Accidental change

20 October 2017

BBC/Oxford Film and Television

Scholarly: Russia 1917: Countdown to revolution (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) combined newsreel, dramatic re-enactments, and contributions from historians

Scholarly: Russia 1917: Countdown to revolution (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) combined newsreel, dramatic re-enactments, and contributions from histori...

WHAT is it that enables radical change and transformation? As you long for the PCC to adopt a new way of thinking, do you need to build up your power base to ensure that you have the support necessary to effect the change? Or is it all an unlikely series of accidents that de­­livers the victory into your lap?

Russia 1917: Countdown to revo­lution (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) suggests that the Bolshevik triumph in setting up Communist Russia owed far more to the latter scenario than to the former. What was carefully stage-managed in retro­spect to seem like an inexorable tri­umph of the will of the people was, in fact, a seizing of power by one revo­­lutionary faction through a ruth­­less suppression of the will of most of the others.

Our image of the events is greatly influenced by Eisenstein’s glorious films, but the programme demon­strated that episode after episode did not happen as depicted: they are essentially propaganda. The heroic storming of the Winter Palace to arrest the provisional government is a fiction: a small detachment, when finally ordered to approach, found the doors unlocked, and wandered in.

The programme combined news­reel, clips from Eisenstein, and dra­matic re-enactments; but, above all, it was a scholarly debate with con­tributions from writers and histor­ians. This was where the real fun lay, as they fundamentally dis­­agreed. Was Lenin a strategic genius, or was he as surprised as anyone by the way things turned out? Was he driven by revolutionary zeal or an overwhelm­ing lust for power?

One of the fascinating aspects of Russia With Simon Reeve (BBC2, Thursdays), which ended last week, has been the indecision on the part of the authorities about how they will commemorate the revo­­lution’s cen­­tenary. Reeve pro­­duced sign after sign that President Putin is happy to receive the adula­tion en­­joyed by the Tsars; his champion­ing of the huge revival in the Ortho­dox is a reversion to the old days.

The other rehabilitation is that of Stalin; what is emphasised again and again is the acceptance of a strong, autocratic leader to build up the sense of Russia’s power and great­­ness on the world stage. Only a minority consider that the injustice, corruption, inequalities, and infra­­structural collapse should be blamed on the government: they believe that they are forced on the country by the West.

Reeve also turned his attention to religion, and most of what he re­­ported was unsettling: the Orthodox Church is aligning with reactionary attitudes, eager to prepare for force if needed.

Revolution was a central theme in Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera (BBC2, Saturday). She is quite right: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Beet­­hoven’s Fidelio, and Verdi’s Nab­­ucco are indeed subversive works. But why does she have to treat the genre as a romp — an excuse to dive into the dressing-up box, emerging as an unconvincing and jokey ver­sion of heroine and hero?

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