All the King’s Men: Stalin and Friends

One of the beautiful ironies of Russian history is the tendency of strong, autocratic leaders to surround themselves with strong, intelligent ministers. Behind every strongman or woman was a colourful supporting cast; even Putin has his fair share of deuteragonists. You might expect that stronger leaders have fewer high major players underneath them, but any such observation would fail to explain the motley crew that handled the day-to-day administration of the U.S.S.R. under Stalin. Even a brutal tyrant who made a habit of killing or exiling anyone suspected of even a sliver of disloyalty had friends. (Well, “friends” is probably a little strong here…)

It turns out that running the Soviet Union took a lot of oversight. Governments compartmentalise naturally, but Communist states compound this by dividing administration of party and government into two separate yet mirror image hierarchies. The party half holds de facto power while the government merely acts with de jure authority. This naturally sets up a system that needs a lot of people to run, and the issue then becomes making sure that both halves of the state are staffed with loyal followers. Joseph Stalin, as the General Secretary of the early Soviet Union, was in a perfect position to stock positions with supporters. This is how he first achieved power in 1927 and then continued to gain power in the ensuing decades.

I guess it goes without saying that Stalin also had a lot of “enemies,” most of whom were imagined. Stalin directly clashed politically and ideologically with darling of the revolution and noted internationalist, Leon Trotsky. Otherwise, unfounded paranoia brought him into conflict with others, such as party theorist Nikolai Bukharin. Trotsky was sent into exile, where he continued to rival Stalin in leading the Communist movement until he was eventually assassinated in Mexico City by an ice pick. Bukharin met with an equally tragic end, being killed in the Great Purges of the late 1930s along with many other perceived enemies. Hell, even those who were pulling the triggers were not safe during the purge. The creepy Genrikh Yagoda was replaced as head of the NKVD by Nikolai Yezhovwho took the Great Purge to new heights only to have his ruthless actions rewarded by being executed and replaced on false charges like so many of his victims.

In this brutal atmosphere, only the toughest, or the most sycophantic, could survive. By 1940 Stalin had a nucleus of favorites. I suppose first we should mention Yezhov’s successor. The position went to Lavrentiy Beria, who shared Stalin’s Georgian heritage. Beria was ruthlessly efficient as head of the NKVD, and after the Great Patriotic War he continued to be tremendously important to Stalin. A spymaster, Beria was critical to the subjugation of Eastern Europe and the nuclear program. He was also absolutely terrifying, what with amassing an army of highly loyal secret police and with having a penchant for abusing his authority to kidnap and rape young girls and women.

Beria was useful enough that Stalin kept him around, and following Stalin’s death in 1953 he became a prospective successor. However, he was scary enough that he did not last long after that. His comrades in the collective leadership scheme that replaced Stalin agreed that he was too dangerous to keep around, and Beria was executed with assistance from the military.

Beria wasn’t the only man close enough to Stalin to be in the running for the leadership: there were a number of other men close to the paramount summit. Andrei Zhdanov was a favorite of Stalin’s, and was considered by many to be his hand-picked successor. Zhdanov sought to purify Soviet culture of cosmopolitan influence, but his hard living and drinking brought about an early demise in 1948. Stalin used Zhdanov’s death to launch the Leningrad Purge, meanwhile other close associates found opportunity for advancement. Georgy Malenkov was a top contender. Intelligent, a ruthless supporter of Stalin, and quite round, Malenkov was a skilled operator in the Soviet bureaucracy, and once Zhdanov was out most people considered him the heir apparent of the U.S.S.R.

Was Malenkov really all that different though? He was a fervent Stalinist, even after 1953. Yet again, most people in Stalin’s inner circle were. They supported Stalin’s brutal approach to politics, and they were happy to actualize Stalin’s will. Vyacheslav Molotov was one of the most prominent offenders. With a warm smile and a huge forehead resting on his pince-nez glasses, Molotov seemed pretty jovial. In reality he was a shrewd and scheming expert on foreign affairs. He conducted policy exactly as Stalin wished, although perhaps with more deftness and charm. Like Beria, Molotov was useful, having worked tirelessly to engineer the titular Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and then, 6 years later, the post-War peace. Molotov fell out of favor in the post-war years, but he remained firmly pro-Stalin, even after his beloved wife was held prisoner for her Jewish heritage.

There were no shortage of Stalinists. Of special note is Lazar Kaganovich. Aside from having a great first-name and a vaguely Stalinesque appearance, Kaganovich was virtually Stalin in miniature. Yet again, everyone was Stalin. Everyone was covered in blood to a certain extent. It was impossible to oppose the brutal, bloody excesses of the Holodomor and the Purge and stay alive. At times Stalin’s inner circle was directly guilty of bloodshed. At times they were merely complicit.

Still, some of Stalin’s associates apparently had some moral misgivings about Stalin. Of course they weren’t able to voice these until after 1953, but still there were glimmers of hope. The main man we talk about here is, of course, Nikita Khrushchev, who would come to become the absolute leader of the Soviet Union once the dust settled after Stalin’s burial and the subsequent in-fighting. Bouncy, fat, fun, and poorly educated, the miner’s son Khrushchev turned out to have a knack for leadership. If his memoirs are to be believed, Khrushchev was willing to challenge Stalin and his peers in the name of common sense. Undoubtedly there is some embellishment here, but you can’t deny that Khrushchev was devastatingly savvy. He was tremendously charming and, as he would show in the 1950s, a true master of rough-and-tumble politics. Despite being complicit in Stalin’s regime, especially in the oppression of Ukraine, Khrushchev would later immortalize himself by thawing the Soviet Union, introducing a program of de-Stalinization.

Certain members of Stalin’s circle would come, in time, to be members of Khrushchev’s circle, usually as long as they approved of de-Stalinization. Among them was my personal favorite of Stalin’s clique, Anastas Mikoyan. Armenian, Mikoyan was a bit of a black sheep, and yet he was enormously successful in fulfilling a variety of odd jobs. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen discusses how Mikoyan was also something of a chief gourmet, overseeing nutrition, dietary guidelines, and the publication of cook books. Mikoyan had blood on his hands, no doubt about it, but his backing of Khrushchev and overall versatility ensured that he would stay around.

Stalin didn’t just surround himself with government and party officials, but also with artists and scientists who he became a patron of. Maxim Gorky helped to pioneer Socialist Realism, which essentially amounted to art directed at social purposes. In the fields of science Stalin found a useful associate in Trofim Lysenko, whose counter-current concepts regarding genetics and promises of solving the Soviet agriculture curse arrested scientific advancement in the Soviet Union for decades.  

Say what you will about Stalin, but he had a fantastic capacity for selecting supporters and manipulating them. A madman was able to hold a nation hostage by instilling loyalty throughout both party and government. But Stalin wasn’t just some evil emperor sitting along in the Kremlin issuing out orders to peons (alright, he did this sometimes). Stalin also ruled from the dinner table. From 1946-53, Stalin increasingly spent time in his private dacha, hosting dinner parties into the wee hours of the morning. It is here that he organized politics while keeping an eye on his “trusted” comrades. He usually used excessive amounts of vodka to make them pliable so that he could observe them. It was during these parties when decisions as to how to run the U.S.S.R. were made. Stalin was undoubtedly plotting his next murders while watching the latest American Westerns, feasting on shashlik, and sampling his favorite Georgian wines.

I think it is important to break down the image of Stalin as cold, aloof tyrant. He certainly was distant, brutal, and despotic but his methods were diverse and varied. He could coldly stack Party committees and replace loyal supporters, but he could also mingle and manipulate people. Stalin could make friendships serve his interests and further his goals of centralising the U.S.S.R. Even Churchill and Roosevelt noticed Stalin’s personal magnetism and ability to manipulate emotions and people, and stock footage of Stalin at the Big Three Conferences and beyond show a smiling, jovial manipulator.

So that explains this great irony of Soviet history. How exactly was a totalitarian tyrant able to co-exist with so many strong personalities? It wasn’t just because they were useful, but it was because Stalin needed all these people. The key to his leadership style wasn’t that he was a strong man who could bury opponents and suppress individuals, but rather that he was able to find competent, staunch supporters and manipulate them. Stalin was an expert at human resources. Furthermore, he was an expert at making everyone complicit in his crimes (a must for any leader of Russia). Perhaps you should remember that the next time you deal with your local HR department at work. Or perhaps you should make an effort to learn some of the unconventional names and look into some individual policies that define the support actors of Russian history.


Sochi 2014 and Russian Revival



Ahhhhh…The Good Old Days

The Olympics is a rare example of international good will and cooperation, with countries setting aside their differences to compete on the track field rather than the battlefield. The Summer Olympics in Rio are now in session, accompanied with the standard endless cable broadcasts of the same dozen people swimming in the same rectangular pool. (Personally I prefer the Winter Olympics, largely due to my inexplicable appreciation for ice dancing.)

For all the ideals it represents however, the Olympics have been coming under fire recently, and the games in Rio are only the latest manifestation of this. Underneath a beautiful exotic location and a goal of cooperation is a gritty struggle between globalisation and nationalism. Hosting Olympic games causes an undue financial burden on the host country, something many Brazilians have used to justify protesting the games. The economic aspect is just the tip of the iceberg: other controversies surrounding the Rio games include security, sanitation, and the recent political coup in Brazil. Perhaps we could also mention the haze of Zika-laden mosquitos that threaten to turn Rio into a vector for a deadly virus.

But the Olympics keep on going nonetheless, and should we be surprised? At this point opposition to the Olympics seems token, especially after the extreme controversy surrounding the previous games held in the seaside Russian town of Sochi.

Politics Never Sleeps

It would be naive to believe that the Olympics are divorced from politics. A high-profile international event is going to always be political. Certain Olympics stand out more than others. The 1936 Olympics were used by Germany to try to showcase Nazi “progress.” Throughout the Cold War the games were used to highlight East vs. West.

Russia has had its fair share of infusing politics into the games, and at times it even seems as if they incorporate the games into their political strategy. On Christmas of 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, prompting the West and much of NATO to boycott the Moscow Summer Olympics of the following year. Brezhnev was likely pleased when the Soviets swept the games. Later, in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the Soviets returned the favor by boycotting the Western games.

With the collapse of the U.S.S.R. the e is not much to report over the next decade or so. The 2008 games in Beijing were put to great use in Russia to launch a quick invasion of Georgia that was swiftly condoned by the international community. Russia’s gambit was as successful as it was unexpected, as the world was too distracted by the Beijing games to furnish a reply to Russia.

After Beijing we had games in Vancouver and London. Then, somehow or other Russia got the green-light to host the 2014 Winter games in Sochi. As usual, this was known some years in advance, but as time went on the IOC’s choice of location came under increasing scrutiny. Why was this?

Putin Prime

After reigning from 1999-2008, Putin took a brief, 4-year, constitutionally required reprieve from the Presidency by handing it to his right-hand man Dmitri Medvedev. The 1993 Constitution stipulated that a President can only serve 2 terms consecutive terms. It says nothing about total terms, a loophole that Putin exploited in 2012 by re-ascending to the Presidency.

Having won a major constitution victory, and then having re-written the Constitution to allow himself to stay in power until 2024, Putin had just entered his prime. The period from 99-08 was merely prologue. Now Putin had the country, and he could enact his will. Immediately the regime took conservative steps to further entrench its own survival. Civil society came under fire with new laws that harassed and oppressed NGOs and human rights groups. Censorship widened, with bloggers and journalists coming under fire, not to mention Pussy Riot. The state also renewed its ancient ties with the Orthodox Church. Perhaps the laws that got the most scrutiny from the West were those targeting homosexuals, which entrenched the deep Russian antipathy towards homosexuality in stark contrast to the tolerance preached by the West. Meanwhile, the price tag of the games came into question. At approximately $50 billion dollars, these were the most expensive Olympics in history. The price as obviously inflated thanks to the corruption of the Russian state, with contracts being rewarded to many of Putin’s supporters. Despite all this money, the guest rooms for athletes were laughably deficient, with barely functioning toilets. I guess we should also mention the Circassians, a Caucasian people who were displaced from Sochi by the Russian empire. They didn’t get much screen time in the West though.

There were calls to boycott or cancel the games, like those complaints now levied against the Rio games. Much like today, the IOC refused to step down and the games stayed on schedule. Controversy was reaching a fever pitch in 2013, and then Euromaidan happened. Ukraine broke out into civil war as the Russian backed President turned down membership in the European Union. The crisis was reaching a fever pitch by the time the games happened.

Sochi 2014: The neo-Brezhnevite Phoenix

Despite controversy, reproach, and the political collapse of a neighbor, the Sochi games started in February of 2014. While everyone remembered the Beijing opening, which championed the collective values of the state, fewer remember the punk-rock fiddling of Vancouver or the celebration of industrialization in the London games. It seems like even fewer people bothered to watch the Sochi opening, which was a real shame since it had a huge political message.

I have been dying to review the opening ceremony, but I have patiently waited until now to do it:

The games opened up following a young girl as she navigated the Russian alphabet, with various letters and highlights being showcased. Then she appeared in person, and floated among proto-Russian locales and villages, clearly an embracing of early Russian/Siberian life. After an excellent rendition of the Russian national anthem there was the parade of nations. I personally love the parade of nations, and the Russian house music in the background really set the mood. The German team walked out in rainbow outfits, challenging Putin’s anti-LGBTQ policies. The Russian team walked out to “Not Gonna Get Us” by T.A.T.U. For those of you who don’t know, T.A.T.U. is a female duo that used a high school lesbian aesthetic for their marketing. To my knowledge they also performed at the Olympics before the opening, and I find the contrast of anti-gay policy with lesbian fetishization to have an unsettled irony.

After the parade of nations we entered into the main body of the display. A troika brought out the sun, a tribute to Russian pagan beliefs and sun worship. It was followed by colourful onion domes and teapots, clearly representing the ushering in of Orthodox Christianity and the state created by Ivan the Terrible. The young girl from earlier was present in these games, and we were clearly envisioning the situation through her eyes: it had a fanciful and dreamy quality about it. Next we saw a stormy sea with a ship on it, followed by the regimentation of naval officers and the blueprints of Saint Petersburg, paying homage to the glory days of Peter the Great and his Westernization of the country.

Then suddenly elaborately dressed women scurry onto the stage to mingle with the officers, and we enter perhaps the most beautiful of the entire opening ceremony. An elaborate ball room scene with beautiful ballet work and classical music unfolded in front of us. It looked like something out of Tolstoy, and told a story much in the same manner. It followed the romance of a young officer and a beautiful dancer (perhaps this was the young girl from earlier grown up, representing a maturation of Russia?).

A dashing young man who looked a little like Peter the Great (though not as freakishly huge) then took center stage and started dancing in a lovely blue suit. Then suddenly the stage starts to vanish, the lights dim, and a gentle snow begins falling. The nobles seem to be cold and agonized, crowding and moshing and growing frantic as the lighting and music became frenzied. All the nobles die as the stars of the ballet begin to make out, and then the nobles come back, making clock like motions with their arms and sharing one last embrace before being swept aside. At first I thought this would usher in a Napoleonic scene.

I knew after I heard the train noise and saw the red lights though that I was wrong. I had just seen the Russian Revolution and Civil War. Now was the Bolshevik era. Lovely pillars gave way to industrial and farming imagery. Filigree turned into the brash, bold geometry of Malevich. Ornate outfits turned into utilitarian red and black bodysuits as coordinated ballet was abandoned for a robotic, mechanical dance. This was collectivization, Stalinism, and the Five-Year Plan. Georgy Sviridov’s Time Forward! set a hurried, mad tone as the stage below descending into organized chaos. While I was impressed that they were covering the taboo Stalin period, I could tell that there was no love or affection. The people looked pained and indifferent, and some gears even had people inside them, more or less crucified as they were being rolled around.

As quickly as this all appeared, it vanished. Only a small nucleus of workers remained as the lights dimmed and spotlights began to spread throughout the stadium. Suddenly the music stopped and the sounds of war began. The stage turned black and there was a moment of silence, an appropriate nod to the Great Patriotic War.

I am probably getting way off topic though. Really the only part of the open ceremony that means much is the immediate aftermath of the war tribute. The stage came alive again with blueprints and workers. Industrial sounds gave way to Soviet rock-and-roll as the streets below began to bustle with activity. This was the Khrushchev Thaw and the Brezhnev period. Young pioneers, workers, pilots, cosmonauts, athletes, even hipsters took the stage to celebrate the great achievements of this period. The seven sisters, Stalinist skyscrapers, unfurled as the famous statue, Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, made its was across the roof. This wasn’t just an homage to the Soviet era, it was nostalgic. Everyone was happy and busy with their lives. Some slight unrest was featured briefly when the traffic cops pushed the hipsters away, but overall the tone and music were carefree. Then the lovers came on stage, proceeding to get married and have children in a clear state endorsement of reproduction (remember, Russia has population issues).

While some may write this portion off as ridiculous (and it was), I think it speaks a great deal of modern Russia character. There is a fundamental longing for the old days of Brezhnev and the prestige of the Soviet empire. Out of every leader, Brezhnev is generally regarded as the most loved since under his reign the Soviet Union reached its apex in terms of power and economy (most forget that Brezhnev’s policies led to later failures). Nostalgia was best represented at the end of the opening show, when the young girl from earlier let go a red balloon, symbolizing the loss of Russian character that occurred in 1991. There was no other historical or significant cultural display after this: this was the political culture portion of the show.

What followed was Olympic formalities, torches, and so on.

I feel like there really hasn’t been a lot of serious discussion regarding the opening ceremony and what it represents, but I think I have a way to tie it all into something meaningful, so standby.

The Putin Doctrine

The Olympics happened. Russia won big. Sochi was competing with Ukraine in the headlines as the conflict waxed. Amidst all the controversy, the games seem to have gone off despite plenty of criticism.

Meanwhile I was on facebook, arguing what these Olympics meant and what would happen with Ukraine. At some point I apparently predicted that Russia would take action after the Olympics, but I had no clue how quickly it would happen. Soon after the Olympics, virtually overnight, Russia annexed Crimea and took it over, validating the annexation with a local referendum and with the claim that they were protecting good Russians. The fighting in Ukraine reached new heights as Russia began to arm Russian speaking separatists. Suddenly all of the criticism and distrust of the Sochi games seemed warranted: Russia was still Russia after all.

After Beijing people were worried about China, although fears have slightly waned since their economy has slowed. After Vancouver nobody talked about Canada, and after London nobody cared about Britain. Sochi was different. After Sochi, Russian foreign policy became front and center. Of course this is due more to the Russian involvement in Ukraine rather than the Olympics themselves, but I hardly think it is a coincidence that the two happened so soon together.

When the red balloon floated away in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was badly hurt. The economy was virtually destroyed. Russia’s prestige and power had evaporated. Russia was weak, lacking in promise and barely able to eke out an existence in a world where the United States reigned as the hegemon.

Putin had been working feverishly to get Russia back ever since 1999. He had to rebuild the economy, which he did by nationalising major industries. He had to settle the Chechen conflict and protect his country from terrorism and secession. Putin had to do his best to check the expansion of NATO and the EU into Russia’s neighborhood so as to ensure that Russia still had a say in Eurasia. We could also mention the colour revolutions, which had Putin fretting over the potential for revolutions. From 1999-2008, his job was to rebuild the country. Medvedev continued this goal from 2008-2012 in Putin’s stead.

Then Putin came back, and Russia came back too. Russia was economically stable, and Putin had proven that he could take liberties with the Constitution. Putin used the next two years to consolidate his hold on Russia and slowly began to exert influence on Russia’s neighbors (hence, Euromaidan in Ukraine).

For all intents and purposes, Russia was back. It had risen from the ashes of catastrophe like a phoenix, poised to once again resume great power status. What better way to showcase this than by hosting the most extravagant Olympics in history? Russian power and prestige were on display. By appealing to the great times in Russian history, Russia was reaffirming its historical role as a superpower. Russia’s display in the games were decidedly Russian, showing her unique Eurasian character and culture, especially the language. Finally, by highlighting the Brezhnev era in the final act of the historical presentation, Russia was appealing to its moment of greatest strength. This is what Russia had been in it’s not so distant history, and this is what Russia could be again. Surely there are some differences from the Brezhnev era and some progress, but overall I would say that Putin’s Russia is reminiscent of Brezhnev’s. At the very least however we must admit that Putin is smarter: he is far more pragmatic, active, and engaged. Brezhnev was not nearly so hands on, nor so competent.

Putin’s foreign policy, which emerged immediately after the Olympics with the annexation of Crimea, is also much better than Brezhnev’s. Brezhnev’s policy was summed up by the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine. Formulated in response to the 1968 Prague Spring, the Doctrine gave the Soviets the right to intervene in fraternal socialist countries where socialism was threatened. This gave the Soviet Union dominion over its members and satellites. Putin’s foreign policy arrangement is more precise and opportunistic. His “Putin Doctrine” seems to deal with the protection of Russian nationals and Russian speakers in other countries. It provides the logic for protecting Russia while leaving enough room for Russia to intervene in unruly neighbors like Ukraine.

While he likely didn’t have it planned out very far in advance, once the opportunity presented itself Putin could not help but jump into Crimea soon after the Olympics. Say what you will about Putin, but he knows how to make a presentation. His Olympics succeeded in the face of criticism from the West, and Russian boots remain in Crimea, which holds its breath as Ukraine and Russia warily eye one another. Within only a few weeks in February, Russia had completely re-emerged. Far from being second page news, Putin ensured that Russia would set the tempo in international affairs.

I think most people label Crimea as the turning point, but I think the Olympics in Sochi were a necessary prologue. Sochi set the tone of Russian revivalism. It captured the publics attention, acting as a smoke screen as Ukraine fell into chaos and as Russia prepared for entry into the conflict. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Sochi and Crimea highlight just how powerful Russia has become. Russia is capable of hosting an international event in goods spirits, and then can immediately switch gears to assert its foreign policy on its neighbors almost effortlessly. The rest of the world was still in a spirit of cooperation and camaraderie, and suddenly this! Suddenly Russia is alive, dynamic, threatening, and dedicated to its goals again. Here is a state worthy of Peter the Great or Brezhnev’s legacy. Here, suddenly, is a great power.

Sochi 2014 will live in infamy. It was held in an increasingly totalitarian regime where freedoms and civil liberties are undermined. It was a globalised event held in a wild, independent, sovereign state. Unwittingly, the IOC allowed itself to be used to advertise and promote Putin’s Russia. In the end they both got what they wanted. The IOC got successful games. Russia got international recognition. Perhaps this is why people hate the IOC: they are willing to get into bed with anyone who offers one, no matter the costs. In Russia, there were only political costs for the West.

Despite the threat posed by a resurgent Russia, ultimately the Rio games may be more disruptive to the international order than Sochi. Sochi merely made a long-standing fact of history, that is, Russian greatness, an indisputable reality. Rio, on the other hand, stands poised to undermine globalisation, and the threat posed by Zika’s spread could very well be unprecedented.

Whatever you do, don’t write the Olympics off as irrelevant or merely ideological. The Olympics in many ways capture the pulse of the world at any given moment, and they prophesy great change.


Battleship Potemkin

You just won the Revolution, and the Civil War that followed. Lenin may have been on to something with his vanguard theory. But now you are in power, and you need to make sure you stay there. This is the point where the viability of esoteric theory begins to wane. A vanguard party can overthrow a government, but you cannot rule a country without citizens. You need the support of the workers and peasants, most of whom have neither the time nor the education to become experts on Marxism. What do you do then?

Enter Sergei Eisenstein, perhaps the finest film maker and propagandist in history. I have not read a great deal about Eisenstein nor will I delve into his life here. My analysis may be a little crude, but after watching Potemkin I feel like I understand the man well enough. Eisenstein supported the Bolshevik cause, but he was more notable for his cinema theorizing. In many ways he was the right man in the right place: in an age where literacy was still low, pictures held the key to touching the public. The fact that he supported the regime meant state support in his film adventures, albeit at the cost of some self-censorship. Like other great auteurs, Eisenstein has a large body of work either unfinished or not attempted. A man could only make so many films in a life.

Eisenstein did not seem to mind being pressed into serving the state with his film making though. Perhaps this is because his work attracted a cosmopolitan audience. He was not simply making Russian films for Russian people, but he was making Soviet films for the world to judge. His experimental film making caught the eyes of critics everywhere, which only further spread his political ideas.

Potemkin came out in 1925, but it celebrated an event that took place nearly 20 years earlier during the first Russian Revolution. In 1905, in the wake of the disastrous Russo-Japanese War and growing upset with the Tsar, Russia exploded in a vibrant but brief reaction. Abhorrent conditions in the navy prompted a revolt aboard the Battleship Potemkin. Sailors commandeered the ship, hoisted the red flag, and sailed for asylum.

The film recreates the mutiny in the standard fashion of historical fiction. Maggot filled food and a draconian officer prompt one member of the crew to organize a revolt. The coup’s leader is killed in the following skirmish, and the ship sails to Odessa where it is greeted eagerly by the population. The state attempts to put down the unrest by brutally massacring civilians in the immortal “Odessa Steps,” prompting the crew of the Potemkin to open fire against the state. The final scene has the Potemkin meeting the Tsarist flotilla head on only for the crew to realize that the other ships sympathize with their cause, allowing them to run the blockade.

There are a few takeaways here. Note that the revolt is started by a single individual whose death catalyzes the population to take up his cause. Maybe this is intentional, Potemkin did come out just after the death of Lenin. Perhaps though it is merely symbolic, reflecting the greater purpose of the film in trying to spread revolution from the vanguard to the public at large.

And what an impression it would have left! Eisenstein’s brilliant film making has an almost hypnotic effect, capturing the emotions of its viewers. He was able to achieve this through gratuitous use of a revolutionary film making technique, the montage. Careful editing and quick cuts could quickly tell a story, convey information to the viewer, and, most importantly, elicit emotional responses. The tempo and composition of a montage could influence the viewer’s perspective of events. The ending sequence shows the battleship moving to full speed in an attempt to break the blockade. It is accompanied by a furious, fast paced montage of the ship’s machinery working hard. This creates a great deal of suspense overtly. Covertly it implies a mechanical, inevitable confrontation, not unlike that suggested by Marx. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but with a mind like Eisenstein all angles must be examined. And then suddenly all the tension of this carefully crafted montage evaporates when passage is granted by sympathetic crews. The montage enables the director to control a whirlwind of emotions and succinctly build to a critical, striking apogee once the montage ends. The montages are all the more effective in a silent film, and they grant the author far more freedom.

The best use of montage in the film however is the aforementioned Odessa Steps sequence. The montage is used to glorious effect to highlight the brutal, random nature of state inflicted terror. It cuts between the machine-like guards as they mow through civilians. The most famous moment of this scene features a mother brutally cut down while the baby carriage she had begins to tumble down the steps. Not only is it a powerful image, but it is a powerful metaphor for the runaway violence of the Tsarist system. I could go on further, but I will let the work speak for itself from here:

Battleship Potemkin is a deep film, and yet firmly rooted in history and blossoming with revolutionary ideologies in politics and film. It is a powerful film that has stood the test of time as an eternal classic. Even if it served ephemeral propaganda purposes, Eisenstein clearly had a deeper vision. Surprisingly modern, the film draws in the spectator. The film is available online (see below), but I warn you: this film may cause you to engender Bolshevik sympathies…