History of the World According to the Movies: Part 55 – The Russian Revolution


Perhaps no movie defines our perception of the Russian Revolution as David Lean’s 1965 adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel Dr. Zhivago starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Russia was never a pleasant place to live throughout most of history and not because of the Russian winter either. Still, this movie deals with how the Russian Revolution in many ways made way for a regime just as oppressive as the one that came before. It was just that the new overlords called themselves Bolshevik Communists. Still, Yuri Zhivago is a very tragic figure who loses almost everything he held dear that he ends up a very broken man. Lara doesn’t fare much better.

The twentieth century didn’t begin so well in Russia where life had been hard for many and not because of the Russian winter and the chances of going to Siberia either. Still, in the beginning of the 20th century, the country was a massive empire home to 165 million people of many religions, languages, and cultures. For centuries, it had been ruled by autocratic rulers known as the Czar under a militaristic and bureaucratic absolute monarchy with no legislative representative bodies, no elections, and no political parties allowed. For years, Russia had been a country where the vast majority of illiterate peasants have been dominated, exploited, and oppressed by a small landowning elite. Free expression was very limited and Imperial Secret Police frequently suppressed dissent with executions, censorship, or exile in Siberia. And it wasn’t unusual for ethnic and religious minorities to be the designated scapegoats of angry citizens. Unsurprisingly, desires for political reform and opposition to the Czarist regime among the population was rising, sometimes in extreme and violent ways. Yet, while there have been Czars who managed to stabilized the increasing unrest in Russia, but Czar Nicholas II wasn’t one of them whose reign was a complete disaster from the start not only due to his own incompetence but also because he didn’t want bow to his people’s whims if it meant giving up his power as the autocratic leader he was. These factors combined with losing a war with the Japanese led to the 1905 Revolution that consisted of a series of demonstrations ranging from peaceful protests to acts of terrorism taking Czar Nicholas by surprise and forced him to agree to political and economic reforms which established a governing body called the Duma which the Czar would later go to great lengths to get rid of. However, what really helped set off the Russian Revolutions of 1917 was Russia entering World War I, a conflict the country was dreadfully unprepared for and it was a total disaster for the country. The Russian Army suffered defeat after defeat by the Germans and experienced high casualty rates while the Russian economy suffered with rising food prices and inflation putting the country on the road to economic collapse. Both civilian and military morale was low. By 1917, most Russians were fed up with their Czar that they formed a provisional government and forced Nicholas II to abdicate that March, which marked the end of Czarist Russia. In November of that year, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks and allies would overthrow the Provisional Government and seize power through any means necessary even if it provoked a four year civil war. While Russia had attempted democratic rule in 1917, by 1918, all such attempts were over once Lenin closed down the elected Constituent Assembly after his group didn’t win. Thus, Russia’s Communistic regime had begun. Nevertheless, movies about the Russian Revolution do contain their share of inaccuracies which I shall list accordingly.

Pre-Revolutionary Russia:

The 1905 mutiny on the battleship Potemkin was over eating rotten meat, which led to a massacre by Russian troops. (Though immortalized in a movie and though such revolt was brought down by Russian troops that day, the massacre didn’t happen contrary to The Battleship Potemkin, which is actually full-blown Soviet propaganda. According to TTI: “The Guards fired warning shots over the heads of the crowd in front of them… and hit a few people BEHIND the crowd in front of them. However, the Czarist troops did later prevent people from leaving the port after several buildings caught fire, indirectly leading to dozens of deaths. The Black Sea Mutiny was complicated. A more straightforward example would be when the Potemkin fired on Odessa. In the movie, they destroy the Czarist headquarters, in reality someone in fire control disagreed with the mutiny and gave them the wrong coordinates causing them to level a few blocks of tenements full of innocent people instead.” As for what caused the revolt, it was about more than just rotten meat.)

Post-Soviet Cryllic was used at this time. (They wouldn’t be using that kind of writing in Czarist Russia in 1905, but it’s in Doctor Zhivago.)

The statue of Yuri Dolgoruky was erected in Moscow by this time. (The statue was placed there in 1947 as a commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the city’s founding by the man depicted in the statue. Yet, it’s there when Yuri arrives in Moscow before the First World War.)

Kropotkin Street existed in Czarist Russia at this time. (At the time it was named Prechistenka Street. Also Kropotkin was an anarchist and would’ve never had a street named after him in Czarist Russia.)

During the revolt of the Potemkin, a bunch of sailors were rounded up to be shot as well as had the tarp pulled over them. (This did happen but there wasn’t any tarp unlike what The Battleship Potemkin shows. Interestingly, one of the sailors of the group said he was under the tarp but this says more about the hypnotic quality of the film.)

Artillery Quartermaster Grigory Meketovich Vakulinchuk was the leader of the Potemkin revolt. (He was actually some guy who got caught up in the fighting and got killed. Also, he called for a boycott, not a full scale revolt. The real leader of the mutiny was a sailor named Afanasy Nikolayevich Matushenko who went to Romania with the ship long with the other sailors in which they handed it to the Romanian government and further on to Europe. TTI says he settled in Dublin where he opened a fish and chips shop while Wikipedia says he returned to Russia in 1907 and was executed by hanging that October.)

Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin was alive during the Romanov tercentenary of 1913. (He was assassinated in 1911 while watching Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tale of Tsar Saltan” at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of Czar Nicholas II and his family. Also, the Romanovs 300th anniversary was in 1913, not 1916.)

Rasputin hypnotized Czarina Alexandra’s lady-in-waiting Sonia to leave Czarevitch Alexei on a bridge in order to demonstrate his healing powers. (The woman’s name in real life was Anna Vyrubova who was said to be Rasputin’s lover {some also speculated Empress Alexandra which isn’t true at all}. Still, he did have a lot of girlfriends despite looking like someone from an old-timey mental institution. However, Rasputin’s first contact with Alexei may have been when he “cured” the hemophiliac boy’s insomnia. He advised against using aspirin on Alexei, which was a common way to treat hemophilia but one of the worst things to give to one since it’s a potent blood thinner. Nevertheless, Rasputin would’ve done no such thing to Alexei since he was a staunch ally of the Romanovs.)

Rasputin was killed by a mysterious person named Ivan Keznikov. (He was actually assassinated by a group of aristocrats led a cross dressing party boy named Count Felix Yusupov who was still alive when the movie Rasputin the Mad Monk was made in 1966. Also, Yusupov sued filmmakers who tried to tell his story despite publishing his own memoirs. Still, while Rasputin is shown guzzling cyanide laced cakes with booze, it’s said he also endured being shot four times, beaten, castrated, wrapped in a linen sheet, stabbed, and thrown from a bridge into the River Neva allegedly drowning or dying of hypothermia. This would’ve been a golden opportunity for any slasher movie with the monster keep coming back to life, but Rasputin the Mad Monk just didn’t have it. Must’ve been a budget issue. Nevertheless, Yusupov would sometimes change his account on how he helped assassinate Rasputin whenever he was short on funds. Still, in reality, Rasputin died with a shot in the head which killed him instantly {according to his autopsy}. Oh, and it was by a .455 Webley revolver which at the time was issued to British intelligence officers, so there may have been British involvement in his assassination.)

Rasputin made advances toward Czar Nicholas II’s daughters. (There have never been any accusations of him having designs on the grand duchesses, let alone Empress Alexandra.)

Czar Nicholas II was a progressive who wanted a Duma while Rasputin was against it. (Nicholas II was an autocrat who distrusted any attempt to give the people more of a say in their government and basically tried to disband the Duma whenever he could. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the Russian Revolution broke out in the first place. His grandfather Alexander II was the more progressive monarch than him.)

Rasputin urged Nicholas II to enter World War I. (He actually advised Czar Nicholas II against it but the autocrat didn’t listen. Still, Rasputin’s influence in the Russian royal family tends to be exaggerated.)

Rasputin was a monk. (He was actually more of a lay preacher in the Russian Orthodox Church and was never ordained either as a cleric or a monk in that matter {and had a lot of enemies in the Church as well}. Not to mention, he was married and had at least three kids before he sought a religious occupation {there’s even photographic evidence}. He might have also been a member of some wacky para-Christian cult in Russia as well though there’s not a lot of evidence for this. Still, he did use religion to justify him being Russia’s greatest love machine, though his sex life is very much speculated upon.)

Rasputin was an old man during his association with the Romanovs. (He died at 47.)

Czarevitch Alexei was born during the winter. (He was born in August when there’s no snow in Russia even in the northern regions.)

Grand Duchess Anastasia was called “sunshine” by her father. (Czarevitch Alexei was called that.)

Grand Duchess Tatiana flashed her breasts at a guard. (Contrary to Nicholas and Alexandra, there are no reports or statements that Tatiana did such thing. Besides, if she did, we would’ve known.)

Josef Stalin was around in 1907. (Yes, he was certainly alive then but he didn’t go by that name until 1912. Still, he knew Lenin at the time and was referred to as Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. Then again, considering the name, maybe it’s better to have him go by Stalin anyway.)

St. Petersburg was known by its name during World War I. (It was called Petrograd then since St. Petersburg was considered too German. It would be called Petrograd until 1924 when it became known as Leningrad until it reverted back to St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Still, in almost every movie about the last days of the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution, it’s always referred to as St. Petersburg throughout in Anastasia when the city was referred to as Leningrad.)

The Russian Revolution:

The Russian Revolution started in 1916. (It began in 1917 on both Western and Russian calendars.)

Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov survived the Russian Revolution. (She was killed along with the rest of her family. Sorry Anastasia fans!)

The grand duchesses had long hair when they were shot by the revolutionaries. (They actually had their heads shaved while they were imprisoned due to illness. By the time they were shot in 1918, their hair had grown to the napes of their necks, which meant that they would’ve died with short hair.)

The Romanovs were shot outside a courtyard. (They were shot in a closed, dinghy cellar of the house they were imprisoned in. Besides them, their doctor and three of their servants were shot as well. Oh, and their bodies were dragged into the woods, lit on fire, doused in sulfuric acid, and buried in a mine shaft. And according to the murderers, the Czar’s family were shot, beaten, bludgeoned, and bayoneted to death.)

Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov was 7 during the Russian Revolution. (She was 15 and was 17 when she died. Yet, though she didn’t survive, her grandmother the Dowager Empress did, yet unlike the cartoon, she was a Danish princess named Dagmar {though she went byMarie Feodorovna} and actually went back to Denmark via London and the Crimea, though somehow “Together in Copenhagen” doesn’t seem to have the same ring to it. Not only that but the Danish king at the time was her brother and her sister was Queen Alexandra of Great

Britain. Also, the Czar’s daughters weren’t referred to as princesses but as grand duchesses.)

The Romanovs were exiled to a log cabin during the winter of 1918 by the Bolsheviks. (Actually they were exiled to a Governor’s Mansion and were in the custody of Kerensky’s Provisional Government, which was before the Bolsheviks took over.)

Yakov Yurovski was in his sixties when he held the Romanov family in custody and participated in their execution. (He was 39.)

Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna was in England during the winter of 1918. (She didn’t go to England until 1919, the year after the Romanovs were all killed. In 1918, she was still in Russia. Also, she wasn’t the sole survivor of the Romanov family either. Not to mention, Czar Nicholas II’s children weren’t particularly close to her who saw her as someone to be respected and feared above anything else. And another thing, she never entertained Anastasia impostors. Her daughter Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna would meet one by the name of Anna Anderson in person and become her most famous detractor.)

Rasputin was an undead evil sorcerer who sold his soul for a demon powered reliquary and sparked the Russian Revolution to kill the Romanovs. (Rasputin was charismatic religious eccentric but he was a staunch ally of the Romanovs and is revered in Russia to this day. He was also summoned by the Czarist court because he was believed to be capable of alleviating the czarevitch’s severe hemophilia. Even though he wasn’t a saint, he always considered himself a Christian and never indulged in any occult practices with his only claims on magical abilities being on divination and healing which were perfectly within the Orthodox Christian paradigm. Sure he took advantage of a sick child and his desperate mother to bring himself power, riches, and affluence as well as drank and whored {possibly sexually assaulting more than one woman} but he would never have willingly plotted the Romanovs’ destruction since he depended on them. Besides, he was dead when the Russian Revolution broke out due to assassination by a few Russian aristocrats resentful of his influence toward the Imperial family. Reason for his bad reputation stems from the fact that Rasputin often took one for the team whenever Nicholas II made a bad decision for the Czar couldn’t be criticized directly.)

The White Russian Army were all united and believed in the same things. (Actually the only thing they believed in was that they didn’t like the Bolsheviks. Politically ideologically speaking, they ranged from social democrats to full blown monarchists. There were also other factions like the village communitarian {according to TTI: “They supported Russia’s centuries-long tradition of village-based communes against the Reds who were an urban-based faction that kept trying to kill their ‘oppressive kulak overlords’, and the Whites whom they associated with the Imperial Government that had always tried to interfere in their affairs and taken far too much of their money in tax and too many of their young men as conscripts.”}, the nationalist “Greens” that were local militias protecting their villages from marauders of both sides, the anarchist “Blacks,” the Mensheviks the Social Revolutionaries known as the Soviets, foreign interventionists from the Allied and Central powers, ethnic nationalists, and people just trying to fight their way out.)

The Bolsheviks had secret police that cracked down on spies and dissidents as well as censored works of literature in 1917. (In 1917, the Bolsheviks were way too busy to hunt dreamy dissidents like Dr. Yuri Zhivago so he could publish his poetry without persecution at least at first. Sure the Bolsheviks were fanatics but there was adequate freedom of the press at the time of Dr. Zhivago. Still, while Dr. Zhivago is set in the Russian Revolution, it’s actually more about the Stalinist Revolution when you could be shot, tortured, or imprisoned for having the wrong attitude. Rather it’s more about the terror author Boris Pasternak experienced {with personal phone calls by Josef Stalin himself} as well as the loss of his friends to firing squads and gulags. So while early 1917 Russia was no day at the beach, it wasn’t as bad a place as it would become later on. Still, millions of people in Russia were killed at this time so the was a shithole nonetheless.)

The Bolsheviks overthrew Czar Nicholas II and his family. (For God’s sake, the Bolsheviks didn’t overthrow the Romanovs and actually opposed the 1905 revolts and the February Revolution of 1917 because they weren’t in charge of either. Furthermore, Vladimir Lenin wasn’t even in Russia when Czar Nicholas II stepped down. The Russian royal family was overthrown by the Provisional Government headed by moderate socialist Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky. Still, the abdication of Nicholas II was the only thing the factions of the Russian Revolution could agree upon and it was inevitable since there have been anti-czarist movements for years by this point. The Bolsheviks would take over later with overthrowing the provisional government without firing a shot in the Red October with their Left Socialist Revolutionaries and anarchist allies igniting civil war, and basically shut down anything that was democratic or opposing them. After the Socialist Revolutionaries won the most seats in the Constituent Assembly election that December, the Bolsheviks shut it down by force when the Assembly attempted to meet in Petrograd in January of 1918. However, it was the Bolsheviks who were responsible for killing the Romanovs though.)

The Bolsheviks were the most popular political faction in Russia during the Revolution. (Early on, they were a minor party with modest popularity. Yet, their clear opposition to the Provisional Government and their unambiguous support in the aims of the soldiers, workers, and peasants gave them a viable power base in which they could usurp the PG. And they were the only significant party to take such position. Not to mention, the political unity among its own members also played a factor in their success.)

The Russian revolutionaries were in agreement with each other and supported the desires of the people. (Actually there were a lot of political factions during the Russian Revolution, except when it came to forcing Czar Nicholas II to resign. Sometimes faction members couldn’t agree within their own parties. Using cinema as propaganda and going out of their way to convince the general public they were the good guys also helped considerably. As for public interests, many of them had their own ideas that may nor may not have been in the people’s best interests. But movies tend to imply this.)

The Bolsheviks were the only Socialist party during the Russian Revolution. (No, they weren’t but they were the most successful. You also had the Mensheviks, the Right Socialist Revolutionaries, and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries which were their allies yet once they won the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly and 60% of the vote followed by the Bolsheviks’ 24%, the Bolshevik Red Guard closed down the Constituent Assembly by force when it attempted to meet in January 1918. And no, not all Russian Socialist were alike or believed in the same things.)

The Bolsheviks supported the desires of the people. (Sometimes but it wasn’t always the case. Nevertheless, what the Bolsheviks wanted was as much as opposed to the real desires of the people as had been the policies of the previous regimes. Still, when the popular movement and the Bolsheviks came into conflict, the Bolsheviks were utterly ruthless in imposing their will by force. Vladimir Lenin ensured that the Bolshevik party would resort to dictatorship rather than bow to the will of the Russian people. This is why Communist Russia was so authoritarian and repressive as it was.)

Leon Trotsky played a very miniscule role in the October 1917 Revolution. (Of course, so says Soviet propaganda films from the 1920s until the 1950s since Josef Stalin was in charge then. A good example would be in the Sergei Eisenstein film October: Ten Days that Shook the World, in which Trotsky was shown briefly in a couple of scenes since he was exiled during the filming with all his other scenes going to the cutting room floor. In reality, Trotsky was Vladimir Lenin’s right hand man who actually planned the military strategic takeover in Petrograd during the October 1917 Revolution as well as helped win the Russian Civil War for the Bolsheviks. Yet, after Trotsky was exiled, Stalin tried to expunge him from the Soviet records, even to the point of eliminating him in photographs. Nevertheless, Socialist reporter Jack Reed did include Trotsky’s involvement in his book.)

The Russian Revolution happened in the same way as the French one. (Well, they do have parallels but there are plenty of differences between the two.)

The Soviet Twenties:

The Winter Palace was almost intact in 1927. (Russian Revolutionaries had already stormed and looted the place in 1917, taking everything valuable, slashing all the paintings, and used the façade as target practice. Furthermore, by 1927, the Palace was rebuilt and served as a seat to the Hermitage museum.)