IBDP IA: What role did the Aurora Play in the Storming of the Winter Palace?

Aurora attack on the Winter Palace

 Internal Assessment

What role did the Aurora Play in the Storming of the Winter Palace?

Word Count: 2200 

May 2022
 The Essay Question: What role did the (Cruiser) Aurora play during the Storming of the Winter Palace? This is worth investigating because of a statement made by Leon Trotsky that the Kronstadt-sailors and by extension the Aurora were the vanguard of the Revolution “that led the majority of the proletariat” during October 1917.1

Section A- Identification and Evaluation of sources
The first source is Orlando Figes’ book “A People's Tragedy” from 1996. The origin of the source is valuable as Figes is an expert on the Russian Revolution; he is a member of the editorial board for the Journal of Russian history. Figes had much greater access to Russian archives than previous historians, more sources that emerged over time from archives, as well as decades of secondary research. The book’s purpose is to inform about the full story of the Russian Revolution and what life was like for the average Russian citizen from 1891 up until the death of Lenin in 1924. The goal of the book in Figes’ words is “to convey the chaos of those years, as it must have been felt by ordinary [people,] not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies”. This makes the sources valuable for explicit analysis on the role of the Aurora, as Figes’ diligent aim to discuss nuisances and casualties of the Revolution. One limitation of this source is that only a small segment of the entire book is devoted to the October Revolution and might therefore not be as in depth as hoped. Also it relies on secondary sources and the Author has faced professional criticism for his historiography and objectivity. So the interpretations presented in the book might be questionable.2

 The second source evaluated in depth is Sergei Eisenstein’s 1927 movie “October”, silent-film commissioned by the October Jubilee Committee. The origin of the movie is valuable since it was filmed less than ten years after the October Revolution with veterans of the Storming of the Palace as advisors to Eisenstein. Thesourceisthereforegoingtohelpbalanceoutthesecondarysource as is from the time and is able to draw upon first hand accounts, such as Nikolai Podvoisky one of the movie’s who actually stormed the Winter Palace.3 The purpose of the movie is in part to educate and instill pride into the Russian People about the October Revolution. However, the portrayal of some events may be manipulated for the purpose of propaganda. Eisenstein’s background, a value as it proves he is very skilled in conveying meaning over film, and a limitation as he was a well known propaganda director. October is in Eisenstein’s own words a “docudrama”, and there is a real attempt to document the events of the Revolution while also likely dramatizing them to entertain audiences. The film can still provide value as it shows us how the communist party wanted the role of the Aurora to be perceived, however as a piece of propaganda we must acknowledge its limitations.

Section B- Investigation
On the night of October 25th 1917, the Bolsheviks planned to overthrow the Chairman of the Provincial Government, Alexander Kerensky, whose 9 month old government used the Winter Palace to house its chief council chamber. This concentration of Provisional Government loyalists and the historic importance of the Palace made its control paramount to any coup attempt. The Bolshevik leadership had planned to overthrow their former anti-Tsar ally in a decisive raid on numerous strategic points, the Winter Palace being the most important, right next to the Neva-River. The location directly on the river bank meant that it was accessible to ships such as the Armored Cruiser Aurora, with a length of 130m, 14x 152mm guns and 590 men.4

 In order to answer the research question this essay will investigate three important moments of the Storming of the Winter Palace and what role the Aurora played in each of them, the planning, the build up, and the attack on the Palace itself.
According to Eisenstein the Aurora was a pivotal element in the planning phase of the coup. In the movie we see Lenin and the rest of the Bolshevik leaders around a map of Petrograd, Lenin draws the Aurora on the map with a thick pen, after that he makes markings around Peter & Paul Fortress indicating that it ought to be captured by the Kronstad Sailors from the ship.5 After this he makes numerous marks around Petrograd which are all occupied by Bolsheviks in the following scene. Then Lenin draws another line around the Palace indicating he wants his men to surround it. However, he does not put a mark onto the Palace as it seems he wants to avoid having to enter it.
The sailors of the Aurora being tasked with and capturing Peter & Paul Fortress and its arsenal, meant that the enormous stock of guns, cannons and artillery could be used by the communists against the Winter Palace if necessary, which would help further persuade the ministers in the Palace to simply surrender.67 Eisenstein’s movie indicates that the Aurora was incredibly important during the Bolshevik planning phase as they needed the ship and its sailors to secure the large weapons stocks to make besieging the Winter Palace effective.
On the other hand Figes argues differently, according to him the Bolshevik plan was not nearly as well thought out as Eisenstein portrayed, and was rather “simple”.8 According to Figes the plan only consisted of capturing Marinsky Palace and dissolving the Provisional Council present, demanding the surrender of the remaining Provisional Government at the Winter Palace, which if refused would be stormed by a signal given from Peter & Paul Fortress and Aurora.9
So Figes suggests that the Aurora still played a part in the little planning that was done, as it would have been used as a signaling device to coordinate the assortment of different Bolshevik-troops which could not communicate. However, while the signal from the Aurora was a critical element of the plan according to Figes, this could also be done by the Fortress and as is mentioned before the Aurora this indicates this role was intended for the Fortress but could also be done by the Ship. This suggests that the Ship only played a minor role in the planning phase.
Overall, the Aurora was not a critical element of the plan although it was still expected to play an important role, to capture the Fortress and as a possible signaling point. The main reason why its role was not critical was because the Peter & Paul Fortress could fulfill the same signaling duties as the ship.
Moving onto the initial stage of the coup, the plan of the Bolsheviks would see the entire Provisional Government replaced by 10am of October 25th. The seizing of key points was not achieved due to the “incompetence of the insurgents”.10
Figes’ account of the initial phase of the coup includes an analysis of all the things that went wrong at the Fortress but says remarkably little about the Aurora.11 Figes mentions the guns at the Fortress were “rusty museum pieces which could not be fired”, after the sailors scrambled to find guns that could be fired it turned out there was no munition to fit the barrels.1213 Further issues arose with the signaling as no lantern was found that could be raised on the flag pole.14 The fact that sailors struggled so much to send a signal from the Fortress, suggests the Aurora was not as important as the Fortress. At no point in this does Figes talk about any issues surrounding the Aurora. While this might be because the Aurora faced few issues it might also be because the Aurora was not that important during this phase.
Eisenstein glosses over all embarrassing issues encountered at the Fortress, he, unlike Figes, puts more emphasis on the Aurora, according to his film it seems to be the Aurora that sent the signal to commence the storming.15
 By the eve of the Revolution the Winter Palace had been “surrounded by a ring of steel”.16 An ultimatum was handed to the Provisional Government at 6:50, yet the ministers felt a “solemn obligation to [...] resist”.17 Their resistance made a violent response likelier, as the Bolsheviks would end up needing to use Peter & Paul Fortress and the Aurora to end such resistance.
A flare went up from the Aurora with the caption “THE SIGNAL” in the Movie.18 The Aurora then fired a blank shell at 9pm which was louder than a conventional shot.19 Eisenstein gives this moment great importance, despite him being limited to silent film Eisenstein uses a floating light to represent the shockwave of the blast resonating through the Winter Palace before finding its way to the ministers, who tremble in response. The fact that Eisenstein emphasized the sound of the Aurora firing a blank-shell suggests that it was pivotal in scaring the Provisional Government out of the Palace. Directly after this scene Eisenstein shows a large segment of the Palace garrison fleeing the building, after which the actual shelling began to form the Fortress and the Aurora.
Figes’ account of the storming differs, according to him the signal allegedly came from Peter & Paul Fortress. He does however agree that the blank was “much louder than a live-round” and that this, like in the movie, “frightened” the ministers who dropped to the ground.20 Despite this, Figes critically points out the time disparity between the blank-shell at 9pm, the actual shelling at 10:40pm, and the surrender of the ministers at 2:10am the following day. He also blames the Aurora for the minimal damage done to the Palace as his research suggests all shells fired from the Fortress fell short.
To sum up, the Aurora had a role in intimidating the Winter Palace garrison, it does seem to have been more effective than the Fortress however there were other factors such as small arms fire pouring in from the window.212223 Furthermore the Aurora’s role of bombarding the Palace was not as effective as only two shells hit and “slightly damaged the plaster”.24 The Aurora simply did not live up to its role presented in Eisenstein’s movie, as Figes pointed out the ministers surrendered significantly after the shells struck the building. This means that the Aurora was not by any means a leading cause for the surrender of the provisional government ministers, and although some of the garrison left after the Auroras shots.
Looking at these three phases the role of the Aurora was varied. There is little doubt that its presence on the Neva River across the Winter Place emboldened the Bolsheviks and shaped their planning. During the initial phase of the coup its role became quickly overshadowed by the Fortress. During the attack the Aurora effect on the surrender was questionable at best.

Section C- Reflection
The process of this investigation has certainly exposed me to a variety of different research methods and therefore has shown me many of the challenges that historians face during their attempts to unwind the past. The use of primary sources such as in this case Eisenstein’s October, has shown me how incredibly difficult it can be to investigate topics that have political implications for their culture/society. The image of the Aurora is bolstered onto the Soviet Order of the October Revolution, this matter of national pride put pressure onto Eisenstein to play up its importance in his movie. Especially, the scene where a flare goes up “over the Aurora '' is quite odd to me, the angle used makes it impossible to tell if the flare comes up from the Aurora or if it came from the Fortress hidden behind the ship. This was likely done to avoid confrontation with the Bolshevik image of the Aurora and the reality many of the people he was working with experienced. Although knowing where the flare came from is really important to answer the question what role the Aurora played that night.

 For events like the October Revolution bias is more inevitable than ever and must be addressed by historians by using a variety of sources with different backgrounds in order to get a clear picture of the historical event that is being investigated. For instance a source I ended up using to look at the same event from another perspective was a Guardian article from December 1917 written by an unknown provisional government loyalist from inside the Palace while it was being fired upon. It gave a perspective that outside sources could have never given me, as the Author mentions that one of the things they were actually most scared of was the small-arms and machine gun fire that rained in through the windows from the streets. This is all interesting and relevant to my investigation however due to the world limit I was not able to include this incredibly interesting information. So I thought the other two sources were more clear, and expansive. Furthermore the source was complicated as this source’s Author’s name and position are either not known or were lost during the digital archiving process. For this reason I can see why historians would avoid this source when writing a book. This source made me realise how difficult it can be choosing sources based on their values and limitations.

Figes, Orlando. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
“How the Bolsheviks Took the Winter Palace.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, December 27, 1917. https://www.theguardian.com/world/1917/dec/27/russia.fromthearchive.
Leon, Trotsky. “Hue and Cry Over Kronstadt”, The New International (January 15, 1938).
Massie, Robert K. Nicholas and Alexandra. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.
Pretty, Dave. “Pretty on Figes, 'A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution'.” H-Net. University of Colorado at Boulder, February 1998. https://networks.h-net.org/node/10000/reviews/10105/pretty-figes-peoples-tragedy- history-russian-revolution.
Ten Days That Shook the World. 1927. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVuf3T3k-W0.
The Cruiser Aurora, General information: Tactic and technical characteristics. (Website 2021) http://aurora.org.ru/eng/index.php@theme=info
Von Geldern, James. Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1993 1993. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft467nb2w4/