Natalia Murray

               Revolutionary Spectacle: Street Performances

                              in Petrograd in 1917-1920

The first artists’ street performances in Russia date back to 1913, when on 14 September the young avant-garde artists Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Ilya Zdanevich and Mikhail Le Dantu walked down Kuznetsky Most in Moscow with their faces painted with futurist designs, writing down the comments of the onlookers. In December 1913 Zdanevich and Larionov published a manifesto ‘Why We Paint Ourselves’ in which they proclaimed:

To the frenzied city of arc lamps, to the streets bespattered with bodies, to the houses huddled together, we have brought our painted faces; we’re off and the track awaits the runners. […] We have joined art with life. After the long isolation of artists, we have loudly summoned life and life has invaded art, it is time for art to invade life. The painting of our faces is the beginning of the invasion. That is why our hearts are beating so.[1]

This invasion of life by art gained new strength after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution when art came out into the streets, reluctant to be confined by the museums’ walls, invading the imagination and minds of passers-by. In 1918 one of the most important poets of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, proclaimed ‘the streets are our brushes, the squares our palettes’. Spectacles and street performances transformed the former imperial capital into theatrical space. Theatre was splashing out into life, the historical events were re-enacted and a new mythology was born.

The Austrian writer, René Fulöp-Miller, who visited Russia in the 1920s, wrote in his book The Mind and Face of Bolshevism:

They [Bolsheviks] tried, by the introduction of great festive mass-performances, to make the streets themselves the arena for dramatic events, and to link up parades, processions, and national festivals, so as to form an ordered and systematically total effect. In the slogan ‘Theatricalize life’, the dictators of revolutionary art saw the possibility of evolving with scenic means of propaganda such as could never be attained within the theatre itself. …It was no wonder that the Bolshevists began to regard the ‘theatricalization of life’ as a task of high political importance.[2]

The first live street theatre performance in Petrograd took place on 25 May 1917 on the Liberty Bond Day [Den' Zaima Svobody]. It was a production of Le vendeur de soleil by one of the most complex French writers of the turn of the century, Rachilde[3], performed by Gaideburov's Mobile-Popular Theatre in front of the Winter Palace. James von Geldern described this performance in his book Bolshevik Festivals:

The script hardly conformed to our modern notion of street theatre, and the actors, who had no relevant experience, had to find a new style almost spontaneously. They spoke of a temptation to improvise, to address the audience directly, to adapt a monumental style, broad, economic gestures, omission of details, and highlighting of essentials—all of which would have seemed artificial indoors. An anecdote that must have been striking at the time was prophetic for the future: ‘After the show, played directly on the pavement in the middle of a crowd of soldiers, one of them, deeply moved, approached an actor and asked: ‘OK, but who should we vote for?’[4]

In spring 1917, most theatrical performances were combined with political meetings. The newspaper Rampa i Zhizn’ stated that this phenomenon demonstrated the harmonious union between life and art: ‘Theatre is no longer the place of empty amusement. Theatre entered life and life entered theatre.’[5]

Between 1917 and 1919 festive celebrations exploited multiple symbols and allegories drawn from Greek, Roman and French History – chariots, altars, torches and winged horses. Popular and elite culture had overlapped. Images inherited from antiquity symbolised order and classical virtues. Thus on May Day 1917, a procession in Petrograd included, along with dressed-up people who re-enacted the February Revolution, the 1905 uprising and the Tsar’s family, a woman portraying freedom. She stood on Nevsky Prospect in front of the State Duma building, dressed in a classical tunic and holding a broken chain in her hands.

Another major source of inspiration for allegorical figures was the neoclassical tradition transmitted by the French Revolution. If the Bolsheviks struggled with the ideas of the French Revolution due to its bourgeois nature, Kerensky’s Provisional Government adopted them whole-heartedly. They used the Marseillaise as their anthem, and in August 1917 they even suggested:

…a grandiose carnival-spectacle honouring the epoch of the French Revolution to be organized in the Summer Garden to aid Russian prisoners-of-war. . . . A prop city will be built depicting the Paris of that time. Actors will portray the artistic and theatrical bohemia of the late eighteenth century.[6]

The Provisional Government proposed the radical theatre director Nikolai Evreinov to direct this spectacle and the artist Yurii Annenkov to make all the stage designs. Although this rather challenging idea never materialised, Evreinov and Annenkov worked together on most spectacular mass performances in 1920.

For the artists, involvement in street decorations meant financial compensation and expanded food rations during the particularly challenging deprivations at the time of the Civil War. It also gave artists an opportunity to extend their art from studios and museums into the street. Each artist was free to express himself without any restrictions or censorship. On the first anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution 170 artists, draftsmen, sculptors and architects from all the artistic movements active at the time, participated in decorations of Petrograd.

In 1919 and 1920, mass theatrical performances and spectacles became the last resort for free expression of artistic creativity. In Petrograd the first theatre to stage revolutionary performances belonged to Proletkult[7]. Already in 1918, Proletkult performances were laying strong foundations for the mass spectacles which became the centre of all the festivals in the 1920s. Mass performances promised to bring art to common people and give them a chance to participate in its very creation. The ‘masses’ were at the same time part of the spectacle and spectatorship – they were acted upon and actors at the same time. They also provided an opportunity for spontaneity and free expression of people’s feelings about recent events.

In the unstable economic and political situation in the midst of the Civil War, the 8th Congress of the Communist Party, which took place in March 1919, called on all the cultural workers to develop the widest possible propaganda of communist ideas.[8] By expressing the pathos of the fight against the exploiters and class enemies, mass performances had to play the leading role in the revolutionary education of the masses.

Following traditional elements of pre-revolutionary Russian fairs, which included balagany, sideshows and clowns, the street theatre of 1919 incorporated ‘flying troupes’ on platforms pulled by streetcars and trucks, carnival acts and circus shows at designated stops with clowns, skits and songs.

In 1919, along with Proletkult studios, the Theatrical-Dramaturgical Studio of the Red Army was given the task of producing the first, most important, outside performances. It was organised by the director of the Mobile-Popular Theatre, Nikolai Vinogradov, in 1919 and was awarded the status of a special military unit.

The Red Army Studio's productions introduced a new type of mass performance – so-called igrishche – a mass performance with thousands of spectators and the participation of both amateur actors and such professionals as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Maria Andreeva, Aleksei Gorky and Feodor Chalyapin. They followed the format of Meyerhold’s early experiments with interludes performed amongst the public.

The first igrishche took place on 12 March 1919 in the Iron Hall of the People's House [Narodny Dom][9] in Petrograd, when the Red Army studio performed a version of The Overthrow of the Autocracy - one of the first large-scale historical pageants, dedicated to the events which led to the February Revolution. Ironically, the first mass spectacle of Bolshevik Petrograd celebrated the February Revolution, which the Bolsheviks had later conveniently forgotten about

It was a true improvisation, which included the active participation of the audience, who sang along and joined in some scenes. The performance was a game in all senses of the word; it was play at revolution, a revolt by soldiers who had taken part  in the real events.

So striking was the effect of The Overthrow of the Autocracy that it was repeated 250 times in barracks, camps, on the staircases of former palaces and in the Palace Square itself during the next seven months. Following great success of these performances, TEO (The Theatre Department) of Narkompros[10] decided to move theatrical spectacles outside in order to allow more people to see and to participate in the spectacles. Planning the celebrations on 1 May 1919 Narkompros declared:

Theatres on that day should give their performances exclusively in the open air. On the squares, at the street crossings and in the parks special grand stands should be erected. Lorries will be turned into moving stages – they too can be used by actors. Here, on the squares, colourful and mottled balagany will involve circus programme with clowns, jugglers and dancers – everyone must live a new life, everything must involve the spectators, who must actively participate in all the performances.[11]

The usual elements of traditional Russian festival – balagany, fair grounds and circus performances were now filled with new revolutionary content and aimed to encourage members of the audience not just to observe but to participate in all the festive events. They had become ‘revolutionary cabarets’ which comprised recital of satirical verse, clowns and choral singing and was performed on the platforms attached to trams and lorries.

The next outdoor spectacle was the performance by the Theatre and Drama Workshop which took place on May Day 1919 in front of the People’s House and was called The Third International. The mobile stage was much the same as in The Overthrow of the Autocracy, except for a symbolic globe placed centre-stage—a prop borrowed from Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe and used in previous Petrograd festivals. The play included slogans about revolution, the end of tyrants, the burial of martyrs, and a world of peace.

On the same day in the Porokhovye factory district on the outskirts of Petrograd, one of Vinogradov's assistants, Shcheglov, who had left the Red Army Studio for a studio of his own at the Petrograd Proletkult, produced the first (and only) Proletkult mass spectacle From the Power of Darkness to the Sunlight. Like The Third International, it was an ‘outdoor agitational show’, which included little dialogue. Shcheglov believed that spoken words would be lost in the open air; instead the plot was conveyed by pantomime. Speech was mostly slogans, delivered either by a worker chorus or by individuals with megaphones. This performance had good reviews and pleased the authorities, and in November Shcheglov was invited to produce another spectacle, From Darkness to Light, this time in the city centre. The second spectacle was largely indistinguishable from the first.

The real epiphany of the mass outside performances took place in 1920, when the White armies of Kolchak and Denikin were defeated and the Entente stopped the blockade of Russia. The general spirit of the festivals was much more optimistic than in 1919, and it was declared at the IX Communist Party Congress that May Day 1920 will be celebrated by a massive subbotnik [a communal work day][12] which will be culminated in the grandiose mass performance The Mystery of Liberated Labour.

This mass performance took place in front of the former Stock Exchange overlooking the Neva River and Peter and Paul’s Fortress. More than four thousand professional actors and students, as well as soldiers from the Red Army participated in The Mystery of Liberated Labour. The script was written by Pavel Arskii; it was directed by Aleksandr Kugel, Yuri Annenkov and Sofia Maslovskaia; decorations were painted by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Vladimir Shchuko and Yuri Annenkov. No less than 35,000 spectators came to watch this extraordinary drama, which aimed to illustrate ‘the fight of slaves for freedom against the lords of all times and nations’. This colourful spectacle included carousing emperors and capitalists dancing to cheap Gypsy music, and doing the can-can.

A huge gate of gold guarded a kingdom of brotherhood and equality—the forbidden land of traditional myths and fairy-tales. Outside toiled the wretched of the earth, shackled and whipped, marching along accompanied by Chopin's ‘Funeral March’. Time and space were relative and Roman slaves led by Spartacus ran toward red banners, followed by peasants with Stenka Razin ahead of them. Then in the East, appeared a red star, heralding the liberation of mankind. In the grand finale the Kingdom of Socialism was revealed in the form of a rising sun and the soldiers exchanged their weapons for the implements of peace. The effect of this scene was strengthened by searchlights from ships on the river which lit up the stage, canon shots which boomed from the nearby fortress and four large bands which played the ‘Internationale’. The audience seemed to merge with the performers as they crowded the stage and sang the anthem of the revolution.

Soon after 1 May 1920, the Petrograd Soviet decided to use the now-nationalised dachas on the island of Kamenny Ostrov which used to belong to the aristocracy before the Revolution, for ‘Doma Otdykha’ [Houses of Rest] for workers. Aimed at re-gaining the support of the proletariat, these comfortable houses and regular meals felt for hungry impoverished workers like real luxury. In the centre of the carefully organised worker’s leisure activities was a mass performance called The Blockade of Russia, which was held on 20 June 1920. This play was suggested by the commissar of Petrograd theatres, Maria Andreeva, and was directed by Sergei Radlov with decorations designed by the architect Ivan Fomin and the artist Valentina Khodasevich. The stage was set up on a little island in the middle of the lake and an orchestra played on a floating platform. This island was staged as a blockaded Russia, assaulted by the Entente, invaded by the Poles, and rescued by the Red Army. There was no text; instead buffoonery, mime, circus elements, and the usual array of fireworks, light, and sound were used. 750 Red Army soldiers performed in the scenes of foreign intervention, the battle on the water and the final military parade. This performance was a great success; it also marked an important shift in mass performances - from eternal myths into an illustration of the current political situation.

On 19 July 1920, the Second Congress of the III Communist International was opened in Petrograd with great pomp. By 9am, dressed-up workers’ representatives from all Petrograd’s factories were lined up in front of the Moscow railway station; the orchestra played revolutionary music on the platform while members of the Petrograd committee of the Communist Party met the delegates who arrived from Moscow for the Congress. The main highlight of the Congress was undoubtedly the grandiose mass performance called Toward a World Commune, directed by Andreeva and produced by Radlov and Piotrovsky. More than 4000 professional and amateur actors, students and soldiers participated in this performance, which lasted from 10 pm till 4 am and which was attended by Lenin himself.

This performance had a rather complicated plot - it started with a review of the Paris Commune, the First World War, the February and October Revolutions and ended with the joyful liberated people of Earth marching around the square accompanied by fireworks. It was staged on the square in front of the Stock Exchange and was lit up by projectors from the Peter and Paul’s Fortress and from military ships moored in the Neva. For the first time real cars, real troops and real cannons were used in this performance and delegates to the Congress took an active part. The city itself played an important role in the performance. In his article ‘Festivals of 1920’ Piotrovsky remarked that they turned the square into Russia under siege, which was then liberated by real Red Army troops who ran across the bridge and arrested ‘enemies’ who were hiding behind the backs of the spectators.[13] Theatre was splashing out into life, the historical events were re-enacted and the new mythology was born.

More than 30,000 citizens of Petrograd saw this dramatization performed. Mass performances attracted thousands of people and had strong government support which now saw them as the most successful propaganda tool.

With the creation of the Glavpolitprosvet [The Main Political-Educational Committee], the state imposed strict control over all public celebrations and in 1920 a special department of the Central Communist Party Committee, responsible for agitation and propaganda (Agitprop) was organised. With the help of Narkompros, Agitprop controlled all artistic production and mass performances.

In October 1920, Vsevolod Meyerhold (who had recently been appointed as head of TEO Narkompros) announced that the third anniversary of the Revolution will become a ‘Theatrical October’. He strived to revolutionise theatre by making it political and agitational and involving spectators in all performances.

As in previous years, a special festival committee was elected at the RKP (b) meeting of 6 September 1920.[14] In the first resolution it declared that none of the citizens called by the Central Festival Committee are allowed to refuse to cooperate and all the organisations where they work permanently should not obstruct them in their work for the Committee.[15] Under this decree thousands of people were mobilised for participation in the festival on 7 November 1920.

Apart from conventional city decorations and mass performances, lighting and fireworks were widely used. In his book ‘Festive City’, Oleg Nemiro remarked:

Lighting of the Petrograd evening on the day of the third anniversary of the Proletarian Revolution included electrically lit slogans, illuminated figures, new and old symbolic emblems – stars, hammer and sickle, a globe with contours of borders of the Soviet Republic, military ships and cannons.[16]

But the central event of the third anniversary celebrations became yet another mass performance - The Storming of the Winter Palace. It was the last great mass spectacle of the Civil War period, performed on the Palace Square with the participation of 6,000 performers—actors, theatre students, soldiers and workers, including 125 ballet dancers, 100 circus actors, 1,750 workers and students, 200 women, 260 secondary actors and 150 assistants.[17] There were also tanks and armoured cars involved.

Dmitry Temkin was in charge of the overall organisation of this performance, which was called a ‘mass action’. It was directed by Nikolai Evreinov, Aleksandr Kugel’, Nikolai Petrov and Konstantin Derzhavin and all the decoration and costumes were designed by Annenkov. In the eastern side of the square, by the building of the Guards Corps Headquarters, two stages connected by a bridge were erected. They divided all the participants into two groups – pro and counter Revolution. Annenkov’s decorations included palaces on the white stage and factories and multi-story workers’ living quarters, on the red stage. Alexander Kerensky, the Provisional Government, members of the aristocracy, bankers and merchants occupied the ‘white’ stage while the ‘red’ stage belonged to the faceless masses – at first chaotic, and later organised and mighty.

This remarkable spectacle was performed twice – in torrential rain on 7 November and in better weather conditions on 8 November, when it was also filmed. More than 60,000 people came to see this historical performance. Among them was the most famous Soviet film director, Sergei Eisenstein, who based his film October. Ten Days that Shook the World on this festival performance, rather than on the much less dramatic actual historical events. Eisenstein’s film has fired the imagination of several generations all over the world, but the real storming of the Winter Palace was quite a modest affair. The palace, which in October 1917 housed a powerless cabinet, was seized a day after the Bolsheviks had taken power, and it was never really stormed.

Although on the actual day of the October revolution Eisenstein was in Petrograd, he had become rather distracted by the discovery of an outstanding collection of engravings which belonged to his aunt. In his memoirs he recalled that he noticed that ‘there seemed to be more shooting than usual coming from one part of the town’[18], but after a day of total immersion in eighteenth century prints, he peacefully went to bed. Ten years later he saw The Storming of the Winter Palace, found it much more exciting than the historical coup and based his film on the performance.[19]

Eisenstein’s film was commissioned by Nikolai Podvoisky, a member of the troika that commanded the 1917 seizure of the Winter Palace. However, in his memoires he chose to base the description of the storming of the Winter Palace not on the real events he witnessed, but on the over-dramatized vision of thousands of angry Red Guardsmen, led by Lenin, charging across the vast square, which he had seen only on 7 November 1920.

Ironically, these stories prove once again the success of the mass performances, including The Storming of the Winter Palace, in political propaganda and in the Bolshevik re-creation of historical events and the subsequent re-writing history.

The Communist Party also regarded this performance as a great success, and generously rewarded Temkin with a stove and  a samovar (which were used in the spectacle itself)[20], Evreinov received a fur coat made of red fox and Kugel’, Annenkov, Derzhavin and Petrov – tobacco enough for a hundred cigarettes and two kilos of frozen apples each.[21]

Very positive reviews appeared in all the newspapers. The critic Piotrovsky called this performance ‘effective’ and ‘majestic’ and said that Annenkov’s decorations were ‘fantastic’.[22] Izvestiia reported: ‘The performance on Uritsky Square had finally erased all the doubts about the possibility of collective mass theatrical dramatization; rather, it established the main direction of future work in this field.’[23]

In conclusion, the revolutionary myths (and very occasional reflections of real events) presented by these spectacles projected the heroism, sacrifice, courage and nobility of the new Bolshevik government. In the slogan ‘theatricalize life’, the state saw a possibility of ‘evolving with scenic means a propaganda such as could never be attained within the theatre itself.’[24] The magnification of good and evil provided the moral justification for the turbulence and violence of the challenging Civil War years.


  • Yu. Annenkov, Dnevnik moikh vstrech. Tsikl tragedii. (Leningrad: 1991)
  • John Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde. Theory and Criticism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976)
  • Sergei Eisenstein, Selected Works, vol. 4, Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, ed. Richard Taylor and trans. William Powell (London: BFI Publishing, 1995)
  • James von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals. 1917-1920 (University of California Press, 1993)
  • KPSS v rezolutsiiakh i resheniiakh s’ezdov, konferentsii I plenumov TsK. Part 1. 1889-1925 (Moscow, 1953)
  • René Fulöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism. An Examination of Cultural Life in Soviet Russia (London: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1927)
  • Valentina Khodasevich, Portrety slovami (Moscow: Sovetskii Pisatel’, 1987)
  • Nikolai Lvov, ‘Opyt improvizatsii v raboche-krest’ianskom teatre’, Vestnik teatra, 1919, No. 13, p. 5.
  • O. Nemiro, Prazdnichnyi Gorod: Iskusstvo oformleniia prazdnikov. Istoriia i sovremennost’. (Leningrad, 1987)
  • N. N. Petrov, 50 i 500 (Moscow, 1960)
  • A. I. Piotrovsky, Za sovetskii teatr! (Leningrad, 1925)
  •  ‘Teatr i miting’ in Rampa i zhizn’, 1917, No. 20, pp. 4-5
  • Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams. Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)
  • Vestnik teatra, 1919, 29 April-2 May, No. 22

[1] Ilya Zdanеvich, Mikhail Larionov ‘Why We Paint Ourselves: A Futurist Manifesto’, first published in Argus (St. Petersburg), December 1913, pp. 114-118, translated and edited by John Bowlt in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde.Theory and Criticism (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976) pp. 79-83.

[2] René Fulöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism. An Examination of Cultural Life in Soviet Russia (London: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1927), p. 133.

[3] Rachilde was the pen name of Marguerite Vallette-Eymery (1860 – 1953), a French author who was dubbed ‘Mademoiselle Baudelaire’ by Maurice Barres and was one of the most complex literary figures to emerge at the end of the nineteenth – beginning of twentieth centuries.

[4] James von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals. 1917-1920 (University of California Press, 1993), p. 21.

[5] ‘Teatr i miting’ in Rampa i zhizn’, 1917, No. 20, pp. 4-5.

[6] See James Von Geldern, Bolshevik Festivals. 1917-1920, p. 23.

[7] Proletkult [Пролеткульт]- abbreviation of Proletarian Culture [Proletarskaia Kul’tura], an experimental organization established in the new Soviet state in 1917 in conjunction with the October Revolution, to provide the foundations for the development of proletarian art.

[8] See KPSS v rezolutsiiakh i resheniiakh s’ezdov, konferentsii I plenumov TsK. Part 1. 1889-1925 (Moscow, 1953), p. 420.

[9] The largest People’s House (which included theatre) was opened in St. Petersburg on 12 December 1900. It was called ‘Place for public entertainment of the Emperor Nicholas II’. Before the 1917 Revolution it was managed by the Department for National Sobriety. After the Revolution it was used as a theatre. It burned down in 1932 and was replaced by the Theatre of Lenin’s Komsomol later re-named into the theatre ‘Baltiiskii Dom’.

[10] Narkompros [Наркомпрос] – The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment [Narodnyi Komissariat Prosvescheniya], the Soviet agency charged with the administration of public education and most issues related to culture. In 1946 it was transformed into the Ministry of Education. Its first head was Anatoly Lunacharsky.

[11] Vestnik teatra, 1919, 29 April-2 May, No. 22, p. 3.

[12]See KPSS v rezolutsiiakh I resheniiakh s’ezdov, konferentsii I plenumov TsK. Part 2 (Moscow, 1970), p. 164.

[13] See A. I. Piotrovsky, Za sovetskii teatr! (Leningrad, 1925), pp. 12-14.

[14] See TsGA (Central State Archive), St. Petersburg, f. 1000, op.4, d. 283, p. 39.

[15] TsGA St. Petersburg, f. 1000, op. 4, d. 219, p. 151.

[16] O. Nemiro, Prazdnichnyi Gorod: Iskusstvo oformleniia prazdnikov. Istoriia i sovremennost’. (Leningrad, 1987), pp. 139-140. 

[17] See Yu. Annenkov, Dnevnik moikh vstrech. Tsikl tragedii. (Leningrad: 1991), p. 104.

[18] See Sergei Eisenstein, Selected Works, vol. 4, Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein, ed. Richard Taylor and trans. William Powell (London: BFI Publishing, 1995), p. 72.

[19] See James von Geldern, pp. 1-2.

[20] See TsGA (Central State Archive), St. Petersburg, f. 1000, op. 79, d. 243, pp. 4-9; d. 249, pp. 2-8.

[21] See memoires of N. N. Petrov, 50 i 500 (Moscow, 1960), p. 136.

[22] A. Piotrovskii, ‘Za Sovetskii Teatr!’, Zhizn’ Iskusstva, 1920, No. 584 – 585.

[23] Izvestiia, 1920, 6 November.

[24] René Fulöp-Miller, The Mind and Face of Bolshevism, p. 133.