October Days: The Bolshevik Revolution at 100

07 November 2017

History | War and Conflict

To celebrate the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Professor Denise J. Youngblood introduces the 1958 film October Days. Directed by Sergei Vasiliev, the film was produced in the USSR to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the October Revolution and makes for a fascinating case study in Soviet memory.

The film is available until 21 November 2017.


Click above to watch October Days. Available until 21st October 2017. 

Shortly before midnight on November 7, 1917, the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which controlled the Military-Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the leading revolutionary group in the Russian capital, moved to oust the self-described Provisional Government that had tried to rule the country since Nicholas II’s forced abdication on March 15, 1917. Citizens awoke the next morning, November 8, to find leaflets announcing that they had a new government, the Council of People’s Commissars. No one much cared; they were more concerned about how to obtain food and fuel. After a few days of desultory fighting in Petrograd and Moscow, the Bolsheviks had won, although their quick victory soon faced severe challenges.

Throughout the 74-year life of the Soviet Union, this event was known as the Great
October Revolution because according to the Julian calendar Russia followed at the time, it occurred on October 24-25, not November 7-8. As coups go, “Great October” was underwhelming. The Provisional Government had a fractured and fractious leadership and little public support, and it folded quite unceremoniously. The Bolsheviks happened to be the best organized and most audacious of the many revolutionary parties in Russia at the time, but someone or something else could just as easily have caused the Provisional Government to collapse.

Of course, the Bolshevik Revolution turned out to be one of the defining events of the 20th century, as communism went global. The relative ease of the Bolshevik takeover turned out to be a negative for Soviet propaganda purposes; to justify the immense sacrifices the Revolution demanded, the struggle had to be seen as apocalyptic. For that reason, until World War II, the bulk of Soviet film propaganda (my area of expertise) focused on the ensuing Civil War (1918-1921), not on 1917.

Nevertheless, every decade after Great October, prominent directors were commissioned by the state to make celebratory anniversary films, a task they mainly dreaded due to the political constraints. The most famous of these anniversary films is Sergei Eisenstein’s October, which was not released until 1928 due to Eisenstein’s political errors, the worst of which was prominently featuring the role of Lev Trotsky in the October days. Eisenstein had hoped he could avoid difficulties by choosing as his source American journalist John Reed’s classic eyewitness account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed, who was lionized in the USSR as a revolutionary hero and is interred in the Kremlin wall, excelled in describing the passionate desire of soldiers and workers for serious change—and in leaving out almost all the boring bits. Indeed, Eisenstein had wanted to use Reed’s title, but in the end, the authorities wouldn’t allow it, so dissatisfied were they with the final product.

If it was hard to stir up excitement on screen about the Great October Revolution in 1927, how hard would it be thirty years later when Sergei Vasiliev was commissioned to make October Days to honor the 40th anniversary? By that time, not only was Stalin dead and discredited, but a cultural relaxation known as the Thaw was underway and revolutionizing Soviet cinema. The best of the post-war generation of Soviet directors were interested in deconstructing World War II, although there were a few brilliant films from the 1950s about the Russian Civil War. But everyone knew that the Revolution remained sacrosanct, without room for experimentation or originality.

The Lenfilm studio knew that Sergei Vasiliev (1900-1959) could be counted on to deliver something politically reliable. A student of Sergei Eisenstein and the co-director of the Civil War classic Chapaev (1934), Vasiliev was a native of St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad and had actually participated in the Bolshevik Revolution, as a member of the Petrograd military garrison in 1917. In fact, he was among the guards at the Smolny Institute, which served as Bolshevik headquarters, and frequently saw Lenin in action. October Days, while not successful as art or entertainment, is extremely interesting as a demonstration of Soviet cinematic mythmaking about the revolution.

Image: October Days, 1958. Digitised from the vaults of the British Film Institute.

Although I haven’t had access to production documents for October Days, it’s nevertheless clear that Vasiliev had Eisenstein’s October in mind, returning to John Reed’s account as a source. Not only do Reed and his wife journalist Louise Bryant make recurring appearances in October Days, the street scenes that Vasiliev recreates remind one of Reed’s detailed descriptions, except that the workers and soldiers are much cleaner-looking and less disorderly. Vasiliev also follows Reed’s descriptions of the mass political meetings, making the dominance of the non-Marxist Socialist Revolutionaries obvious, although their rhetoric seems idealistic and out-of-touch. The cinematic style of October Days has, however, nothing in, common with Eisenstein’s film, adhering to the Socialist Realist playbook that Vasiliev and his co-director Georgy Vasiliev (no relation) originated in Chapaev. Except for the much higher sound quality of October Days, one might guess from its visual style that it was made two decades earlier.

What is most remarkable about Vasiliev’s swansong is his interpretation of Lenin as a leader surrounded by protective women. A kindly, avuncular Lenin had emerged cinematically just as Stalin sought to craft his cinematic image as a nice guy, but in this rendition Lenin’s devotion to his wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, and his willingness to be “mothered” by her, is so divorced from reality that I wondered whether Vasiliev was trying to inject a bit of satire into the proceedings. Likewise, in the key scenes in which Lenin argues with the oppositional members of his Central Committee, he is reasonable throughout and only slightly raises his voice. The “real” Lenin, at least the Lenin of accounts uncolored by the vagaries of time and politics, was harsh and uncompromising. “Nice” he was not.

Image: October Days, 1958. Digitised from the vaults of the British Film Institute.

Like Eisenstein’s October, Vasiliev’s October Days was not released in time for the anniversary, but certainly not for similar reasons. There is nothing politically “wrong” with Vasiliev’s interpretation of the Revolution, but at a time when Soviet society was becoming ideologically disillusioned, this film was not going to win anyone over to the cause. Eisenstein emphasized the historic sweep and grandeur of the Russian Revolution; for Vasiliev, the Revolution appears to be a case study of local politics.

Denise J. Youngblood is Professor of History Emerita at the University of Vermont (USA) and the author of seven books and numerous articles on Russian cinema from its beginnings in 1908 to the present.

Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers. This project makes available Stanley Forman's ETV/Plato Films archive which is held at the BFI National Film Archive.

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About the Author

Denise J. Youngblood

Denise J. Youngblood is Professor of History Emerita at the University of Vermont (USA) and the author of seven books and numerous articles on Russian cinema from its beginnings in 1908 to the present.