September 8, 2001

In one of his routines, comedian Woody Allen says "I took a speed reading course and read 'War and Peace' in twenty minutes. It's about Russia." Whether you spent more like twenty months reading it, saw the 1968 two-day Russian film version or even had a chance to see the Bolshoi Opera version years ago in New York (that's the last I time buy standing room only tickets) you will agree - it's long. The other adjective that comes to mind is 'epic'. Russians like epic.

When anarchist Alexander Berkman was released from prison after 14 years of a 22 year sentence for attempting to assassinate Carnegie Company chairman Henry Clay Frick, he sought more appreciative surroundings and caught a boat to Russia. In his memoirs, for May 1st, 1920, he describes attending a mass spectacle called "The Mystery of Liberated Labor" in Petrograd. "I was spellbound by the horrors of the Tsars' tyranny; the clanking of the slaves' chains echoed in my consciousness, and I heard the muttering of approaching storm from the depths. Then sudden thunder of cannon, groans of the wounded and dying in the world slaughter, followed by the lightning of rebellion and the Triumph of the Revolution." It's a no wonder that Berkman was profoundly stirred. That particular production, written by a committee and mounted in front of the former stock exchange, starred a cast of close to 4,000 actors, portraying various popular revolts from that of Spartacus in ancient Rome, through 16th century Cossack rebel Stenka Razin, on down to the 1905 attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas. In the end, as a red star arose triumphantly in the east, the cast reportedly joined the audience of 30,000 in singing The Internationale, accompanied by sweeping searchlights from boats in the river and the deafening screech of the city's factory whistles.

That summer the comrades of Petrograd would see two other massive theatrical events, "Blockade of Russia", and "Toward the Worldwide Commune". Then on November 7th came the grand finale of the season, The Storming of the Winter Palace.

100,000 spectators gathered before a huge stage in front of the actual Winter Palace to watch the past three years re-enacted by more thousands of performers. A sketch shows a vast mechanistic, semi-abstract set, with white backdrops to the audience's right, representing the provisional government (the 'bad' guys are the ones in white this time) and red backdrops to the left (naturally) indicating the communists. A bridge between the two serves as an entry and exit. In the grand finale the Reds charge across the bridge, Kerensky and his provisional henchmen pile into an open automobile and flee out between the two halves of the audience, chased in other cars by Red Guards waving bayonets. As the comrades prevail a cannon is fired from a battleship in the river and fireworks celebrate the triumph of the glorious party.

Rousing as all of these extravaganzas must have seemed to participants, not everyone was impressed. After that May 1st performance Berkman wrote, "But the huge audience remained silent --- not a sign of approval was manifested. Was it the apathy of the northern temperament, I wondered, when I heard a young workman nearby saying: "What's the use of it all! I'd like to know what we have gained." Looking back from hindsight, we can answer the workman's question in two words - Joseph Stalin.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


Geoffrey Hoskings - Russia and the Russians (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2001)


As with most things Russian the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 can't be explained in a single web site, no matter how comprehensive. Find a page of links and many are apt to be as dead as the Kerensky government. (See, a reference to an entire subject in itself, only one of dozens). So where to begin to make sense of it all?

Perhaps a visit to the Russian city where so much of the revolutionary fervor surfaced - St. Petersburg (Petrograd, after the 1917 Revolution). Visit the Explorations in St. Petersburg site at . You'll get a tour of Peter the Great's capital in pictures and text under the headings Historical Sites, The Hermitage & The Russian Museum, The Theatres of St. Petersburg, and Cathedrals. One highlight - Peter the Great's Cottage. Built by carpenters in 3 days in 1703, this modest wooden cottage was the headquarters for the Tsar (Czar, if you prefer, anglicized Russian spelling seems to change with every shift in wind direction, how about a moratorium, but don't get me started) while he supervised the construction of an imperial city. They say he even went out in disguise and got his imperial fingernails dirty.

If you really get intrigued the site will point you to tourist accomodations. There are also icons (ikons? but don't get me started) that will point you to other Russian subjects and cities.


© 2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte



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