Unlike the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917 coincided with the birth of cinema. We’ll never really know what the Fête de la Fédération, the first Bastille Day, looked like. We know it was held on July 14, 1790 on the Champ de Mars. We know that when it was all over there was a feast in the gardens of the Château de La Muette where over twenty thousand people ate, drank wine, and celebrated over the next few days. We have dozens of written accounts. But do we know what it all really looked like? No.
The tenth anniversary of the storming of the Winter Palace is different. Not only do we know exactly what it looked like. It was actually staged by one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Sergei Eisenstein’s October is more than a cinematic masterpiece. It’s a real life historical event. Even if the French had had cameras in 1790 at Fête de la Fédération, the Bastille was already gone, torn down along with the feudal system it symbolized. The Winter Palace, on the other hand, will live forever in Eisenstein’s great reenactment, the events of the October Revolution boiled down into one hundred and forty minutes, available on YouTube.
There is perhaps no better proof of the importance of the cinema of the early Soviet Union than that there is not only one great film about the October Revolution, but two. The End of St. Petersburg is less ambitious than October. Unlike Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin does not attempt to re-stage the storming of the Winter Palace in full. It’s also more ambitious. Pudovkin attempts to re-stage not only the evens of October 1917, but the entire course of the Russian Revolution. That he succeeds is mostly due to the way the camera’s focus ultimately settles on two individuals, a woman and a young man who both undergo a personal transformation that mirrors the larger changes taking place in Russia. Indeed, the “end” of St. Petersburg – the city’s re-baptism as “The City of Lenin” – is not the end of the End of St. Petersburg. That only comes after a brief epilogue, where the smallest gesture of solidarity becomes even more important than the fall of the Romanovs.
The End of St. Petersburg opens in the poverty stricken Russian countryside. A young Russian peasant, newly entered into adulthood, is sent away from the family farm to look for work in one of the many factories in the rapidly industrializing St. Petersburg. There he attempts to move in with his uncle, a grizzled, veteran factory worker, and a Bolshevik organizer, but is driven out of the house by his uncle’s wife. She’s not so much a selfish woman as she is a desperate woman. She has small children. A wave of strikes has not only paralyzed the city, but has put her husband out of work. She cannot afford to have a strange young man in the house eating the food she’s so painfully scraped together for her own babies. The consequences are disastrous. The young man, now as desperate as the woman who cast him into the streets, accepts a job as a scab. “There’s a strike,” he naively tells a group of men on the street. “They need people. There will be plenty of work.”
As Pudovkin so effectively dramatizes, scabbing is only the beginning. Not only does the young man cross a picket line, he becomes a snitch, ratting his uncle out to the police as “one of the troublemakers.” His quick change of heart – he immediately feels remorse and rushes down to the police station to retract his accusations – is also the beginning of his political transformation. Of course the police don’t release his uncle. On the contrary, they seize the young peasant, and press him into the army. It’s August of 1914, and the Czar’s disastrous war against the German Empire – which Pudovkin tells us was a desperate preemptive measure to head off the working class movement coming to a head all over Russia – needs bodies. What follows is well known to students of history. The Russian army is hopelessly outclassed by the Germans, who deal them one crushing defeat after another, but Nicholas II, determined to honor his alliance with the British and French, is just as determined to feed a whole generation of young men into the meat grinder. Finally the Russian people break, overthrowing the Czar, and then the Provisional Government of Alexander when it refuses to sue for peace. The young peasant, who has miraculously survived the war, and his uncle, who has miraculously survived his arrest, join the Bolsheviks as they storm the Winter Palace.
St. Petersburg is No More. Long Live the City of Lenin.
But the young peasant’s political transformation from rural oaf to scab to reluctant soldier to Bolshevik, as dramatic as it is, is not the culmination of the movie. That comes in the film’s brief epilogue. We see the young man’s aunt, the woman who had thrown a man from her home village into the street out of fear that there might not be enough food for her children, searching the grounds of the Winter Palace for her husband. She’s carrying a bucket of boiled potatoes, a precious supply of food in a city that was still reeling from the effects of the most destructive war in history. Pausing briefly, she sees a group of men. They are heroes, the shock troops of the revolution. They’re also wounded, hungry, exhausted. She continues to search for her husband, but not before leaving the bucket of potatoes for the hungry Bolshevik soldiers. They smile. She smiles in return, then continues on her way. Revolution, Poduvkin has just dramatized, is not about speeches, or armies, studying Marx or distributing pamphlets, but about a million small gestures of kindness. The woman, now living in the City of Lenin, is no longer afraid for her children. The end of St. Petersburg is the beginning of solidarity.