The battered shoes of the leader of the October Revolution

by lapostina

October 1917, another anniversary which isn’t celebrated in Putin’s Russia, but usually known by paintings of Vladimir Serov ( such as  Lenin proclaims Soviet power ) and other classic Russian paintings. However, other than this festive, parading side of the proclamation of the Soviet power, there was also another side, not as cheery, a side which wasn’t put on display. But, it deserves attention.

Talking to the writer Felix Chuev, former leader of the Sovnarkom (Council of People’s Commissars) Vyacheslav Molotov pointed out: “For some reason I still remember, it sits in my head, I still can imagine how Lenin proclaims the Soviet power. I was behind the rostrum…and for some reason I still remember, how Lenin, addressing the audience, had one foot facing upwards, which was a habit of his whenever he addressed the public: I could see the sole, and I noticed  it was worn out. I will never forget the shape of the hole…”. Molotov was so carried away by his story, that he started to draw on paper the shape of the hole on Lenin’s shoe. He then showed Chuev the picture: ” This is roughly the battered thing. There was the second insole which was intact. However the bottom sole was scuffed. I even remember the shape of the sole…”.

I wonder why the ex-leader of the government of the USSR, who had seen and lived through much during his life, and after a good half century of many historical scenes and memories of the proclamation of the Soviet power,had remembered an insignificant trifle- the hole on the shoe of V.I Ulyanov. Maybe because this wasn’t a trifle,but…a symbol? Because not only Vladimir Lenin, but everyone who came to power in October of 1917 (or at least the bulk of them, the backbone) strictly limited themselves of any personal goods. For them, this was simply not a coincidental habit, but a fundamental quality.

Vladimir Ulyanov, revolutionary underground fighter arriving in Smolny with a shaved beard and moustache and wearing battered shoes is not one bit surprising. But his shoes stayed just as humble later on, when power was in his and his comrades’ hands. In 1921, a member of the audience, listening to his speech, noticed a neatly  stitched patch on his right shoe, next to the little toe. When it was suggested to help Lenin improve his life, he usually replied with a rhetorical question: “What would the working people say?”. Lydia Fotieva retells such a case after the revolution:” His [Lenin] feet were freezing in the office, and he asked for a small rug to put under his  feet. We got the rug for him…, but later we managed to get hold of a polar bear hide. The big, luxurious hide was spread out under his writing desk and chair, we were pleased: it was beautiful and warm for Lenin. However, when Lenin came into the office and saw the refurnished room, he became angry. He said: ” In our devastated, impoverished country, this luxury is unacceptable”. The hide had to be replaced with the small rug. Another similar case: in December, 1921, after the change of stokers , the Ulyanov apartment had no fire [heater] for nine whole days. Lenin didn’t complain, but sat at home, wrapped himself in his wife’s shawl and told his family: “In Moscow there is a fuel crisis, what can you do? We aren’t alone, however many are worried about this shortage”. “Oh those Bolsheviks,- he joked about the shortage of firewood,- god sent them on our heads”.

Once again, it should be emphasized: modesty and restraint were not the personal qualities of one man, but the general characteristics of the revolutionary “elite”, if it were to be put into modern language. In the novel The second day, Ilya Ehrenburg painted the picture of Bolshevik Shor, a typical representative of this social group:

“He was sent to London- to sell timber. He met with a prominent English engineer.The Englishman asked Shora: ” How do you work in such miserable conditions? I’ve read that in Russia, very few specialists have a bath, let alone an automobile. Maybe you could tell me, how much a specialist like you earns ?”. Shor looked at the Englishman, and Shor’s eyes were full of joy. He replied: ” We call it The maximum requirements of the party. Nonsense! Less, than that doorman. Maybe, as a diplomat, I should speak differently. But for me, the truth is much better. I, for example, have no automobile. Sometimes I wait half an hour for the tram, and yet end up walking after loosing my patience. I have to wash in the public bathhouse: that’s two hours lost. Our country is still very poor. You ask me how much  I earn. I could reply with how much in rubles, as converting to pounds is more difficult. However, that’s not the case. I earn joy. But, for you, how much does joy cost, well, at least in pounds?…”     The Englishman smiled politely.”

Maybe the main idea of the the coup on  October 25  1917 lies in the fact that instead of the sovereign’s servants in gold-embroidered uniforms studded with precious medals,  poorly clothed and shod people came to  power?  And, of course, they were posessing suitable  mentality and values​​, in which personal wellbeing and wealth were none of the first importance, nor the second or even tenth one. As for the  medals, ranks, titles, whatsoever, initially these items were not on agenda at all.

The  Soviet book The history of diplomatics, published in 1945,  illustrated this particular episode: towards the end of 1917, the ambassador of Spain showed some courtesy to the young Soviet Republic. “The day before he left Petrograd, the secretary of the Spanish embassy arrived at the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs and hinted that usually, for this service…a medal should awarded. The staff members of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs walked towards the cabinet, took out a heap of medals, and spilled them on the table, “Choose any”,- they told the Spanish diplomat. The Spanishman withdrew his suggestion.

The “reviving” elite of modern Russia   has a dramatic difference to those revoltionaries who took power 96 years ago. These people care for nothing, nothing but their own benefits. And it was no accident that modern Russia pleased ( and sooner amused) the rest of the world with these sort of “records”, such as having the biggest private yacht in the world, biggest private jet in the world and having the biggest stratification in society.

Where did that huge charge of energy  which half a century after the war allowed the country to win wars, build industries, develop science and launch spaceships come from? Afterall, in 1917, revolutionaries, especially  Bolsheviks made up a tiny unnoticeble  handful amongst 150 million of the Russian population. In 1922, Lenin said, “there is a small, unnoticeable group of people, who call themselves a party. This tiny seed set itself a task, namely, to remake everything, and they did.” Maybe, this charge of energy was created thanks to that handful of people who refused their personal benefits for a cause they trully believed in?

You can say in a simple way: a goal to “remake everything” required tremendous historical effort, maximum strain of all willpower. And where could have this strain come from, if all the energy of the ruling stratum of society had become absorbed in their own personal benefits? This is where the old paradox comes to use – battered, and later on patched shoes of the leader of the Soviet Government anticipated the backward Russia to turn into a world superpower. However, the expensive watches, which shine on the wrists of the [modern Russian] state leaders and clergy symbolise the opposite- regression and degredation, the making of the country into a colony or, sooner, the break up of her into many colonies.

A translation from Alexander Maysuryan’s Livejournal blog