History in the Making

A new exhibition by Russia's Federal Archives aims to challenge conventional views on the events of 1917. State Archive director Mironenko said. "To imagine that Russian archives had purges and that documents were destroyed would be totally inaccurate."

By Anna Malpas
The Moscow Times

A letter written in English by Tsarina Alexandra Fyodorovna to her husband, Nicholas II, gives her impressions of the violent demonstrations in Petrograd.

"The rows in town and strikes are more than provoking," she complains. "It's a hooligan movement [she writes the word hooligan in Russian], young girls and boys running about screaming that they have no bread ... Then the workmen preventing others from work — if it were very cold, they would probably stay in their homes." This letter, written on Feb. 25, 1917, in the midst of events that would soon lead to Nicholas II's abdication, is now on display at the Exhibition Hall of the Federal Archives, which is marking — but hardly celebrating — the 90th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution by allowing the public to view scribbled caricatures of Lenin, a heartfelt diary entry from Nicholas II and other documents that build up an unusually ambiguous and multi-layered picture of the revolutionary year.

The exhibition, titled 1917: Myths of Revolution, has opened at the St. Petersburg exhibition hall next to the enormous State Archive, housed in a gray building decorated with sculptures of revolutionary figures. The display stands are set up in a claustrophobic zigzag, with the "myths" — often quotes from one-sided historical sources, such as the Short Course of the History of the All-Union Communist Party of 1938 — pasted up on red banners.

The first document on display, written in elegant black cursive, is Grand Prince Mikhail Alexandrovich's statement that he would not take the throne offered by his brother Nicholas II on March 2, after he abdicated on the advice of the generals in charge of the Russian forces. This choice of a starting point is no coincidence, the director of the State Archive, Sergei Mironenko, said in a telephone interview,."Everyone overlooks the fact that the monarchy fell because Mikhail didn't take the throne. We started with this document because it gives a very interesting impetus," Mironenko said.

As surrounding documents tell the story, Nicholas II's military leaders sent telegrams from the World War I front advising the unpopular ruler to abdicate in favor of his sickly son, Alexei, with Mikhail Alexandrovich acting as regent. But when Nicholas II cut out his son on medical advice, this resulted in an abrupt end of the monarchy that they had spent their careers serving. The myth tackled here, one that clearly did not originate in the Short Course of 1938, is a popular belief that "the monarchy fell because of the treachery of the generals," Mironenko said, and "that otherwise the monarchy would not have fallen in Russia. "I want to say that myths have a very strong life force," Mironenko said, listing such unofficial favorites as that the 1917 revolution was bankrolled by Masons, Jews or Germans — take your pick. "It's another matter that the Soviet ideology led to a very politicized type of mythmaking."

The first version of Yuon’s painting shows a less-polished Lenin with Lev Kamenev, Alexei Rykov and Leon Trotsky in close attendance along with Jews, Russians, soldiers. Trotsky and Rykov are present.

The second version of Yuon’s painting showed a simplified crowd and a more idealized portrait of Lenin, not to mention the disappearance of disgraced activists such as Trotsky and Rykov Stalin who was nowhere near the event appears in this painting. The crowd changes. They already are a single nucleus, there is almost no difference in their faces.

The exhibition quotes such dubious historical facts as the Short Course's statement that the Avrora battleship attacked Petrograd's Winter Palace "with the thunder of its cannons," while in fact only one shot was fired. A photograph shows the resulting damage — a lampshade hangs askew in a room of the palace next to a hole in the wall, but a china knicknack stands intact on a nearby table.

The process of mythmaking is shown visually in the juxtaposition of two paintings by Konstantin Yuon, showing Lenin speaking at the Extraordinary Session of the Petrograd Soviet on Oct. 25, 1917, when he made his first public appearance after fleeing the city in July. One was painted in 1927 and shows a less polished-looking Lenin with Lev Kamenev, Alexei Rykov and Leon Trotsky in close attendance. A new version, from 1935, shows Lenin attended by Vyacheslav Molotov and Stalin, with the disgraced Bolsheviks erased from the scene. In the revised version, the crowd changes as well as the political leaders, Mironenko pointed out. "In the first picture, there are Jews, Russians, soldiers, ... In the second picture, they are already a single nucleus, there is almost no difference between their faces."

Gathered for the first time in a large exhibition are drawings by Yury Artsybushev, an artist who sat in on meetings of political parties — not only of the Bolsheviks — and drew wicked but lifelike sketches of the prominent speakers. Lenin looks wily and disheveled, a far cry from his later canonic depiction. But the most interesting aspect of the drawings, Mironenko said, is that one figure doesn't appear in any of them — Stalin — indicating his minor role in the revolutionary events, which later would be grossly inflated. In terms of myths that go against Soviet ideology, the exhibition examines in particular detail allegations that Lenin was financed by Germany, which were widely circulated in the summer of 1917 by his opponents and even led to the launch of an official investigation. Caricatures from the period show Lenin as Judas and a rude limerick calls him an "oaf who sold Russia to the Germans." Several documents are labeled as falsifications — such as a statement to an investigator by a Russian officer, Yermolenko, in which he said that German intelligence officers promised him that he would become as rich as Lenin if he became a spy.  However, letters between Bolshevik officials talk about the fact that one Karl Moor gave the Bolsheviks around $30,000 in 1917 and chronicle his attempts to get the money back, right up to 1925. Historian Albert Nenarokov, who is a researcher at the State Archive for Social and Political History, helped put the exhibition together. In a telephone interview on Wednesday, he stressed that questionable donors to political parties are nothing new, and conceded that it was impossible to say for sure that Moor was not an agent of the German government. "Not all sources are as clean and honest as they could be," he said. However, he stressed that donors did not necessarily give money to create a revolution, but aimed to promote a peaceful end of World War I. Accepting such donations "doesn't mean that the party served the interests of a foreign government," he said.

Artist Yury Artsybushev sat in on political meetings and sketched Lenin and KOllontai.

Nenarokov wrote the text for a coffee-table book about 1917, including documents and photographs, that was first published in 1976. Back then, it was impossible to talk of Trotsky or Nikolai Bukharin as revolutionary leaders, he recalled. In later editions, the control relaxed a little, but it was only in the 1990s that he was able to publish a series of books on the role of the Mensheviks, who are shown in rare photographs at the exhibition.

The exhibition could have included more photographs and background on the people involved, Nenarokov conceded. "Sometimes people don't have enough historical knowledge." A telegram to the Provisional Government after the fall of the monarchy reads, "Can I consider myself a free citizen after 40 years of repression by the old regime?" It is signed Grand Duke Nikolai Konstantinovich, and sent from Tashkent, but the exhibition doesn't give any of the colorful history of this younger brother of Alexander II, who was exiled in disgrace after a scandal involving stolen diamonds and an American adventuress, and subsequently spent years in psychiatric hospitals.

Nevertheless, Nicholas II's personality comes across in haunting photographs from family archives, such as one in which he stares from the window of his royal train in 1916, looking like a prisoner in a cell despite the luxurious setting. In another, he reclines stiffly on the roof of a pleasure boat with his daughter Tatyana, from whose album the photograph comes.

His diary from 1917 lies open at the exhibition at pages that document his torment at the abdication and feelings of betrayal. On March 1, he ended his entry, "Help me, Lord." The next day, he wrote, "My abdication is necessary," but went on to write, "All around is betrayal and cowardice and deception."

Other exhibits give a sense of the thoroughness of Soviet archivists, and their determination to preserve even documents that pictured Bolsheviks in a poor light. Anonymous notes and postcards written to Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 don't mince their words, but have been carefully filed away.

One addressed to Lenin and Trotsky says "Don't bake decrees like pancakes, but feed us with bread," while a note passed to Trotsky at a meeting calls him a "puppy in wolf's clothing."

Spoilt ballot papers for the Constituent Assembly give people's opinions of the Bolsheviks. "Mr. Lenin, I don't advise you to leave us your party lists. Your place is in Germany," one writes. "And please pass the message onto Trotsky."
Such documents were carefully filed away, despite the political climate, State Archive director Mironenko said. "To imagine that Russian archives had purges and that documents were destroyed would be totally inaccurate."

1917: Myths of Revolution runs to Nov. 11 at the Exhibition Hall of the Federal Archives, located at 17 Bolshaya Pirogovskaya, Bldg. 1. Metro Frunzenskaya. Tel. 245-1925.