Russia and the USSR 1905-1941
The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.
Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.
The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.
Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.
The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.
On the 7th November 1917, Red Guards entered the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in a defining event of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the October Revolution, the 7th November is the date from the modern Gregorian calendar that aligns with the 25th October on the old style Julian calendar, from which the revolution got its alternative name.
On the night of the 6th November Leon Trotsky led the Red Guards to take control of key government buildings and communication points such as post offices, bridges and the State Bank. Although the Red Guards were armed, historians generally accept that the takeover was carried out without bloodshed or indeed any shots being fired.
Throughout the 7th November large crowds of troops sympathetic to the Bolsheviks began to surround the Winter Palace. The actual attack on the palace began after a signal shot fired from cruiser ship Aurora. Soviet accounts of the night, portrayed most powerfully in Sergei Eisenstein’s film reenactment, present the takeover of the Winter Palace as a huge battle. However, this popular image is a fabrication. The large number of Red Guards marching towards the palace led to the Cossacks guarding the palace to desert their posts, while the remaining Cadets and volunteers from the Women’s Battalion laid down their weapons and surrendered after the Red Guards found their way inside the palace through an open door.
The remnants of the Provisional Government were discovered in a small dining room and arrested. Meanwhile the wine cellar was looted, leading to what historian Orlando Figes suggested was perhaps, “the biggest hangover in history”.
This video presents an overview of the causes of the storming of the Winter Palace.
In the early hours of the 17th July 1918 the Russian Imperial Romanov family were shot dead in the basement of the Ipatiev House in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg.
Their death took place during the ongoing Russian Civil War, at a time when White Russian forces were approaching the house where the family were held captive. The execution was led by Yakov Yurovsky, a member of the Bolshevik secret police known as the Checka, and commandant of the house which had become known as The House of Special Purpose.
The Romanov family – Nicholas and his wife, and their four daughters and son, had first arrived in Ekaterinburg at intervals from the 30th April onwards. They were accompanied by a small number of servants. Their time inside the house was heavily regulated by the guards, who blocked all contact with the outside world.
As the White Army advanced on Ekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks became concerned that the royal family might fall into their hands and act as a rallying point for the White cause. Similarly, their release could encourage other European nations to view them as the legitimate rulers of Russia, and thus undermine the revolutionary Bolshevik government.
Shortly after midnight on the 17th July therefore, the family were woken and led to a small basement room in the house. A group of Bolshevik secret police then entered the room and read out the order for the deaths. All were shot or stabbed by bayonets, their bodies taken away in a truck and disposed of in a forest 12 miles north of the city.
On the 30th August 1918, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov – better known as Lenin – was the victim of a failed assassination plot.
Fanya Kaplan, a member of the anti-Bolshevik faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, believed that Lenin was a ‘traitor to the revolution’ for dissolving the Constituent Assembly and banning other left-wing political parties. She fired three shots at him as he left the Hammer and Sickle factory in Moscow, of which one hit his arm and lodged in his shoulder while the other went through his neck and is reported to have punctured part of his left lung.
Made unconscious by the attack, Lenin was taken to his living quarters in the Kremlin from where he refused to move in case other would-be assassins attacked him. Without the medical facilities of a hospital, his doctors were unable to remove the bullets and, although Lenin did survive, the injuries he sustained may have contributed towards the strokes that led to his death in 1924.
In retaliation for the attack on Lenin barely two weeks after the successful assassination of Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Cheka in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks issued a decree beginning the Red Terror. Designed to crush counter-revolutionary action against the Bolsheviks, the Red Terror is generally accepted to have lasted throughout the period of the Civil War until 1922. Meanwhile, the Communist Party newspaper Pravda used the attack as a propaganda tool to promote Lenin.
Kaplan was executed on the 3rd September, but over the next four years tens if not hundreds of thousands of Bolsheviks opponents were killed.
On the 20th December 1917, the Russian Bolshevik secret police known as the Cheka was established. Led by Felix Dzerzhinsky, the organisation’s name was derived from the Russian initials for its original full name – The All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Hundreds of Cheka committees were formed across Russia, who went on to arrest, torture or execute many thousands of dissidents, deserters and other enemies of the state before it was dissolved on February 6, 1922.
Established following a decree by Lenin on the 19th December, the Cheka’s focus was on defending the revolution by removing internal threats to the Soviet regime. Lenin’s decree was purposefully vague, and this enabled Dzerzhinsky to recruit and direct his Chekists – the Cheka agents – in whatever way he saw best. With virtually unlimited powers, the growing number of agents soon began rounding up anyone identified as an “enemy of the people”. Although often referred to as the Bolshevik ‘secret police’, in reality the Chekists were easily identifiable from their long leather coats and a number of their activities were reported in official Soviet newspaper Pravda and Izvestia.
Known as the Red Terror, Cheka’s campaign of mass killings, torture, and systematic oppression grew more fierce as the Russian Civil War progressed. Their activities included a number of atrocities using torture methods that respected historian Orlando Figes says were “matched only by the Spanish Inquisition.”
Official Soviet figures placed the number of Cheka victims at 12,733. However, in reality the figure is probably significantly higher. Some historians place the actual figure at 200,000 or more.