How should the centenary of the October Revolution be commemorated? Attitudes to the Soviet past have been contested in contemporary Russia, but the approach of October 2017 made this a pressing question. A public celebration was clearly unthinkable, but letting such a significant date pass totally unnoticed also seemed unacceptable. This post offers some observations from the ground in St. Petersburg and Moscow last week.
In St. Petersburg there was a light show on Palace Square, on the evenings of the 4th, 5th and 6th of November. This ‘Festival of Light’ (the second to be held in the city) was part of the celebrations for National Unity Day, but the main show was entitled ‘1917-2017’ and was dedicated to the events of 1917. (The fact that Unity Day was originally invented to replace Revolution Day on the 7th further muddles the idea behind this year’s festival).
The light show was projected across the facade of the General Staff building, opposite the Winter Palace. It wasn’t very long (about 15min) but quite impressive as a spectacle, and when I was there on Saturday evening there was a big crowd.
The narrative started with 1917 New Year celebrations, followed by food shortages and protests, the February Revolution (visually represented by a speeding train, pictures of the Imperial family, and letters between Nicholas II and his wife about his abdication). A printing press produced an explosion of newspapers, Lenin appeared briefly, and there was a striking depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace, with soldiers and revolutionaries charging forwards from the arc of the General Staff building, out towards us in the crowd.
There was no mention whatsoever of the Soviet Union or anything that happened after October 1917. The show ended with a globe and some abstract light effects (with the voiceover announcing that Russia ‘will emerge through all its trials new and newly-great’) and, finally, the Russian flag.
The ending felt oddly abrupt. This erasure of the Soviet Union hasn’t gone unnoticed: the comments on YouTube videos of the show suggest that some viewers felt that it left a noticeable hole in the story, and that the leap from 1917 to 2017 wasn’t handled well. On the square, however, the show produced a big cheer.
There was also a light show at the Aurora ship, which I didn’t manage to see, and I had read about a planned historical re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace to go with the light show, but there was no sign of this on Saturday.
Almost every museum, gallery, and library in St. Petersburg seems to have put on a special exhibition or display related to the Revolution.
As for Moscow, 1917 has been conspicuous by its absence. On Tuesday morning, the day of the centenary, there was a parade through the centre of town, officially for the 76th anniversary of the 1941 military parade for Revolution Day, held during the Battle of Moscow. I missed the parade itself but went to Red Square afterwards. There were tanks and various pieces of military hardware on the square, as well as a lot of people in period costume, for visitors to look at / take selfies with. This was also a popular event: there was quite a crowd there and the atmosphere was fairly jolly, with children playing on the tanks and people singing various songs (Katiusha did several rounds). Visitors could even participate by dressing up and posing in special booths, with banners and props, as the stars of a Soviet propaganda poster.
The whole thing seemed, to me, like a fairly obvious attempt to deflect attention from the revolution’s centenary whilst simultaneously creating a public space for people to express patriotism and nostalgia for the Soviet Union, and as far as I could tell this seems to have been quite effective. The Lenin mausoleum was closed and largely ignored.
With the exception of one woman in St. Petersburg trying (without much success) to give out copies of Pravda, I haven’t seen any protests or attempts to challenge the narrative of these public events.
Mollie Arbuthnot is a PhD student in Soviet visual culture at the University of Manchester. She is currently based in St. Petersburg and Moscow, researching propaganda posters produced for Central Asia in the 1920s and 30s.