October 24, 2017
Americans can be forgiven for thinking that the Communist revolution centered on Moscow, but in fact St. Petersburg was home to some of the most intense conflict surrounding the 1917 revolution. Remember that it was the capital under the tsars, not Moscow! I used my penultimate day in the city to retrace some of the key events leading to the Bolshevik takeover.
Since I had a little time before museums opened this morning, I decided to take a walk over to Vasilevskiy Ostrov, the largest of the islands in the mouth of the Neva. My particular target was to see the “Twelve Colleges.” In the States, we think of the executive branch of government being divided into departments, each headed by a secretary in the Cabinet. Peter the Great sought to modernize Russia’s government by replacing the older prikazy system with one where nine colleges would handles areas such as Justice, Revenue, Commerce, etc. These administrative groups would be housed in the set of twelve college buildings he created all in a row on the island, and they would be joined by the Senate, the Synod, and another ministry for trade. The buildings, finished in 1744, are a lovely baroque style.
I mentioned visiting the grave of Mikhail Lomonosov yesterday, and I was pleased to see his statue relaxing just outside the Twelve Colleges. From there, I wandered to the point of the island facing the rest of the city. I walked past three “fifth-wheel” trailers parked in a row. I look forward to sharing the photo with my aunt and uncle, who remodel antique camping trailers.
I also saw the old stock exchange, which again looks worse from the back than on the side facing tourists. The antique Rostral Columns, which once served as lighthouses, are still impressive. Giant figures at the base symbolize the four major rivers of Russia, the Neva among them. Ships’ prows point out the sides of the columns in a sort of ladder.
My walk next took me by the artillery museum, on the near-land side of Rabbit Island (dominated by the Peter and Paul Fortress). As I passed the massive artillery pieces, I tried to figure out which kind would have been pointed at my father had fighting re-erupted in Korea while he was stationed there. Soon after that, I had arrived at my destination, the Museum of Russian Political History. As usual, I had arrived early, so I paused for twenty minutes on a convenient bench. As the hour arrived, a group of primary school children in reflective vests arrived, and they happily clattered into the building as the security guard opened up.
This museum is located in a building that seems far from the Communist ideal. It was a gorgeous mansion! Prima-ballerina Mathilda Kshesinskaya had the home constructed in 1904-1906 in an Art Nouveau style. It included a grand hall where she occasionally rehearsed before a big show along with the normal rooms of an affluent mansion. Her talent in the arts brought her to the attention of Tsar Nicholas II in the three years before he married (starting in 1890), and his favor led to her being advanced in her career. As sentiment in St. Petersburg became increasingly revolutionary in 1917, she decided to move away in February of that year, moving to France in 1920. Her home was occupied by soldiers and soon thereafter by revolutionary organizations, particularly the Bolsheviks (they had formed relationships with many of the enlisted men in the armed services). Her story is told in the 2017 film, “Matilda.”
The museum bridged the Kshesinskaya mansion with the Brandt mansion behind it during the 1950s, and more recent work has modernized the facility to a great extent. While I found the flow through the museum a little confusing (the wings told separate stories from the core of the building, so one moved upward rather than outward), the material seemed well thought-through, though it occasionally assumed visitors had a bit more information than the average American might know, (Do you know who Sergei Kirov was? Do you know why he was assassinated? I didn’t.)
It was helpful that the museum walks visitors through the nature of the discontent with the Tsar. A childlike model visualizes the 1825 Decembrists’ occupation of Senate Square. They exhibited the clothing of a man shot down in the 1905 Bloody Sunday incident (which took place in a plaza next door to the museum). By the time an empire uses its military against large-scale protests, the end is not far away. the wall featured a full-scale recreation of a portrait of Nicholas II with bayonet tears gouged through it. The teenage dream of Tsar Alexander I to transform Russia into a constitutional monarchy (start of the 19th century) might have succeeded before all these disasters took place.
When revolution came, a strange three-body dynamic formed. The Tsar abdicated in favor of his brother, who also soon abdicated. The Russian Provisional Government claimed control over all the government offices and military forces, but the Communists gained credibility day by day until the military only nominally answered to the Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks suborned all the other Communists until they were powerful enough to launch a successful coup against the Provisional Government. Suddenly their message of “we will create a paradise” had some rather serious teeth!
A real highlight of the museum comes from the fact that V.I. Lenin made real history right in the house. His “April Theses” were announced in the mansion on April 4, 1917 just after he arrived. He wrote around 170 works between April and July of that year, working from a table that has been returned to the place where he used it.
That room featured a small balcony, and Lenin frequently made speeches to crowds gathered below from the balcony. The room now features a painting of his oration from that window! Meetings of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party took place in the large room downstairs where the dancer had practiced her moves. It felt a little spooky, frankly, to stand in that space. I am glad that the Kshesinskaya Mansion has been restored to be essentially as it was historically rather than being turned into exhibit space. Being in Lenin’s old office is powerful in an almost opposite way to what I experienced in the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was constructed in the hotel where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
I did find some inspiration in this museum. I loved this quote from the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersberg (1990): “Any enterprise should begin with a human being and not with a government decree, any project should end with a human being. Legal rights are nothing more than a necessary means of maintaining order in society, not an instrument for turning a human into a cog in a machine but for addressing the early concerns of an ordinary person. A legal state begins with understanding this simple truth.” (Anatoly Sobchak, The Road to Power) I popped over the gift shop to buy a folder full of Soviet-era propaganda posters entitled Vice, Get Out!. A fair number of them focus on abstaining from alcohol!
I went to the park next door to acquire some photos of the mansion and its balcony, and then I headed to what was once Revolution Plaza (now called Trinity Park). A large boulder, called the Solovetsky Stone, stands as a monument in the plaza to victims of political repression.
I stopped at a cafe on a side street. At first, I thought I couldn’t eat there since the menu wasn’t in English, but then another customer stepped up to translate. I ended up with soup, salad, a full plate, and tea. Another customer stepped forward to help me with the tea urn. This city shows real warmth to visitors!
[The following section has been borrowed from October 21, 2017.]
I turned my sights east so that I could visit some sites relating to Russia’s revolutionary history. The Aurora is permanently moored at the site where a river empties into the Neva nearby. The Pallada-class cruiser had seen action in the Russo-Japanese War, but it was returned to Russia at the end of hostilities. The ship was undergoing major repair in 1917 as the population of St. Petersburg grew in revolutionary fervor. The ship’s crew joined the side of the revolt, and the ship’s captain was killed when he tried to halt their actions. This ship fired a blank from its forecastle gun on October 25th, 1917 (old calendar) to signal that the assault on the Winter Palace was to begin. The October Revolution had officially shifted from speeches to action.
I continued east, walking across the Sampsonlevskiy Most (bridge) along the waterfront beside a major highway (the Pirogovskaya Nab). At last I reached the Finlyandskiy Station, or Finland Train Stration. At first, this might not seem a tourist hotspot, but the site didn’t make it into the Pet Shop Boys’ “West End Girls” for nothing! This is the train station where Lenin arrived in Russia after his exile in Switzerland. The plaza to the south of the Station features a massive (and famous) statue of Lenin giving an impassioned speech before a crowd of workers.
I requested permission to see the Lenin train, and a station worker telephoned for backup. The security person introduced herself and guided me onto the train platform. We walked over to the east side, and there, encased in glass, was engine 293 with its coal tender. It was hard to believe I was looking at a train that twice had shipped the famed revolutionary to Russia (Lenin had been forced to flee to Finland during the “July Days“).
After that satisfactory moment, I retired to a side street to enjoy some California rolls at a sushi restaurant. I was surprised that they recognized that term but not “maki,” another common type of sushi.
[…and now we return to October 24, 2017.]
For my last act of the day, I decided to find the building that had served as the first seat of government for the Bolsheviks after their coup. I had become confused between the home of the provisional government (before the coup) and the home of the Bolshevik government (after the coup). I set out for the Tauride Palace, only later realizing I needed the Smolnyy Institute instead. I took the metro to the Cherneshevskaya to take in the sights. Sadly, the nearest metro stop is quite some distance from both those buildings! I trudged over to the Tauride Gardens, and I am glad I got to see them. The grounds a truly lovely. Heavy clouds had been threatening all day, and a few drips started hitting the ground. When I was standing in front of the Tauride Palace, I got the sense that I was in front of a government institution, and I wasn’t even sure that photographs were allowed!
I continued heading east, since I had suddenly realized the Smolnyy Institute was just south of Smolnyy Convent, a major religious structure to the east of central St. Petersburg (I had seen it far off in the distance, looking like a wedding cake, since it is quite tall). My reasonable walk to Tauride had become an unreasonable walk. I was happy to photograph the Smolnyy Convent, and when I reached the Institute to its south, I knew I was in the right place!
A quote from Karl Marx spanned both halves of the entrance gate. Halfway down the drive, I encountered a bust of Marx facing a bust of Engels across the road, almost as though they were still locked in conversation. When I arrived at the security gate for the Institute, the security guard allowed me to take photographs inside the gate, so long as I didn’t approach the building. Both Tauride and Smolnyy would be obvious candidates for running a government since they’re both mammoth structures. I learned, in retrospect, that this is where Sergei Kirov, a rival for power among the Bolsheviks, was gunned down.
I opted to trudge back to the metro by a different route. Suvarovskiy Prospekt took an awfully long time to bring me back to Nevsky Prospekt, though. I was compelled to stop at the halfway point back to eat a chocolate cake at a bakery. It only rained on me a little bit. I hopped on the subway for the last leg back to my hotel.