Witness to the Revolution
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

Witness to the Revolution

Published in Fiction

John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the righteous, relentless witness of the revolution who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence.

The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917.

His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him.

Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice.

‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’

Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good.

He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party.

Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored.

Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published.

‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories.

It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother.

Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline.

The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death.

The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’

His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischief-making, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens.

‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses:

I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that.

The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed:

…I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs.

He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’

His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a five-kopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’

During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’

Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia.

'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.'

Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’

The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life.

Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death.

He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed.

Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy.

Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed.

He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on.

His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation.

The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian.

His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year.

In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity.

The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.

Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’

Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest:

‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’

The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured.

From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’:

The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera.

In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge:

His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution…

Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote:

I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life.

Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.


Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

Russian Revolution Centenary: Marking 100 Years Since the October Revolution

Published in Festivals/ Events

Culture Matters is pleased to support the international, one-day conference on the October Revolution organised by the Russian Revolution Centenary Committee, which takes place in London on 4 November 2017. The full programme has been announced and includes sessions on:

An introduction to the history of the Russian Revolution

The impact of Russian revolutionary politics on British society and the labour movement

International perspectives on the contemporary relevance of the Russian Revolution

The art and cinema of the Revolution.


Speakers include:

Tosh McDonald – President, ASLEF

Andrew Murray – Chief of Staff, Unite the Union.

Mike Wayne – academic, educationalist, filmmaker, activist and cultural theorist.Professor in Screen Media, Brunel University.

Sarah Badcock – historian of Imperial and revolutionary Russia, author ‘A prison without walls? Eastern Siberian exile in the last years of Tsarism’

Mary Davis – women’s and labour movement historian, author ‘Sylvia Pankhurst: A Life in Radical Politics’, founder Sylvia Pankhurst Memorial Committee

Aleida Guevara – paediatrician, Cuban revolutionary, Angolan medical mission veteran, and daughter of Che Guevara

David Lane – leading academic and writer on USSR, state socialism, Marxism and class

Christine Lindey – pioneering art historian, Morning Star arts critic, author ‘Art in the Cold War: from Vladivostok to Kalamazoo’

Richard Leonard, MSP – Labour Party’s frontbench spokesperson on the economy in the Scottish Parliament

Vijay Prashad – historian, editor LeftWord Books, author ‘No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism’

Brinda Karat – MP for West Bengal Communist Party of India (Marxist), former student activist and trade union organiser, leading Indian women’s movement activist

Teresita Vicente de Sotalongo – Cuban Ambassador in London

Adrian Weir – labour movement historian, Asst Chief of Staff, Unite

Johanna Scheringer-Wright – MP for Thuringia and German Left Party (Die Linke) member

Vyacheslav Tetekin – veteran of Soviet solidarity with African liberation movements, former MP Russian Duma CP of Russian Federation, member of editorial board of Sovetskaya Rossiya (Soviet Russia)

Full details and tickets are available from: Russian Revolution Centenary Conference

Spark - A Festival of Revolutionary Film

still from October 1928

As part of the centenary, the programme includes a film festival, which takes place at two of London's most renowned independent cinemas: the Phoenix and the Rio. It features classics of early Soviet cinema by Pudovkin, Eisenstein and Vertov. Beatty’s Reds will also be shown as a unique and daring Hollywood film about the Revolution.

Film's potential as a tool to explain and win support for the Revolution was recognised early on by young communist filmmakers. One hundred years on, this festival celebrates the lasting international impact of Soviet cinema. 

Screenings take place on eight consecutive Sundays from 24 September. Ticket are just £10/8 and can be purchased through the host cinemas. Full listings can be found on the  Russian Revolution Centenary Committee's website: Spark Film Festival. A preview of the festival by John Green is available here: Spark Illuminates Russian Revolution

Making an Art of Revolution
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

Making an Art of Revolution

Published in Festivals/ Events

Mark Perryman invites us to put on our dancing shoes and celebrate the October 1917 centenary.

To coin a phrase ‘How do you solve a problem like VI Lenin?’ As the centenary of the October revolution fast approaches, the interesting if often deeply flawed exhibtions mounted by the Royal Academy, the British Library and the Design Museum will be cleared away and we will see the politics take centre stage. We’ve already had an inkling of what to expect with the aftermath from Charlottesville, which sparked the moral equivalence brigade and their your-communism-was-just-as-bad-as-their-Nazism so yah-boo-sucks efforts at intellectual debate.

Much of this is easy enough to dismiss and oppose. However, if in doing so we tie ourselves up in left-wing hagiography then I’m not sure how far we advance our cause either. Lenin remains, of course, the most superb tactician of revolutionary change, and deserves every credit for that. He was the leader of an insurrectionary mass movement who in the process laid the basis for an entirely new society. There are precious few political figures from the twentieth century who can match Lenin’s achievements.

Except for the most embittered of anti-communists, none of that should be controversial. The difficulties occur on our side when the tactics, leadership, and new society of Lenin are wrenched out of all context, or as theorists prefer, out of the ‘conjuncture’, to propose a politics of mimicry rather than adaptation to the conditions we face. This is hardly a new debate either, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci first raised this precise issue in the 1920s when he made the distinction between the revolution as a war of manoeuvre versus the war of position.

So a century on, how to celebrate 1917? It would be nice to get it right, after all precious few of us are going to be around for the bicentenary! The imperative of revolutionary change, notwithstanding this conjuncture or that, remains unchanged, and thus makes the best starting point. A notion summed up best by the title John Reed’s epic account of October 1917, Ten Days that Shook the World. An ideal so good that neither Hollywood nor Warren Beatty were able to destroy the message and instead produced a rather decent film version, Reds.

1917 served to inspire across the entire spectrum of the arts. Music, poetry, architecture, design, theatre, fashion, literature, film – has there ever been such a moment where such great art was shaped out of revolution? A revolutionary imperative that not only inspired, but recognised that to flourish these artists, writers, designers, poets would need the space to express this imperative in their own terms, not as servants of the revolution but in its service.

This first made sense to me in the mid 1980s, when the Crafts Council hosted a London exhibition ‘ Art into Production: Soviet Textiles, Fashion and Ceramics, 1917-1935’. The vivid colours, the variety of shapes, the ever-presence of a sense of movement with a purpose caught my eye and I’ve never forgotten it.

Shortly after and the era of Gorbachev, Glasnost and Perestroika meant a much wider re-assessment of Soviet power on the world stage, the beginning of the end of what had threatened to become a new cold war. And this was reflected too in a popular appropriation of ‘Bolshevik chic’. Harmless enough in intent, broadly well-meaning but pretty much devoid of political content, there goes that conjuncture again.

And so where do we end up for October 2017? In post-Soviet Russia Putin will seek no doubt to represent 1917 as indicative of the might of his Greater Russia nationalism. This was the era of the USSR after all, a nation on a scale that Putin today can only dream of. Meanwhile across what used to be thought of as the West, parties of social democracy are suffering a phenomenon the writer and activist James Doran has described as Pasokification, a steep decline in support following these parties’ embrace of the neoliberal consensus.

In Greece PASOK has suffered the steepest fall of all but elsewhere in France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the Irish Republic, social-democratic parties have not only declined but faced an insurgent challenge from the Left too. None of this amounts to 1917 revisited, but chimes nonetheless with the inspirational motives of radical change.

In Britain the picture is different. Because the insurgency has come from within the party of social democracy itself, led by a rank outsider and serial rebel, Jeremy Corbyn. Labour of course is not about to become a revolutionary party. It has never been one and will never turn into one. But the sense that a party set on winning parliamentary power can co-exist with the ambition of reinventing itself as a social movement is increasingly prevalent as the defining characteristic of Corbynism.

Finding a way to mix all this together for a 1917 centenary night out is no mean feat. But Philosophy Football, with the help of the RMT, are doing that at London’s Rich Mix Arts Centre on Saturday 21st October. Described by Time Out as ‘The Sex Pistols of Balkan Brass’, The Trans-Siberian March band headline with a special Shostakovich-inspired set. Michael Rosen reviews how 1917 produced a wave of childrens’ books at the time. Rosy Carrick performs extracts and interpretations of the brand new translation of Mayakovsky’s epic poem Lenin which she recently edited.

And Des Kapital, the surprise hit of the Edinburgh fringe, recalls the events of the Russian Revolution via the songs of Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and Robbie Williams – a history lesson like none other, complete with audience singalongs! Add author of Landscapes of Communism, Owen Hatherley and Eldina Begic creator of the Comradettes clothing project to Richard Seymour author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics on the spirit of revolution – and be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Art out of Revolution is at Rich Mix, East London Saturday 21st October. Tickets from Philosophy Football.

MP 2 TSMB Promo Pics 300DPI

Kino eye two
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

'The most important of the arts': film after the Russian Revolution

Published in Films

John Green outlines the role of film in the Bolshevik Revolution, and the profound and lasting influence of Russian revolutionary film-makers on cinema not only in the Soviet Union but across the world.

According to the Bolshevik government’s first Commissar for Education, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Lenin remarked that, ‘Film for us is the most important of the arts’. What is particularly significant in this position is that Lenin not only clearly recognised film as an art at a time when many still considered it merely a form of cheap entertainment, but that he also recognised, even at this early stage in its development that it would have a huge and influential future.

The young Soviet Union was faced with a large population made up of many nations and ethnicities. Overwhelming numbers were illiterate and the means of communication in the country were undeveloped. The Bolshevik leaders were faced with the daunting task of explaining the revolution to the people and galvanising their latent energies, but they didn’t have the luxury of time or tranquil conditions in order to do so. The promise of the new medium of film – at that time still only a silent medium and used as a fairground entertainment only ­– was recognized immediately by those with imagination and vision.

The possibilities of cinema as a propaganda, agitational and educational tool intrigued the Soviet leaders. Their fascination with new technology in general as a means of transforming a backward society probably contributed as well. Lenin dictated this note to the Commissariat of Education, which was responsible for the cinema, with a request that it draw up a programme of action based on his directives. In an early conversation that Lunacharsky, the first Commissar for Education, had with Lenin, he recalls that Lenin uttered his oft quoted statement ‘that of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema.’

A declaration was issued by the People’s Commissariat for Education on the organisation of film showings. A definite proportion should be fixed for every film-showing programme. And while it recognised that film is very much a medium of entertainment, in programming it insisted that there must be a strong educational and propaganda component.

The Commissariat for Education also stressed that films ‘From the life of peoples of all countries,’ should be screened in order that film-makers should have an incentive for producing new pictures. ‘Special attention should be given to organising film showings in the villages and in the East, where they are novelties and where our propaganda, therefore, will be all the more effective.’ (First published in Kinonedelia No. 4, 1925).

The new young Turks like Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod, Pudovkin and Alexander Dovzhenko took up Lenin’s challenge with alacrity. The young film medium, based as it was on mechanical proficiency and industrial expertise, captured the interest of the new generation of communist artists who realised that the new society they wished to construct could only be built on the basis of rapid industrial development and technological innovation. These pioneers grasped this new ‘entertainment medium’ with both hands and transformed it into a powerful means of communication. These directors were inspired by Marxist theory and saw that they could apply Marxist ideas to the making of films, but each film-maker did so in their own individual way. Eisenstein was, though, the only one to elaborate an all-embracing Marxist theory of film-making. He put this into practice in his own film-making, in terms of selection of camera angle, juxtaposition of images during the editing process, movement within the frame and later in terms of sound and music also. For the first time the ideas of Marx and Marxist theory were applied to film-making.


Eisenstein was undoubtedly the most influential of the new young Soviet film-makers – a trained architect, he took to film like a duck to water. Seeing far beyond the idea of moving pictures, he developed a whole new science of film-making based on Marxist dialectics. Eisenstein was a pioneer in the use of montage, a specific technique for film editing. He, alongside his colleague and contemporary, Lev Kuleshov, were two of the earliest film theorists to argue that montage was the very essence of cinema, and, used effectively, could enable us to see and comprehend a deeper reality. Eisenstein’s essays and books – particularly Film Form and The Film Sense – explain his theories of montage in detail and provide a theoretical grounding for future film-makers.

By using a unique form of montage i.e. how the individual celluloid takes were spliced together, he demonstrated that meaning could be created by juxtaposing images rather than, as had been done up till then, splicing them in simple chronological sequence. By placing one image (in Marxist terminology, the thesis) immediately next to a very different or ‘opposing’ image (the antithesis), a new concept (the synthesis) is created.

He saw editing as the key to a film’s impact. Film was for him much more than just a useful tool in expounding a scene through a linkage of related images. He felt the ‘collision’ of shots could be used to influence the emotions and consciousness of an audience and that film could achieve a metaphorical dimension. While making films, he developed a comprehensive theory that he termed, ‘methods of montage’.

His iconic film Battleship Potemkin is probably the most famous example of this approach, but Strike (1924) was his first film. It depicts life at a factory complex in Tsarist Russia and the conditions under which the workers laboured. The plot is centred on the workers organising a strike which in response to repression escalates into a full-blown occupation. Such a blunt depiction of ruling class repression had never before been visualised in this way. But what makes this and Eisenstein’s other films so special is that the audience is not allowed for a minute to remain passive, but is drawn into the struggle and becomes almost part of it. It is difficult to imagine today when you look at old grainy prints of Battleship Potemkin, that audiences were so stirred by its imagery that they swarmed out of the cinema determined to make their own revolution. The ruling classes were so frightened of it that its public showing was banned for many years almost everywhere outside the Soviet Union.

JG strike

After the success of Strike (1924), Eisenstein was commissioned by the Soviet government to make a film commemorating the unsuccessful revolution of 1905. He chose to focus on the crew of the battleship Potemkin. Fed up with the extreme cruelties of their officers and their maggot-ridden meat rations, the sailors mutiny. This, in turn, sparks an abortive citizens' revolt on the mainland against the Tsarist regime. The film's centrepiece is the classic massacre on the Odessa Steps, in which the Tsar's Cossacks methodically shoot down innocent citizens. The image of a dying mother who lets go of the pram she is pushing, leaving it to career down the steps with the baby still in it, has become one of the most iconic and moving shots in the history of cinema.

He was the first cinematographer to develop a proper film language, one appropriate to the challenges facing the new Soviet republic. His best known films, Strike, Battleship Potemkin, October, Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible all bear testament to his contribution and the power of his imagery.

Many of his plans were, sadly never brought to fruition. During his unsuccessful sojourn in the USA, he proposed making a film of Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man and of Sutter’s Gold by Jack London but the ideas failed to impress Hollywood producers at the time and were vehemently opposed by anti-communist elements in the Hollywood hierarchy. The same happened with his proposal to film Theodor Dreiser’s American Tragedy. While there, though, he developed cordial relations with Charlie Chaplin who introduced him to the socialist writer Upton Sinclair. Their subsequent attempt to jointly produce a film in Mexico was also, in the end, unsuccessful although the footage they were able to shoot was later, posthumously, edited into the film, Que Viva Mexico.

With all this wasted effort, Eisenstein was getting itchy feet to return home, as the Soviet Film industry was, in the meantime, already experimenting with soundtracks on film. Also, in the wake of an increasing Stalinisation of the arts, his techniques and theories were coming under attack for ostensibly ‘ideological’ reasons and he was being accused of ‘formalism’ and he wished to counter such criticisms.

JG alexander nevsky

Back in the Soviet Union he embarked on his epic Alexander Nevsky with a musical soundtrack composed by Sergei Prokoviev. Unfortunately he died at the age of 50 so was unable to realise his mature potential. It is a moot point whether his specific cinematic language could have been adapted to a post-revolutionary period, and in a different historical context. But there is no doubt that his work has influenced numerous film-makers down the ages and still does.

Soviet film-makers and their use of film inspired film-makers and cultural workers throughout the world. What characterised them, in contrast to their many colleagues in the West, was that they viewed film, in the first instance, as an educational medium. They were more interested in the use of film in its educational, propaganda and informative roles than as pure entertainment. and saw the medium primarily as a means of promoting human betterment and the promoting of socialist values.

The influence of Soviet cinema

The influence of Russian film-makers can be seen throughout the succeeding history of film. US classics like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, with its adventurous camera angles, framing and editing would have been unthinkable without Russian cinema. The Italian Neo-realist wave leant heavily on its Russian forerunners. Directors like de Sica, Rossellini, Visconti and Rosi had all studied the way in which Soviet film-makers had been able to capture life on screen in a totally new, gripping and realistic way that superseded its former theatrical straitjacket. The films of the Hollywood greats like Billy Wilder, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, William Wyler, Howard Hawks and so on all reveal the seminal influence of these early Soviet film-makers.

Early Soviet cinema ‘led the world, and laid much of the groundwork for the practice and theory of film for the 20th century,’ according to Annette Michelson, Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. At a lecture she gave in December 2003, she and Naum Kleiman, Director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, discussed the ways in which Soviet and Russian film have interacted with the American film industry.

Kleiman pointed out that Russian émigrés like choreographer George Balanchine and actor Michael Chekhov, in addition to their influential roles in the world of dance and theatre, were active in Hollywood. As Michelson pointed out, Eisenstein never made a film in the US, after Paramount Pictures invited him to Hollywood in 1935, but the then never took on any of his projects. Nevertheless, she argues that Eisenstein's use of montage influenced American film, and is visible, she says, in such well-known scenes as the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Hitchcock and other American directors re-interpreted montage usage.

According to Michelson, ‘In the hands of those Americans who admired Eisenstein's work, [montage] became a kind of tried-and-true conventional, visual, rhetorical device for indicating the passage of time, or the passage from one country to another.’

Kleiman underlined that many US filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s had seen and admired Eisenstein's films. He noted that in the 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola had told him that he had found artistic inspiration in October and Ivan the Terrible. Both Kleiman and Michelson felt that Eisenstein's influence was even more noticeable in movies made outside Hollywood. Michelson argued that montage was an important intellectual and artistic device in independent films produced after the Second World War, such as those by Maya Deren. Kleiman also noted the influence of other Russian artists, such as émigré actress and producer Alla Nazimova. In his opinion, Nazimova's film Salome clearly reflected traditions of Russian literature, theatre and set design. This movie, along with other movies featuring Russian actors and directors, was seen by American filmmakers and influenced their future work in many subtle ways.

Workers' Film Societies

Elsewhere in the West, in response to the dramatic transformation taking place in the young Soviet Union and the new films emerging from the country, progressives grasped the opportunity to use this new potent medium in their own way. Communists here in Britain became centrally involved early on in setting up workers' film societies from the twenties onwards, as a means of creating opportunities for working people to watch Soviet and other progressive films. Ralph Bond, a foundation member of the British Communist Party, published in the Sunday Worker – a forerunner of the Daily Worker – an appeal for interested parties to get in touch to facilitate the setting up of a London Workers’ Film Society, and the response to this appeal surpassed all expectations.

The Soviet director, Sergei Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin had an unprecedented impact on audiences everywhere with its revolutionary montage techniques and searing imagery. This was followed by other, equally powerful and iconoclastic films from the Soviet Union. However, these films were banned for public showing in many countries, including the UK, as they were deemed too inflammatory and seen as dangerous communist propaganda. 

The first workers’ film societies were set up to provide a means of showing such films (and they were also seen as a way of getting around the censor, as such films could be shown in private clubs without a licence). The first, founded in London in 1925, had as its object the ‘showing of films of artistic interest, which could not be seen in ordinary cinemas’. Such societies had already been active on the continent of Europe. However, before the new London film society even got off the ground it was already involved in skirmishes with the London County Council (LCC) over permission to show their selected films, even to members. (The LCC was London’s licensing authority for film screenings under the 1909 Cinematographic Act). In 1928, the LCC banned the showing of Battleship Potemkin, and then also banned a showing of Pudovkin’s The Mother. This led many progressive individuals, including J. M. Keynes, Julian Huxley, Sybil Thorndike, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw, to protest, but even they failed to have the ban rescinded.

When the London Workers’ Film Society’s tried to show two Soviet-made films at the Gaiety Cinema in Tottenham Court Road in November 1929, the cinema owner refused the booking at the last minute after pressure from the London County Council. Such run-ins between the LCC and the LWFS became regular occurrences. While the LCC adhered to its bans on the Soviet films mentioned above, it relented as far as permitting the LWFS to put on Sunday shows in the West End.

JG workers film

After the setting up of the London society, several others soon appeared around the country, and an attempt was made to create a national federation of film societies to facilitate easier access to films, better distribution and co-ordination. The Federation of Workers’ Film Societies (FOWFS) was founded in the autumn of 1929 and led to the creation of a network of local workers’ film societies all over Britain.

The Labour Party itself showed no interest in setting up workers’ film societies but with the success of the London Society, it became highly suspicious of the latter’s activities and denounced the society as being merely a communist propaganda vehicle.

The Communist Charles Cooper was a ‘movie enthusiast whose Contemporary Films opened new horizons for British cinema audiences. His early interest in film had led Charles to become, in 1933, secretary of the Kino group, an association of left-wing film enthusiasts who were determined to circumvent Britain's draconian film censorship, which was especially aimed at the new Soviet cinema. Kino organised 16mm screenings of Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin for trade union and Soviet friendship groups, as well as producing a ‘workers' newsreel’ and agitational films such as Bread, in which a starving, unemployed worker is harshly treated by police and magistrates.

Although Eisenstein is undoubtedly the greatest and most innovative of all Soviet film-makers, his contemporaries should in no way be ignored, as they also made innovative and influential contributions to the film medium. Below I take a cursory look at the most significant.

JG DovzhenkoCamera

After returning to the USSR from a prisoner of war camp in Germany, Dovzhenko turned to film in 1926 after landing in Odessa . His second screenplay was Vasya the Reformer which he co-directed. He gained greater success with Zvenigora (1928) which established him as a major filmmaker. His following Ukraine Trilogy (Zvenigora, Arsenal and Earth) established his reputation worldwide. Its graphic realism was impressive and inspiring. After spending several years writing, co-writing and producing films at Mosfilm Studios in Moscow, he turned to writing novels. Over a 20-year career, Dovzhenko only directed 7 films.

JG pudovkin

A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War and was also captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov.

Pudovkin adopted a very different approach to Eisenstein. While his films are just as revolutionary as the latter’s in terms of the content and their powerful impact, he took a more traditional approach to narrative. A student of engineering at Moscow University, Pudovkin, like Dovzhenko, saw active service during the First World War, also being captured by the Germans. During this time he studied foreign languages and did book illustrations. After the war, he abandoned his professional activity and joined the world of cinema, first as a screenwriter, actor and art director, and then as an assistant director to Lev Kuleshov .

His first notable work was a comedy short Chess Fever (1925) co-directed with Nikolai Shpikovski. In 1926 he directed what came to be considered one of the masterpieces of the silent era: Mother. In this he developed several montage theories, but in a different way to Eisenstein.

His first feature was followed by The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Storm over Asia, about the impact of the Bolshevik revolution on what was then seen as a backward region. After an interruption caused by poor health, Pudovkin returned to film-making, with several historical epics: Victory  (1938); Minin and Pozharsky  (1939) and Suvorov (1941). The last two were often praised as some of the best films based on Russian history, along with the works of his colleague Eisenstein he was awarded a Stalin Prize  for both of them in 1941.

In 1928, with the advent of sound film, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Grigori Alexandrov signed the ‘Sound Manifesto’, in which the possibilities of sound are analysed, but always understood as a complement to image.

JG vertov

Dzigha Vertov
Vertov attempted to do for the documentary what Eisenstein had been doing in the fictional field. He was born in 1896 and is considered one of the ‘greats’ of early Soviet film-making, a director who concentrated on documentaries. He began by making newsreels but also developed his own theories about film-making that differed markedly from those of the fictional film-makers mentioned above.  His work and writing would be very influential on almost all future documentarists, particularly the British school around John Grierson, Basil Wright, Alberto Cavalcanti and Paul Rotha, but also later on the French Cinéma Verité movement.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, at the age of 22, Vertov began editing for Kino-Nedelya (Кино-Неделя, the Moscow Cinema Committee's weekly film series, and the first Russian newsreel), which first came out in June 1918. While working for Kino-Nedelya he met his future wife, the film director and editor, Elizaveta Svilova , who at the time was working as an editor at Goskino  She began collaborating with Vertov, and working as his editor but later his assistant and co-director on subsequent films, such as the iconic Man with a Camera (1929), and Three Songs About Lenin (1934).

Vertov worked on the Kino-Nedelya series for three years, helping establish and run a film-car on Mikhail Kalinin’s agit-train during the ongoing ongoing civil war between the Bolsheviks and the white Russian counter-revolutionaries. Some of the cars on the agit-trains were equipped with actors for live performances and printing presses: Vertov's had equipment to shoot, develop, edit, and project film. The trains were taken to battlefronts on agitation-propaganda  missions aimed at bolstering the morale of the troops, and to engender revolutionary fervour and commitment. In 1919, he compiled newsreel footage for his documentary Anniversary of the Revolution, and in 1921 he compiled History of the Civil War.

JG kino pravda

In 1922, the year that O’Flaherty’s seminal Nanook of the North was released, Vertov started his Kino Pravda  series. It took its title from the Bolshevik government newspaper Pravda. Kino-Pravda (Film Truth) continued Vertov's agit-prop bent. The Kino-Pravda group began its work in a basement in the centre of Moscow. It was, as he himself described it, damp and dark. There was an earthen floor and holes one stumbled into at every turn. He said, ‘This dampness prevented our reels of lovingly edited film from sticking together properly, rusted our scissors and our splicers’. ‘Before dawn damp, cold, teeth chattering I wrap comrade Svilova in a third jacket’.

Vertov's driving vision, expounded in his frequent essays, was to capture ‘film truth’—that is, fragments of actuality which, when organised together, contain a deeper truth than can be seen with the naked eye. In the Kino-Pravda series, he focused on everyday experiences, rejecting ‘bourgeois concerns’ to film ordinary people, marketplaces, bars, and schools instead, sometimes with a hidden camera. The episodes of Kino-Pravda did not usually include re-enactments or stagings, although he did so on odd occasions. The cinematography is simple and functional. Vertov appeared to be uninterested in traditional ideas of aesthetic beauty or the perceived grandeur of fiction.

Vertov clearly intended an active relationship with his audience in his Kino Pravda series, but by the 14th episode the series had become so experimental that some critics dismissed his efforts as ‘insane’. Vertov responded to their criticisms with the assertion that the critics were hacks nipping revolutionary effort in the bud, and concludes his essay with a promise to ‘detonate art's Tower of Babel’. In Vertov's view, ‘art's tower of Babel’ was the subservience of cinematic technique to narrative.

With Lenin's admission of limited private enterprise through his New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921, Russia began receiving fiction films from abroad, a situation that Vertov regarded with suspicion, calling drama a ‘corrupting influence’ on the proletarian sensibility. In this view, he was taking an extreme and, one has to say, very narrow viewpoint. By this time Vertov had been using his newsreel series as a pedestal to vilify dramatic fiction for several years; he continued his criticisms even after the warm reception of Eisenstein’s Potemkin in 1925.

By this point in his career, Vertov was clearly and emphatically dissatisfied with narrative tradition, and expressed his hostility towards dramatic fiction of any kind both openly and repeatedly; he regarded drama as another ‘opiate of the masses’ – a rather extreme position.

The Man with a Movie Camera

In his essay ‘The Man with a Movie Camera’ Vertov wrote that he was fighting ‘for a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theatre and literature’. By the later segments of Kino-Pravda, Vertov was experimenting heavily, looking to abandon what he considered film clichés (and receiving criticism for it); his experimentation was even more pronounced and dramatic by the time Man with a Camera was filmed in Ukraine.

Some have criticised the obvious stagings in this film as being at odds with Vertov's principle of ‘life as it is’ and ‘life caught unawares’, but its sense of realism is overwhelming. The film has become synonymous with the use of specifically cinematic technique, with the use of double exposure, fast and slow motion sequences, freeze-frames, jump cuts, split screens and tracking shots etc. He also uses footage played in reverse and the idea of self-reflexivity.

In the British Film Institute's 2012 Sight and Sound poll film critics voted Man with the Camera the 8th greatest film ever made and the work was later named the best documentary of all time in the same magazine. Although in the Soviet Union at the time it also had its staunch critics who called it ‘formalistic’ a criticism aimed at a number of Soviet film-makers and artists, including Eisenstein.

Like other Russian filmmakers, he attempted to connect his ideas and techniques to the advancement of the aims of the Soviet Union. Whereas Eisenstein viewed his ‘montage of attractions’ as a creative tool through which audiences would be better able to comprehend complex processes and thus the ideological content of the films, Vertov believed that Kino Eye would have an influence on the actual evolution of mankind, from being a flawed creature into a higher, more precise, form of being. ‘I am an eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, I am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see’, he was quoted as saying.

There is no doubt that all these pioneering film-makers and theoreticians during the early years of the Soviet Union have had a lasting influence on film-makers worldwide. Despite the fact that many ‘movies’ made today for cinema and television today show all too clearly that their makers should perhaps return to school and learn from these masters, the better film-makers still reveal in their work the seminal influence of those early Soviet pioneers.

Storming the Winter Palace
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

Black night, white snow: Alexander Blok's The Twelve

Published in Poetry

John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution.

I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory.

In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future.

He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement.

My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much.

One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.


The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poem’s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching.

At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.

The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here - is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense.

Black night,
White snow.
Wind O wind!
It knocks you down as you go.
Wind O wind –
Through God’s world blowing.

‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery.

Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself.

Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices.

Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.

JE Jury Annenkov illustration to aleksander blok s poem the twelve 1918 1

The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible.

During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads:

The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry,
Just stands there like a question mark;
The old world, like a starving mongrel,
Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark.

I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied.

Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’:

Rough-and-tumble dump,
Wood huts in a clump,
And a big fat rump.

Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy:

With her big, fat arse!

Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase:

Solid old
Solid old
Fat-arsed Russia!

My personal preference is for Carlson’s version:

…ancient, sturdy,
Fat-assed Russia!

Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying.

Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too.

Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows:

Katie, have you clean forgotten
Him that hadn’t time to bolt
From my knife? Or does your rotten
Memory need a little jolt?

Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched:

Do you remember that officer –
The knife put to an end to him…
Do you remember that, you whore,
Or does your memory dim?

Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’.

Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others:

That captain of yours, have you forgotten?
When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon.
I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten.
Don’t tell me you forgot so soon.

Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ.

In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens:

Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word…
Then lie there on the snow, you turd!...

Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue?
Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung!

Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know.
Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow.

Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep…
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!...

All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another.

A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still.

Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution.

Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.

JE Jury Annenkov storming the winter palace 1920

It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’

The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’.

In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.

Pablo Picasso (in the beret) and scene painters working on set design for Leonid Massine’s Parade, staged by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris, 1917.
Wednesday, 18 October 2017 03:56

Dancing Up a Storm: the 1917 Revolution and Russian ballet

Published in Theatre

Carolyn Pouncy tells the story of how Russian ballet was modernised, democratised and eventually revitalised by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Ask people unfamiliar with dance history where ballet originated, and many will say, “Russia.” Although the wrong answer—ballet originated at the court of Louis XIV, based on formal dance traditions already developed in Italy and brought to France with Catherine de Médicis—the perception reflects the outsized influence of Russian ballet since the arrival of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909. So it probably comes as something of a surprise to learn that ballet in Russia itself almost did not survive the October Revolution of 1917.

CPouncy Agrippina Vaganova Esmeralda 1910

Agrippina Vaganova in Esmeralda, St. Petersburg, ca. 1910

The problem was simple: from its debut, ballet existed as an aristocratic art form, supported by courts and, until the early years of the twentieth century, chronicling the adventures of princes and princesses, fauns and fairies, sylphs and spirits of various sorts. Its pirates were romantic corsairs, its peasants and shepherds were light-hearted flute players, its Gypsies were royalty in disguise or lost at birth. Everyone bathed often, and there was not a worker in sight.

Imperial autocracy, as a system, exaggerated these problems. The imperial theatres and their schools operated as government departments, intertwined with the tsar’s household in the most intimate fashion. Although the dancers came from lower on the social scale—and often subscribed to liberal politics, especially during and after the revolution of 1905—everything about their daily lives, from the moment they entered the doors of the academy on Rossi Street as children, to the guaranteed pensions they received in retirement twenty years later, separated them from the poverty that afflicted the vast majority of Russia’s population and linked them to the rarefied world of the aristocracy.

When the Bolsheviks completed their coup, the former imperial theatres faced numerous problems. Although the lack of state support for sets, costumes, salaries, and pensions had perhaps the most dramatic impact on the lives of individual dancers, perhaps a bigger loss for Russian ballet as a whole was the mass exodus of personnel before and after Great October.

Ballet in the Western world took off at this time, precisely because the fleeing dancers brought their expertise and their training with them. But those who remained behind, for whatever reason, found themselves in dire straits. Almost half of the dancers in the imperial theatres of St. Petersburg emigrated in the late 1910s and early 1920s, meaning that simply mounting a performance of a classic like Swan Lake, Giselle, or The Nutcracker became next to impossible.

Scarce food meant that the skilled dancers who remained performed in workers’ clubs that paid in bread. Scarce fuel left dancers bundled in clothes over their skimpy costumes, stripping off the layers in the wings just before they ran on stage and rushing back to cover up as soon as their divertissement finished. Each morning students broke the ice on the water sprinkled over the wooden floors to prevent skidding.

cpouncy bolshoi ballet school 1920s

Bolshoi Ballet school in the 1920s. Courtesy of Russia in Photos, https://russiainphoto.ru

Perhaps more devastating still was a problem unique to ballet, an art form that from its beginnings until the present day has been passed on by word of mouth from teacher to student. When so many dancers left, they took with them the living memory of steps, how roles were performed, and transferred that oral tradition westward. Those who stayed struggled to preserve what they recalled, even devising the first system of dance notation to record the old ballets.

The art itself suffered from the exodus, because the dancers and choreographers and musicians who left tended to be the ones with the best prospects abroad: stars like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Michel Fokine. Those left behind were not always second-tier, but they had to train an entire new generation of students to replace those who fled.

Yet as we all know, ballet in the fledgling Soviet Union did not die. The first change came when Anatoly Lunacharsky, People’s Commissar of Education, convinced Lenin that “gentry culture” could have its place in the new Soviet state. Trends already underway toward more modern, less narrative ballets accelerated in the new cultural climate, finding their ultimate expression in the work of George Balanchine (another émigré) and Fedor Lopukhov, who stayed.

The rechristened state theatres continued to struggle, fending off constant accusations of backward-looking tendencies with melodramatic explorations of workers and factories, followed in due course with earnest (but seldom earnest enough) portrayals of national culture. Agrippina Vaganova and Vladimir Ponomarev revitalised the teaching methods at the Choreographic Academy in Leningrad, students such as Galina Ulanova and Marina Semyonova put those methods into practice, and in time the Soviet government of Stalin and its successors realised that ballet offered a ready means to impress foreign visitors, including ambassadors.


The final scene from The Flames of Paris (Plamia Parizha), one of the first "revolutionary" ballets, staged in 1932. Courtesy of Russia in Photos, https://russiainphoto.ru

The old ballets were restaged in new, more ideologically acceptable forms, without the archaic nineteenth-century mime. The Bolshoi and the Kirov troupes, carefully selected for political reliability, received permission to travel abroad, and Russian ballet once again became the touchstone of world dance - no longer as an aristocratic art form but as an integral part of a state-sponsored attempt to create a socialist society, a 'workers’ paradise'. 

The democratisation of Russian ballet which was hastened, if not caused, by the Russian Revolution, also had wider ripple effects on the history of ballet in Europe in the twentieth century. Rigid class structures were breaking down anyway, and all the arts - poetry, drama, film - reflected this, but the exodus resulting from the Revolution was a significant stimulus to the modernisation of the sometimes anachronistic art form of ballet, across the world.