Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 08:05:03
22 September 2018

  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.


Author: Natalya Beskhlebnaya
Translation: Paul E. Richardson and Nora Seligman Favorov
Illustrations/Images by Alexander Petrosyan

May/June 2017
Page 54   ( 6 pages)

Summary: Soviet revolutionary mythology had it that the Aurora’s shot, signaling the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution, was heard round the world. We check in to find out the latest on the cruiser, and to examine some of its own myths.


The Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party took place during the summer of 1903, from July 30 to August 23, starting in Brussels and concluding in London.

During this congress, the more moderate members of the party found themselves in the minority on a minor procedural vote, after which they were derogatorily dubbed the Mensheviks (a word based on the root of the Russian word for minority). This gave rhetorical expression to a rift that was growing between the party’s two leading lights – Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov – and it led to the formation and consolidation of a political bloc known as the Bolsheviks (based on the root of the Russian word for majority) that was far more radical in its tactics and policies than the “minority.”

The split was one of the first developments in the improbable series of events that would eventually lead, 14 years later, to the Bolsheviks seizing power in Petrograd.

Meanwhile, also in 1903, final tests were being completed on a new Russian imperial cruiser, the Aurora. It was named for both the ancient Greek goddess of the dawn and a frigate that fought in the Crimean War. The choice of this name was made by Tsar Nicholas II himself, at a time when the Russian Empire was at its zenith, full of confidence in its invulnerability, and was building up its military and engaging in conflicts foreign and domestic.

Fast forward to 1917, and in September the Aurora was in dry dock in Petrograd undergoing repairs. The Bolsheviks understood that this was a fortunate confluence of circumstances, and that the cruiser could be useful in their coup. They would employ it not only in its capacity as a warship, but also as a symbol: an imperial cruiser that switched sides in support of the people and would give the signal for the storming of the imperial palace. It was from the Aurora that Vladimir Lenin’s appeal “To the Citizens of Russia” was broadcast over the radio waves.

It turned out that it was also important for the Bolsheviks to convey that the warship was used in an exclusively noble, peaceful manner, that the salvo it fired was a blank. Throughout the Soviet era – in history classes, films, cartoons, and on tours aboard the cruiser itself after it was turned into a museum – citizens were taught that the Aurora did not fire live ordnance on the Winter Palace.

And yet, in his novel, The Road to Calvary, Alexei Tolstoy (aka “the Red Count”), who claimed to be an eyewitness to the events, wrote that the roof of the Winter Palace was “pierced by a shell from the Aurora.” The American journalist John Reed echoed this account in his famous Ten Days that Shook the World, having toured the Winter Palace soon after it was stormed: “underfoot the sidewalk was littered with broken stucco, from the cornice of the Palace where two shells from the battleship Aurora had struck; that was the only damage from the bombardment.”

To read more, follow the "Purchase Back Issue" link from the full story listing for this issue.