SAINT PETERSBURG, Russia—On a misty night 100 years ago this week, a short bald man, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, the Bolshevik leader better known as Lenin, ordered a blank shot fired from the cruiser Aurora to signal the beginning of a coup, and of hellish violence, that changed Russia and the world forever.
Today, only six percent of Russians feel proud of the October Revolution that led to the creation of the Communist Soviet Union (and the subsequent renaming of the city as Leningrad under the Soviets). So President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin have been tiptoeing around the event, trying their best to balance those who adore Lenin and those who pray to canonized Nicolas II, his family, and their mystical advisor, a monk named Rasputin. There are also plenty of Orthodox politicians and culture leaders in Russia who dream about the return of the monarchy—for them the Bolsheviks, and Lenin in particular, are the incarnation of murderous evil.
It seems that in Putin’s history of Russia, next year’s presidential election is a more significant event than the centenary of the October Revolution, as authorities do their best to keep the left and right wings of power happy, without over-condemning or over-praising Lenin’s coup.
Since the Kremlin never came up with any clear agenda on how to mark the anniversary, local museums and theaters created their own projects. And although theater directors and museum curators did not agree on any common script, the narrative of all exhibits focused on the violence, victims, devastation of Russia as it was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. In fact, while the Kremlin has danced around the issue of Lenin, one figure from that fateful period remains at the center of the Russian imagination—Rasputin.
A few months before Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed the Winter Palace here in St. Petersburg, Russian Count Felix Yusupov, who was also a prince, along with some friends murdered the czar’s favorite self-proclaimed holy man, Grigori Rasputin. The assassins threw the monk’s body into the Moyka River that runs into the sea here.
One such example of this ongoing obsession can be found on the “Rasputin’s Murder” tour at Yusupov’s palace. On a visit this week, the museum’s guide quickly mentioned in a low voice that the spirit of the mystic—he of the long beard and the piercing eyes—was still alive, wandering the rooms, touching visitors slightly, so that all women faint.
The mysterious story was common in Saint Petersburg. One can read about Rasputin’s spirit even in Siberia, on the plane there in a magazine by Nord Star Airline. The recent article said that “all women fainted” in one of the rooms at Yusupov Palace, where Rasputin, the healer of the Russian czar’s family was murdered.
So I took the tour to hear about the spirit and about the fainting but did not faint and heard something important about the October Revolution. “The assassination demoralized Czar Nicholas the Second, it spoiled his plans to quit World War I, something that made London happy,” the tour guide explained. “Today many historians blame Felix Yusupov for inspiring the revolution by killing Rasputin—it was the first murder of millions to come.”
Some Russian believers want to canonize “the Czar’s friend.” A Rasputin icon painted by monks in the 1920s was presented last December in to the museum in the mystic’s home village, Pokrovskoye, in the Ural Mountains.
Here in Saint Petersburgh to mark the centennial, the Hermitage opened a mind-blowing exhibit on Wednesday called "History Was Created Here"—it was the biggest exposition in the museum’s modern history. An enormous image of a Red worker swinging his giant red hammer looked at the visitors from the wall above the white marble Jordan Staircase. Red light illuminated images on the palace walls covered in graceful golden ornaments. A black and white Lenin looks down from the ceiling, screaming: “The Bolsheviks must take power!”
The exhibition tells the story of how, late in the evening of Oct. 25, 1917, at the height of World War I, Bolshevik artillery fired from across the Neva River at the Winter Palace, hitting mostly the palace halls full of wounded soldiers, as that part of the building had been turned into a temporary hospital.
A few hours later first Bolsheviks, then crowds of ordinary people, stormed the palace, crushing whatever happened to be in their way, tearing bandages off wounded soldiers, stabbing portraits with their bayonets. Bolsheviks arrested ministers of the Russian provisional government and sent them to the Peter and Paul Fortress, while the crowds emptied the royal wine cellars and continued the bacchanalia.
Very few young Russians think of Vladimir Lenin as their hero. The premiere play at Moscow’s Chekhov theater, "Bright Way.19.17," talks about the myths of Lenin’s utopia. The play is a message from Russian youth, people who were born in the 1990s and were learning from school text books, which described Lenin’s revolution, as “a coup.”
Lenin’s deranged revolution opened the door for endless bloody killings in Russia, known as Vladimir Lenin’s Red Terror—estimates of executions ranged from 12,733 to 1.7 million—and then for his successor Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge, that killed more than 3 million people. (In Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union, Stalin's policies in created a famine in 1932-33 that killed some 4.5 million people.) Bolsheviks blew up churches, killing thousands of priests across the country. Russia was wounded all over, millions lost homes, died of hunger, went to prisons, and escaped abroad. The revolution was followed by a civil war that killed more than 300,000 people.
Today Russia marks a red page of its history—red is the color of blood, of Communist flags, the color that was dominating at the exhibits commemorated to the centennial of the October Revolution. This week the State Museum of Political History of Russia dedicated several rooms to an exhibit called "Women and Revolution." Red banners hung from the floor up to the ceiling said: “Liberated woman, build socialism! A free woman in free Russia.” Underneath the banners, the exhibition presents original photographs from the time of the revolution, depicting miserable women waiting in long lines to buy shoes and bread.
Most famous female revolutionaries were well-educated members of noble families. The revolution turned some of them into terrorists, while other women ended up on the streets selling their bodies, and still others became reformers and pushed for more rights, the so-called Women’s Question.
“Nobody won from the coup—the revolution made all women suffer, so we offer our viewers a chance to see and decide which side they would be on,” Andrei Misko, the curator of the exhibition told The Daily Beast. “All revolutions, all coups, wars, any chaos makes mothers suffer, especially when they see their children starve without bread.”