White and red: Tales from the Russian Revolution

Two men chose opposing sides in the events 1917. Their decisions changed forever the lives of their families.

During the Russian civil war Vladimir Antonov Ovseenko (left) fought with the Red army, while Nikolay Lvov (right) supported the White army [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera][Wikipedia]
During the Russian civil war Vladimir Antonov Ovseenko (left) fought with the Red army, while Nikolay Lvov (right) supported the White army [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera][Wikipedia]

“My grandfather was a terrorist,” says Anton Antonovich Antonov-Ovseenko matter-of-factly. Sitting in his small office in central Moscow, the journalist and academic pulls out photos from the family archive and recounts the adventures of his grandfather, radical activist Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko.

“He was plotting terrorist attacks. In 1906, he was sentenced to death for it. He was arrested when he opened fire on a bunch of gendarme officers. He shot at them with two hands, like a cowboy, pa pa,” says Antonov-Ovseenko as he imitates the shooting with his two index fingers.

At around the same time that Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko was still sitting in jail awaiting the firing squad, Nikolay Lvov, a prominent liberal politician, was attending the last sessions of Russia’s first State Duma, which Tsar Nicholas II was about to dissolve. Lvov was a member of a political movement within the Russian gentry that was pressuring the Tsar to pass a constitution – something that did not endear him to the royal court.

“[My great-great grandfather] was asked to become the prime minister, but Nicholas II refused because his ideas were too liberal,” says British-Russian entrepreneur David Henderson-Stewart. Lvov believed that political reforms were badly needed in Russia and that, in order to avoid chaos, they ought to come from the top, he explains.

In 1917, as revolutionary spirit engulfed Russia, Ovseenko, who had earlier escaped from prison, and Lvov played prominent roles in the tumultuous events of that year.  

On October 25 (new style November 7), they stood on opposing sides of the political conflict. That day Ovseenko led the storming of the Winter Palace, the seat of the provisional government, while Lvov and his three sons sought to join the anti-Bolshevik forces – known as the White Army – that had mobilised south of Moscow.

One hundred years after the October Revolution, the descendants of the two men still live with the consequences of their political choices. Like many Russians, they struggle with the legacy of 1917: one as an intellectual and opposition politician, the other as a businessman and owner of two Soviet watch brands.

The legacy of a ‘professional revolutionary’

Ovseenko, who described his occupation as “professional revolutionary” when questioned, was born in 1883 – two years after radicals assassinated Tsar Alexander II (the grandfather of Nicholas II). His revolutionary ideology emerged early on and he left his home unwilling to accept his family’s “tsarist views”.

In the aftermath of the October Revolution, he was at the forefront of the new regime-building efforts and regularly joined the Bolshevik leadership for meetings.

Anton Antonov-Ovseenko holds up a reproduction of a Soviet poster which features his grandfather, Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (to the left of Lenin). After he was arrested in 1938, his image was removed from the official poster [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

While studying the archives for his book The Bolsheviks, Ovseenko’s grandson discovered an interesting detail in the minutes of those meetings. On at least two occasions a question was raised about the issue of democratic elections – something the Bolsheviks had paid lip service to prior to their takeover. According to the minutes of the meetings, the second time no one even bothered to answer the man who had brought up the topic.

“That man was not my grandfather,” says Ovseenko, the grandson. “It was Stalin. The guy really didn’t know what was going on. He had no idea that the Bolsheviks had taken power not to then pass it on to someone else.”

Unlike the young Stalin, Vladimir Ovseenko was under no illusions about what imposing Soviet power would entail. In 1919, he led the Bolshevik forces south to crush the newly proclaimed Ukrainian state and its independence-seeking government.

He occupied various positions within the new regime, including minister of defence and justice, and member of the Cheka leadership (the secret police structure that preceded the NKVD and the KGB).

The fact that Ovseenko participated in the first wave of repressions the Bolsheviks unleashed on their opponents and ordinary people is something his grandson has had to come to terms with.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko (centre) with officers from the Red Army. Ovseenko was a graduate of a military school [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera]. 

“I respect my grandfather but condemn Bolshevism,” he says. “My father, too, was very critical of his father and what he did.”

In 1938, like many Bolsheviks who led the Revolution, Ovseenko fell victim to the Stalinist repressions. Stalin had, by then, learned to destroy his political enemies even before they had the chance to become such. According to his grandson, Ovseenko’s last words before the firing squad were: “I was a Bolshevik and I remain a Bolshevik.” 

Two years after his execution, his 18-year-old son Anton Vladimirovich, was arrested. The son of an “enemy of the people”, he spent 13 years in and out of gulags. He was released in 1953 and “rehabilitated”, or acquitted, in 1956, after Stalin’s death.

A letter dated 1956 informing Anton Antonovich Antonov-Ovseenko that the military court case against him has been closed for ‘absence of crime’, making official his rehabilitation [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera]

He did not receive his full civil rights until 1964 and so was banned from returning to Moscow until then. As a result, his son Anton Antonovich was born in Tambov, a small town 450km south of the capital.

“That also makes me ‘politically repressed’,” says Ovseenko with a chuckle. 

His father, who provoked the Soviet authorities with his articles and books on the Stalinist gulags and repressions was regularly harassed and occasionally arrested. Once the regime collapsed, he headed the union of organisations of victims of political repressions and founded a museum dedicated to the history of the gulags.

Ovseenko studied journalism at Moscow State University and later pursued two PhD degrees, working on topics related to his grandfather’s work and Bolshevism. He has also been active in the Russian opposition, as a commentator and member of opposition party Yabloko.

Although he speaks with endearment about his grandfather, he passionately criticises the Soviet regime that his grandfather helped establish.

He believes Russia’s monarchy could have been preserved and transformed into a democracy, as happened to monarchies in parts of Western Europe.

He sees a continuity between the regime established in 1917 and the current political culture.

Vladimir Antonov-Ovseenko with his family. His son, Anton, is the child in the middle. His wife Rozalia committed suicide in jail [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera]

“I do feel some kind of responsibility for what is going on because the type of regime we have right now is all the result of 1917,” he reflects. “To this day we cannot assess 1917 because it still hasn’t ended. Because everything continues.”

He believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is the product of the repressive Soviet culture.

“Putin served in East Germany, you know, he was a secret agent, surrounded by enemies,” he says. “He doesn’t know anything beyond that and when he became what he became, he took all this along with him and realised it – now there are enemies everywhere. He created enemies even where there weren’t any.”

As a young journalist in the 1990s, Ovseenko had a chance encounter with Putin. At that time, he would often go to St Petersburg to join discussions with other journalists and intellectuals at the Press Club. He noticed a short man who would occasionally take the place of St Petersburg’s mayor Anatoly Sobchak.

“I asked [colleagues], ‘who is that guy?’ They said, it’s the former bodyguard of Sobchak, don’t pay attention to him,” he says. “It was Putin. And I indeed didn’t pay attention to him,” he recalls with a laugh.

Luxury watches from Soviet times

Lvov stayed with the White Army until the very end, losing two of his sons in the civil war that followed the revolutions of 1917.

“He was always with the White Army [although] he was too old to fight. He was the ideologist of the White Army,” says Henderson-Stewart, his great-great-grandson.

David Henderson-Stewart shows photos of his great-great-grandfather Nikolay Lvov who died in exile in France in 1940 [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera] 

In 1920, along with the remaining members of his family, Lvov boarded a ship from a port in Crimea, just as the Bolsheviks were about to storm the Peninsula.

The only member of the extended family who chose to remain in Russia after the October Revolution was killed during the Stalinist repressions in 1936. During World War II, that relative’s wife was arrested, while preparing to evacuate from Leningrad (St Petersburg), leaving behind three orphans who had to beg for food on the streets in order to survive.

Lvov’s decision to board the ship to Istanbul may have saved his family from a similar fate, but it also condemned them to a life in exile that lasted for three generations.

“When you come from a White Russian [family], [the Revolution] is a tragedy. They lost everything … so they try to keep, in a nearly extremist way, [any] link to Russia,” says Henderson-Stewart.

Born to an English father and a Russian mother, he grew up in England and France in a tightknit White Russian community. His grandmother (Lvov’s granddaughter) made sure he spoke Russian, went to Orthodox Church and knew how to sing old Russian songs. It was she who took him on his first visit to Moscow in 1988.

“I had no idea that I will return to Russia, [as] it was occupied by the Soviets,” he says.

Fifteen years later, as the country’s economy was picking up, fueled by high oil prices, and a Russian middle class was emerging, Henderson-Stewart decided to return looking to start a luxury brand business.

He soon found what he was looking for: the Raketa-Petrodvorets factory, founded almost 300 years ago by Peter the Great to produce luxury items and stone carvings. After the October Revolution, its workers produced the stones for Lenin’s Mausoleum on the Red Square and the five Soviet ruby stars on the towers of the Kremlin. In 1945, upon orders from Stalin, they started producing watches.

In 2014, the Raketa watch factory released a Pobeda (Victory) watch dedicated to Crimea. Henderson-Stewart says the watch was not meant to mark the 2014 annexation but the liberation of Crimea from the fascists in 1944 [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera]

Henderson-Stewart acquired two Soviet watch brands: Pobeda (“victory”) which was established by Stalin to commemorate the Soviet victory in World War II and Raketa (“rocket”), which was introduced to mark Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space.

But this is where his family history made things tricky; the idea of a descendant of a White Russian family acquiring two watch brands heavy with Soviet symbolism was problematic. But he found a way to justify it to himself.

“Even if someone hates the Soviet Union and Lenin and Stalin, like I do, [one] can still adhere to these two ideas: Gagarin and pobeda [victory]. So that’s how we kind of made peace with the history of these brands,” he says. It was decided, however, that no Soviet political symbolism would be used in the design of the watches.

But when Henderson-Stewart and his team planned to release a watch to mark the centenary of the revolution, history and politics once again came into play. The designer of the watch is Prince Rostislav Romanov, a descendant of one of Nicholas II’s nephews and member of the board of directors of the company.

“All my White Russian friends are like, are you mad or what, how can you do a watch in celebration of the Russian revolution?” says Henderson-Stewart. “It’s more in memory of all the people who suffered [because of the revolution].”

For him, business has been good in Russia. The walls of his central Moscow office are covered in photos of famous Russians wearing his watches.

Prince Rostislav Romanov (right) is a designer and board member of the Raketa-Petrodvorets watch factory. His ancestor, Peter the Great, founded the factory in 1721 [Sergey Kozmin/Al Jazeera]

“Now we have the prime minister [Dmitry Medvedev] wearing a Raketa watch. Putin has been given a few Raketa watches by people but we don’t have a photo of him wearing it,” says Henderson-Stewart proudly.

Despite not having a Russian passport, he has settled well in the country. His wife, also of White Russian descent, and French-born children joined him in Moscow a few years ago.

“The reason why I’m happy to live here is because I more or less agree with everything that is going on in Russia,” he explains. “Generally, I agree with what Putin does, internationally [and] in Russia.”

In his opinion, Western criticism of Russia is exaggerated. If you stay away from politics, you have total freedom to do and think what you want, he says.

What does the Revolution mean to Russians today?

Just like Ovseenko and Henderson-Stewart, many Russians have struggled with the impact and legacy of the October Revolution, and the regime it created. At its centenary, Russian society seems divided over the events of 100 years ago.

A national survey conducted in April by independent polling agency Levada Centre showed that some 48 percent of respondents thought that the Revolution played a positive role in Russian history; 31 percent said it was negative and 21 percent could not answer the question. Yet 46 percent of respondents said the Bolshevik takeover was illegal and 49 percent also thought that the events of 1917 caused serious damage to Russian culture.

The centenary of the Revolution saw public discussions in Russia about burying Lenin’s body and destroying the mausoleum where it is displayed. The idea was backed by Chechen President Ramazan Kadyrov [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazaeera]

The Russian government has been economical in its comments on the Revolution. Putin has called it a “tragedy” and has accused Lenin of being responsible for the disintegration of the Soviet Union: “He set up a nuclear bomb under the building called Russia and it collapsed. We did not need a world revolution,” he said in a speech in 2016.

According to historian Nikita Sokolov, the Kremlin is reluctant to talk about the events of 1917 because they are highly problematic in the current political climate.

“We have the highest cost of living in Europe and the government is not really trying to pursue social equality; accessible public health care and good quality education are being destroyed. In such circumstances the [social justice and equality] slogans of the 1917 Revolution are very inconvenient,” he says.

This year, Russia witnessed a wave of anti-government protests prompted by accusations of corruption against high-level state officials. The most recent rally in October saw thousands demanding political change and fair elections. Sokolov says that the government is fearful of a “coloured revolution” taking place in Russia, following the example of those in Ukraine and Georgia in the early 2000s.

But there is one more reason why the Russian authorities avoid 1917, he says: It simply doesn’t fit into the national mythology they are promoting.

The Kremlin’s towers still bear the red stars which Petrodvorets factory produced in the 1930s to replace the royal two-headed eagles [AP Photo/Denis Tyrin]

During the Soviet era, the October Revolution was the main foundational myth the regime used in its nation-building efforts, Sokolov explains. In the early 2000s, Putin introduced a different one: the Russian victory in World War II.

“We are the nation which defeated the West, note, not Nazi Germany, but the West as a whole. And fascism today is everything that the Russian authorities are fighting against,” Sokolov elaborates. “The rallying point is the victory, the war is not important, the tragedy and horror of war are not mentioned.”

In his opinion, the problem with the current political leadership of the country is that they view history not as valuable experience, but as a subject of pride and “material for patriotic upbringing”.

“Anything that is not suitable for patriotic upbringing from the point of view of the authorities is purged from the public consciousness,” he says.

And so it happened with Russia’s Revolution.

Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova              

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