From Glasgow to Marseille: the story of Russian football hooliganism

Avram Liebenau delves into the backstory behind the violence against England fans at the 2016 European Championship

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

Image credit: Piotr Drabik

In June 2016, around 150 Russian hooligans charged a group of England fans in a square of Marseille. In a savage and brutal rampage, multiple Brits were left injured. Shortly after, Feduk, a Russian rapper and a notorious fan of football hooliganism, which Russians somewhat ironically call okolofutbola (literally, “around/surrounding football”), released a track entitled ‘Tour de France’ glorifying the event. The British press, in contrast, lambasted the football authorities for allowing this to happen and expressed concern about the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The Telegraph even interviewed some members of the attackers, who saw themselves as the counter-force to the English, whom they perceived as their natural enemy in the football hooligan world. Understanding this view requires an understanding of Russian football hooliganism’s complex history which is tied to our own (now nigh-on taboo) past of sporting violence.

To trace this tale, we need to go back to the early Brezhnev era, when the young stilyagi (basically hipsters) were listening to punk, and footballers who travelled abroad were smuggling vinyl back to Russia in their suitcases to make an extra rouble or two. Particularly relevant and impressive in describing this period is Vladimir Kozlov’s book Fanaty, tracing the history of hooliganism through interviews with former participants in hooligan acts. We learn that these were youths, in some cases who also identified with stilyagi culture, and were drawn to football for a complex set of reasons.

Crucial to this was the USSR top league’s accessibility to the average citizen, due to the increase in televised games after the spread of TV from the mid-1960s. Despite television ownership being limited and mainly confined to the major cities, it provided a window to enjoy professional football and was a contributing factor in football’s growth in popularity, shown by the trend of rising attendances at matches from 1965-1980.

Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided

Unintentionally, however, watching football exposed Soviet citizens to the hooliganism already present in the European game, culminating in the 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final between Glasgow Rangers and Dynamo Moscow. Soviet fans witnessed a pitch invasion and violence on the part of the Rangers fans, which halted the game and swung the momentum in favour of the Scottish side as Dynamo pressed for an equaliser in the dying moments of the encounter. The club, fans and players never got over the injustice of nearly completing one of the greatest comebacks in European footballing history. But, as the underbelly of European football beamed into Soviet living rooms, Russian youths saw rebellion, escapism and camaraderie in creating their own.

The early hooligan gangs sprung up in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Dynamo Moscow were early on the scene, officially organising in 1972, while Spartak’s supporters coalesced in 1979. These fans styled themselves as hooligans through banners at matches, synchronised chanting and clothing, dominating particular areas of stadia, and violence and intimidation towards opposition fans, players and match officials. By the end of the 1970s, riots on matchdays – particularly on the common Moscow derby-days between CSKA, Dynamo, Spartak and Lokomotiv – were common. Kozlov’s interviewees proudly describe the carnage they wrought as their numbers swelled into an uncontrollable mob down Pushkinskaya ulitsa.

The appeal of hooliganism wasn’t limited to the big clubs at the pinnacle of Russian and European football. A local club, Avtomobilst, had fans who on one occasion in 1972, caused a match to be abandoned because of a pitch invasion and vicious attacks on the referee and opposition coach. A unique feature of Russian football has always been the irrelevance of geography to football fans’ chosen clubs. Where in Western Europe we associate football with a distinct community drawn primarily along geographic lines, in the USSR and modern Russia fans congregated based on profession, the most obvious case being Lokomotiv, the club of the railway workers, whose fans still refer to the team as ‘the railwaymen’. There were many affiliated ‘Lokomotiv’ clubs across the USSR, and remnants of it exist today: Lokomotiv Minsk are one of many Lokomotivs still competing. This meant that Russian hooliganism had a framework through which to spread rapidly, and clear lines along which fans divided.

In their style and intent, the hooligans individually and collectively modelled themselves along British hooligan lines. Kozlov’s interviewees attest to their dress being taken from British punk fashion and their chants and paraphernalia deliberately resembling British teams. Like the British hooligans of the 1970s, the Russians created a sense of ‘honour’ associated with their club, which incorporated elements of masculine aggression and veneration of bravery, expressed by violence towards, overwhelmingly, other hooligan gangs. The reasons for this were clear: British football hooligans were the most feared, and therefore respected, hooligans. The Russian fans were acutely aware of the foreign influence on their activities, as many Soviet youth subcultures were, and this placed them in a broader European arena for their actions and style.

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

Russian riot police in Moscow. Image credit: Aleksey Toritsyn

The Soviet hooligans weren’t blind copycats, however: their acts occurred in an entirely different political context from the British. Successive Soviet leaders suppressed dissent and disorder, in different ways and to different extents. Surprisingly, however, the authorities were slow to react to the violence and antisocial behaviour of the football fans. According to one of Kozlov’s interviewees, ‘Batya’, the police were often outnumbered, shocked and didn’t possess the required capabilities to manage the crowds. They ended up being on the receiving end of as much violence as the opposition hooligans, although the reasons for this were less political and more incidental – few hooligans, at least according to Kozlov’s book, intended to make a political message by attacking the police.

British hooliganism, surprisingly, was more directed at the authorities than in Russia. Possibly for this reason, accusations of hooliganism made an effective scapegoat in the cover-up of the catastrophic handling of football crowds in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. The case remains close to footballing hearts due to the public blame-game against the deceased and their families, which implicated members of the police force and the media.

The growth of Russian football hooligan gangs was inspired by their British counterparts, whose escapades during the 1960s and 70s began to come under the microscope of Soviet fans. Over time, Russian football hooliganism developed its own distinct iconography and identity. Violence in any capacity is not tolerable, but the increasing infiltration of right-wing and racist ideologies into much of Russian football hooliganism has lent it an even more sinister image. As the balaclava-ed Russian “ultras” charged at the Brits in 2016, what was happening was not just a group of crazed criminals going on a rampage, but the culmination of forty years of Russian hooligan history: finally, the English were dethroned, and there were new hooligans to admire. The Russian hooligan’s mission was complete.

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I'm Avram Altay Liebenau, I've been studying Russian since I was 15 and am in my final year studying BA Russian and History at University College London. I enjoy writing about varying topics, from financial history to football hooliganism.

Avram can be reached at avram.liebenau@gmail.com.

Art Under Siege: The Leningrad Symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich and 'The Conductor'

Joseph Skelton, one of the actors in the company performing The Conductor, explains the history and journey behind the concert-play.

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In 1942, conductor Karl Eliasberg wrote in his log:

"Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working."

Left in the devastation of the Leningrad Siege, the music stopped. Starvation gnawed at the city. Surrounded by the Nazis for over two years, the siege would claim the lives of more than one million men, women, and children.

Some months after Eliasberg wrote this entry, a plane carrying supplies from Kuybyshev airlifted a composer's 252-page score into Leningrad. It was the seventh symphony of Dmitri Shostakovich; his 'Leningrad Symphony'.

The first rehearsal in March 1942 was intended to be three hours long, but had to be stopped after 15 minutes because the 30 musicians present were too weak to play their instruments. Eliasberg himself had to be dragged to rehearsals on a sledge. Over the next weeks, three performers died in the room.

Before the performance, Eliasberg announced on the radio that "this performance is witness to our spirit, courage, and readiness to fight. Listen, Comrades!" He uses the vocabulary of war and the tone is rallying for resistance. Presumably the motives behind the Soviet government's decision to perform the symphony were more about psychological warfare than art — indeed speakers were put up around the city, and the piece was played out to the Germans and across the front lines.

However, we wonder what the motives were for these starving musicians and the conductor who dragged them through. The higher food rations could have been an incentive; some perhaps felt intimidated by government pressure; some perhaps were ideologically indoctrinated to believe in sacrificing themselves for their country. And yet it seems there must have been another motive; the one which provided the fire and the heat and the light — the true dignity of their endeavour. The burning belief in performer and audience, which meant that the concert received an hour long ovation. The belief that they were reaching towards something beyond themselves, beyond their situation. Beyond war.

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Right now we are immersed in battles. We are immersed in wars across the globe, wars that are driving people from their homelands to travel treacherous journeys to uncertain refuge. We are engaged in battles of politics, race, and gender as an old world dies to a new one, and as old ideologies of violence and scapegoat tactics have another go at gaining public popularity.

Sometimes I question art in a time like ours. As an actor I question the value of my place in society and whether I'm not just engaged in a mercenary, self-serving, and egotistical industry.

To the people of Leningrad, music didn't feel like a futile response to their situation. It wasn't a solution, but it was a response — and one which perhaps carried with it something that reached beyond a solution. A solution would have been rooted in context; their statement reached past their context. It needed to be more foundational. Because any solution to the context would be flawed. In a world where truth is written by the powerful, then as now, when solutions are so often compromised and corrupted, art returns us to the bedrock, to the heart.

Our concert play The Conductor contains two actors and a pianist, and with words and music and silence we have been sharing this story for the past three years. It has been a journey of wonder for us in our company to live with this story as we developed the piece, travelled with it, played it to people across Europe, in different languages and with different scripts and scenes and energies and technology and moods. We've played in Gothenburg to three people, and under the open Roman sky, speaking out in Italian over ambulances and aeroplanes. Now we're bringing it back to London, where we first did a ten-minute extract in a cafe three years ago.  

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I am deeply grateful to have been able to walk with this story and be allied with it; to share it in our way and to bring our own desire to share a message into contact with the desire of these musicians almost eighty years ago. And to realise, that although the contexts are incomparable, the adversity incomparable, the road incomparable; the fire is the same fire, the light the same light. It is inspiring to consider that the same power of the human spirit, the same impulse to create and perform and share what we feel most sacred and potent about life, is within us, as it was in them, and is in all people.

Although art may feel futile in the face of war, or in the face of multi-billion dollar companies, or maverick presidents, it allies itself with the greatest power there is — the power which has cradled us for millennia and will continue to pulse long after we are gone — the creative power of life itself. For me, to ally ourselves with this is to be allied with a true power which cannot be silenced. Because it dwells in silence itself. In Shostakovich's words, ‘something that cannot die’.

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The Conductor is taking place at The Space Arts Centre,  London.

March 26 - April 13, 2019

8pm

Tickets can be found here.

Obscure History: The 1906 loan that paved the way for the Entente Cordiale

Avram Liebenau recounts an unorthodox financial deal that decisively shifted European geopolitics

Sergei Yulyevich Witte in 1905

Sergei Yulyevich Witte in 1905

Entente Cordiale, Russian poster, 1914

Entente Cordiale, Russian poster, 1914

In April 1906, with the Tsarist state buckling under the fiscal strain of maintaining the gold standard, mounting political turmoil after the ‘revolution’ of 1905 and defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, Sergei Witte, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, secured funds in the form of a bond issue from a group of French and British banks which kept alive the ailing regime. Witte passed away just weeks later, but his loan came at the end of a masterclass in international diplomacy and manipulation. British interests, French desires and German grand plans were played off against each other to secure Russia as good a deal as they could get: 2.25 billion Francs, approximately 900 million roubles or £90 million given in bonds with rates of between 4 and 5% (just less than £11 billion in today’s money).

Witte had realised from the start of the war that European credit was the surest route to sustaining the military effort. He travelled to Paris in 1904, securing a bond issue which, despite the French foreign minister insisting on Russia buying French armaments, was favourable to Witte. After successive Russian defeats to the Japanese, Witte decided more funds were needed. He travelled to Berlin in early 1905, leveraging his favourable standing with the French financial elite against the competing German bankers to secure another bond issue of 231 million roubles.

Vladimir Kokovtsov, the assistant Finance Minister at the time, accompanied Witte but went on to Paris since, as the war reached its unpleasant conclusion for the Russian Empire, the Parisian markets had to prop up Russian bonds which had lost 15% of their value in the space of a few months. Suddenly, with the war lost, close to a hundred thousand soldiers dead or injured, the navy obliterated, and unrest in the capital, Witte sent Kokovtsov back to Paris to secure, by any means necessary, the funds that would sustain the regime. Kokovtsov lobbied the French bankers and harried and bribed the press while Witte went to London, trying to find a bank which would issue the bonds on the London Stock Exchange.

Of particular interest in the formation of the 1906 bond issue is the involvement of British banks. French banks’ relations with Russia had a long history, with various loans given to the Tsar’s coffers and close historical ties between the Russian Empire’s francophone aristocracy and Parisian high-society. Britain, however, was a rival. In the Middle East, British supremacy in Baluchistan (modern-day Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan) was at odds with Russian interests in northern Afghanistan and Central Asia. Britain was an aggressor in the Crimean War and London, the world’s financial centre until the First World War, was a happy hunting ground for Japanese loans during their war with Russia.

“British strategic gain seems to be the most compelling explanation for their participation”

The impact of these political events on the course of financial history cannot be understated. Much literature revolves around the questions of where British capital went and why it went there - few scholars disagree that the influence of politics was always present. This loan presents us with an interesting puzzle. To what extent was politics driving the world of finance, or vice versa? Why did Britain help an unfriendly state, to paraphrase historian Olga Crisp, stave off the financial collapse of their government?

The possible explanations include pressure from the French and indeed Russians. Witte is known to have gone to London multiple times to try to secure loans, and the French wanted their Russian and British allies to reconcile, tempting Britain with the opportunity of suppressing the growing threat of Germany. When it comes to finance, profit is never far from the equation. The French media, taking bribes from Russian officials, consistently exaggerated the performance of Russian bonds, but, even before this, French loans to Russia had performed well in the markets.

British strategic gain, however, seems to be the most compelling explanation. Months later, Britain and Russia signed a treaty protecting the status quo in Persia, and two years later the Entente Cordiale was codified between Russia, France and Britain. In their involvement in the seemingly unprofitable loan, the British banks paved the way for the thaw between the two empires. The Foreign Secretaries of the period, Sir Edward Grey and his predecessor Charles Hardinge were well aware of the opportunity presented by the loan. Grey even personally promised that British banks would participate in the 1906 bond issue, presumably sensing the political and economic possibilities of the loan.

A 1904 cartoon of the Russo-Japanese war, by American cartoonist Bob Satterfield

A 1904 cartoon of the Russo-Japanese war, by American cartoonist Bob Satterfield

At the time, however, the loan was bandage on a severed artery. The funds allowed the Tsarist state to limp on by rebuilding their military and plugging holes in the haemorrhaging state coffers. Nevertheless the loan came too late to aid the war effort with Japan, and the next Minister of Internal Affairs, Pyotr Stolypin, fumbled the state’s assets in his attempts at reform, focussing his attention on the peasantry, strengthening the internal repression framework, and his notable ‘wager on the strong and sober’. Gone was Witte’s appeal to the European financial elite and encouragement of capital inflow to stimulate industrialisation and heavy industry. Instead, Stolypin focussed his efforts on agricultural production, already Russia’s primary export westward. Later, the bonds were annulled or ‘repudiated’ by the Bolsheviks.

Sometimes people and organisations do things that are seemingly irrational to pave the way for a change in attitude or policy. Crucially, the line between enemy and ally is slim. When conditions demand it, even your adversary, who helped your enemy in war, who rebuffed your attempts for funds, who two generations ago invaded your land, can suddenly become your saviour. International finance can be a wedge for political reconciliation. Russia and Britain were, briefly, the best of friends.

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I'm Avram Altay Liebenau, I've been studying Russian since I was 15 and am in my final year studying BA Russian and History at University College London. I enjoy writing about varying topics, from financial history to football hooliganism.

Avram can be reached at avram.liebenau@gmail.com.

F*** you, but in Russian [Explicit]

Katrin Scheib describes an unorthodox language class

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

(Warning: very strong language throughout)

We've got white wine in grandma's fancy glasses. We've got olives in tiny white bowls. We've got toothpicks to take the olives from their bowl. This is going to be a civilised, educational evening for a group of people gathered around a table in a Moscow living room. To start us off, our teacher writes down four words and holds them up: Dick. Cunt. Fuck. Slut.

What can I say: this is about linguistics and about Russian studies. It's about an everyday phenomenon of the Russian language that isn’t part of your typical class. Today, we're learning about mat, the language Russians use to swear. Oh, the jokes we've been making among us before this session: "So what shall I bring to that bloody evening at yours?” - “Hm, maybe some biscuits and shit.” Nice try. We had no idea.

“I love mat, it's incredibly versatile and variable”, says Dasha, who has kindly agreed to be our lecturer tonight. She is Russian, a journalist and a dedicated user of mat. “As a phenomenon, it's not limited to poorly educated people living in the provinces, the intelligentsia uses it as well”, she explains and mentions the name of a fellow boss of ours, from back when we were both working at the Moscow Times. “Remember, he used the polite „вы“ to address me, but at the same time, he would use mat in our conversations.” So while mat is all about swearing, it's not a good indicator of a person’s level of education or of their manners, she argues.

When we arranged to meet for tonight’s lesson, there’s one thing Dasha had made clear from the start: We're doing this right, or not at all. She has bought a small whiteboard, prepared a lecture - 30 minutes, with room for questions after. Her approach to our first round of vocabulary is just as structured, writing them down first in Russian, then transliterating into English, followed by the translation. From “хуй” to “khuy” to “dick”. Seven attentive pupils nod along and take notes.

Khuy, pizda, yebat' and blyad'. Dick, cunt, fuck and whore. For words which, in theory, no journalist in Russia should use in their writing and no musician in their songs. Which, of course, only makes them more interesting for some musical genres. “There are some big hits that have two versions, one with mat and one without”, says Dasha, and even Pushkin is said to have used mat in some of his poems. According to Russian tradition, Dasha shouldn't really know about all this, “because we women are all fragile little flowers, so it's considered inappropriate.” There have been moments when she's sitting in a café with a friend, deep in animated conversation, using lots of mat – only for a man from another table to come over and say something along the lines of “Come on, girls, the way you're talking – that's just not done.”

Dasha doesn't care, not in a café and not during our little crash course tonight. She wipes the whiteboard clean and continues, because each of the four basic parent terms has countless progeny. Take khuy, for example:

  • poshol na khuy: literally “go to dick”, it means something like “piss off”

  • mnye pokhuy: “I don't give a dick”

  • nakhuy: “to the dick”, meaning “to hell with it”

  • nakhuya: a sweary “why?”, as in “Why the dick is it raining again today?”

  • nikhuya: a sweary “nothing”, as in “I'm waiting for the phone call, and what happens? Not a dick.”

  • khuyovy: shitty


”And now for the best part”, says Dasha as she gives us a grin. “As well as using these four words to express something negative, they will equally work for the opposite.” Okhuyenno, for example, means “excellent”, and okhuytelno means “great”. Still, any Russian will notice the word at the core, so when she's visiting her in-laws, Dasha makes sure to use the standard Russian terms for “great” and “excellent”, rather than those where you can still hear the “dick”.

So we work our way through all of them, the four core terms and their varieties. Guided by Dasha, we learn how to avoid actual swearing – Russian has it's own versions of “darn” or “effing” - and how to replace curses with rhymes. Never mind the literal meaning, if you come up with a rhyme for it, people will still recognize the original dirty phrase. And so, yobanny v rot (fucked in the mouth) first becomes yobanny krot (fucked-up mole) and then zhovanny krot (chewed-up mole).

Time for the grand finale, for what Russians call “three-floor swearing” - as if a great curse was a house built from different mat terms. And since you can conveniently turn them from verbs into adjectives into nouns, they are also easily combined. “Piz-da-blyad-sko-ye mu-da-yo-bi-she”, Dasha dictates slowly as we all write it down. It's a bit of a diversion from the four core curses because here, the somewhat milder mat term “mudak” (asshole) also gets its chance to shine. The result, in all its four-part glory, translates as “whorecunting assholefuckery”. You'd use it, Dasha says, if you really disapprove quite strongly of something, when someone seriously gets on our nerves, or when you just banged your elbow against a piece of furniture. We nod. We have another olive. We take notes.

A German version of this text first appeared on the author's blog, kscheib.de

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Katrin Scheib is a German journalist and blogger. Since moving to Moscow in 2014, she has worked for The Moscow Times, Coda Story and recently covered the Football World Cup for n-tv.de. She also writes a monthly newsletter on football in Russia.

The 1920 'Mass Spectacle' which blurred the lines of the October Revolution

Dr Peter Lowe investigates a staging of the storming of the Winter Palace, and the way it was used by the Soviet state to alter history.

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The recent exhibition ‘History Was Made Here’ at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg (the documentary film of which will be screened at Pushkin House on 28th November) showcased the museum’s unique place in the story of the Russian Revolution. As the home of the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks saw the Winter Palace as a symbol not only of the Tsarist order discarded at the start of 1917, but also of the ineffective administration that held power in its place. When Red Guards forced their way into the Palace on the evening of 25th October (7th November in the revised calendar) and arrested the ministers they found inside, they delivered the final blow to a regime that was no longer in control of the events unfolding around it.

That the Palace was itself less than heavily guarded and occupied mostly by those inclined more towards surrender than resistance were things the Soviet state would choose to overlook in the years that followed.  For the purposes of commemoration the storming of the Winter Palace would be the crucial, defining episode in the glorious narrative of ‘Red October’.

The 1918 celebrations that marked the first anniversary of the Revolution were structured around a series of street parades and rallies. The city of Petrograd (as it was still named) was decorated for the festivities but the Winter Palace itself had no direct use at this symbolic time other than providing a venue and accommodation for delegates attending the Northern Oblast Congress of Committees of the Village Poor, which was taking place alongside the Revolutionary commemorations.

Things changed significantly in 1920, when it was decided that the third anniversary of the Revolution should be marked with a ‘mass spectacle’. This form of large-scale pageant, with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of ‘citizen-actors’ taking part, had been used before, particularly in Petrograd, as a symbolic event to collectively ‘re-live’ and remember the Revolution’s success.

On 1st May 1920 the steps of the city’s Stock Exchange had hosted the ‘Mystery of Liberated Labour’ (directed by Yuri Annenkov) in which workers were seen trying unsuccessfully to ascend and gain entrance to the ‘Kingdom of Freedom’ at the top. Symbolically claimed by the workers after centuries of struggle, the Kingdom of Freedom became the site of a tower decked with red ribbons, around which participants and spectators joined in the singing of the ‘Internationale’ at the end of the evening.

For the actual anniversary of the Revolution, however, Nikolai Evreinov, the theatre director who had been employed to manage the spectacle, chose to use the Winter Palace itself as the stage set. With the documents and photographs collated in Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse’s book The Storming of the Winter Palace (2016) we can appreciate how Evreinov worked with a creative team to realise his vision for the crowds who gathered to watch.

Attendance figures are disputed, and the cold and damp weather may have played a part in this, with figures between 60,000 and 150,000 cited in different sources, but there were certainly more people in Palace Square that evening than had been there in 1917. In an interview by the newspaper Zhizn’ iskusstva ten days before the performance, Evreinov spoke of how “the Winter Palace itself has been included as a performing actor, as an immense character with a body language and inner emotions of its own.” Using lighting effects and “cinematographic language” to turn its upper-storey windows into ‘screens’ he hoped that the audience in the Square would be able to see events occurring inside the Palace in the crucial moments prior to its capture, allowing its “stones to speak” as he put it.

An edited photograph of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.),  The Storming of the Winter Palace,  (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

An edited photograph of the ‘dress rehearsal’ for Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.), The Storming of the Winter Palace, (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

And so it was that in 1920, as in 1917, armed revolutionaries raced across Palace Square when a salvo fired from the cruiser Aurora provided the signal for action. Prior to its denouement the spectacle featured tableaux of scenes building up to the Palace’s capture, reminders of the Provisional Government’s failures and the crisis that precipitated Bolshevik action. Two stages – named ‘Red’ and ‘White’ in front of the General Staff Building on the southern side of Palace Square – represented the opposing sides in the revolutionary struggle. On the one stage, spectators saw scenes of bureaucratic confusion and incipient autocracy from Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky and his followers: on the other the masses resisted attempts to repress them and organised themselves into the crowd that would ultimately make its way across the Square and into the Winter Palace itself. 

Eye witness accounts, like that of Nikolai Shubski, a Muscovite who was in Petrograd and witnessed the spectacle, recalled the singing of the ‘Marseillaise’ and the ‘Internationale’ as the crowds gathered, the rumbling of motor engines, and the rattling of machine guns fired by those attacking the Winter Palace and those engaged in its defence. Shubski remembered watching the signs of struggle inside the Palace, seeing figures fighting behind its windows and, finally, seeing the news of the assault’s success conveyed to the crowds outside. At that crucial moment, he wrote, “the banner of the victors floats out of the dark heavy and purple… A rain of sparks sprays off the waterfall of fireworks. The ‘Internationale’ resounds, and a victory parade starts up to its tune, illuminated by spotlights and rockets.”

The 1917 seizure of the Palace had not culminated in a firework display, but in 1920 the outcome was never in doubt, and as such the struggle could be made more intense, the resistance more stubborn, and the heroism (of its conquerors) more visible. Recalling his impressions of the re-enactment in the 15th November 1920 issue of Krasnyi Militsioner, Evreinov invoked the mood as the struggle for the Palace reached its climax in “a deafening symphony of decisive battle” of some two or three minutes “of continuous noise” that seem[ed] like an eternity” to the “overstrained nerves” of those looking on. The fact that he could measure the tension of this event in minutes indicates how carefully controlled this re-enacted ‘storming’ actually was. Not everyone was convinced by the result, however. Shubski’s account ends with his overhearing another spectator, a man who was genuinely a veteran of the Palace’s capture, noting that “they fired less in 1917 than today!”

The same photograph before editing, showing the ‘control tower’ in the centre, and spectators in the Square. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.),  The Storming of the Winter Palace,  (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

The same photograph before editing, showing the ‘control tower’ in the centre, and spectators in the Square. Source: State Central Museum of Contemporary Russian History / Inke Arns, Igor Chubarov, and Sylvia Sasse (eds.), The Storming of the Winter Palace, (Zurich: Diaphanes Press, 2016)

In the years that followed, photographs of Evreinov’s spectacle would find themselves reproduced on posters and in Soviet history books as if they were indeed records of the original event. One particular image, showing the ‘Revolutionaries’ racing across Palace Square was passed off, sometimes unconsciously and sometimes knowingly, as documentary proof of the crucial moment in Soviet history.  This overlooked the fact that the photograph was clearly taken in daylight. It was not, of course, an image of the 1917 seizure of the Palace, or even of the 1920 re-enactment – both events taking place at night when such photography would have been impossible – but was in fact a photograph of the dress rehearsal for the 1920 re-enactment, which had been held a few days earlier.

Comparing two versions of the same image allows us to see the ‘control tower’ set up near the Alexander Column to allow Evreinov to co-ordinate events in the Square, along with a host of onlookers who would surely not have been standing around on the night of 25th October 1917. Given the ease with which the Soviet state was able to manipulate and restructure its own history in the 1920s and 1930s, however, this fabrication of the historical record was entirely in keeping with the need to give formative events a sense of historical inevitability.

The effect of Evreinov’s ‘Storming’ of the Palace was to replace, in the Soviet imagination, the actual event with something spectacular enough to make the Revolution’s origins seem much grander than they may once have been. A few years later the film director Sergei Eisenstein would capture the drama of those 1917 days in his film October, commissioned to mark the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. Eisenstein was given full use of the Winter Palace for his film, which provides one of its most famous sequences as the massed ranks of Red Guards seize the Palace after a pitched battle with its numerous defenders. So intent was Eisenstein to extract the greatest possible sense of drama and spectacle from this scene that he famously did more damage to the Palace in the filming of his re-enactment than had been caused in the original seizure. By then, however, as Evreinov’s 1920 spectacle had already demonstrated, historical ‘reality’ was not really the issue. The Soviet state was happy if its re-enactments were accepted as authentic records of a Revolution that could never be too dramatic for the regime’s taste.


The Winter Palace and the Hermitage in 1917: History was made here is screening at Pushkin House on 28th November at 7pm. Tickets are available here.

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Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period