Nov. 7, 2013


by David Lehman

I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

"Radio" by David Lehman, from New and Selected Poems. © Scribner Poetry, 2013. Reprinted by permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1492 that a meteor fell from the sky near the town of Ensishem in Alsace, France, one of the oldest recorded meteorites.

The only witness was a young boy, who heard a sound like an explosion and watched a huge piece of rock fall out of the sky and bury itself in a nearby wheat field. He went to alert the citizens of the town, and soon people were climbing down in the hole to chip off pieces for souvenirs and good luck. The lord of the town showed up and demanded that everyone stop immediately, and he had the big black meteorite dragged to the local church. Even after all those pieces had been hacked off, it still weighed almost 300 pounds.

It was on this day in 1917 that Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia overthrew the government and formed a new government that would eventually become the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Just four years earlier, Czar Nicholas II had celebrated a big anniversary: his family, the Romanovs, had ruled Russia for 300 years. He ruled over 150 million people in an empire that covered one-sixth of the landmass of the planet. But the empire was struggling. In 1905, frustrated workers had gone on mass strikes and forced Nicholas to agree to a series of reforms — most of which he didn't actually enact. Then World War I devastated Russia. The government printed money to finance the war, so inflation was sky-high and the economy was in shambles. Russian casualties were the highest of any nation ever in any war. In March of 1917, riots broke out over the scarcity of food. Nicholas was forced to abdicate. In his place, a weak provisional government took over, but they didn't make any major changes and people were still unhappy.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia after a decade in exile. He had been living in Switzerland, and he had to cross Germany to return to Russia. But Lenin opposed Russia's involvement in World War I, so the German authorities decided to let Lenin return to Russia in the hopes that he would undermine the Russian war effort.

Lenin rallied people with the slogan "Peace, land, and bread!" and gained popular support for his Bolshevik Party. Between February and September of 1917, the Bolshevik Party grew from 24,000 members to 200,000. The Bolsheviks planned an overthrow of the government for early November. There were many secret meeting between Party leaders, and the first step for Lenin was to convince the majority of the Bolshevik Party leaders that the time was right for an armed uprising. It was no easy task — one fellow revolutionary declared: "The strategic plan proposed by Comrade Lenin is limping on all four legs." But eventually they agreed by vote to proceed. They made their headquarters at the Smolny Institute, which had originally been commissioned by the Society for Education of Noble Maidens as an all-girls school for wealthy families.

On this day, the uprising began. Bolsheviks took over post offices, bridges, train stations, government organizations, and the state bank without a single shot being fired. People were ready for a change, and most of the military was away fighting. At 2 a.m. the next morning, the cruiser Aurora fired a blank shot toward the czar's home, the Winter Palace, to signal that it was time to attack the palace. The revolutionaries found it basically deserted, wandered around for a while, and finally discovered a few members of the provisional government hiding out in the czar's breakfast room. The revolutionaries arrested the members of the government, but since the revolutionaries couldn't read or write, they made the prisoners write their own arrest papers.

The whole coup was so bloodless and undramatic that Soviet propaganda later changed many of the facts to make it look more like a heroic and violent battle. In 1920, outside the palace, a huge performancewas staged for 100,000 spectators to show everyone what had happened during the revolution. In this official version, The Storming of the Winter Palace, huge groups of demonstrators bravely battled government forces, and the leader of the provisional government leapt from a palace window. The Storming of the Winter Palace involved thousands of performers, including 125 ballet dancers and 500 musicians.

Even though the Bolshevik uprising took place on November 7th, the Russians were still using the old Julian calendar. And according to the Russians, the revolt took place on October 25th — and so it was called the October Revolution.

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