October 29, 2017

It is 100 years since the Russian Revolution on the 9 November 2017  (25 October in the Russian calendar). Armed detachments of workers and soldiers spread out across Petrograd and Moscow to take power out of the hands of a provisional government which had ruled since the Tsar was deposed, seven months earlier.

Our visual memories of that event are dominated
 by the movie October: Ten Days That Shook The World – which Sergei Eisenstein shot in 1927 years later using many of the original participants as extras.

Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein’s masterpiece was shot in 1925 and depicts events during the 1905 revolution in Russia. As always, the turmoil was driven by a mixture of politics and war.

The year 1904 had seen Russia embroiled in a war against Japan over control of north-eastern China. In October, Russia ordered its Baltic Fleet to sail around the world to wage war against Japan.

In January 1905, with the engineering industries of St Petersburg gripped with a strike wave, soldiers opened fire on a workers’ demonstration. That sparked a strike wave across Russia, Poland and the Baltic which forced Tsar Nicholas II to promise constitutional reform.

As resentment simmered, the Baltic Fleet reached its destination and was promptly sunk by the Japanese Navy. As news of this reached Russia,
in June 1905 the morale of the remaining navy, berthed at Odessa on the Black Sea, plummeted.

That is the background to the events the film depicts. Dire food, brutal discipline, middle-class outrage and disgust if ordinary Russians raised their voices against it.

When the crew of the Potemkin mutinied, their first thought was to get back into port to join a general strike that was underway. Once there, they wavered, and instead sailed out to try and spread the mutiny to ships that had been sent to intercept them. Though
 at least one other ship was seized by its crew the Potemkin ended up in Romania, where its mutineers had to watch as spectators when – in November- December another wave of mass strikes led to armed insurrection and the formation of “soviets” – grassroots councils of workers and soldiers delegates.

The film’s depiction of ordinary people’s power
 to resist was so chilling that – when it reached Europe and America in 1926 it became an instant classic. That did not stop it being banned in the UK until 1954 then and X-rated until 1978!

Of course, Eisenstein took poetic license compared to the chaotic and undocumented events, leading to a movement in post-Soviet Ukraine to label the movie a fake.

Yet the Potemkin did mutiny, the workers of Odessa did strike, and after 1905 the working class of Russia became the most feared revolutionary force on earth. And its meaning is metaphoric, not literal.

You could stop Eisenstein’s movie at almost any frame and see a masterpiece of black and white photography; perfect composition, lighting, emotion, and realism. At 24 frames per second, it brings to life something the elites of the world want us to forget – the collective power of working class people once they decide they’ve had enough.

Paul Mason @paulmasonnews