The red-letter month that kind of wasn’t


After my recent calendrical lucubrations on the French revolutionary adjustments to the measurement of time, and on the eve of the centenary of the Russian Revolution, it behooves me to point out that the “October” part of the revolution did not, in fact, take place in October 1917. The 10 days that shook the world fell between calendars.

Was this a Soviet trick, backdating the revolution? No, it was simply because the Russians didn’t take to the Western Gregorian calendar. It was Pope Gregory XIII who reformed the calendrical system, and it kicked off in October 1582, so it only took the Russians three-and-a-half centuries to catch up. They could take comfort in the fact that Greece only switched to the Gregorian calendar in 1923.

Pope G was rejigging the calendar devised by Julius Caesar back in the BCs. This was because the Julian calendar didn’t accurately take into account leap years, equinoxes and so on, meaning the date of Easter, calculated according to full moons and the like, had been shifting steadily over the centuries and was now in danger of taking place in June.

The Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, having been in a state of schism with the Catholics for about half a century, were extremely wary of Pope G’s reforms. There was suspicion that the Catholics might be trying to fox the easterners into missing the Second Coming, or cause them to perform their rituals at the wrong time, therefore displeasing a God who begins to sound rather Taylorist.

Russians do not refer to “the Russian Revolution” — they call it “October”. Officially, it’s called the Great October Socialist Revolution, even though its start, the St Petersburg insurrection of October 25 1917, in (Gregorian) reality, took place on November 7.

The next day, the Bolshevik Red Guards stormed and seized the Winter Palace, the traditional seat of power. The palace was bombarded a bit, but entry was gained via a back door — by means of His Majesty’s own staircase, in fact. Much smashing and looting followed, fuelled by revolutionary appropriations from the tsar’s wine cellar, which historian Orlando Figes thinks was the biggest and best in history.

Once the revolutionaries had consumed all that wine (it took a few weeks), it was only a matter of time till they dissolved the Constituent Assembly and founded the dictatorship of the proletariat — or, as Lenin put it in State and Revolution, the dictatorship of the vanguard of the proletariat. And that led, with perhaps historical inevitability, to the dictatorship of the general secretary of the vanguard of the proletariat, otherwise known as Stalinism.

The taking of the Winter Palace became the most dramatic moment in the story of the revolution. It was restaged in 1920 for extra propagandistic effect, and in 1928 filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein made a movie recreating it with additional heroism and splendour. More people died during the making of Eisenstein’s October than had in the original storming of the palace.

Let’s do the time warp again? 

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Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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