Wednesday May 30, 2012 – The Smolny

The Smolny was a ballerina’s palace until the summer of 1917, when the ballerina sensed which way the wind was blowing and left town. It was occupied by revolutionary parties and became a hub of organizing, printing and administration. Lenin had his office there. I’ve read about the Smolny in Victor Serge and John Reed’s work, stories of smoke-filled rooms, corridors filled with sailors and soldiers, and of course Lenin speaking from the balcony to crowds below. This is the nearest thing to a pilgrimage I’ll make (next to Highgate cemetery in London, of course.)

Today it’s the State Museum of the Political History of Russia, which gives an unwavering look at Soviet political history. Its weakness is that it treats the USSR as solely a political entity, not looking at the material stuff of class and culture that gave the dictatorship such longevity. So there are lots of displays of Stalinist posters and pins along with explanations of the terror that underlay them, but no explanation of the new class of bureaucrats whose material privileges sustained the regime. Still, it was a fascinating look into the daily life of Stalinist Russia. It also devoted a display case to the Oppositionists, which I thought was brave: most histories of the USSR, both for and against, need to rely on the myth of the unbroken line from Lenin to Stalin, because it means the USSR was entirely evil or entirely good. But the Bolshevik Party that made the Revolution ended up largely opposing the regime that came out of it.

Some lovely rugs, in an exhibit entitled sardonically “Under the carpet”. The rugs are hung from the ceiling, I’m looking up at them:

A detail of a wall mural:

A Socialist-Revolutionary paperweight with a hidden compartment. Really, if you were a police spy, isn’t this the first place you’d look?

The hope that Glasnost might restore real communism, not capitalism:

The watch that started the October Revolution! Whoever was carrying it gave the signal for the assault on the Winter Palace:

Lenin admiring all the Soviet trains – he’s at least 6 feet tall on this banner:

In another part of the Smolny, the actual rooms of the revolutionaries were preserved. Here I am in an office:

And here I am at Lenin’s desk, trying to look serious:

This is the balcony where Lenin gave speeches from, immortalized in hundreds of paintings. It was locked, so I couldn’t get out and try my hand at it myself:

Lenin’s secretary’s desk. I bet he was great on Administrative Professionals Day:

The uniform of a Red Guard. Note to hipsters: the revolutionary sailors had your shirt first:



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