Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The red-letter month that kind of wasn’t

THE FIFTH COLUMN

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? 

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

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.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Basic web lessons for South Africa: Government hacks point to...

Recent cyberattacks at the department of justice and the space agency highlight the extent of our naïveté

If the inflation-driving supply strain in the US lasts, it...

In South Africa, a strong trade surplus, buoyed by robust commodity prices, will cushion our economy against pressure arising from US policy

More top stories

Almost two million voters register for local elections

Young people make use of online portal and women account for more than half of the total registered

Free State regions cry foul after dissolution by interim provincial...

Regional ANC leaders have asked Duarte to intervene after the interim provincial committee resolved to dissolve their branches ahead of local government elections

ANC unlikely to replace Joburg mayor Matongo before 1 Nov

A party source said the ANC in Johannesburg would most likely call on one of the mayoral committee members to stand in as mayor until the local elections

Ramaphosa hits the right notes as he urges Cosatu to...

Cosatu meets to deliberate on its support for the governing party in the upcoming local government elections
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×