Part 3. The matriarch of all revolutions

You thought we were finished? Oh no. Bannon’s revolution is finished — except for the prison sentences. But in the Russian Revolution, the battiness continued.

When I left off excerpting Victor Sebestyen’s narrative of the Russian Revolution in his biography of Lenin, the weapons in the Bolshevik insurgents’ hands didn’t work and the Winter Palace hadn’t been stormed, the Provisional Government’s ministers hadn’t been arrested and Lenin had publicly lied. It was, in effect, the matriarch of all snafus. And it continued.

Things become more surreal for the insurgents. Even the straightforward task of raising a red lantern to the top of the [St. Peter and St. Paul] fortress flagpole — the signal for the bombardment and a ground assault to begin — was beyond them. No red lantern could be found. The Bolshevik commander of the fortress…went out into the city to look for a suitable lamp but got lost and fell into a muddy bog. He came back, though with [a] purple lantern which he couldn’t fix to the flagpole. The rebels abandoned any idea of giving a signal.

So now it was the evening, and still the Winter Palace hadn’t been stormed and the Provisional Government hadn’t been arrested.

The Bolsheviks ordered a couple of battle cruisers to sail up the Neva and stop opposite the Winter Palace. They gave an ultimatum to the rest of the Provisional Government, still in the Winter Palace, to quit or be fired on.

The ministers rejected the ultimatum. At 6:50 they sat down to dinner — borscht, steamed fish and artichokes. By this point the defenders were ready to give up and bow to the inevitable. ‘The soldiers just wanted to smoke, get drunk and curse their hopeless situation,’ one of their officers recalled. Most peeled off as the evening wore on. The majority of cadets went off to look for some dinner, some of the women’s battalion left. The Cossacks, the only ones with any military training, stalked off ‘disgusted by the Jews and wenches inside.’…The Red Guards could have walked in easily at any time.

Most people in Petrograd did not know a revolution was happening. The banks and shops had been open all day, the trams were running. All the factories were operating as usual — the workers had no clue Lenin was about to liberate them from Capitalist exploitation…The restaurants were packed. John Reed and a group of other American and British reporters were dining at the Hotel de France…They returned to watch the Revolution after the entrée.

In Soviet mythology for decades to come, the Revolution was portrayed as a popular rising of the masses. Noting could be further from the truth. ..There were no big crowds anywhere, no barricades, no street fighting.

There was no ‘storming’ of the palace, as depicted in Sergei Eisenstein’s epic, cinematically brilliant but largely fictional 1928 film October. Many more people were employed as extras than took part in the real event.

Later that evening, a signal for bombardment was given. One of the cruisers fired a blank shot. “The ministers dropped to the floor; the entire company of the women’s Shock Battalion were so scared they had to be taken to a room at the rear of the building to calm down.”

More guns were fired, “but only two hit the palace, chipping some cornices. One shell managed to miss the 1,500 room target by several hundred metres.”

Eventually, “a small group of sailors and Red Guards” were led into the building by a couple of Lenin’s military leaders. They encountered almost no opposition.

At around 2 a.m., a little man with long, wavy red hair wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a floppy red tie bounded into the room — ‘an armed mob was behind him’. He didn’t look like a soldier but he shouted in a shrill, jarring voice, ‘I am Antonov-Ovseyenko, a representative of the Military Revolutionary Committee. I inform all you members of the Provisional Government that you are under arrest.’

OK, so the dragged-out Revolution finally, finally had been effectuated. That is, the Winter Palace, if not exactly stormed, had been taken.

But now the Bolsheviks had another problem — and I ask you to pay careful attention to what happened with the Red Guards because it’ll remind you of something on our minds since January 6, 2021.

The Provisional Government had had the Tsar’s palace treasures packed into cases to be sent to Moscow. But the Red Guards, ignoring warnings from their commanders, began stealing stuff: “‘One man went strutting around with a bronze clock perched on his shoulder,’ said [John] Reed.”

See what I mean?

Others headed straight for the Tsar’s wine cellar, one of the finest in the world…’The matter of the wine…became critical,’ recalled Antonov. ‘We sent guards from picked units. They got drunk. We posted guards from Regimental Committees. They succumbed as well. A violent bacchanalia followed.’

He called the Petrograd fire brigade to flood the cellar with water, ‘but the firemen…got drunk instead.’

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Part 2. The matriarch of all revolutions

As I wrote a few days ago, the Russian Revolution — as narrated by Victor Sebestyen in his historical biography, Lenin — was a series of absurdities which remind me of Armando Iannucci’s great satirical film, The Death of Stalin.

When I left off last time, Sebestyen had noted the Bosheviks won because, as divided and incompetent as they were, they were less divided and incompetent than the Kerensky government.

So let’s continue with Sebestyen’s history of the Revolution:

To Lenin, timing was crucial but his timing was off. The Congress of Soviets (“Soviet” means “Council” in Russian) was due to meet in the Solny the day the revolution was supposed to happen and Lenin intended to “present the takeover [to the Congress] as a fait accompli” and declare victory.

Problem was, the Winter Palace, where the Kerensky coalition government had established itself, “symbol of power in Russia since the time of Catherine the Great”– had not fallen.”

Lenin had been told by his military committee that seizing the palace would be a straightfoward matter, over within five or six hours. But it would take more than fifteen hours, amid a catalogue of errors that would have been farcical if the stakes had not been so high.

Well, hell. So at 9 a.m., three hours before he intended to declare victory, Lenin demanded that the government surrender. Nobody answered, in part because Kerensky had left the palace to see if he could “raise some loyal troops to defeat the rebellion.”

The Bolsheviks did not stop Kerensky. Now here’s where matters take on a Keystone Kops aspect:

There were thirty cars parked outside the palace but none were [sic] in working order. [Kerensky] couldn’t even find a taxi to take him. An ensign was sent to see if he could requisition a car that would run. The British Embassy turned him down, but an official from the US Legation was persuaded to let Kerensky use his own car, a Renault, as long as it was returned. Another officer managed to scrounge a luxurious open-topped Pierce Arrow and some fuel. Kerensky was driven around Palace Square and through the streets of Petrograd with the roof down, easily recognisable.

Meanwhile, Lenin was in a rage most of the day, had to postpone his “victory” speech, started yelling at his aides and Red Guard commanders and threatened to shoot them.

Back at the Winter Palace, the government ministers were still “holding out.” In the courtyard were horses and their Cossack human partners, “charged with defending the government” and officer cadets, as well as…

…forty members of the Petrograd Garrison’s bicycle squad and 200 women from the Shock Battalion of Death.

I will pause now to introduce you to the Shock Battalion of Death because they have become my favorites among all the disparate participants in the Revolution:

Despite their bloodcurdling title, they were mostly girls from the provinces and not at all happy to be part of the last-ditch effort to prop up the Provisional Government, which they did not support. They were marked out by their size, and with their close-cropped hair resembled young boys…They were scared — and not only of the Bolsheviks. ‘At night, men knocked at our barracks and cried out with blasphemies,’ said one of the young girls in the battalion. When they had been ordered to the palace they were told they would be taking part in a regimental parade. They were not prepared to shoot fellow Russians.

The ‘storming of the Winter Palace’ — centrepiece of the Russian Revolution — was so sloppy that the American journalists John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant were able to stroll into the building during the afternoon without being stopped. Palace servants in their Tsarist blue uniforms took their coats as usual and some of the cadets from the military School showed them around.

Good grief.

Soldiers who were supposed to defend the government were hanging around drunk. But…

At 3 p.m. Lenin could delay no longer. He appeared before the Congress of Soviets…and brazenly declared a victory, though the government had not yet fallen, the ministers were not arrested, nor was the Winter Palace in Bolshevik hands. This was the first big lie of the Soviet regime.

Things were falling apart.

…the tragi-comedy and absurdity of the siege was only beginning. The clockwork timekeeping of the coup slipped further and further and, as the day went on, there ceased to be any deadlines at all. The Bolshevik gunners were complete incompetents. There were five heavy field-guns at the fortress, but they were museum pieces which hadn’t been fired in years or cleaned in months. Some lighter training guns were found and dragged into position, but no one could find the right…shells for them. Then it turned out that the guns did not have sights. In the late afternoon the commissars worked out that the original guns simply needed cleaning.

It’s time to remind ourselves of the new DOJ indictments of the Proud Boys, for seditious conspiracy. The Proud Boys had guns that worked. If I remember correctly — I don’t pay a lot of attention to the antics of Steve Bannon — Bannon has declared Lenin as his avatar and the Revolution as the model for his grand plan.

Dare I point out that, with the Proud Boys, Bannon has certainly improved on the Bolshevikian fecklessness with regard to munitions? Yes, I guess I dare.

Big deal: it didn’t work.

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Let’s talk a teeny bit about optimism and pessimism.

As I read a lot of political news and listen to political news, I am informed in two stages.

At stage one, I get the facts of the news: what happened, who is involved, et cetera.

At stage two, I get opinions of what those facts mean. The opinions are offered by a variety of newsfolk. Some are journalists, some experts, some pols, some jerkwads. (I didn’t make up that term; somebody on Twitter did, probably an ex-Republican but I’m not naming names or picking sides.)

A lot of these opinions offer a pretty dark look at the future. And a lot of people I know have absorbed the same view. Dark. The end of everything.

I believe the cast of these opinions has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with character  and, possibly, biochemistry.

Many years ago, the New York Times published one of those fascinating studies conducted by one of those anthropological or sociological groups who spend years finding out what’s what with us ordinary citizens.

That study was of optimism and pessimism. As a genetically endowed optimist, i.e., I can’t help it, I read it with curiosity.

What the study reported was, first, the majority of people are pessimists. That was disappointing, but not a surprise.

The next discovery, however, did cause me to react. After the research study had separated the group into optimists and pessimists, it went on to test each sensibility for accuracy in perception.

Pessimists turned out to be right more often than optimists.

I burst out laughing. “What do I care whether they’re right or not?” I said to myself. “They’re miserable, I’m happy.”

Moreover, I don’t believe pessimists are usually right. If you see events through a dark scrim, it doesn’t make your vision correct. It just makes it dark, all the time. If a pessimist predicts bad things will happen, he’ll see whatever happens as bad, and claim his prediction has been justified.

So, like the rest of us, individual editors, journalists, experts, pols and columnists are either predominantly pessimistic or optimistic – and if the research study results can be extrapolated, it’d mean most professional opinionaters are pessimists.

In dark days, optimists like me wait for the next sunny day, which we know will come.
Pessimists, on the other hand, are sure they’re living through the opening passages of the apocalypse.

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