May 01, 2017

Aurora's Sunset

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.”

There were other witnesses as well.

One hundred years later, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution has become a rather inconvenient truth of Russian history. The specter of a coup haunts the Powers That Be and every effort is made to prevent public protests. Yet the history of the Soviet Union, in which we are now instructed to take pride, centers on a revolution from below. Every Soviet schoolchild knew and loved the song about the Aurora (see page 58), and it is still a fact that the majority of Russia’s adult population was born in the USSR. So the revolution cannot be edited out of Soviet history; it can only be mythologized and placed on a well guarded pedestal.

“The majority of our Whites and Reds acted out of what we call patriotism,” Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky has said of the events of 1917. And in early 2017 it was announced that the most significant event connected with the revolution’s centennial would be the unveiling in Crimea of a monument of reconciliation. The rhetoric is all about reconciling the White and Red sides and coming to terms with the events of ensuing years, including – perhaps first and foremost – the Stalinist Terror.

Last year the AURORA returned to its permanent mooring across from the Winter Palace. After a lengthy renovation that cost some R800 million (according to official figures), its on-board permanent exhibition has been changed. New paintings were added to accompany the historical canvases that were created in the Soviet era. While previously artists portrayed sailors raising the red flag, or groups of Leningrad students being inducted into the Pioneers at ceremonies on board the ship, the paintings of 2016 are devoted to the battleship’s life in the tsarist era.

As part of the Second Pacific Squadron, the Aurora took part in the Russo-Japanese war and, in particular, in the famous destruction of the Russian fleet at Tsushima – a separate hall is devoted to those events. Many ships were sunk on that day, but the Aurora succeeded in returning to Petersburg and, after renovations, returned to service.

The ship’s story during the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and Civil War is told in another new hall.

As a result, the revolutionary events of 1917, which effectively transformed the Aurora into one of the world’s most famous ships, have been relegated to a modest corner of the ship’s large exhibition space.

Furthermore, in keeping with this trend, an entire separate hall is devoted to the Great Patriotic War (WWII), even though the Aurora spent the war mostly sitting in port at Oranienbaum, where it was exposed to several bombardments.

“A variety of repairs were undertaken,” says Igor Kutukov, an electrician at Shop 10 of the Kronstadt Shipbuilding Factory. “New coats of paint were applied; all the mechanical systems were changed out; our shop installed lighting; subcontractors installed interactive monitors. I am proud to have taken part in the restoration of this historic monument. All historical periods should be respected, none should be erased. That’s why I take my hat off to the Finns, who erected a monument to our emperor, Alexander II, unlike Ukraine’s Right Sectorists, who are tearing down everything Russian.”

Thus, the ship that in 1917 was the first to raise the red flag over the Baltic Sea, is no longer a symbol of the revolution, neither for the Powers That Be, nor for the proletariat.

Tourists strolling along the Neva River embankment are offered a chance to be photographed in front of the Aurora with impersonators of Catherine the Great and Admiral Ushakov, rather than with a Lenin lookalike. And although the Aurora continues to ominously aim its guns at the Winter Palace, it has essentially been transformed into a replica of its former self. And not just in a symbolic sense. Today, the Aurora consists entirely of new parts and materials.

“This has nothing to do with the most recent renovation,” says Pavel Filin, Executive Secretary of the College of Maritime Heritage. “The key changes were done much earlier, in the 1980s. That is when they performed major repairs, slicing off the entirety of the hull that sat below the waterline, replacing its riveted hull with a single welded construction. I am generally not upset by all this talk of Theseus’ Paradox [A paradox put forward by Plutarch in Life of Theseus, in which he asked whether a ship that had had every single part of it replaced was still the same ship.] when it comes to the Aurora. So they replaced the deck with a new teak one that is completely modern. What of it? The process is the process, the ship is living a long life, yes, and it cannot stay as it was before, and that deck had rotted. What are you going to do? It has not changed my memory of the Aurora.”

The Aurora’s remains can be seen to this day in the Gulf of Finland, near the city of Kingisepp. In 1987, the skeleton of the underwater section of the hull was transported here by a tugboat and simply left near the shore. According to locals, kids would jump off it into the water, and grown ups removed copper sheets and pieces of stained oak to use in their homes. You can’t see any of the carcass above water any longer, but if you look, it is not hard to see the rusted bits sitting on the sea bottom. It is a perfect metaphor: the contours of history vaguely discerned through the muddy waters of legend and myth.

“I don’t feel that myths are necessarily harmful,” Filin adds. “There are many kinds of myths; it is a part of the process. When I worked on the [ice-breaker] Krasin, [Another ship museum that sits in the Neva River basin.] I knew that there were no myths about the Krasin, and it fell short in that regard. In fact I saw it as one of my main tasks to create a myth, to get people interested in the ice-breaker’s history. For instance, the Krasin is the only remaining Russian ship that took part in the sea battles of the Great Patriotic War. In contrast to the Aurora, it went on a round-the-world battle campaign, but no one remembers this. If there are no myths, there is no comprehension.”

Let us then clean off the rust and get a better look at the reality of 1917. What was the Aurora’s true role?

Eleven ships had gathered on the Neva River prior to the October Revolution. There were two destroyers (Samson and Zabiyanka), the minelayer Amur, patrol boats, a hospital ship, trawlers, and even two near namesakes of the Aurora, the line ship Zarya Svobody (Dawn of Freedom) and the yacht Zarnitsa (Summer Lightning). The famous cruiser stood at the head of the flotilla near Nikolayevsky (now Blagoveshchensky) Bridge. Along with the order to bring the ship near the bridge was an order to lower the huge drawbridge, so that the “revolutionary masses” from the two sides of the river could unite. This was on the night of October 25, “the last night of Russian capitalism,” as it has been designated in Russian films.

By morning, nearly all of Petrograd’s government institutions were in Bolshevik hands: train stations, the state bank, ministries and the historical heart of the city, Petropavlovsky (Peter and Paul) Fortress. The Winter Palace was the last bastion held by the Provisional Government. According to the plan, the Aurora would give the signal with a blank round for the storming of the Winter Palace, and if the occupants refused to surrender, it would open fire. But the ship was moored a kilometer off to the side of the palace, and Petropavlovsky Fortress, where the headquarters of the resistance was stationed, was located directly across from its windows. It was from there that the palace was actually fired on. Additional salvoes from the Aurora were not required.

As a result of disorderly shots from Petropavlovsky into the palace, windows were broken and several people were injured; for a long time one could see evidence of a salvo in one Hermitage office. In people’s minds, the damage done by the shots fired from Petropavlovsky were conflated with the bright flashes from the Aurora – the thunder and bursts of light made a big impression on the entire city, but they were shots from the fortress that people thought were coming from the ship.

Later, sailors even wrote to Pravda to refute the rumors: “In the press they write that the Aurora opened fire on the Winter Palace, but perhaps the citizen reporters are unaware that, had we opened fire, our guns would not have left a stone standing in the Winter Palace, much less in the streets surrounding it... Do not believe in provocative rumors... Only one blank shell was fired from the six-inch gun, to signal all the ships standing in the Neva, alerting them to be ready and vigilant.”

But nobody listened to the sailors. For the third anniversary of the revolution, the director Nikolai Yevreynov staged a dramatic reenactment of The Taking of the Winter Palace. In it, the cruiser continues firing so long, that later accounts report that the equipment being used for the sound effects broke down.

A similar portrayal can be found in the classic film, The End of St. Petersburg, directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin for the tenth anniversary of the revolution. The footage shows the Aurora blowing a corner of the palace to bits. We can also see that very same corner collapsing in Sergei Eisenstein’s famous film, October, filmed at the same time, in 1927.

Then, in the 1930s, Stalin made the sailors’ version of the story official. In his Short Course History of the All-Union Communist Party, which provided the official line for all subsequent accounts, there was not a word about salvos from the Aurora. And in 1937, for the twentieth anniversary, the canonical film Lenin in October, by Mikhail Rom, was released, showing no damage to the Winter Palace whatsoever. The crowd simply breaks down the gates and storms it.

“Just what was the Aurora’s salvo?” the famous Soviet film historian Yevgeny Margolit mused. “It was the flash of lightning that illuminated future historical perspectives... It doesn’t matter whether the shot was blank or live; what matters is that the shot from the Aurora heralded the start, the birth of a new world...” RL

Крейсер Аврора

Дремлет притихший северный город
Низкое небо над головой
Что тебе снится крейсер Аврора
В час когда утро встает над Невой
Может ты снова в тучах мохнатых
Вспышки орудий видишь вдали
Или как прежде в черных бушлатах
Грозно шагают твои патрули
Волны крутые штормы седые
Доля такая у кораблей
Судьбы их тоже чем-то похожи
Чем-то похожи на судьбы людей
Ветром соленым дышат просторы
Молнии крестят мрак грозовой
Что тебе снится крейсер Аврора
В час когда утро встает над Невой


The Cruiser Aurora

The northern city quietly slumbers
As heavy skies roll along overhead.
What are you dreaming, Cruiser Aurora,
As over the Neva dawn starts to break?
Perhaps once again, through billowing storm clouds,
Off in the distance you see cannons flash?
Or in black jackets, maybe you’re seeing,
How patrols fiercely march ‘cross your decks?
Waves form their towers as gray storms are raging,
Such is the fate of a ship, like you.
There is surely resemblance between fates of warships
And the fates that befall humankind.
The vast open spaces breathe a salt wind as
Great bolts of lightning cut through the gloom.
What are you dreaming, Cruiser Aurora,
As over the Neva dawn starts to break?

Watch a performance on video.

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