"The Russian Revolution in Colour"

On March 22 and 29, in two parts, the British Channel Five TV showed a documentary on the Russian Revolution entitled The Russian Revolution in Colour. Far from being an objective account of the events that took place in 1917, it belongs to that long series of cheap misrepresentation of historical fact. Its purpose is to present the revolution as a cunning plot of Lenin and the Bolsheviks intent on imposing a bloody dictatorship on the Russian masses. But as Lenin always said, "the truth is always concrete". Nadim al-Mahjoub looks at the distortions and lies and puts the record straight.

“History is the memory of states.”[1]

On March 22 and 29, in two parts, the British Channel Five TV showed a documentary on the Russian Revolution entitled The Russian Revolution in Colour. I am not a TV fan, and not a Channel Five viewer either. But a documentary on the Russian Revolution on Channel Five surprised me. Perhaps because I watched the documentary in black and white I was not so prone to accept the colourful misrepresentation of the revolution.

The filmmakers’ summary of the documentary goes as following: “The Russian Revolution changed the world forever. Almost overnight, an entire society was destroyed and replaced with one of the biggest and most radical experiments ever seen. Within a generation, millions would be killed and almost one third of the world’s population would be living in the shadow of communism.”

Russian Revolution in Colour,” the editors say, “makes a novel use of dramatised recreations and colourised archives to tell how this extraordinary event happened. The programme focuses on the sailors from the island naval base of Kronstadt, who in 1917 took up the revolutionary cause with bloody enthusiasm; only to have their dreams shattered when Lenin creates a brutal police state. The sailors denounce their former ally and face the Red Army in a final battle.”

The Russian Revolution in Colour (History Documentary), we read on the Channel Five website, “shows how the Kronstadt sailors’ loyalty helped defend the revolution in its first years; and how their brutal defeat killed the flickering of hope for a more just society.”(2) The documentary highlights the role played by the sailors of the Kronstadt naval base in the second Russian revolution as well as in the October Revolution. In addition to their strong militancy, the documentary stresses the high level of democracy and self-governing that reigned among the sailors of Kronstadt. The ‘turning point’ of the revolution, the editors argue, is that while the February Revolution was spontaneous the October Revolution was consciously organised. Lenin and his followers, the documentary tells us, “killed the hope when they dissolved the Constituent Assembly and took over.”

Regarding the circumstances, and what happened just after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which they portray as ‘the embryo of democracy’, the documentary mentions nothing. Was it something of secondary importance that it was not worthy of mention in describing the process of the revolution? Or was the omission of the context and the reactions of the forces in play a deliberate act by the makers of the documentary? Unlike many commentators the documentary does not say that the Bolshevik Revolution was a coup. But what is stressed in the film is that the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly by Lenin led to dictatorship. Thus, the editors suggest, Soviet Dictatorship started with Lenin and was continued by Stalin.

The Russian revolution took place in a backward country; the overwhelming majority of the population of the country were peasants, most were illiterate, and the level of technique and production was very low. Russia was a semi-colony producing less than three per cent of world industrial output. The revolution found itself not only besieged by a fierce foreign intervention hell-bent on destroying it, but also without the hoped for assistance by the spread of the revolution to the developed capitalist countries of the time. These objective factors were to play a decisive role in determining the fate of the revolution. Lenin and Trotsky (3) were the leaders of the revolution and they were all the time aware of the impossibility of establishing socialism in Russia alone. Thus, they linked the success of winning the battle for democracy by the working class to the revolution in Germany, in particular, and in the developed countries in general.

The Constituent Assembly

The Russian Revolution in Colour doesn’t deal with the nature of the Constituent Assembly and the forces in conflict within it as a reflection of the conflicting forces during the revolutionary process; it doesn’t speak about these forces’ reactions when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, or if anybody defended it. The documentary says that democracy was stifled when the All-Russian Constituent Assembly was dismissed by an armed sailor, “because the guard was tired”. The Bolshevik’s act of closing the Constituent Assembly, according to the documentary, was due to the fact that they got only a quarter of the seats.

For Marxists which class was going to lead the revolution is fundamental. Let us recall here that in Russia it was the soviets that convened the elections to the Constituent Assembly after the seizure of power and “to relinquish the sovereign power of the soviets”, argued Lenin, “to relinquish the Soviet Republic won by the people, for the sake of the bourgeois parliamentary system and the Constituent Assembly, would now be a step backwards and would cause the collapse of the October workers’ and peasants’ revolution.” [4]

A Constituent Assembly means free elections and a democratic parliament. This is a progressive slogan in a country where a parliament, elections, and other democratic rights do not exist. A Constituent Assembly is therefore a bourgeois democratic parliament. During the Russian Revolution “the Constituent Assembly, elected on the basis of electoral lists drawn up prior to the October Revolution, was an expression of political forces which existed when power was held by the compromisers and the Kadets...”(5) After the October revolution the Constituent Assembly because of its composition became an obstacle in the path of the revolution and soviet power.

The revolution, by overthrowing the Provisional government had consecrated the soviets as the supreme power. “The Provisional Government, far more pedantic than its successor about constitutional properties, had itself flagrantly forestalled the functions of the Constituent Assembly by its decree of 1 September 1917 proclaiming Russia a republic.”(6) As the revolution was advancing, old institutions were giving way to new ones; the revolution was passing from the bourgeois stage to the socialist stage. The force that was going to lead the establishment of the new society was the working class organised in the soviets, and the poor peasants would be the allies. Any other force would drag Russia back to tsarist semi-feudalism.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly had been fixed by the Provisional Government for 12 and 25 November 1917. The results were as following:

Russian SRs 299 seats
Ukrainian SRs 81
Left SRs 39
Bolsheviks 168
Mensheviks 18
Other socialists 4
Kadets 15
Conservatives 2
Nationalist groups 77

(Source: O. Anweiler, Los Soviets, p. 220)

“Meanwhile the elections for the Constituent Assembly in Petrograd gave an enormous plurality to the Bolsheviki; so that even the Mensheviki Internationalists pointed out that the Duma ought to be re-elected, as it no longer represented the political composition of the Petrograd population...”(7) The Bolsheviks got the largest number of votes, 424,027, followed by the Cadets with 245,006. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries came third with 152,230 votes.

However, the soviets, transformed into political instruments of the working class in the struggle for power, and later into administrative organs of the new workers’ state, were far more democratic than the elected bodies of bourgeois democracy. While the bourgeois democracy allows the workers every four or five years to elect parties to misrepresent their interests, the workers and peasants’ councils embraced the direct control of power of the overwhelming majority of the population. The delegates, who were elected at every unit of labour to the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies and to the Central Executive Committee of the All-Russian Soviets, were subject to immediate recall and no deputy received more than the wage of a skilled worker.

In the Soviets the Bolsheviks were in an absolute majority in the September 1917 elections:

Social Revolutionaries (SRs) 54, 374
Mensheviks 15,887
Kadets 101,106
Bolsheviks 198,230

(Source: O. Anweiler, Los Soviets, p. 220)

Three days after the election the larger section of the SR party “made a coalition with the Bolsheviks, and formally split away from the other section which maintained its bitter feud against the Bolsheviks.” [8] Any hint of this in the documentary? None whatsoever. It seems that in the two-hour-long documentary, which includes a lot of repetition, the editors could not find time to expand on such vital related events – perhaps they ran out of money and time!

So while the Bolsheviks got only 23.9 per cent in the Constituent Assembly, the working class voted for the Bolsheviks in the soviets, giving them 51 per cent of the votes. The right SRs, the representatives of the peasantry raised the slogan: ‘All power to the Constituent Assembly’. The Bolsheviks, the vanguard and representative of the workers, raised the slogan: ‘All power to the soviets’.

As one distinguished English historian put it: “Any suggestion that the action taken against the assembly was the result of a sudden or unpremeditated decision prompted by anything that happened after the assembly met must be dismissed as erroneous. The action of the Bolsheviks was the outcome of a considered policy and of a clear-cut view of the progressive development of the revolution from its bourgeois-democratic to its proletarian-socialist phase.” [9] Even the Mensheviks were aware of the role of the Constituent Assembly at that stage of the revolution. Sukhanov expressed the logical dilemma: “If current events were part of the bourgeois revolution, then the Constituent Assembly should be fully supported; if they were in fact the socialist revolution, then it should not be summoned at all.” [10]

British and Russian historians are used to back up the documentary with colourful “facts”. You see, we are not supposed to question “facts” presented by professors. In fact, the anti-soviet forces under former tsarist generals were amassing in south Russia as the Kadets and Kaledin were preparing a counter-revolutionary insurrection. And though the Right SRs and many of the Mensheviks sided with the Kadets, the Bolsheviks did not take any measure against the socialist parties.

When the Assembly met on 5/18 January 1917 “speech-making went on unabated for nearly twelve hours. But little that was said had any relation to the world outside... No alternative government capable of wielding power was suggested or could have been suggested. In these circumstances the debate could have no issue... the assembly... could do nothing more than repeat in substance what the second All-Russian Congress of Soviets had done on the morrow of the revolution ten weeks earlier.” [11]

The act of the dissolution passed almost without protest. A comment by a Right member of the Soviet, unsympathetic to both the SRs and the Bolsheviks, reflected not only the lack of any solid base of support for the Constituent Assembly, but also for the institutions of bourgeois democracy in general: “The impression of the ‘injustice’ committed by the Bolsheviks against the Constituent Assembly was attenuated to a considerable extent by dissatisfaction with the Constituent Assembly itself, by its (as was said) ‘undignified behaviour’, and by the timidity and feebleness of its president Chernov. The Constituent Assembly was blamed more than the Bolsheviks who dispersed it.” [12]

A successful revolution by definition is a decisive break with the old order. In the English Revolution, ‘no dog barked’ as Oliver Cromwell said after he had used his army to disperse the Parliament for reasons similar to those the Bolsheviks had when they closed down the Constituent Assembly. Similarly, in the French Revolution the Jacobins repeatedly purged the national convention. “The October Revolution was almost peaceful because no class was prepared to defend the old order, either the Provisional Government or the Constituent Assembly, as Kerensky acknowledges. The peasants were not prepared to fight to defend the Constituent Assembly. By contrast in the civil war which followed, the majority of peasants rallied to the Bolsheviks once they had experienced the rule of the White Guards, and saw the role of the right SRs and Mensheviks who invariably paved the way for the white counter-revolution.” [13]

In a revolution the relationship of forces keeps changing under the impact of the changes in consciousness, and the more a party leadership is consistent and militant, the more it serves as a pole of attraction.

‘Terror and Dictatorship’

Lenin was metaphorically compared with Moses coming down from the mountain with The April Theses. Hence he took over the revolution and opened the road to a Bolshevik dictatorship.

“The oppressing classes have constantly persecuted the great revolutionaries in their lifetime, reacted to their teachings with the most savage malice, the wildest hatred and the most shameless campaigns of lies and slander. Attempts are made after their death to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to speak, and to confer a certain prestige on their names so as to ‘console’ the oppressed classes by emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarising it.” [14]

In the documentary, Lenin is portrayed as a party leader who came to take over the carriage of the revolution. However, there is no mention of Lenin’s past as a Bolshevik leader or the past experience of the Soviets. Lenin, we are led to believe, fell from the skies, and capitalised on the situation to turn it in his favour: “The Bolsheviks,” according to the editors of this colourful film, “began to build the apparatus of a police state. They forced their way with the help of the sailors.”

In any revolution, revolution and counter-revolution march side-by-side and sooner or later one of the two must triumph. The Russian Revolution in Colour documentary fails to explain how the Bolsheviks, a tiny minority, could defeat the counter-revolution and twenty-one foreign armies. The Russian Revolution, it says, “promised peace, prosperity and equality”, but instead the Bolsheviks “brought starvation and Red Terror”.

“Lenin thought it was entirely legitimate to use terror as a weapon to further his communist movement.” Terror! We are quite familiar with this term. Our governments today, in their so-called war on terror, are using massive state terrorism. War is terror, and counter-terror, and cannot be otherwise. “The essence of terror was its class character”, writes E.H. Carr. It aimed at the possessing classes and thus it was selective. Lenin accurately replied to the bourgeois argument regarding the legitimacy of terror: “The English bourgeois have forgotten their 1649, the French their 1793. The terror was just and legitimate when it was applied by the bourgeoisie for its own advantage against the feudal lords. The terror became monstrous and criminal when the workers and poor peasants dared to apply it against the bourgeoisie.” [15]

A “civil war is a process wherein political tasks are solved by military means... War has its own organisation, its own policies, its own methods, its own leadership by which its fate is directly determined.” [16] Faced with a massive campaign of terror waged by the White Army and the imperialist armies, which the documentary conveniently ignores, the revolution had to defend itself. Of course, this way of portraying the other side as dictator, terrorist or insurgent is known to anybody who has been following the recent events in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Terror is only legitimate when it is used by the state we are told.

Although repressive measures were implemented, the Kadets’ newspaper Svoboda Rosii was still being published in the summer of 1918, the Menshevik’s Novyi Luch in Petrograd reappeared in April of the same year and for some time continued to exist without interference. Anarchist journals were published in Moscow long after the Cheka action against the anarchists. E. H. Carr states that the anarchist leader Makhno came to Moscow and had an interview with Lenin and “found an atmosphere of ‘paper revolution’.” [17] The development of the Cheka, for example, was “a gradual and largely unpremeditated process. It grew out of a series of emergencies. One important one was the denouncement of armistice by the Germans...” [18]

In February 1918, and according to a report by the British Delegation to Russia the total headquarters staff of the Cheka did not exceed 120. The documentary puts the figure of the political opponents who were killed at “more than six thousand.” As Carr put it, “These bald records undoubtedly conceal horrors and brutalities committed both in heat of battle and in cold blood and common to all parties, though specific accounts of them rarely carry conviction. Such occurrences of them by opponents, are the invariable concomitants of war and revolution waged with the fanatical desperation which marked the struggle unleashed in Russia by the events of October 1917.” [19] However, the largest number of executions recorded, 512, took place in Petrograd. [20] One might compare this to the 100,000 killed by the democratic USA and Britain in Iraq.

The case of what happened in Kazan is highlighted in the documentary. According to Carr, in Kazan only eight were shot by the local tribunal. This happened after the entire bourgeoisie, including priests and monks, had fled the city. But the message of the documentary is clear: these are the horrors of revolution; this is the behaviour of the leadership that claimed to stand for justice and peace; that was the end of the socialist dream; and people must learn how to avoid revolution. The documentary is not accurate and does not give a ‘balanced’ account of the Russian Revolution.

The Kronstadt Uprising

The Russian Revolution in Colour devotes a special coverage and focus on the role of the sailors of Kronstadt in the Russian Revolution and “how they were betrayed by the Bolshevik leadership.” We learn that the sailors of Kronstadt “saw the Soviet power as the power of the people, that they denounced the Cheka, that they wanted a system of the 1917 dream of a multiparty system, that they wanted an end to the Bolshevik dictatorship, that they called their revolution the Third Revolution.” On the other hand, we also learn that “Lenin showed a zero tolerance and gave a clear-cut response” to the sailors. The sailors of Kronstadt, “the backbone of the revolution” as a British historian hired by the filmmakers put it, were “crushed by the Red Army and their revolution, the third Russian revolution, was defeated”.

The Kronstadt rebellion took place at a time when the country was at the end of the civil was in a state of total collapse; agriculture was in chaos and discontent was rife. This level of chaos would be exacerbated later at the end of June 1921 when “news of the catastrophic famine threatening the eastern provinces of European Russian began to reach Moscow.” [21] However, the armies led by the White generals, and supported by the capitalist powers, did not stop fighting and their armies had not totally disbanded. White troops still occupied the shores of the Black Sea, and parts of Siberia were still occupied by the Japanese army. The remains of Wrangel’s army were still mobilised in Turkey. The threats that the civil war could resume were confirmed through an ultimatum to the Soviet government issued by the British Minister of foreign affairs Lord Curzon in late 1923.

The disturbances at Kronstadt unfolded on 28 February 1921. The sailors demands were: free elections to the soviets with the participation of anarchists, abolition of the Political Departments (in the fleet) and the Special Purpose Detachments, removal of the zagraditnye otryady [22], restoration of free trade, and the freeing of political prisoners. The sailors in revolt were in quite a favourable position. They had taken control of a first-class naval fortress and several warships. Their numbers were about fifteen thousand. They had heavy artillery, machine guns, mortars, etc. The civilian population took a passive attitude.

“It is essential to study in detail the nature of the movement, and above all its causes, for some of these were obvious. The Kronstadt of 1921 was no longer the Kronstadt of 1917. The transfer of the soviet government to Moscow had led to the siphoning off of a large number of militants, and the civil war had taken many more. The working-class suburbs had provided their contingents. The Petrograd of the October insurrection, the Petrograd where all the phases of the Revolution had developed, now gave the impression of a city that had lost its ranks, that was no longer a capital...” [23]

In this glowing colourful film the 1921 Kronstadters are presented as if they were the same sailors who participated in the revolution. All throughout the documentary there is no analysis of the change in class relationships, and the transformations that affected the workers as well as the sailors when Russia was emerging from the civil war. Instead, we are made to believe that Petrichenko, the central leader of the rebellion, who was leading a comfortable luxurious life, was a Bolshevik. However, the history of Kronstadt tells us that this central leader was a Ukrainian anarchist and anti-Bolshevik. [24]

According to a statement made by Petrichenko in Finland, and found in the US State Department’s National Archives, “three quarters of the Kronstadt garrison were natives of the Ukraine, some of whom had served with anti-Bolshevik forces in the south before entering the Soviet navy.” [25] And according to the American historian Paul Avrich, who is not a Bolshevik or Trotskyist, the slogan “Soviets without Communists” was not raised by the sailors at Kronstadt, but by Siberian peasants and supporters of the anarchist Nestor Makhno. Moreover, one of the Social Revolutionary leaders, Chernov, had done his best to prevent a peaceful solution to the conflict: “Don’t let yourself be deceived by engaging in negotiations with the Bolshevik authorities; they are doing it only in order to gain time.” [26]

There is also a striking proof that the uprising would open the door to an external intervention. Paul Avrich produces a ‘Memorandum’ document that he discovered in the Archives of the Russian National Committee, in which we read: “there was no time to put these plans into effect. The eruption occurred too soon, several weeks before the conditions of the plot – the melting of the ice, the creation of a supply line, the securing of French support, and the transportation of Wrangel’s scattered army to nearby staging area – could be fulfilled.” [27] Avrich argues that if the rebellion had lasted much longer, it would have encouraged the counter-revolution to resume its attacks.

This “innovative” documentary, The Russian Revolution in Colour, is an artistic creation. The whole art lies in distorting historical facts, monstrously exaggerating every subsidiary issue.

...and the Old Garbage Repeated in Colour!

Has the documentary added something to my knowledge about the Russian Revolution? I cannot find anything. Actually, all that I have rediscovered about the subject is well analysed in E.H. Carr and Paul Avrich’s works on the Russian Revolution in general and on Kronstadt in particular.

The Russian Revolution in Colour’s objective is to use abstract “democracy” as a tool to scrutinise the revolutionary process in order to discredit the Russian revolution and criminalise the Bolsheviks’ actions. After all, their argument is that there will never be, a better democracy than the one we have today. And any society or social movement must be subjected to this type of “democracy”.

Democracy! Every four or five years we elect a government. During its term this elected government may decide to go to war and invade a sovereign country ignoring the opposition of the majority of the people. And they call that democracy! The occupied country has been devastated and the occupying forces have killed 100,000 people. Will we one day see The Invasion of Iraq in Black and White?

Repetition of the same idea by the bourgeois propaganda, of the same lies, whether at school, in the press, or in books, aims at reproducing a future generation that is supposed to repeat the same half-truths, lies and garbage again and again.

In the course of future class battles, however, the new generation will learn not to trust the misinformation of the bourgeois media and history books. Our task is to defend the truth of what really happened in 1917 and preserve that precious experience and pass it on the present and future workers and youth who will rise up once more against this rotten and decadent system that we live under.


April 7, 2005


[1] Henry Kissinger, A World Restored, quoted in Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 2nd Ed., Longman, Pearce Education Limited, England, 1996, p.9

[2] Channel Five Website, a synopsis of the documentary.

[3] The documentary doesn’t mention the role of Leon Trotsky prior the dissolution of Constituent Assembly and especially his role in the insurrection.

[4] Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972, pp. 434-482

[5] Ibid.

[6] E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution – 1917-1923, vol1, Penguin Books, Macmillan, London, 1950, p.115

[7] John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, Penguin Books, England, 1977, p.345)

[8] E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution – 1917-1923, vol1, Penguin Books, Macmillan, London, 1950, p.121

[9] Ibid., p.125

[10] Ibid., p.126

[11] Ibid., p.129

[12] Ibid., p.130

[13] Ted Grant, Russia from Revolution to Counter Revolution, Wellred Publications, London, 1997, p.65

[14] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, Penguin Books, England, 1992, p.7

[15] E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution – 1917-1923, vol1, Penguin Books, Macmillan, London, 1950, p.175

[16]Leon Trotsky, The Class, the Party and the Leadership, 1940

[17]E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution – 1917-1923, vol1, Penguin Books, Macmillan, London, 1950, p.178

[18] Ibid., p.168

[19] Ibid., p.174-75

[20] Ibid., p.176

[21] Ibid., p.185

[22] Barrier units, or armed detachments of the Soviet government operating on the outskirts of cities to prevent unauthorized trade during the civil war; in this case they prevented Petrograd workers from taking manufactured goods out into the neighbouring countryside to barter for food, and confiscated food products from those trying to bring them into the city without authorization.

[23] Victor Serge, Moscow Under Lenin, Monthly Review Press, 1951, pp.119

[24] Stepan M. Petrichenko (d.1946) – the chairman of the Kronstadt Provisional Revolutionary Committee and the central leader of the Kronstadt revolt. He was born in the Ukraine. After the revolt was suppressed, he escaped to Finland, where he associated with White émigrés and lived for almost twenty-five years. He later switched his allegiance to pro-Soviet forces, and during World War II the Finnish government sent him back to the Soviet Union. Imprisoned upon his return, he died in a labour camp a short time later.

[25] Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p.93

[26] Pierre Frank in his Introduction of Kronstadt, 3rd Ed., Pathfinder Press, USA, 2002, p.22

[27]Paul Avrich, Kronstadt 1921, p.p. 126-27