Today marks the anniversary of the socialist revolution in Russia, I guess it will be the 94th. 40 years ago, we were in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) at the time of the 54th anniversary. We were lucky enough to see the October Revolution Parade and, to our surprise, found ourselves in the middle of it. It was quite an experience.
We had signed up for a 10 day “cultural exchange visit” arranged through Skådebanan, an organisation I joined through my work social club (which seems to be still going strong), through which we could get tickets to cultural events in Sweden. Probably because we were living in Sweden at the time, getting a visa took only a couple of days, even though in 1971 the cold war was still in full swing. We found ourselves in a large 4 star hotel in the centre of town, the Oktiabrskaya Hotel. It was very close to the Moscow Station:
We had heard that the parade was going to pass that station so, like good energetic tourists, got there early to watch. It was cold and light snow was falling. When there didn’t seem to be much sign of any action, I tried asking one of the soldiers. He ran off to get his officer, who could apparently speak English. “Vot you vant?” asked the boss, epaulettes flapping. “We want to see the parade”. “Da, here vait” was the reply. Sure enough, masses of people soon came marching, workers from a sewing machine factory.
Back came the officer. “OK, now march!” he ordered. Thinking that it was best to do what he said, we complied. We’d walk a few blocks along Nevsky Prospekt and then come back to the hotel. But it didn’t quite turn out like that.
The problem was that all of the possible exits were blocked by heavy trucks or guards. The trucks were packed so tightly that the drivers of last ones in sat in their cab for the duration, unable to get out. So we marched, seven kilometers, all the way down to the Hermitage. Once we got there we saw no sign of any tanks or missiles, I suppose they were coming later. Just masses of people singing, playing balalaikas and generally having a good time. Despite the cold and snow.
I wanted to get a better shot, so asked some of the soldiers herding us if I could walk out to the middle of the square. “Da, da” was the rather surprising reply. So out
I went and got some great shots of the building draped in flags and giant pictures of Lenin.
I couldn’t see where Kirsty was, but spotted a dozen or so soldiers waving. “Come over here, stupid” they were no doubt saying, but I got lots of back slaps and friendly smiles.
It was a great experience, but then we had the seven kilometer walk back to the hotel.
Harder for my wife as she was seven months pregnant at the time. But very picturesque.
A few days later we were back, on our official group visit to the Hermitage. The place didn’t quite look the same:
It was a memorable trip. We saw some great performances, including a 100th anniversary performance of ‘Don Quixote’ by the Kirov ballet in which even the bit parts were played by dancers with the “5 star order of Lenin”. The hotel wasn’t exactly 4 star back then, no cold water in our room and toilet paper like cardboard. I took some back with me to the tissue group at the paper research institute in Stockholm where I worked. But our overwhelming impression was of the kindness and friendliness of the people we met, even though we had absolutely no language in common. Through our guide, who eventually opened up a little, we also experienced their wicked sense of (black) humour as she told us the current jokes circulating about their leaders.
PS The date for the October Revolution parades comes two weeks later than in other countries, on Nov 7. This difference is due to the Russian Orthodox Church following the older Julian calendar.