SINEAD ASH reviews “The Russian Revolution in Colour”, Channel 5
Put out over two weeks in two one-hour parts, The Russian Revolution in Colour was — to judge by the second part — largely a work of historical fiction. Fascinating scraps of old black and white film — of Lenin, Trotsky, demonstrators — were coloured up and spliced into long sections of “dramatisations” and “reconstructions” to let a continuous story, told by a voiceover narrator, unfold on the screen.
It was about the Russian Revolution; it was set in the Russian Revolution and Civil War; but the story told and illustrated was not history. Facts, framework, chronology were ruthlessly subordinated to the needs of a romantic historical pastiche. The stages of the Bolshevik revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution were conflated and scrambled up into a simple tale of Bolshevik villains against “the masses”.
At the centre of the historical romance was the story of Kronstadt, the island fortress that guards St Petersburg. Kronstadt was one of the strongholds of Bolshevism before and during the October revolution. It was a source of Bolshevik strength and mobile warriors in the early days of the civil war. It was the centre of a revolt against the Bolsheviks early in 1921, at the end of the civil war.
The story of the revolution is told largely as the story of Kronstadt. In “reconstructions” we see the same actors as Kronstadt sailors at different phases of the revolution. We go with one “sailor” from 1917 through the different stages of the revolution until, after the Bolshevik suppression of the uprising in 1921, we see him shouting his “last words”, which seemed to be “long live the revolution” as he is shot by the Bolsheviks.
Again and again the voiceover hammers home the message about the “heroes” of Kronstadt seeking a utopian dream — socialism — and the villainous Bolshevik tyrants who finally dispersed and murdered them. It is a tissue of historical nonsense.
One of two things. Either the people who made The Russian Revolution in Colour are disablingly ignorant of their subject. Or they are deliberate liars and knowing slanderers of the October revolution.
The central lie — central to the story told and to the whole second episode — is that there was continuity in the garrison at Kronstadt from the 1917 revolution through to the anti-Bolshevik seizure of the island fortress in March 1921. We see the Kronstadt sailors going from Kronstadt to fight the anti-Bolshevik “Czech Legion” in 1918, but then they are back again in Kronstadt. There is, it seems, nothing more for them to do in the years of the civil war!
In fact, there was no such continuity in the Kronstadt garrison, or anything remotely like it. The heroes of 1917 had been scattered through the centres of the revolution and the fronts of the civil war, to stiffen the defence of the revolution. Many had lost their lives in the civil war. The Kronstadt garrison in 1921 was a garrison of reservists, different people. It was in no way the old garrison of Bolshevik stalwarts, in no way the heroes of 1917.
The scenario which we see unfolding in the “dramatic reconstructions” has as much historical truth in it as you’d find in a typical, old-fashioned Hollywood “historical romance”.
We are told that Kronstadt rose against a new, privileged Bolshevik elite (illustrated by an actress playing Larissa Reisner, an important journalistic eyewitness of the revolution, smoking a small cigar in a cigarette holder!). In 1921 the Stalinist counter-revolution is read back onto the revolution, the images of the Bolshevik revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution merged and mixed up into nonsensicality.
Academic “talking heads” — one of whom, a Russian, sounded like a nostalgic tsarist — contributed bits of knowledge, and great generalisations in which Bolshevism is made one with the Stalinist counter-revolution which massacred almost all the Bolsheviks!
We are told that before the seizure of the garrison in 1921, there were mass strikes in St Petersburg. There was indeed mass discontent, everywhere, amidst the ruination caused by the civil war. We are not told that the St Petersburg workers responded to the Kronstadt anti-Bolshevik uprising by… calling off their strikes. And so on.
Kronstadt was a tragedy. The Bolsheviks had no choice but to reconquer the island commanding the approach to St Petersburg. Not least of their concerns was that its possession by anti-Bolshevik forces might have inspired a new eruption of civil war. The Bolsheviks were right to suppress it. They were right, when there was no other choice, to take it by force.
The Bolsheviks are easy targets on such questions. Such terrible events as the conflict around Kronstadt can be misrepresented to equate the Bolshevik revolution with the Stalinist counter-revolution — that is, with the repression of the workers and peasants by the new ruling class during the counter-revolution that overthrew Bolshevism and replaced it by Stalinism. One of the jobs that fall to honest socialists is to combat this and similar misrepresentations.