Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Recounting Revolution

It has been twenty years since the dissolution of the USSR, an event that effectively meant an end to approximately seventy-four years of Soviet communism.  This began with the 1917 October Revolution when the Bolsheviks, led by the revolutionary Vladimir Iliych Lenin, ousted the Russian Provisional Government of Alexander Krensky and seized power, proclaiming Russia a socialist state.  This was followed by five years of brutal civil war between the Bolsheviks and their allies (the "Reds") on one side and an amalgamation of anti-communist, monarchist, and liberal forces on the other side (the "Whites").

The events of the October Revolution have been variously interpreted over the years.  There is the Marxist view of the Revolution, the Western Totalitarian view, and, since the 1960s, the Western Revisionist view.  Of these, the Marxist view held that the Revolution was an inevitable outcome of class struggle.  The Western Totalitarian view held that the people were misled by the Bolsheviks and that their totalitarian tendencies inevitably led to the rise of Stalinism.  The Revisionists, meanwhile, viewed the Revolution not from the viewpoint of major leaders (like Lenin, the Tsar, or Kerensky), but from the vantage point of ordinary people who held a genuine revolutionary fervor and a sincere desire for change.  They argued that the success of the Bolsheviks was contingent on this as well as several other factors and circumstances.

Of these, it was, not surprisingly, the Marxist view of the Revolution that served as the basis for Sergei Eisenstein's 1928 landmark film, October: Ten Days That Shook the World.  With a title based on the name of the book by American socialist journalist John Reed, the film is a visual masterpiece, combining striking images, fast action, and rapid film editing to create an overall emotional impact on the viewer.  Commissioned by the Soviet government in honor of the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, it is a prime example of film as agitprop.   It also notably features Trotsky in a prominent role, though Eisenstein was later forced to edit out these sequences in subsequent versions of the film, after Trotsky's defeat and exile.  A score composed by Dmitri Shostakovich was added in 1966, something that only enhances the power of an already potent work of art.

October is well-known for being featured frequently in documentaries on Russian and Soviet history, often with a disclaimer that "this is not actual footage from the Revolution."  Footage used from the film usually includes the sequences of the workers running throughout Petrograd/Leningrad/St. Petersberg holding rifles and, of course, the famous Eisensteinian depiction of the storming of the Winter Palace.  Below are images from both scenes:

However, in the world of film, October is much more famous for the instances where Eisenstein employs something known as "intellectual montage," editing two seemingly unrelated images together to convey a single idea or message.  One of the most outstanding moments of this occurs during the depiction of the ill-fated Kornilov affair in which General Lavr Kornilov attempted an unsuccessful putsch against the Kerensky government in the fall of 1917.  In the film, Kerensky's government calls upon the people to "Defend Petrograd, in the name of God and Country."  With this phrase, Eisenstein critiques both religion and nation individually, by employing "intellectual montage."

It is his critique on religion and the concept of deity, however, that is especially visually enticing.  Through a succession of images of religious art, both frightening and strikingly beautiful, Eisenstein makes a statement, effectively illustrating that all icons are one and the same.  The images include icons and architectural monuments of Russian Orthodox Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Shamanism, and indigenous African faiths.   All of these are connected by slight visual similarities.

Though this sequence does have a very Bolshevik anti-religious message behind it, it is difficult to deny its very eye-catching and visually captivating quality.  Below are a few select images from this sequence:

Eisenstein also employs a similar technique with regard to Kerensky.  During the Kornilov affair, Kerensky (expertly portrayed by Vladimir Popov) is shown folding his arms in a pensive manner:

This image is then followed an image of a statue of Napoleon, striking a similar pose, thus comparing Kerensky to Napoleon:

Kornilov himself receives the same treatment and, at one point, two images of the same Napoleon statue are brought together, emphasizing the point that both Kerensky and Kornilov are attempting to be Napoleons in their own right:

In any case, October is a classic of Soviet cinema that is must for any student of film or Russian/Soviet history.  You can watch it online on YouTube here or purchase it on DVD from Amazon.com here.