The Political Language of Celebration: The Anniversary of the October Revolution, 1918-1932

By Jon Rowson

‘It is impossible to build socialism in white gloves’ – Mikhail Kalinin, 7 November 1930[1]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was the apogee of public politics in the young Soviet state. The celebrations, lasting 2-3 days in all areas of the USSR, were a means of honouring the previous year’s achievements, and increasing the morale of the populace. Despite Petrograd being the centre of events during the October Revolution, Moscow- and in particular Red Square – soon became the axiomatic centre of celebrations after being named the Soviet capital in 1918.

The culmination of the annual Anniversary event was a joint military and civilian parade through Moscow and Red Square, where Soviet soldiers and citizens caught a glimpse of the political elite, and heard speeches delivered by a range of politicians. Over time, the nature of the celebrations changed, turning from a spontaneous outburst of civilian celebration, to a rigid, militaristic pageant. Nonetheless, the importance of the written and spoken word remained.

Political speeches were ubiquitous throughout the Anniversary event. Lenin delivered at least six speeches during the 1918 holiday, with his address on Red Square being published verbatim in the Pravda and Izvestiia VTsIK newspapers.[2] These speeches reveal crucial insights into how the Soviet state addressed and sought legitimation from its citizens, and how these processes changed during the turbulent first fifteen years of Soviet rule.

‘Kolarov is an amazing person. Did you hear the way he talks? He never says: fight. He says, to fight and win. Generally, the Bolsheviks were the kind of people that like to dot their i’s’ – Unnamed audience member, 9 November 1923[3]

As the above quotation indicates, clarity and understanding were of vital importance to the Anniversary’s political message. This was often reflected in the choice of speaker,

jon-blog-1
Soviet leaders including Lenin (centre) and Trotsky (saluting) observing the Second Anniversary of the October Revolution celebration on Red Square, 1919.

particularly for the Red Square speeches which were always published in Soviet newspapers in the days that followed. During the War Communism years, Lenin and Trotsky, noted respectively for their speeches’ ‘iron logic’ and ‘drama’, both appeared frequently, reflecting their status at the head of Soviet politics.[4]

 

After Lenin’s death in 1924, a multiplicity of voices characterised the Anniversary celebrations. Two of the most audible figures were Mikhail Kalinin, often hailed as the “All-Russian Village Elder” [Vserossiiskii starosta] and, as the military began to play a greater role in festivities, Kliment Voroshilov.[5]

Problematically, many of the Soviet political elite were not proletarian in origin. However, Kalinin and Voroshilov, sons of a peasant and railway worker respectively, were figures that the Soviet populace both rural and urban, could draw commonalities with, especially during the reading of the revolutionary oath which began with the proclamation, ‘I, the son of the working people’.[6] This made them a savvy choice for inclusion in the annual celebrations .

The Anniversary celebrations were a means of mythologizing the achievements of the Soviet state. During the Civil War years, this took the form of celebrating the ‘unprecedented, incredibly difficult struggle’ of the Red Army troops.[7] Vague statements of success, such as Trotsky’s 1919 retort that ‘our army, which is fighting against the White gangs of Yudenich, is successfully moving forward’, were said to have drawn cheers from the crowd.[8]

During the years of the First Five-Year Plan, this myth-making project was directed towards the economy. Political speeches became replete with statistics, an example being Voroshilov’s 1930 parade speech, which featured the claim that ‘gross industrial output has reached 196.9% of the pre-war level’.[9]

Between 1928 and 1932, statistics such as these became evidence of socialism’s ‘extraordinary achievements’, and proof that, as Kalinin stated at the 1930 Red Square parade, ‘we have left behind many of the difficulties’ of the War Communism years.[10] Yet, at the same time as these statements of success, workers’ real wages had fallen 52% from their 1918 level, with the continued decrease in meat and dairy consumption another indicator of falling living standards.[11]

Legitimacy for this myth-making project was sought by demonstration of the Bolshevik elite’s ability to predict the future. Lenin’s 1919 statement of the Party’s ‘firm belief in the imminent victory of Soviet power’ was justified following the 1920 capitulation of the White forces.[12] After his death, Anniversary speeches contain references to the ‘great teacher’ Lenin, whose ‘great ideas’, such as the smychka, the union of proletariat and peasant, would help the USSR ‘overcome all difficulties’.[13]

By 1932, Lenin’s name was not only being used during the Anniversary celebrations to

jon-blog-2
Military Review at the Fifth Anniversary Celebrations on Red Square, 1922.

legitimise Bolshevik economic and political policy, but also Stalin’s personal rule. Kalinin declared that Stalin was ‘leading the way for the Party’s implementation of Lenin’s testament’, whilst Voroshilov hailed ‘Long live the faithful follower of Lenin, the Bolshevik of Bolsheviks, Comrade Stalin’, during his speech on Red Square.[14]

 

Concurrent with these attempts to legitimise Soviet rule was the de-legitimisation of Soviet enemies, both internal and external. Speeches outlined, on the one hand, positive identities, such as ‘shock-workers’ [udarnik] and ‘collectivised peasant’ [krest’ian-kolkhoznik], and on the other, ‘enemies of the people’, including ‘truants’ and ‘kulaks’ .[15]

Humour was also used as a de-legitimisation tool. Kalinin’s damning portrayal in 1932 of American President Herbert Hoover as an ‘ignorant peasant, who raises his eyes to the sky and prays for the heavenly rain during a drought’, was a confident jab by a Soviet state which had fulfilled the First Five-Year Plan, whilst the American economy was still reeling from the Great Depression.[16]

The Anniversary of the October Revolution was a national holiday for all Soviet citizens, meaning that it had great nationwide exposure, This made it the ideal site for the dissemination of political messages. The dual processes of legitimising Soviet politics, both with regards to policy and personnel, and de-legitimising ‘enemies of the people’, were crucial to inculcating a spirit of festivity, achieved by demonstrating the achievements of the Soviet state, and the promise of a better future.

Jonathan Rowson is a first-year ESRC-funded PhD student at the University of Nottingham in the Department of History. His thesis, entitled ‘Out-migration from the Russian village: Perm’ province 1890-1914’, examines migration networks in the late-Tsarist period at a local level, analysing the causes and effects of rural-to-urban migration within Perm’ province, and the growth of rural-to-rural migration from Perm’ province to Siberia. This province-level study is also an attempt at documenting the regional socio-economic idiosyncrasies of late-Tsarist Russia’s industrial and economic modernisation, and how this impacted, and was impacted by, population movement. Other research interests include the concept of legitimacy in the Soviet state, and the socio-cultural means by which the Soviet Union sought to legitimise itself in the 1920s.

References:

[1] Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[2] Graeme Gill, Symbols and Legitimacy in Soviet Politics (Cambridge, 2011), p. 71.

[3] ‘S tribuny’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 9 November 1923, p. 5.

[4] Orlando Figes & Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 (New Haven, CT., & London, 1999), p. 101.

[5] Pravda (256), 10 November 1925, p. 3.

[6] Pravda (256), 11 November 1924, p. 5.

[7] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 37 (Moscow, 1969), p. 147.

[8] Pravda (251), 9 November 1919, p. 1.

[9] Izvestiia VTsIK (309), 10 November 1930, pp. 1-2.

[10] Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928: 4; Izvestiia VTsIK (308), 7 November 1930, p. 4.

[11] Jeffrey Brooks, Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton, NJ, 2001), p. 55.

[12] V. I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 39 (Moscow, 1969): 288. Originally published in Pravda (249), 6 November 1919.

[13] L. B. Kamenev, ‘Vos’maia godovshchina Oktiabria’, Izvestiia VTsIK (256), 10 November 1925: 2; Izvestiia VTsIK (261), 10 November 1928, p. 4.

[14] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932: 2; K. E. Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve v den’ XV godovshchiny oktiabr’skoi revoliutsii’, in K. E. Voroshilov, Stat’i i rechi (Moscow, 1937), p. 480.

[15] Voroshilov, ‘Rech’ na parade v Moskve’: 477; Pravda (310), 11 November 1932, p. 2.

[16] Pravda (310), 10 November 1932, p. 2.

Full Image Attributions:

Image 1: By L.Y. Leonidov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: History of Russia in Photographs

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