Return to the Winter Palace

In 1917 Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Three years later, more than a thousand actors, circus performers, and ballet dancers stormed it again.

Winter Palace
Keith Ruffles, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd), it was a major turning point in the Russian revolution. The provisional government had ruled Russia since the abdication of Nicholas II at the start of 1917. But by October that year, the government cabinet was holed up in the Winter Palace, surrounded by revolutionaries. On the night of November 7th, they officially surrendered. The provisional government was no more, and the Russian Civil War was about to begin.

(Side note: yes, the October Revolution concluded in November. At the time, Russia was still using the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian calendar, so the storming happened on October 25th Russian time.)

The “storming” of the Winter Palace was momentous, but not especially violent. Just a few shots were fired. The leader of the provisional government had already fled – in a Renault provided by the American embassy, apparently! – and the rest of the cabinet surrendered without conflict.

However, it is an important component of nation-building (and myth-building) that such turning points are dramatic. So, on the third anniversary of the revolution, the new government staged an open-air drama. A spectacle worthy of an Olympics opening ceremony: the (re-)storming of the Winter Palace.

A troupe of actors, ballet dancers, and circus performers divided into two camps: the Bolsheviks and the provisional government. Surrounded by a hundred thousand spectators, they crashed into each other and battled. The leader of the provisional government escapes in a daring car chase! Artillery blasts! Fireworks!

It was a fantastic fiction, of course. A mostly peaceful nighttime conquest became a bloody daytime struggle. When Sergei Eisenstein made a film about the revolution a few years later, the storming of the Winter Palace was the violent climax:

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