How propaganda was used: Mazower’s “Dark Continent” and Eisenstein’s “October”

October: Ten Days that Shook the World, directed by Sergei Eisenstein and Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century illustrate differing perspectives of Russia’s October Revolution–the film is clearly a work of propaganda. The film shows exclusively positive elements of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The film tries to express the ‘unilateral’ support of the Proletariat at a time when Stalin was fighting to gain complete and undeniable control over the country. For this reason, Trotsky has a minimal role at the beginning of the Revolution. The film uses words to update the audience on changes, but offers no further explanation of why Trotsky, for instance, wanted to postpone an armed uprising. Stalin’s government wants to stop Trotsky’s influence to help cement his own claim to the Soviet Union. The film, in condemning the opinions of Trotsky, places Lenin as the hero of the revolution. This idea was used to aid Stalin at the beginning of his reign so that he could gain more legitimacy–he was following in the footsteps of Lenin. Eventually, this type of propaganda will change as Stalin begins to distance himself from Lenin and Lenin’s plans for the USSR–namely, the New Economic Plan for Collectivization and Dekulakization.

The film clearly exaggerates certain events: the toppling of the czar’s statue in the first few moments of the film is a key example of this. This film celebrated the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution. To do this successfully, the film needed to show that the Revolution had broad and sweeping support. Each time opponents of the Revolution are shown, words such as “traitors” and “turncoats” are flashed across the screen to show that these men and women have betrayed their country. Moreover, the film shows violent confrontations unfolding as the Bolsheviks win control over St. Petersburg/Petrograd and the Winter Palace–an event that occurred without violence and bloodshed.

Furthermore, all representations of the Provisional Government show a lazy group that does not fight for all the people. Near the end of the film there are many words shown across the screen that show the Provisional Government as wanting to discuss the changes and negotiate, rather then implement changes. The strongest image is when the screen says the Provisional Government is trying to save itself, but flashes to an empty office.

The film ends with the win of the Bolsheviks. This win is displayed “across the world” with the use of clocks to show that this is a monumental step for the entire world. The other countries will soon follow the example of the USSR and communism will become the new world order. The film presents a romanticized perspective of the Revolution and one that is extraordinarily different from the history described by Mazower. In Dark Continent, the Revolution is placed within the context of the extreme political change and radical political sentiments that were shaking Europe as WWI unfolded and ended. None of this was explored within the film because it would have undermined the struggle of the people that the Soviet government wanted to propagate.

The Destruction of the Plate

When studying historical events there are many ways to learn about a certain subject. A couple of ways one can study a historical event is through the use of literature and films. While learning about the Russian Revolution, I read the section on the Russian Revolution in the novel Dark Continent by Mark Mazower and watched the silent film Battleship Potemkin directed by Sergei Eisenstein. In their own ways, both of these works touch upon the division of social classes in Russia in 1905 and the tension that accompanies the division.

Battleship Potemkin depicts the Russian Revolution on a smaller scale, through the mutiny of soldiers aboard a ship. The scene that interests me the most from Battleship Potemkin is surprisingly not one of the many gory scenes depicted in this film. It is instead of the crew members doing the dishes. One crew member comes across a plate that puts a look of anger, betrayal, and disgust on his face. I was intrigued as to what could have possibly angered him so much. This plate turned out to say “give us this day our daily bread.” He takes this plate, shows it to his fellow crew members, and then violently throws it to the ground. Although there is an obvious religious affiliation with this plate, I believe it symbolizes something other than the destruction of religion. The tension in Russia before the revolution is depicted through this poor crew member looking at the aristocrat’s plate he is being forced to wash. This man that was provided rotten meat is now supposed to clean the very plate on which his overseers, the aristocrats, had eaten a perfectly good meal on. To me, this shattering plate symbolizes the anger of the common man towards the upper class, and the hope for destruction of democracy, aristocracy, and the division of the social classes. From this disdain for the division of social classes comes the desire for equality, and a desire for a government centered around the ideas of communism.

This scene from Battleship Potemkin relates the writing of Mazower about the Russian Revolution in his novel Dark Continent. Mazower writes about the fall of democracy, aristocracy, and the rise of communism due to the peasants (or crew members in Battleship Potemkins) desires. “In the factories, in the countryside and in the ranks, social order was collapsing, and the middle ground in Russian politics disappeared (Mazower 11). The lower class wanted their “daily bread” and felt that communism would be the solution to their “starvation.” They wanted a Russia where everyone was equal; where everyone could afford land, food, and water. Aristocracy needed to come to end, and the Russian Revolution began the process of attempting to close the gap within the social classes. Russia’s current government was not adequate in providing the people what they wanted, and thus they revolted.

Battleship Potemkin and the Russian Revolution

The film, Battleship Potemkin is a very accurate depiction of Russian life in the early 1900’s.  From the image of officers physically abusing the men on the ship to the massacre at the Odessa staircase, Eisenstein certainly brought the image of revolution to life in a shocking and thought-provoking way.

In the film, after Vakulinchuk was murdered, his body was placed by the harbor with a candle and a paper that read, “Killed for a plate of soup.”  This notion resonates with the Russian people, and they unite on behalf of the common goal of holding the oppressor—in this case, the Tsar—responsible for their injustice.  The scene that depicted Vakulinchuk’s body in the tent, and the response of the Russian people, seemed to parallel Mazower’s depictions of liberal uprisings.  The violent response that Tsars utilized to quell the people was common not only in Russia, but among several European cities during the rise and fall of democracy.  I also found it intriguing how immediate the response of the Russian people was upon viewing Vakulinchuk’s body.  It was as if a spark ignited and rapidly spread across the city.

The massacre itself on the Odessa staircase is a painfully accurate visualization of Mazower’s descriptions.  He states, “… the congress sought the creation of socialism by ending exploitation, ‘crushing completely’ the bourgeoisie and vesting power in the working population as expressed by the Soviets” (12).  Eisenstein’s scene on the Odessa staircase is a literal representation of the Russian powers silencing those in favor of liberalism.

It is clear by the end of this film that democracy in Russia will be suppressed.  The Russian people have two clear options: respect authority and stay alive, or rebel and be killed.  The film ends with a bleak view of what the future will hold for Russia in terms of authoritarian leadership.

Two Portraits of Revolution

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.

Battleship Potemkin and The Dark Continent

Both the book Dark Continent and the film Battleship Potemkin offer unique interpretations of the causes and results of the Russian Revolution.  Battleship Potemkin depicts the Russian Revolution on a smaller scale, as the sailors on the battleship Potemkin mutiny against their Tsarist officers. In Dark Continent, Mazower describes the Russian Revolution as “all the parties involved in the overthrow of the old autocracy…committed to preserving their gains from the monarchy’s return” (Mazower 10). The film depicts this mentality very well, as the lower classes come together to defeat the Tsarists after Valkulinchuk, the soldier who instigated the rebellion on the Potemkin is killed.
Similarly to Skylar, the role of religion in relation of the communist ideals of the film intrigued me.  Just about all depictions of religion in the film are negative.  In an early scene, a sailor is shown smashing a plate with the Christian mantra “give us this day our daily bread” inscribed on it.  A God-like figure is also shown during some of the mutiny scenes, telling the rebelling sailors to remember him.  The sailors however, ignore him for the sake of continuing the mutiny, at one point even pushing him out of the way.  I saw this scene as symbolic of the rejection of religion in the communist USSR.  In both of these scenes, Christianity is portrayed as being closely connected to the Tsarist regime with which the sailors are trying to do away through their mutiny.

Another scene that shows the relationship between religion and communism is one in which a man in the crowd states “Kill the Jews.”  For this comment, he is attacked by the mob.  Mazower describes in Dark Continent how the new communist state had unrestricted citizenship in theory, even enfranchising women and some foreigners.  This creates an image of a far more tolerant society than that of others of the time, such as Nazi Germany.  Religious intolerance would create a disruption to this ideal communist society, resulting in the rejection of religion as a whole.

This film does an excellent job portraying the positives of a communist society.


Socialism and Battleship Potemkin

While watching the film, Battleship Potemkin (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein, I found it so interesting how it mimicked the Russian Revolution on a small scale. One of the first lines of dialogue was “We must stand in front of revolution”. This line came from one of the sailors and, in my opinion, was the most defining line in the movie. It represents the crucial role the working class played in not only this movie, or even in the revolution itself, but in socialism as a whole. With this, I can completely understand why this movie goes down in history as one of the best propaganda films of all time.

The movie centered around sailors uprising against the unfair treatment by the captain and his men and the disastrous aftermath in the town of Odessa. There we see the Tsarist regime massacring the city after coming together to pay their dues to the dead soldier. It is also really interesting to me how the film represented the Tsar relinquishing power. At the end, when the enemy could’ve fired at the sailors, they did not. It’s almost as if they knew there was nothing more they could do to suppress the inevitable. Similarly, in “Abdication”, the Tsar is relinquishing his power because the people are revolting due to concerns for their own welfare and disdain for the regime. With the way the Tsar was portrayed in the film, it seems absolutely reasonable that the people are calling for a revolution and moving towards communism. Grand Duke Mikhail, who accepts power from the Tsar, explains how he will rule based on “desire of the people”. It’s intriguing to see the progression of not only the people’s want for socialism, but the leader’s eventual move towards it as the revolution grows.

The entire film is about the revolution coming from the working class. Lenin’s “What Have I Done?”, is also entirely about how the revolution will come from the working class. Several times in the film we hear things like “All for one, one for all!”, and even more appropriate, “All against one, one against all”. The movie so cleverly encompassed very important aspects of socialism.

In Dark Continent, Mazower speaks about an end to “lawlessness and social anarchy through decisive state action” (p.11) , as seen in the film. The people do not want to be prisoners of their own government. I thought the main theme was portrayed perfectly of how the bourgeoisie would be no more, and that the working population will be invested in in order to unify the nation. Mazower agrees on page 12, where he talks about how priority was now given to the masses. Socialism seemed to work in Russia, as portrayed by both Mazower and the Battleship Potemkin, because the Tsarist regime (and liberal regime) failed to work. 

An aspect of the film I found really very compelling were the subtle religious references. The first being the biblical inscription on the plate a sailor smashed, which I think may have represented socialism’s disdain for religious because it divides a nation. Perhaps it could’ve also represented the class division, since they were not fed off of those plates.  The second was a anti-semmetic comment which fits the time period. However, the crowd was outraged at the comment further insuring that there is no room for inequality.



Surveillance in Russia

Holquist takes his argument and focuses on USSR and their plans to monitor the mood in Russia. His organization was very solid, keeping the flow and had breaks in the different thoughts, but how he views his sources presents a little concern for me. I personally did not notice any vetting of the sources because in Mother Russia (like anywhere else), there is a tendency to either emphasis or ignore particular aspects of what was going on. For example, there are issues of validity in countries such as Russia where there is censorship and even self-censorship on the management (and surveillance) levels.

Holquist continues on to revisit that idea of Imperial Russia compared to the other powers during World War I. In my World War I class with Professor Sweeney, we discussed ideas such as these, especially regarding communication home. For example, the troops would often be issued form letters to send home just to let their parents know they were alive, which they would sign and send; which in turn, alleviated some of the burden on the censors. The French, on the other side, used imported laborers to help keep their factories in production. These laborers would send letters home describing their working conditions in some of the most risky jobs and the chance that the stories of people being sent to the front (for one reason or another). It wasn’t until they tried to draft 25,000 Algerians to work in France that they realized the letters being sent home by the workers needed censored or they would never find enough workers in the colonies volunteering to come work in France. As a whole, the idea of censorship seems to be both beneficial (for the controlling state) but at the same time, a waste of resources and manpower because it is obvious when citizens become unhappy with the state, just like they did with the Revolution of 1905 and again in the Russian Revolution.