Review: The Russian Revolution (Documentary, Netflix, 1917, Dir Cal Seville)

In this documentary the Russian Revolution unfolds as a battle between the ruling Romanov dynasty and Lenin’s family, the Ulyanovs. To take such a focus is not necessarily a bad idea. The Romanovs could be a useful window through which to examine the nature of the semi-medieval autocracy that ruled Russia. Lenin and his older brother Alexander could be a lens through which to understand the revolutionary movements in Russia. In this case, however, these starring figures are a device with which to avoid talking about actual history and politics at all costs.

The pre-title introduction lays the film’s cards on the table. One of the talking heads, Professor David Rayfield, makes an absurd claim about Lenin, and Stalin features heavily in spite of the fact that he was a very minor player until some years after 1917.

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People’s Will members, including Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov, are hanged for attempting to assassinate the Tsar

The early part of the documentary looks at the People’s Will groups, democrats who hatched plots to kill Tsars and high-up officials. Lenin’s older brother was one of their number, a fact the documentary places great emphasis on without drawing out the most important point. Lenin learned from his brother’s failure, and developed his ideas in opposition to terrorism and conspiracy. This reflected a shift in the entire revolutionary movement. Lenin focused on building a political party and winning power through revolutionary action by the masses, particularly the workers concentrated in cities. The Russian Revolution, unbelievably, skips this vital point, and tells us simply that Lenin joined his brother’s movement, implying that he became a terrorist, when actually the precise opposite was the case.

The story of the “People’s Will” is told here on the one hand to evoke sympathy for the poor blameless dictators of the Romanov dynasty, and on the other hand to tarnish Lenin with the brush of terrorism. This is a potent smear in 2017, however dishonest. Tarnished on the one hand with Stalinism, and on the other with terrorism, it’s fair to say that, even before the narrative enters the 20th century, Lenin hasn’t got a fair shake. The viewer assumes that sometime before the end of the documentary, surely, someone will say a positive thing about him. But it never happens. We are told nothing about what the Bolsheviks stood for, what methods they used or why people supported them – there are a few references to Marx, and no explanation of who he was. Half-way through the documentary, around the 1913 mark, Stalin features prominently. This description of Stalin does its best to imply that the Bolsheviks were basically gangsters, robbing banks and bumping people off as a matter of routine throughout their history.

The historians who are interviewed cannot be blamed for the script or the editing, but the things these talking heads come out with are really outrageous. Apparently, under Tsarism, to be imprisoned for your political beliefs or exiled thousands of miles away from home was “not a bad life.”

The documentary falls into the dreary cliché (of which Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast was unfortunately also guilty) of spending a fair chunk of its 47-minute running time talking about Rasputin and hemophilia as if they were somehow historically significant. Herman Axelbank’s 1937 documentary Tsar to Lenin, which has a similar running time, gives Rasputin only a passing mention, and rightly so. He was a colourful symptom of the dysfunction and superstition in the Romanovs’ court but he does not even partially help to explain the Russian Revolution.

According to the film, the July Days were an attempt by the Bolsheviks to seize power – rather than a spontaneous uprising which the Bolsheviks saw as premature, and laboured to hold back. Daniel Beer insists that the slogan of “All Power to the Soviets” simply meant dictatorship, a claim for which he supplies no evidence. Helen Rappaport shows real contempt for the peasants in the documentary’s sole mention of the revolution in the countryside. It was “horrific” and “savage” what those nasty peasants did to those poor long-suffering hereditary landowners.

How did the Bolsheviks go from a small minority to the ruling party in the space of a few months? To this, the most important question of all, the film suggests only one answer: not through their programme, orientation or the active and sincere support of the masses – no, merely through lying, and the skillful use of “black propaganda.”

Understandably distracted by the burning necessity to tell us about hemophilia and terrorism, the narrator and historians neglect to mention a few little things. For example: that the Bolsheviks had a majority in the soviets; that nowhere and never did they plan to rule through a one-party state; that the Bolsheviks recognised independence for multiple countries, ended the First World War and enshrined the rights of women, LGBT people and minorities; that they built a system of participatory democracy that functioned well into the civil war years.

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Instead we get a narrative that jumps from October 1917 to the killing of the Romanovs in July 1918, without paying any attention to what was happening among the other 150 million or so people in Russia who were not Romanovs. Dwelling on these executions, the talking heads express disbelief and horror, but do not even attempt to explain the reasons or context.

This is a symptom of a wider problem: even someone opposed to the Bolsheviks would find the treatment of them in this film dreary, one-note, didactic and unenlightening. Marx is mentioned twice or three times, but we are not told what he represented. At the end of the film the Bolsheviks remain vague and shadowy figures because we have only been shown unrepresentative details picked out from the whole.

The historians make interesting points at times. The incredible achievements of Lenin and Trotsky in the Civil War are acknowledged. Beer makes a point about how years of war from 1914 to 1921 helped to deform the regime that emerged. In general, though, the narrative is clichéd and massively one-sided. It’s not anything close to the fresh look at events that we deserve on the centenary.

I want to make one more mention of Tsar to Lenin, which presents such a contrast, in every way, to this film. One shot shows the first Soviet president, Kalinin, sitting on the steps of some public building, surrounded by workers presenting petitions to him. His clothing drab, his hair dishevelled, he smokes a rollie, reading over the pieces of paper given to him, listening carefully. The self-educated peasant has a craggy, patient face. The film cuts, without comment from the narrator, to a clip of the Tsar proceeding down an aisle lined by regimented ranks of uniformed nobles, adorned in jewels and furs. The contrast between these two heads of state signifies the massive change that has taken place. The historical point being made is both genuine and skillful.

At one point in the Netflix documentary, Rayfield casually remarks, “So much for Bolshevik egalitarianism!” He’s referring to the fact that Lenin once employed a maid. With the image of Kalinin on the steps fresh in my mind, this struck me as a glib and shallow dismissal. The remark was also bizarre in the context of the documentary. This dismissal was the first, last and only hint we got that the Bolsheviks were (or even aspired to be) egalitarian. That indicates how completely The Russian Revolution ignores real politics and history, and how carefully it avoids mentioning anything that might show Lenin or the Bolsheviks in a positive light.

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