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The Hammer and Sickle: The Role of Symbolism and Rituals in the Russian Revolution

The Hammer and Sickle: The Role of Symbolism and Rituals in the Russian Revolution

by Christopher Wharton

 


 

In the small towns and villages of Russia the average peasant or worker had no understanding of the theories of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, nor could they outline the basic tenants of the proletariat revolution, a fundamental concept in communist ideology. The Russian peasantry had, for the most part, become apathetic in their naïveté; they had accepted their existence and found comfort in the thought of being protected by a paternal autocrat. Prior to the 1917 revolutions, the Russian people had become attached to the beloved image of an imperial father, an image personified by Tsar Nicolas II. After the Romanov Dynasty collapsed and the provisional government was overtaken, new revolutionary leaders were met with the challenge of replacing the familiar image of the Tsar with images of revolution. In addition, the revolution would require mass mobilization and participation in a social and political paradigm shift. And the people would have to be won over by a philosophy that had previously been completely foreign to them. However, people from the Ural Mountains to Far Eastern Pacific, from the Arctic Siberian Tundra to the boarders of India, were mobilized and integrated into a social transformation which seemed to span from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other.[1] With the use of chants, rituals, and propaganda, multifaceted political philosophy was broken down into simple concepts.

Symbols of the government and party, rituals, mass demonstrations, and social illustrations each played a vital role in revolutionary ideology. Party emblems, seals, iconography, posters, and political insignia, from the hammer and sickle to the red five point star, were essential mediums in conveying the messages of the revolution. In addition to the imagery of symbols, rituals and public demonstrations such as parades, unveilings, celebrations, chants, and motivational rhetoric in speech and communication found significance as well because they signified socio-political change, and indoctrinated Bolshevik ideology. Symbols and rituals of 1917 essentially set the parameters that defined post-revolutionary Russia. The reoccurring message of these mediums focuses on three fundamental tenants. First, it was necessary to cleanse Russia all imperial entities and purge the nation of symbols representing the old regime. Second, the revolution emphasized the glorification the proletariat as an idol for equality. Third, the revolution romanticized the image of an international utopia, with Russia at the forefront.

In the earliest days of the 1917 revolution, rioting crowds began with the destruction of the symbols of the old regime. Images of the two headed eagle, the national flag, and statues and portraits of Russian monarchs became specific targets of mob aggression. They symbolized imperial oppression and tyranny and the term "roasting eagles"[2] emerged as a humorous reference to the systematic demolition of the Tsar's autocracy. Toppling statues, burning flags and "roasting eagles" became characteristic rituals of revolutionary demonstrations and riots. In front of a Moscow cathedral, crowds cheered as the enormous statue of Tsar Alexander III was bound with ropes and gradually beaten to the ground.[3] After a considerable amount of time, the statue was decapitated and its remaining parts were broken into rubble. Similar images adorning the gates of the Winter Palace were draped with pieces of red material and rioters stormed into decadent buildings, looting treasures and slashing portraits of past monarchs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[4] [5]

By April of 1917, the destruction had become so apparent that a British colleague noted that Russian diplomats were "obligated to suppress all Imperial emblems, strip off eagles from the gates and façade of the building, hide the Emperor's portrait, strike out 'Imperial' from visiting cards and official stationary, etc., and drop all these paraphernalia of Empire which count for much in a country like this where adulation of royalty is counted next to godliness."[6] The symbol of the eagle quickly digressed from a representation of power and majesty to an icon of oppression and domination. For a brief period during the provisional government, the eagle was de-coroneted in attempts to preserve the symbol, but its effectiveness was minimal.

The national flag was an equally reprehensible icon which became a widely disputed and divisive symbol. In the early days of rebellion, the flag was not uncommon at revolutionary demonstrations; however, this symbol also became associated with Tsarist autocracy. Many flags were covered or sewn over with red material and Russian troops were soon marching under a new banner. White loyalists and some naval crews continued to use the flag of the old regime, its use in political demonstration became considered counterrevolutionary. Royal emblems of the old regime became dangerous and antagonistic symbols. Soldiers refused and disobeyed orders from officers who continued to wear imperial decorations, and mobs often brutalized those who publicly displayed loyalty to the Tsar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[7] [8]

During the chaotic times of the revolution and civil war, geographic symbols and specific areas of Russia's major cities became strongholds of rebellious peasants. It was not uncommon for each city to have several key landmarks. Usually these areas were public squares or plazas, often in front of cathedrals or other prominent buildings. Many of these points became the sites of riots, public demonstrations, and bloody conflicts. In St. Petersburg, massive rioting began to break out in the streets. Eventually, Kossacks were forced to barricade parts of the city and troops opened fire on the crowd. Revolutionary demonstrators huddled under red banners, sang the Marseillaise, and chanted activist rhetoric.[9] Telegraphed messages of the revolution in St. Petersburg were greeted in the provinces with the creation of a spontaneous holiday. An eyewitness account in Riazan described such an event, stating "The youths and soldiers made some red flags and sang the 'Marseillaise' with shouts of 'Hurrah.' Then they paraded down the streets of the village... There was radiant joy on their faces."[10] Singing the Marseillaise with Russian lyrics had become a common favorite of the crowd. The direct reference harkened back to the liberation of the French Revolution and was one of several initial practices barrowed by the Russians.

In addition to the fortifications in city squares and the destruction of official regalia of the monarchy, propaganda campaigns sought to destroy the image of the Tsar and royal family. With the use of rumors and embarrassing insinuations the beloved, godlike image of Tsar quickly deteriorated. The most obvious attacks called the competency of Nicholas II into question and speculated that the Tsarina Alexandra had become entranced by the infamous Rasputin. Secrets of Alexandra's seduction by the suspicious monk began to spread. One pornographic postcard illustrated the naked Alexandra in the arms of the villainous Rasputin (shown below). The text below toys with the double meaning of the word "derzhit," the root of the Russian word for autocracy (samoderzhavie), and also the verb, "to hold." This debauchery suggests Rasputin's command over the royal family, as he fondles the Alexandra's breast. Other subversive propaganda compared the mysterious and sinister power that Rasputin had over the royal family to some gruesome puppeteer.[11] After the dissolution of the provisional government, civil war ensued and the Tsar and his family became the last remaining symbol of the old regime. As international coalition troops, the "Whites'" only common objective became the restoration of the monarchy. In essence, the battle against the "Reds" came down to the lives of one family. The Symbolic importance of the Romanovs was clear and as a result, they too needed to be eliminated. On the night of July 17, 1918 the arrested family, was lead into the basement of the small Ekaterinburg house where they were being kept. After a series of family photos where taken, the family was brutally murdered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[12] [13]

On October 26, Lenin issued mass distribution of a proclamation that was plastered on walls throughout St. Petersburg. The proclamation announced the disillusion of the Provisional Government and declared that power had been assumed by the St. Petersburg Soviet and the Bolshevik Party. Ironically, when the proclamation was issued, the Provisional Government was still in operation.[14] When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1918, revolutionary leaders began to introduce new symbols and rituals that blended traditional Russian culture with modern revolutionary internationalism. Symbols and rituals of the old regime continued to disappear, however, now they were systematically replaced with images that celebrated the heroic and noble power the proletariat. Furthermore, the images would play a pivotal role in shaping the post-revolutionary identity of the nation.

The color red for example, exemplified the tone of the revolution. The color evoked familiar cultural images that are easily identifiable to the Russian people because the color was traditionally a symbol of Easter and the resurrection of Christ. Similarly, red suggested a metaphor for the rebirth of the nation.[15] For this reason, Bolsheviks embraced the adoption of red as a revolutionary symbol. Also, over the course of the revolution and civil war, the color had become commemorative of the blood that had been shed by the martyrs of 1905 and 1917.

Lunacharshy, the Commissar of Enlightenment, had insisted that some of the statues and monuments be spared because of their artistic value, but few remained intact during the rioting and combat that had taken place in the streets of numerous cities throughout the nation. As a result, Lenin initiated the "Monumental Propaganda" plan to have the fallen statues systematically replaced with monuments and statues celebrating social and political radicals in western history. In places where the double-headed eagle had previously hung, the five point star began to appear. Often times the replacement of these symbols became public events and ceremonies which featured the unveiling of sculptures, the dedication of shrines, and introduction of new emblems. During such dedications, famous orators such as Zinoviev, Lunacharshy, and even Lenin were featured presenters. [16] The process continued customarily up until as late as 1935, when the coat of arms featuring the image of the double-headed eagle was detached from the front of the Kremlin and replaced with a star.[17]

The emblem of the hammer and sickle, however, is undoubtedly the most exciting and recognizable symbol of the communist revolution in Russia and the world. The two objects already had a history in provincial heraldry and first began to appear on Bolshevist propaganda around 1917. The hammer and sickle (in Russian the order is reversed, "serp i molot") surrounded by a wreath of grain was selected from a competition of artists assembled by Lenin and Lunacharshy. The authoritative icon immortalizes two familiar tools which symbolize the essence of communist ideology. The working class proletariat is represented by the hammer and the rural peasant, by the sickle. The objects are united under a five point star signifying a symmetrical unity between the agrarian and industrial laborers. Originally, the seal also featured a small sword that was meant to represent the army. Lenin adamantly opposed to the use of the sword because he wanted to portray the new nation as a peaceful one. This is a logical extrapolation when considering that the design was being created during the same time that Russia was negotiating peace with the Germans in Brest-Litovsk. After several weeks of argumentation, the sword was removed. The image of the hammer and sickle hovering over the globe implies the internationalism of communist ideology. The wreath of grain symbolizes the production of food, the fertility of the land, and is reminiscent of the Roman laurel wreath. The red banner reads "Workers of the world, unite thee" in all fifteen languages used throughout the Soviet Union.[18]

Over time the symbols gradually adopted several meanings. In terms of gender, the hammer became more commonly associated with men and the sickle became associated with women. Along with its association with man, the hammer also came to represent industry, machine, city, power and the future. Correspondingly, the sickle signified agriculture, rural backwardness, nurture, and fertility. These associations were often useful for the encouragement of equality and the importance of men and women in the society and the success of the revolution. The hammer and sickle eventually replaced all the symbols of the old regime, appearing on all state documents, currency, regalia, and flags. In addition, the phrase "The Hammer and Sickle" was equally important to its visual counterpart, and became a popular name for factories, communes, schools and other societal institutions.[19]

 

 

 

 

 

  

[20] [21]

Language and nomenclature began to change as well. The revolution's unofficial anthem, the Marseillaise, was replaced with the more suitable and traditional Marxist Internationale. Streets, public plazas, and cities themselves were renamed in attempts to de-commemorate Romanov and Slavic sounding names and eliminate German and Jewish names. Schwartz became Chernov, Schmidt became Kuznetsov, and St. Petersburg was changed to Petrograd and then Leningrad.[22]

In terms of rituals, the February Revolution had given rise to a series of spontaneous holidays and celebrations. As previously mentioned, the festivities often surrounded the unveiling of statues and other visual ornaments. After the civil war, these celebrations became more regimented and restrictive. However, on May Day (May 1st) and Revolution Day (November 7th) cities and towns all over the nation exploded with color, merriment, and festivity.

May Day in particular became the most exceptional of all holidays, complete with parades floats, decorations, fireworks and lights. Artists of the day streaked the city with paint, bakers distributed their sweetest goods, and puppeteers maneuvered their figures among the crowd. Orators preached the success of the revolution, ridiculing its enemies and burning effigies of "Whites" and counter-revolutionaries. The atmosphere included extravagant outdoor theatrics that re-enacted epic battles, "tableaux vivants," and historical dramas. Under the old regime, the traditional worker holiday had been suppressed. In contrast, both the Provisional and Bolshevik Governments endorsed and publicized the event, the Bolsheviks in particular, during the de-Christianization of Russia.[23] These celebratory rituals also displayed stylized propaganda and symbols like cartoons posters and slogans. One May Day poster depicts a blond longhaired beauty draped in a toga, soaring over a crowd of workers and leaving a trail of red roses. The advertisement sends greetings to the laboring workers all over Russia.[24]

To attribute the success of the revolution exclusively to the use of symbolism would be an oversimplification. However, the use of symbols and rituals was a crucial component in promoting the central ideals and messages of the revolution. As a result, the use of these avenues provides an alternative, yet essential historical text of Revolutionary Russia. Broken down statues of the Tsar became indicative of the cultural heritage of the Russian autocracy and Russia's post-revolutionary identity was largely defined by massive, nationwide propaganda campaigns. With the continuous bombardment of posters, statues, and banners, the multifaceted paradigm of Bolshevism became customary. The glorification of the proletariat, the modernity of industry, and the appeal of international leadership dominated the sights and sounds of the nation, reinventing the social order under the hammer and sickle.

 



[1] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 565.

 

[2] Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 48.

[3] Salisbury, Harrison E., Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 108.

[4] The decapitated statue of Tsar Alexander III, Moscow, 1917. Sanders, Jonathan Russia 1917, The Unpublished Revolution, (Abeville Press, 1989), p. 45.

[5] Royal emblems of the two headed eagle on the gates of the winter palace being covered with red material, 1917. Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 120-121.

[6] Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 48.

[7] Two headed eagle, royal monogram of the Romanov family. Romenoff Family Association

[8] Russian National Flag, 1883-1917, Tsar's personal standard. World Animated Flags

[9]Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 156, 130.

[10] Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 43.

[11] Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978). p. 66.

[12] "Autocracy" postcard with Rasputin and the naked Tsarina. Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999). p. 120-121.

[13] Letter officially announcing the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and royal family, Ekateringburg, 1918. Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 178.

[14] Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 152.

[15] Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 44.

[16] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 570.

[17] Ed., Martin, John Stuart, A Picture History of Russia, (Bonanza Books, 1945), p. 204.

[18] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 568-569.

[19] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 569.

[20] National seal of the United Soviet Socialist Republic, Victor Lomantsov, World Animated Flags, 2001.

[21] Poster advertising May Day (May 1st), the official worker's holiday. Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 191.

[22] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 570

[23] Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols," p. 570.

[24] Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 132.

 


 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Photographs of Riots in St. Petersburg, 1917. Sanders, Jonathan Russia 1917, The UnpublishedRevolution, (Abeville Press, 1989), p. 45.

Photograph and eyewitness accounts of the revolutions of 1917. Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999), p. 120-121.

Two headed eagle, royal monogram of the Romanov family. Romenoff Family Association Russian National Flag, 1883-1917, (Tsar's personal standard) and USSR Seal. World Animated Flags

Posters, letters, art and photography of Russian Revolution 1900-1930. Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978), p. 178.

Secondary Sources

Sanders, Jonathan Russia 1917,The Unpublished Revolution, (Abeville Press, 1989).

Figes, Orlando and Boris Kolonitskii, Interpreting the Russian Revolution, The Language and Symbols of 1917, (Yale University Press, 1999).

Salisbury, Harrison E. Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, designed by Jean-Claude Suares, (André Deutsch Limited, 1978).

Ed., Acton, Edward Vladimir Iu. Cherniaev, and William Rosenberg, Critical Companion to The Russian Revolution 1917-1921, (Indiana University Press, 1999), Richard Stites "The Role of Ritual and Symbols."

Ed., Martin, John Stuart, A Picture History of Russia, (Bonanza Books, 1945).