Tag Archives: josef stalin

1938: Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Winter Palace stormer

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

Portrait of Antonov-Ovseyenko by Yuri Annenkov.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth; he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.


Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.


Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian; his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

* Via Spain.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

1936: Vladimir Mutnykh, Bolshoi director

On this date in 1937, the director of Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theater was shot in the Gulag … even as Uncle Joe mangled his greatest commission.

Vladimir Ivanovich Mutnykh is the man whose suffering occasions this post but as with the Terror itself he will for us be a footnote to a different story.

Mutnykh ultimately fell prey to the chill that Stalin cast over Soviet arts — where come the 1930s the only fare liable to pass muster with the censors (or indeed, with the executioners) were creations of turgid doctrinal correctness or cautious revivals from the pre-Revolutionary literary canon.

The strictures on artists also reflected Moscow’s abiding preoccupation with the cultural preeminence of Russia and of Communism.

Among the USSR’s many and varied exertions towards the latter end during the 1930s, not least was a project to induce a return to the motherland by genius (and homesick) composer Sergei Prokofiev, who had been mostly living and working Europe since the Bolshevik Revolution.*

In the mid-1930s, Stalin’s cultural ambassadors finally got their man.** And one of the plums that secured Prokofiev’s permanent repatriation was a commission to create for Mutnykh’s Bolshoi Theater a ballet version of the Shakespeare classic Romeo and Juliet.

Today, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is one of the best-known and most widely performed of all his considerable output.

Some might even call Romeo and Juliet Prokofiev’s magnum opus. But Prokofiev wouldn’t have called it that.

Having gone to such great trouble to lure back a revolutionary artist, Soviet cultural officers were predictably aghast to discover that he produced a revolutionary reimagining of the Bard. In Prokofiev’s original composition, the star-crossed lovers get a happy ending and escape together instead of dying in the tomb. “Living people can dance, the dead cannot,” Prokofiev explained, unavailingly. The idea is that their love transcends the shackles of their family rivalry; even, that they had transcended the backwards political order that made them enemies. But Soviet bureaucrats were positively hidebound when it came to fiddling with the classics, and the director was forced to return to the tragic ending.

Nor was this the end of the meddling.

In 1936, joyless cultural commissar Platon Kerzhentsev ransacked the Bolshoi leadership, including Mutnykh — who had given the initial green light to Prokofiev’s first, heretical version.

For the next several years, the ballet with the checkerboard floor was twisted into shape by the Soviet bureaucracy, wringing change after change out of a frustrated but powerless Prokofiev. By the time it finally premiered — at the Kirov, not the Bolshoi — Prokofiev’s collaborator dramatist Sergei Radlov disgustedly wrote to friends that “I take no responsibility for this disgrace.”

“The version that’s known and loved around the world is completely incorrect,” said Simon Morrison, a Princeton professor. “There’s an act missing. There are dances orchestrated by people against Prokofiev’s wishes, and other stuff he was forced to put in there against his will.”

In the course of researching his 2010 book on Prokofiev, The People’s Artist, Morrison amazingly dredged up the original Prokofiev composition and documentary trails showing that the composer was forced to scrap three too-exotic dances, to “thicken” the orchestration, and to add elements like a group dance number and solos to show off the Kirov’s talent.† The ballet didn’t debut at the Bolshoi until 1946, when Stalin himself signed off it.

“Once the work was performed, Prokofiev was dismayed at a lot of things, including the sound of the orchestra. He wrote a long letter of protest but none of the changes were made to the score,” Morrison told the London Independent. “It became the canonic version, a reorganised, torn-up work. It’s a testament to how great the melodic writing is – it still became a great classic despite this mangling of it.”

A few books by Simon Morrison on Prokofiev and his world

* Prokofiev was neither an exile nor a refugee; his departure from the USSR in 1918 was voluntary and legally blessed. He had had no problem in the intervening years coming back to Russia and leaving again.

** One immediate product of Prokofiev’s return was the beloved 1936 children’s production Peter and the Wolf.

He also in 1938 gloriously scored Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky.

† Morrison in 2008 staged performances of Prokofiev’s original version of Romeo and Juliet.