This year marks the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution in Russia, and unsurprisingly, has produced some mainstream media content dealing with these events. One of them was the Cal Seville’s Russian Revolution documentary, currently available on Netflix.
The October Revolution for Marxists remains the greatest event in history. Never has so much human history, on such a large scale, been played out in such a short space of time, and never have the masses played such a decisive role in these events. More importantly, the October Revolution meant that, for the first time in human history, ordinary workers and peasants took the running of society into their own hands; without capitalists, landlords and bankers. The ruling class has never forgiven this “crime”, because it set a dangerous precedent. That is why the ruling class has invested enormous energy (and money) over the past century to undermine and slander the memory of the revolution.
This documentary falls within this category. Four, fervently anti-communist historians are chosen to steer the narration. In the process, many fallacies are shamelessly presented as the truth.
The Romanovs vs “the Ulyanovs”
The documentary begins by framing the Russian revolution as a conflict between the Romanov and Ulyanov families, ultimately a quest for Lenin (Vladimir Ulyanov) to take the Romanovs out. It is as if the childless Lenin wanted to put his kin as rightful successors to the Russian throne, or as if Lenin's sole mission was getting revenge on the Romanovs for executing his Narodnik brother, Alexander. Of course here, the historians fully accept the Tsarist justification for executing many of Russia's best youth in the brutal repression of revolutionaries fighting the regime.
More importantly, this conclusion is completely baseless. It is not backed up by any evidence and it shows the complete lack of any kind of understanding of history. Instead of looking for tabloid style reasons behind the Russian Revolution, these gentlemen should have a look at the lives of the millions of hungry, exploited and dispossessed workers and peasants of Russia. These masses who were killed by the millions in the meat grinder of the First World War’s Eastern front and pushed to the edge of starvation in the cities and villages, were the ones who carried out the revolution.
In February 1917, the masses had had enough of these conditions and overthrew the hated regime of Nicholas the Bloody in a magnificent movement from below. All of this happened while Lenin was on the other side of Europe in Switzerland without any means of intervening in events. Even after Lenin’s return to Russia, the Bolsheviks were in a minority for a period in which the masses tested out all other political trends in Russia. One by one, these betrayed the revolution - a process which in the end led to the counter-revolutionary coup attempt of General Kornilov. Throughout these events, Lenin and the Bolsheviks stressed one fundamental point to the Russian masses: If you want to solve your main problems, take power into your own hands. Only trust yourselves!
Through their own painful experiences, the Russian masses reached the same conclusions, and rallied behind the Bolsheviks. To reduce all of this to a family quarrel between the Romanovs and the Ulyanovs is pure charlatanism and sensationalism that cannot be proven in any way.
Nicolas the Saint
The documentary shares the view of the Orthodox Church in portraying the Romanovs as saints. But Nicolas II was a brutal dictator who sent millions of people to die for him in several military adventures and he was not shy about brutally oppressing any opposition to his rule. It is not for nothing that he was known as “Nicolas the Bloody”, a name he acquired after he ordered his guards to fire on thousands of peaceful protesters in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, killing hundreds (the exact number has been difficult to determine).
In this poorly made documentary however, no attention is given to the suffering experienced by inhabitants of the Romanov Empire. Never mind the autocracy of Romanov rule: the vast majority of the population was kept extremely poor, unhealthy and illiterate with no political power, while the aristocrats and their hangers on enjoyed world-class splendour. They brutally repressed any opposition, oppressed minority groups, celebrated pogroms against Russian jews and engaged the masses in wars that left millions dead, but yet these "saints" are presented as tragic victims.
While the documentary paints a horrifying picture of the death of the Romanov children, no tears are shed for the almost 50 per cent of children who never reached their fifth birthday under the Tsarist regime. These millions of children are clearly less valuable than those of noble birth. Neither is there any mention of the atrocities carried out by the pro-Tsarist, White armies during the Russian Civil War, as they ravaged through Russia killing hundreds of thousands of men women and children on their path.
The documentary blames the execution of Nicolas II and his family on Lenin personally: with no evidence. The Romanov family were sent to be held in Yekaterinburg in the spring of 1918. The Bolsheviks did not have any plans of murdering them, but instead contemplated putting them on trial to expose their crimes. But in the summer, the White army began an offensive on the area in order to free Nicolas and use him as a figurehead to unite the counter-revolution. They were willing to murder anyone in their path to capture the Romanovs, which would have given a massive boost in morale to the reactionary white army. This left the Reds guarding the deposed royal family in a difficult decision. By sacrificing the Romanovs, the whole population of the area was saved from the brutality of the White armies.
Lenin’s “racism” towards Stalin
In the same documentary that justifies some of the Tsar's racism by an assassination attempt during his youth, Lenin is attacked as racist because he tended to look down on the Georgian Stalin. Of course there is no evidence that Lenin’s ambivalence towards Stalin was based on his nationality. In fact, Lenin’s record of fighting against Great Russian chauvinism in the hardest of times is completely ignored by the documentary. Neither is there any mention of Lenin’s fight against Stalin's own chauvinism on the national question. The October Revolution could not have been successful without an extremely careful approach to the national questions, which liberated millions of oppressed nationalities from the prison of the Russian Empire.
The Bolsheviks were Middle Class
One of the historians hints at the Bolshevik leadership being from middle class origins. But that doesn’t mean anything. The Tsar’s rule kept the vast majority of the population in illiteracy. In 1917, an estimated 37.9 per cent of the male population above seven years old was literate and only 12.5 per cent of the female population. This worked towards the goal of keeping the masses out of any kind of political participation. It should not be surprising then, that a large part of the political leadership of the era came from the middle classes. Through the Bolshevik focus on literacy programs, literacy was up to 55 per cent by 1926.
It is not surprising that Russian Revolution documentaries produced under capitalism are anti-Bolshevik (and this is a particularly crude example). This continued slander reflects the need of the ruling class in a period of crisis to discredit and distort the legacy of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution.