The Russian Revolution, one of the definitive moments of the 20th century, was the backdrop of the documentary Tsar to Lenin, which screened on February 20th in the Union’s Fireside Lounge. Presented by the International Youth and Students for Social Equality at UWM, the film’s gritty black and white images crackle across the screen, engulfing the viewer in this revolutionary epoch.Tsar to Lenin attempts to unravel the fascinating and chaotic transition from Imperialist Russia to the infancy stages of the Soviet Union. Russian immigrant Herman Axelbank compiled the immense amount of vintage footage used in the film over the course of 13 years.
The film boasts being shot from “one hundred different camera men from one hundred different angles.” Photographers from Germany, Great Britain, Japan and the United States contributed as well as Soviet and military staff photographers. Film from the Tsar’s own royal photographer and the Tsar himself were also used after being taken from the Winter Palace following the siege of 1917.
The opening scene displays the lavish lifestyle of the Russian autocracy at that time. Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra and their five children bask in the wealth of autocracy even as revolutionary forces plot their downfall. A memorable scene captures the Tsar happily swimming on a summer day with his courtiers. Narrator and American political activist Max Eastman notes, “With a small group of generals and bureaucrats the Tsar ruled an absolute despot over all Russia. Next to him stood the great land owning nobility, their estates were sometimes as big as Connecticut or Massachusetts.”
Indeed many images of Russian noblemen and women riding horses, dancing and hunting are shown. All of this would change with the onset of the revolution and the rising up of the working class, as Eastman says, “The golf between rich and poor was never wider than in Tsarist Russia.”
Some of the more striking images of the film are the bloody realities of the war and revolution; splashes of street riots and point-blank soldier executions are among the most powerful and gruesome. Outside of war, perhaps the most notable moments of the film are the parallels one can draw to our own society. Some argue that the early socialist movements in Russia serve as a model for a much needed American socialist uprising.
Niles Niemuth, a graduate student of history and head of UWM’s chapter of the ISSYE, talks about the significance of Tsar to Lenin, socialist ideology and the impacts of Russian history.
What is the IYSSE? What is the goal of the organization?
ISSYE is the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. It is the youth movement of the Social Equality Party The goal is to educate young people and students on history of the Marxist movement, the working-class movement and socialist history and what that means.
When do you meet? How many people are involved regularly?
We meet every two weeks. We have a meeting on February 25th and then another March 11th from 7-9 p.m. There are usually around three to five people. We’ve been around since the end of last year.
Describe socialism to a UWM student without any prior knowledge of the term.
Socialism means the reorganization of society to reach a great mass of people. Society is organized to meet human needs and not profit. The working class is controlling the means of production rather than the bourgeoisie.
Why is calling someone a socialist in American politics so derogatory?
There is a significant history to this that develops out of the 20th century. The notion of using socialism as derogatory term grows out of red scares in America after the Russian revolution and the Cold War. Specifically after the Cold War, there were efforts by the American government to rule out socialist ideology because it was a threat to the money and power of ruling class. On top of that, with the development of Stalinism, people saw the crimes of Stalin and equated them with socialism.
Why is the film Tsar to Lenin relevant to a UWM student?
It’s important to know this history, what it was, and how the working class came to power in Russia. It’s really relevant to students today given the high levels of inequality in America. Revolution is at forefront of people’s minds. It is important for people to see the film and see the parallels in America, the Egyptian revolution and the 2011 protests in Madison.
What was your favorite part in the Tsar to Lenin?
I was struck by the coverage of the civil war and the scenes of the priests coming to bless the opposition forces; they are making a critique about the backwardness of the opposition. Also seeing the revolutionary figures in action. It’s one thing to read about them, it’s another thing to see Lenin and Trotsky speaking.
Why is the study of Russian history important for Americans to understand?
The Russian revolution is significant because it was the first instance in history where the working class took power. If the working class is to take power in the United States, we must learn from the successes and failures of the Russians.
How is your organization working to “mobilize young people in a fight against the capitalist system?”
The first step is education. At meetings we have political discussions about current events; to effect change in the world have to have understanding of what is happening. What we examine is the historical roots of these problems. And on top of that we work to mobilize students to turn out to the working class. We’ve gone to a Caterpillar plant in Milwaukee and talked about contract negotiations, Marxism and socialism. If there was a strike or protest in Milwaukee, we would engage in that protest.
Your organization says that education is a social right… how would you reform the educational system in the US?
We argue that education is a right. We have a right to a quality education, but there needs to be an adequate amount of funding to have that right. Under a capitalist system, we will never have that right. CEOs’ pay has never been higher. 85 individuals have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world.
What are some upcoming events for the IYSSE?
On April 3rd, we are having lecture of David North who is the chairman of the Socialist Equality Party. He will be talking about historical falsification and how America has turned away from Marxism and socialism.