Two Portraits of Revolution (Re-post)

Revolution has proven to be an incendiary topic throughout history, thus becoming the subject of countless different interpretations across various mediums.  Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent, a rigorous portrait of early twentieth-century European governments, and Battleship Potemkin, a Russian propaganda film relating the story of a Russian sailing crew’s mutiny against the ship’s oppressive officers, present two equally informative images of the Russian revolution that vary drastically in perspective.

Mazower’s text revisits the topic of interwar European government from a perspective that does not presuppose the primacy of democracy.  Consequently, he presents the Russian revolution as a quasi re-imagination of liberal democracy.  The author recounts the revolution’s optimistic origins as a move toward the unification of Russia behind the “‘universal democratic soul’” described by Prince Lvov (Mazower, 10).  However, Mazower acknowledges the divisions that arose due to the ambiguity of the revolution’s goal (i.e. “‘bourgeois democratic’” vs. “‘proletarian socialist’”) and how this ultimately led Russia to be “squeezed increasingly tightly between the twin extremes of communism and fascism” (Mazower, 10 & 13).

Conversely, in Battleship Potemkin, the sobering relative objectivity that pervades Mazower’s work vanishes into overt propaganda.  The plot is simple and quickly established by the on-screen dialogue, which is dominated by rallying cries for revolution such as “All for one and one for all!” and “Let nothing divide us!”  These lines originate in the mouths of the mutinous sailors and eventually find their way to the people of Odessa, who rally against the Tsarist regime upon hearing the story of the death of sailor Vakulinchuk (“Killed for a plate of soup”).  This text in conjunction with the insistently dramatic bombast of the score and several poignant images (the destruction of the Odessa Opera House, a baby carriage careening down a flight of steps in the midst of a riot) creates a poignant albeit transparent appeal to the pathos of the viewing audience in an attempt to glorify the concept of a Russian revolution.

Ultimately, Mazower’s view of the Russian revolution is one of factual pragmatism that benefits from several decades of hindsight and research, while Battleship Potemkin (much like Triumph of the Will) is equally useful as an image of one faction’s ambitions created in the climate of the revolution it advocated.

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