by Anatoly Lunacharsky
Smolny was brightly lit from top to bottom. Crowds of excited people were hurrying back and forth along its many corridors. There was great animation everywhere, but the most impetuous human stream, a real flood of impassioned people, was the one that made its way towards the end of the corridor on the top floor, where, in the most remote back room of all, the Military Revolutionary Committee was in session. The girls in the outer room, worn out though they were, struggled heroically to deal with the unbelievable crush of people who came for explanations and instructions or with all sorts of requests and complaints. Once you got caught up in this human maelstrom you found yourself surrounded by faces flushed with excitement and hands outstretched to receive some order or some mandate.
Instructions were given and appointments made there on the spot, all of them of the utmost importance; they were rapidly dictated to typists whose machines never ceased their clatter, were signed in pencil on an official’s knee, and in a few minutes some young comrade, happy to have been entrusted with a task, would be racing through the night in a car driven at breakneck speed. In the room right at the back, several comrades sat at a table constantly telegraphing in all directions, flashing orders like electric currents to the insurgent towns of Russia.
I still recall in wonder the amazing amount of work done there and consider the activities of the Military Revolutionary Committee at the time of the October Revolution to be one of those manifestations of human energy that demonstrate the inexhaustible reserves stored up in the heart of a revolutionary, and what that heart is capable of when aroused by the thunderous voice of the Revolution.
The Second Congress of Soviets opened in the White Hall of the Smolny Institute that evening.
The deputies were in a triumphant, festive mood. There was tremendous excitement, but not the slightest sign of panic although fighting was going on round the Winter Palace and at times news of a most alarming nature was brought in.
When I say there was no panic I am referring to the Bolsheviks and the overwhelming majority of the Congress that was on their side. The malicious, confused, nervous Right “socialist” elements, on the contrary, were seized with panic.
When the session at last began, the mood of the Congress became quite clear. The speeches of the Bolsheviks were received with tremendous enthusiasm. The dashing young sailors who came to tell the truth about the fighting then going on around the Winter Palace were listened to in admiration.
What a never-ending storm of applause greeted the long-awaited news that the Soviets had, at last, captured the Winter Palace, and that the capitalist Ministers had been arrested! In the meantime a Menshevik, Lieutenant Kuchin, a man who at that time played an important part in the army organisation, got up on the rostrum and threatened to bring soldiers from his front to Petrograd immediately. He read out resolutions against Soviet power from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and so on up to the 12th Army (including a Special Army) and ended with a direct threat to Petrograd that had dared risk “such an adventure.”
His words did not frighten anyone. Nor was anyone frightened by the announcement that the whole sea of peasants would turn against us and swallow us up.
Lenin was in his element; he was happy, he worked without let-up, and in some far comer he wrote those decrees of the new government that were, as we know now, to become the most famous pages in the history of our age.
Let me add to these few scanty lines my reminiscences of the way the first Council of People’s Commissars was formed. It took place in a little room in Smolny, where the chairs were hidden under the hats and coats thrown on to them, and everybody crowded round a badly lit table. We were then choosing the leaders of regenerated Russia. It seemed to me that the selection was often too casual and I was afraid that the people chosen, whom I knew well and who did not seem to me to have the training for the various jobs, were not up to the gigantic tasks ahead. Lenin waved me aside with a gesture of annoyance but at the same time smiled.
“That’s for the time being,” he said, “then we’ll see. We need people of responsibility for all posts; if they prove unsuitable we’ll change them.”
How right he was! Some, of course, were replaced, others retained their posts. And how many there were who, though they began timidly, later proved fully capable of their assignments! Some people, of course (even some of those who had taken part in the insurrection and had not been mere onlookers), grew dizzy in face of the tremendous prospects and of difficulties that seemed insurmountable. With amazing mental composure Lenin studied the way tasks had to be done and took them in hand in the same way as an experienced pilot takes over the wheel of a giant ocean liner.
The Soviet Republic’s first People’s Commissar of Education, a trusted friend of Lenin, one of the new society’s most eminent ideologists, a scientist, journalist, and outstanding public speaker, a dazzlingly erudite person – such was Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (1873-1933). The last outstanding critic of Russian pre-revolutionary culture, and the first brilliant critic of socialist culture, Lunacharsky lived at a time when the art of the old Russian society was already history and that of a new world was being born. Lunacharsky left behind a truly splendid heritage. The sphere of the creative interests of this “exceptionally gifted personality,” as Lenin put it, was extraordinarily versatile. Lunacharsky wrote about fifteen hundred articles on various questions of classical and contemporary literature, painting, music and sculpture. He wrote a series of lectures on the history of Russian and West European literature, works on literary and aesthetical problems, papers on the most important problems of contemporary art and politics, brilliant essays dedicated to almost every celebrated artist the world has known.