The Tsarist government had fallen in March and the provisional government under Kerensky, supported by the middle-class deputies of the Duma, was barely tethering on. This was the general atmosphere when the Bolsheviks, a minority party in the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, staged a putsch now glorified as the Great October Revolution.
On the night of 25/26 October 1917 (Julian), spurred by a blank shot from the cruiser Aurora, the Bolsheviks captured Winter Palace (the seat of the Kerensky government). Since the actual siege took place at night, there were no cameras present. Yet, in the subsequent years, the storming of the Winter Palace became the centerpiece of an artificial historicizing.
To preserve the memory of this historic event, theatrical re-enactments were staged annually in the streets, and stills from these ‘ritual theaters’ were widely distributed. (Images from Bloody Sunday of 1905 were among those equally fabricated.) The above photo, one of the most well-publicized ones, was from Sergei Eisenstein’s film October, which was made from the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution in 1917. The photo was darkened and the windows of the palace “were painted white to give the illusion of a building seen at night and lighted from within”, and distributed abroad as the real thing.
Despite fire and carnage that occupies Eisenstein’s image, the storming itself as almost a bloodless affair–the Palace was guarded only by a small unit of military cadets, and they offered no resistance worth mentioning to 300-400 revolutionary soldiers who ‘storm’ the palace. The soldiers simply crossed the square and entered the palace by a side entrance. When just before two o’clock in the morning they entered the malachite hall, the ministers of Kerensky government were willing to surrender. The action was over at 3:10 am, and the Bolsheviks took power. Compared to the intensity of the later battles of the civil war, this ‘storming’ was unspectacular.
But it was not so in the eyes of many Soviet artisans. Memoirs, films and paintings embellished the episode in vivid colors. For the West, the storming marked the birth pang of that great propaganda machine that Soviets would later wield.