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Seeing Red
Images of Moscow in the Aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution
Tobie Mathew

The Bolshevik Revolution may have started in St. Petersburg, with a shot that was to be heard around the world, but its immediate outcome was actually decided here in Moscow, on Red Square. Tobie Mathew discusses an evocative set of postcards recording Moscow's struggle to defeat the October Revolution.

Ask any tourist in Moscow whether they have heard of the storming of the Winter Palace and most will likely nod their heads. Mention the battle for the Kremlin however, and one is sure to be greeted with puzzled looks.

Although one would little suspect it looking at the unblemished facades of the surrounding buildings, the Kremlin was once the site of a violent struggle waged between counter-revolutionary forces and supporters of the nascent Soviet putsch.

I myself knew very little of the fight until a few years ago, when I serendipitously came across several postcards showing damaged and destroyed buildings in the area around Red Square. All bear the inscription, 'Moscow after 24 Okt. 3rd November 1917.'

Throughout the latter part of 1917 Moscow had been tense with expectation of further political upheaval. The hopes and fears of many were finally confirmed late in the afternoon on the 7th November, when reports of a Bolshevik-backed coup in St. Petersburg started to filter through to the former capital.

On hearing the rumours, representatives of the Moscow Soviet immediately started making preparations to seize power, while officials loyal to the deposed Provisional Government readied themselves for a fight.

The counter-revolutionary plan was to take control of the Kremlin and hold off the Soviet advance long enough for military assistance to arrive. On November 9th they sent the Bolshevik backed Military Revolutionary Committee an ultimatum demanding they disband all forces. This was rejected and two days later the revolutionary troops attacked. Heavy fighting ensued and both sides suffered significant losses.

Bolstered by reinforcements of Red Guard formations from the surrounding area, the Bolsheviks started gaining the upper hand. By November 15th they had reached Red Square, and the following morning the insurgents finally took the Kremlin.

St. Basils Cathedral

It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the fate of Lenin's Revolution hung on the outcome of the battle for the Kremlin, but despite this, the fight has been rather forgotten over the years.

St. Petersburg, as the birthplace of the Revolution, was always the jewel in the Bolshevik historical canon. Moscow's struggle, while never consciously ignored, was of secondary importance compared to the legendary storming of the Winter Palace.

Given its mythic status, it is ironic that the taking of the Tsars former home involved little actual 'storming,' and if contemporary accounts are to be believed, virtually no fighting at all. It is said that more damage was done to the building during a 1920 recreation than during the actual event itself.

In Moscow, where the fighting was all too real, history has been disguised in a different way, using bricks and mortar. Here, the traces of war have been painted over, prettified, and then forgotten about.

The postcards tell a different story. The now perfect plasterwork of Nikolskaya Tower is shown pockmarked with shell holes; its great wooden doors torn open by the force of war. Nearby a mass of bullets have left their bellicose imprint on the red brick walls of the counter-revolutionary Headquarters. This building, which was then the Moscow City Duma, was later to become the Lenin Museum.

The destruction is most shockingly evident in the images of St. Basil's Cathedral covites trudging through heavy snow, seemingly ambivalent to the decapitated Beklemishevskaya Tower rising forlornly above their heads, is particularly evocative of this difficult time.

Of great interest also is the photograph of St. Basil's, which shows the damage caused where a shell has carved a chunk of metal from one of the Cathedral's swirling domes.

Little is known about the images. The reverse is blank on all the cards, and no records survive to indicate who the publisher might have been. The name of the photographer is mentioned in a few books as being A. F. Dorn, though I have yet to find the original source of this information.

I have ten cards from the series in my collection, and know of one other that was published in E. Feinshtein's. Inside the World of the Postcard. It is likely that there is at least one more that has yet to be rediscovered.

Beklemishevskaya Tower, the Kremlin

There is a common consensus that the cards were produced in late 1917, but a considerable difference of opinion exists as to exactly when. The date of publication might seem to be of purely academic interest, but at stake is the chance to be confirmed as the first published image of Soviet Russia.

The popular contender for the title is a set of postcards depicting the burial of several revolutionaries killed during the October Revolution in St. Petersburg. The photos are titled, 'Ceremonial funerals in Lesny Institute Park of the victims fallen during the revolutionary days. Petrograd. 19.XI.1917.' They were printed in the well-known St. Petersburg printers, Golike and Vilbourg.

The collector Nikolai Tagrin claimed in his 1962 book, 'In Search of the Unusual,' that the St. Petersburg cards were likely the first. Since then this assertion has been repeated in several other publications. There are, unfortunately, no concrete facts available with which to dispute or back up the claim, and it is tempting to assume that Tagrin's conclusions were influenced by the card's subject matter i.e. Bolshevik martyrs in St. Petersburg.

There are however a couple of factors, which speak in favour of precedence being given to the A. F. Dorn photos. Foremost amongst these is the date of the events themselves; the Moscow battle took place over two weeks before the funerals in St. Petersburg. Everything thus depends on when the Moscow photos were taken.

The evidence is circumstantial, but nevertheless I believe that the pictures were made shortly after the fight for the Kremlin concluded. The curiosity of the spectators gathering round to inspect the Nikolsky gates speaks for itself. Furthermore, the cheapness of the paper and the lack of any publishing details suggest that the cards were printed in a hurry, at a time when the city was still mired in chaos.

This is of course all guesswork, but what we can say for certain is that they are the first photographs of Communist Moscow.

Whether intentionally or not, Dorn's photos of the Kremlin helped bear witness to the physical destruction of the power (state) and ideology (church) of autocracy, thus paving the way for the Bolshevik regime to establish its own legitimacy to rule.

Vladimir Lenin, November 1918

Despite this, I do not see anything to suggest that the postcards were originally printed as pieces of propaganda. They are in my opinion curiosity pieces, likely produced by an independent publisher for profit.

They survive, both as a valuable record of the Bolshevik Revolution in Moscow, and also as testament to what the Soviet regime was to become. One palace and two of the churches shown here were later destroyed by Stalin.

Today, there are several other reminders of the Moscow Revolution which have survived in Moscow. Most prominent of these are the sarcophagi behind Lenin's tomb, which hold the remains of the soldiers who died during the battle.

There is also a monument in the Alexander Gardens, dedicated to the great revolutionaries of history. It was originally erected in 1913 on the occasion of the three hundredth anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty, but was converted to the Bolshevik cause in 1918.

The Kremlin too has undergone a conversion. No damage remains from the red fight for power, and now the building is neithere symbol of Tsarist Autocracy, nor of Soviet Communism, but of a new Russia that is still struggling to shrug off the consequences of November 1917.

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