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.

big version of picture.jpg

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.


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

Pushkin House Team