My grandmother witnessed the Russian Revolution
- Credit: Archant
The remarkable picture you see here shows history in the making - the Russian Revolution - and Suffolk journalist and poet Aidan Semmens' grandmother took it. Aidan tells her story.
A hundred years ago history stood embroiled in one world-changing event and on the brink of another. There were fears in many countries – realistic enough in some – that the Great War which had been going on for three years might lead to revolution. In Russia it did.
February had brought the end of centuries of despotic rule by the tsars. Now, on November 7, the interim government in St Petersburg was overthrown. Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party – later to rename themselves Communists – took power. Because Russia was still operating on the old calendar it became known as the October Revolution.
Many historians still regard it as the pivotal event of the 20th century, shaping so much of what was to come. There are many accounts, from different viewpoints, of what happened. Yet there are surprisingly few photographs of those tumultuous days.
The famous pictures you may have seen are mostly of a dramatic 're-enactment' staged three years later by an army of ballet dancers, circus performers and students. Or they may be stills and publicity shots set up by director Sergei Eisenstein for his 1927 film 'October'.
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The photo on this page is real. It was taken by my grandmother, Vera, possibly from the window of her apartment in St Petersburg, known at the time as Petrograd.
The marchers are led by disaffected soldiers carrying banners that read 'Bratstvo, svoboda, ravenstvo' – fraternity, liberty, equality. Words that echo the 1789 French Revolution.
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Lenin's ideas for a better world didn't come from nowhere. They came from France, they came of course from Karl Marx, they came from decades of thinking by a great many revolutionist intellectuals – including my great-grandfather, Isaac Hourwich. His book 'The Economics of the Russian Village', published in 1892, was acknowledged by Lenin as helping shape his own thoughts. The two men exchanged letters.
Vera, my grandmother, went to hear Lenin speak during those heady days of revolution. She was unimpressed. She didn't think he'd amount to much. She'd be amazed to see the statues of him that would sprout up later all over the Russian territories. As, frankly, would Lenin himself. She didn't think to take his picture.
In fact, the atmospheric double-exposure you see here is the only photo she took of events in Petrograd. I know, because I have her negatives and the notes she took, with names and dates.
She had spent part of that summer between the February and October revolutions acting as interpreter for an American journalist, Albert Rhy Williams. She accompanied him on a reporting trip into the Russian countryside, where she took a whole roll of pictures of working people. They included one of Williams with a group of peasants, which appeared in his rather breathless 1921 book 'Through the Russian Revolution'.
The previous summer she had taken a boat trip down the mighty Volga river. Her photos of it include a few of wounded soldiers recuperating far behind the lines. With hindsight, one can perhaps see in the faces in these pictures the seeds of the coming revolution.
Those seeds had been planted much earlier. Vera was only a baby when her father, Isaac, fled Russia to avoid being arrested for a second time by the tsar's secret police. His crime on both occasions was the same – writing and distributing revolutionary pamphlets.
The first time, as a student, he was jailed. The second time, he was a young lawyer and the punishment was likely to be Siberian exile or execution. He ended up in New York.
Nine years later, when her mother was sent to Siberia for the same offence, young Vera was shipped off to America to join him. It was there that she learned English – and met her father's new family. She lived with them for three years.
Two key facts about the Russian revolution are seldom appreciated. One is how grim life had been for most people under the tsar, and how necessary revolution seemed. The other is that it might have turned out very differently if the West had not backed the losing side, plunging Russia into a savage civil war.
In 1919 my grandmother got a job in the Arctic port of Archangel, teaching Russian to English sailors supplying the anti-revolutionary forces. One of those sailors was my grandfather. It was her ticket out – to America, as she hoped. To England, as it turned out.
Because of this background I have always been interested in the people I think of as the footnotes of history. Isaac Hourwich is not the only member of the family to be mentioned in passing in a number of learned works. His sister Zhenya was a revolutionist who translated Marx's 'Das Kapital' into Russian.
A few years ago I wrote a book of poems called 'The Book of Isaac', loosely based on his life and writings. My latest volume, 'Life Has Become More Cheerful', is published now to mark the century of the Russian Revolution.
The title is a quotation from Joseph Stalin in 1938, shortly after the height of his purges, which claimed an estimated 600,000 lives in two years. One of the first to die from knowing Stalin too well was my great-uncle Kolya, who had a fatal 'heart attack' in 1934.
The poems in the first section of the book deal with the revolution itself, and how its bright hopes turned sour. Many of the words are taken from a variety of contemporary sources.
The last part brings the story right up to date with a poem about the former uranium mine at Krasnorgorskiy in Kazakhstan, which supplied material for Soviet nuclear missiles.
From the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of the French Revolution to dangerous relics of the Cold War, it's all history. History that has gone to make the world the perilous, and interesting, place it is today.
Life Has Become More Cheerful, by Aidan Semmens, is published by Shearsman Books, price £9.95.