling with the soldiers. Everbody else soon joined, check out the trenches and hopping the barbed wire. With lawsuits and such, I’m adding this to my list of things that work a bit differently in America.

We walked around after that, mingling with fake Nazi soldiers, knights with swords and shield, and even mock American soldiers from World War II, speaking Russian and some hilariously broken English.

As I wrote about yesterday, we were planning on going to a bunch of museums as part of the Museum Night event. But, as you can probably tell, we spent a whole lot of time at the Artillery Museum.

This was not entirely by choice. We had planned to start the night at Dostoevsky’s house, a museum/tribute to the famous Russian writer. But although Dostoevsky’s house was participating in Museum Night, tickets to the event were not being sold there, a fact that wasn’t in any of the Museum Night stuff we had researched online.

So we went to a Russian pizza place, and then took the metro over to Petrogradsky Island, site of the Peter and Paul Fortress, Artillery Museum, and a bunch of other museums we had planned to visit.

But the metro stop right by all the museums, the one we had planned to get off at was ремонт, or under repair—which we discovered only as our train sped through the darkened station (My roommate Tom wrote about the significance of ремонт in Russia on his blog.). We got off at the next station, still on Petrogradsky Island, but a mile walk to the museums.

Luckily, getting off at that station earned me my first picture with Lenin, which pretty much made the walk worthwhile.

 

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

Me and Lenin. In Russia, people don't smile for pictures.

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.