Tsar to Lenin: an incredible compilation of archival footage of the Russian Revolution

Herman Axelbank and Max Eastman, “Tsar to Lenin” (1937)

Presented by Mehring Books and the Socialist Equality Party, “Tsar to Lenin” is an incredible historical document of the Russian Revolution, beginning with the uprising that saw off Tsar Nicholas II and his government in February 1917 through the October Revolution of the same year to the civil war that lasted three years and which resulted in Soviet victory and domination of the lands that became the Soviet Union in 1921. The film is a compilation of archival footage found and assembled by Herman Axelbank (1900 – 1979) in chronological order with a spirited and often dramatic narration by Max Eastman (1883 – 1969). The original photographers and film-makers who made the films in the assemblage numbered over 100 people who came from all walks of life: Russians of all classes including the Tsar himself and his Royal photographer, foreigners including Americans, Japanese and others,  those who supported the Soviets and those who opposed them.

The film begins with a sardonic description of life in pre-Revolutionary Russia: the lives of the aristocracy, particularly those of the Tsar and his courtiers, are portrayed in some detail. We see the Tsar at leisure with his courtiers, playing a ball-game and later swimming nude in a lake. (Eastman’s narration smirks that the world has never seen a king presented as “he really is”.) The Tsarevich is shown with palace guards who help him up on his horse. From there the film flits to the lives of the upper class and progresses to the peasants and industrial working class people and at this point the story takes off as workers go on strike and march in demonstrations in St Petersburg. We soon go to war with the Russian forces and Eastman informs us that the Russian army fared very badly against Germany and its allies. Against this background, the Tsar increases his repression of the workers and peasants, protests break out and in February 1917 the Tsar is overthrown.

The new Menshevik government tries to continue prosecuting the war against Germany and this in itself leads to more demonstrations. The Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin gain popularity on an anti-war, populist platform that promises land reform, food and other material security, and peace to the workers and peasants. In November 1917 (late October in the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time), the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) and from there Soviet influence spread to the rest of European Russia and Helsinki in Finland.

At the same time, anti-Bolshevik resistance – the White movement –  forms from a motley collection of monarchists, republicans, army generals, disgruntled nobles and political reactionaries, and Ukraine under nationalist and anarchist influence attempts a breakaway from Russia. Foreigners are invited by the new Ukrainian government to assist and the West eagerly sends troops and supplies to the anti-Bolshevik forces through several fronts including Kiev, northern Russia, the Ural mountains region and even Vladivostok in the Far East near Japan. The fighting is hard and atrocities are committed by Soviet and enemy forces alike. The highlights of this section of the film include a shocking sequence of images in which troops commanded by anti-Bolshevik leader Admiral Alexander Kolchak execute Soviet POWs in a field and repeatedly look into an open mass grave to make sure all their prisoners are dead. Another very distressing scene shows mummified Russian Orthodox monks being exhumed and then re-interred in a ruined building.

The film concludes with the victory of Soviet forces, backed by the Russian people, against the Whites and their foreign allies, and the final sequence of scenes shows some unforgettable footage of Vladimir Lenin animatedly explaining socialism to his audience. The man’s eyes are shining with excitement and his being gives no indication of the mysterious condition (syphilis?) that would afflict him in his later years and lead to his untimely death. Eastman’s narration portrays Lenin as an idealistic and passionate man with a vision that encompasses all that would benefit the Russian people.

Major highlights in the film are many and include detailed listings of people prominent in the Menshevik and Bolshevik political elites, a bird’s eyeview of a scene in St Petersburg in early 1917 in which Tsarist troops fire on panicking people running away and scenes of fighting in northwestern Russia during the civil war. There are uplifting scenes as well, notably those of the celebrations that took place in February 1917 when the Tsar was overthrown. There is also an impressive and detailed listing of delegates who attend the Internationale in Moscow in 1920. Interestingly, Joseph Stalin is introduced quite late in the film and appears for less than a minute; his small footnote appearance suggests that his contribution to the momentous events from 1917 to 1921 was either insignificant or perhaps sinisterly underhand.

The film is well put together and Eastman’s narration, often slyly mocking of personages like the Tsar and Menshevik leader Alexander Kerensky, is easy to follow. School students and undergraduate university students will find this documentary a good introduction to the events of the Russian Revolution; I myself thought I knew a fair amount about the events of 1917, having studied some Russian history at school, but I obviously forgot a great deal about the 1917 – 1920 civil war. In the film, Axelbank and Eastman make no apologies about whose side they’re on; they’re clearly on the side of Lenin and Leon Trotsky who is also portrayed as a heroic leader. (The booklet that accompanies the DVD that I watched explains that Eastman later repudiated his former radical views and embraced a more politically conservative viewpoint.)

And even if viewers are not history students, they will still discover much in the documentary that resonates with contemporary global political issues today: the Western invasion of Russia in 1917 and the war the Soviets were forced to fight against foreigners – the film states that the Bolsheviks were up against 14 foreign forces – has its parallel with events currently unfolding in Syria where mercenaries from Iraq, Libya and other countries, backed by Saudi Arabia and NATO, are fighting with the Free Syria Army against  Syrian government forces.

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