“To the citizens of Russia: the Provisional Government is overthrown”
By Cecelia Bellomy
It is a cold, late fall Russian morning and you leave your home to go about your business. You’re on your way, a day like any other, until you see a notice posted on the side of a building or wall: “To the citizens of Russia: the Provisional Government is overthrown.” The notice is time-stamped 10 AM. It is November 7th, 1917, and at this moment, you realize that your life has changed forever.
This notice, posted in St. Petersburg to alert the populace of the victory of the Bolsheviks and the beginning of Communist rule, was a gift to the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute from Frank Lloyd Dent to the Norris Houghton Collection in 2008. Dent was a close friend of Houghton, one of the few Americans allowed to experience the Golden Age of Russian theatre firsthand. Houghton visited the Soviet Union multiple times and got to sit in on rehearsals and watch productions by Konstantin Stanislavsky and his Moscow Art Theatre and Vsevolod Meyerhold and his Meyerhold Theatre. He outlines his time in the USSR in his two books Moscow Rehearsals (1936) and Return Engagement (1962).
Other than the fact that the proclamation was gifted into the Houghton collection by a close friend, the document’s history remains a mystery. One likes to imagine that perhaps Stanislavsky himself gave it to Houghton as a thank-you for chronicling what the Soviet theatre was doing right in an age when the American opinion of all things Red was negative indeed.
Though the proclamation belongs to the Theatre Research Institute, it has fallen to Predrag Matejic, the Director of the Resource Center for Medieval Slavic Studies and Curator of the Hilandar Research Library, to provide historical context. I interviewed him about the piece and his face lit up at its first mention.
“I was truly amazed when I read it,” he said, “because it couldn’t be anything other than the announcement of the Bolshevik victory.” Matejic gave me a full translation of the document with added words in brackets to make understanding a bit easier:
To the citizens of Russia: the Provisional Government is overthrown. That [those things] for which the people fought: the immediate tendering of a democratic peace, the abolition of large landowner ownership of the land, worker control of the means of production, the creation of a Soviet government – this has been achieved. Long life [Glory] to the revolution of the workers, soldiers, and peasants! Bread – [to the] hungry! Land – [to the] peasants! Factories – [to the] workers! Peace – [to the] peoples!
of the Petrograd Soviet of
Workers and Soldiers Deputies
25 October [November 7] 1917 10:00 A.M.
Such a valuable and irreplaceable historical artifact seemed almost too good to be true to Matejic, so he did extensive research of Russian-language sources, eventually finding that the document did, in fact, “reflect something that was real.” As far as we know, this document really did hang in St. Petersburg, soon to be re-named Petrograd (and later Leningrad), and notified people of the success of the revolution. After more research, Matejic also found evidence that this notification and others like it were produced and distributed straight from Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, himself. In fact, multiple versions were likely distributed, customized for different groups to read. It is unknown what type of citizens read this proclamation, but Matejic does draw an interesting parallel between the list of promises at the end of the proclamation, “Long life [Glory] to the revolution of the workers, soldiers, and peasants! Bread – [to the] hungry! Land – [to the] peasants! Factories – [to the] workers! Peace – [to the] peoples!” and the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus Christ during his Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
For they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
For they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
For they shall be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
For they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
For they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:3-10, KJV)
Just as Jesus promised heavenly rewards to the poor, oppressed, and peaceful, Lenin promises earthly comforts and peace to the downtrodden lower Russian classes. Though the exact audience of this proclamation is unknown, it could easily have been posted on a factory door or street corner surrounded by tenements. The language of the notice suggests that it is meant to bring comfort and excitement to those who would benefit most from the nationalization of privatized wealth.
Besides its historical significance and artistic language, the proclamation is interesting simply as an archival object. Matejic notes that the date printed on the proclamation is October 25, 1917, though it is well known that the day St. Petersburg was delivered into Bolshevik hands was, in fact, November 7th of that year. This date disparity is not a typo but a last, soon-to-be-destroyed vestige of pre-Revolution Russia. The October date coincides with the Julian calendar, used by Russia and a few other countries at the time of the Revolution. Within a year, the Soviets would change Russia over to the Gregorian calendar used by the majority of the world. In hindsight, it is an irony to see this remnant of the old Russia clinging to the bottom of this proclamation declaring the beginning of the new, Communist era.
The proclamation also lacks one character from the Russian alphabet, “yat” (pronounced YEH). Matejic explained that the notice is written in the orthography in use in Russian during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The “yat” (Ѣѣ) is replaced with another character known as the “hard sign” (Ъъ). Despite giving an odd look to some of the words in the document, this fact supplies a tidbit of information that adds to our understanding of this very important day in Russian history: simply, as Matejic puts it, “Wherever Lenin was on that day, they couldn’t find a yat.”
Today, the document is one of the busiest and most popular in OSU Libraries’ Thompson Library Special Collections. It is often shown to classes of history students who “just can’t believe” we own such a piece. It is also used to illustrate differences between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Matejic also expressed his desire to get inside the frame the document came in to preserve it better and investigate it for further clues as to its origins.
Matejic doesn’t “believe [another one of these documents] exists anywhere in North America.” “Many people on this campus…for them, the USSR and Soviet-bloc European countries…are not something they grew up with” so the significance of a historical document like this is “incredible.” Just as Norris Houghton got to experience a slice of the Soviet world which was so foreign to him, the Theatre Research Institute, with this special document, can share a little bit of the dawn of a world now past to people who will be as stunned as Houghton was upon his first view of Stanislavsky.