On the 7th November 1917, Red Guards entered the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in a defining event of the Bolshevik Revolution. Sometimes referred to as the October Revolution, the 7th November is the date from the modern Gregorian calendar that aligns with the 25th October on the old style Julian calendar, from which the revolution got its alternative name.
On the night of the 6th November Leon Trotsky led the Red Guards to take control of key government buildings and communication points such as post offices, bridges and the State Bank. Although the Red Guards were armed, historians generally accept that the takeover was carried out without bloodshed or indeed any shots being fired.
Throughout the 7th November large crowds of troops sympathetic to the Bolsheviks began to surround the Winter Palace. The actual attack on the palace began after a signal shot fired from cruiser ship Aurora. Soviet accounts of the night, portrayed most powerfully in Sergei Eisenstein’s film reenactment, present the takeover of the Winter Palace as a huge battle. However, this popular image is a fabrication. The large number of Red Guards marching towards the palace led to the Cossacks guarding the palace to desert their posts, while the remaining Cadets and volunteers from the Women’s Battalion laid down their weapons and surrendered after the Red Guards found their way inside the palace through an open door.
The remnants of the Provisional Government were discovered in a small dining room and arrested. Meanwhile the wine cellar was looted, leading to what historian Orlando Figes suggested was perhaps, “the biggest hangover in history”.
On the 3rd November 1957, Laika the dog became the first animal to enter orbit around the Earth when she was launched into space on board the Soviet spacecraft Sputnik 2. Laika was never intended to return as the technology to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere had not yet been developed. However, the launch of a canine into space was seen by the Russian scientists as a precursor to human spaceflight in order to determine the effect of launch and prolonged weightlessness on a living passenger. Laika survived the launch, but died due to overheating as a result of a malfunction in the temperature control system.
Laika was a stray dog who was found on the streets of Moscow. Strays from Moscow were specifically chosen on the assumption that they had already learned how to deal with extreme temperatures and prolonged periods without food. However, Laika and two other dogs still had to undergo extension training ahead of the mission. This included long periods of time in cramped conditions, extreme G-forces on centrifuges, and exposure to loud noises to simulate the conditions of spaceflight.
Throughout the mission, scientists on the ground monitored data coming from sensors attached to Laika. The readings indicated significant stress, but she survived the launch and made four circuits of the Earth before dying of overheating. The exact cause of her death was only confirmed in 2002.
Laika’s death raised ethical questions about the use of animals in scientific research since the spacecraft was not designed to be retrievable. She was, therefore, knowingly sent a mission from which she would not return.
A series of three wars in less than a decade had seen the creation of a unified Germany directed by the Realpolitik of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Keen to consolidate the newly-united country, he turned to diplomacy in an attempt to ensure the status quo in Europe.
Despite forming the Dreikaiserbund with Austria-Hungary and Russia in 1873, a power struggle over territory in the Balkans from 1875-78 led to Bismarck playing the role of ‘the honest broker’ at the Congress of Berlin to resolve tensions between his allies. The congress was a diplomatic defeat for Russia and left the Dreikaiserbund in tatters, leading Bismarck to negotiate the new Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary.
Although specific details of the Dual Alliance were kept secret until 1888, it was a defensive alliance in which both countries agreed to assist each other if they were attacked by Russia. Bismarck and Austria-Hungary’s Secretary of State, Count Julius Andrássy, also agreed to remain neutral in the case of an attack from another country in what is known as benevolent neutrality.
The announcement of the alliance surprised some observers, who noted the threat that the burgeoning German nationalism posed to the Habsburg Empire. The Austro-Prussian War had only been fought between the two countries thirteen years earlier, but the relatively generous peace terms that had been agreed in its wake left the door open to future cooperation. This, combined with Germany and Austria’s shared linguistic and cultural connections, ensured the Dual Alliance lasted until the end of the First World War.
On 23rd August 1939, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop – the Soviet foreign minister and the German foreign minister – signed the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, otherwise known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Outwardly it was a guarantee that neither side would fight against the other in war, but a ‘secret protocol’ also outlined how Eastern Europe would be divided between the two countries. This agreement cleared the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland just nine days later.
Stalin’s Communist USSR distrusted Hitler’s Nazi Germany, knowing that ultimately Hitler intended to invade and annex Russia. Similarly, Britain distrusted Stalin due a fear of Communism. Although talks took place between Britain and Russia in early August 1939 regarding a possible alliance against Hitler, they were never taken seriously by the British government who sent their representative by a slow boat and gave him no authority to actually make any decisions.
Frustrated, Stalin’s government received Ribbentrop later that month. He proposed the Nazi-Soviet agreement which, in the face of continued British reluctance to form an alliance, was accepted. The Soviet government almost certainly knew that Hitler would break the non-aggression pact at some point and would invade Russia, but at least the pact delayed that and gave time to prepare.
The Nazi-Soviet Pact was broken less than two years after it was signed, when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on the 22nd June 1941. All the territory gained by Russia under terms of the ‘secret protocol’ was lost in just a matter of weeks.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
In the early hours of the 17th July 1918 the Russian Imperial Romanov family were shot dead in the basement of the Ipatiev House in the Russian city of Ekaterinburg. Their death took place during the ongoing Russian Civil War, at a time when White Russian forces were approaching the house where the family were held captive. The execution was led by Yakov Yurovsky, a member of the Bolshevik secret police known as the Checka, and commandant of the house which had become known as The House of Special Purpose.
The Romanov family – Nicholas and his wife, and their four daughters and son, had first arrived in Ekaterinburg at intervals from the 30th April onwards. They were accompanied by a small number of servants. Their time inside the house was heavily regulated by the guards, who blocked all contact with the outside world.
As the White Army advanced on Ekaterinburg, the Bolsheviks became concerned that the royal family might fall into their hands and act as a rallying point for the White cause. Similarly, their release could encourage other European nations to view them as the legitimate rulers of Russia, and thus undermine the revolutionary Bolshevik government.
Shortly after midnight on the 17th July therefore, the family were woken and led to a small basement room in the house. A group of Bolshevik secret police then entered the room and read out the order for the deaths. All were shot or stabbed by bayonets, their bodies taken away in a truck and disposed of in a forest 12 miles north of the city.
Moscow’s Trinity Church, later renamed Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat and better known as Saint Basil’s Cathedral, was consecrated.
Ivan the Terrible had originally constructed a series of small wooden memorial chapels as a way to commemorate his numerous military successes against the Tatars. These were built next to the original Trinity Church in the centre of the marketplace near the Moscow Kremlin. Ivan ordered the construction of the new stone church in 1555 to commemorate his capture of Kazan and Astrakhan.
What later became Saint Basil’s Cathedral is therefore a more lavish replacement of an earlier building. Little is known of its construction, with even the identity of the architect a mystery. Tradition dictates that two architects, Barma and Postnik, built the church although later writers have suggested that these are simply different names for the same person.
The building itself consists of eight outer churches arranged around a ninth central one, and is constructed on top of a white stone foundation that matches the nearby Kremlin. A series of later developments led to the nine separate structures becoming joined into a single building, and the bright colours that decorate the walls of the cathedral were added from the late 17th until the middle of the 19th century. These are said to reflect the colours of Heaven described in the Book of Revelation. Before they were repainted, the domes were uniformly decorated with gilded tin.
The Cathedral was confiscated from the Russian Orthodox Church as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution and introduction of state atheism. It continues to function as a public museum.
The Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle went into production in the Soviet Union.
The AK-47 was designed by Soviet tank commander-turned inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov. Having been injured in the Battle of Bryansk in October 1941, he was recovering in hospital when he heard fellow-soldiers lamenting the poor quality of the Russian army’s rifles.
Kalashnikov created a number of weapons from 1942 onwards, entering them into competitions organised by the Soviet military. Although he lost out to other designers, he built on his efforts to eventually create the Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, better known as the AK-47. Following a series of field trials it was adopted by the Soviet army in 1949 as their standard issue assault rifle.
The AK-47 soon spread around the world as the simple design meant it was cheap to manufacture. Throughout the Cold War the USSR helped communist movements to acquire the weapon. It proved particularly popular amongst these groups due to its incredible reliability, especially when pitted against weapons such as the American M16 that was prone to jamming in the difficult conditions of the Vietnam War.
Variations of the AK-47, alongside outright copies, continue to be produced meaning that an estimated 100 million AK-47 derivatives exist in the world today. According to the World Bank, this means that AK-47s make up over 15% of all guns in the world.
Throughout his life Kalashnikov blamed politicians for the violence that saw his gun in use, not the gun itself. However, shortly before his death he did express concern over whether he should bear responsibility for the deaths caused by the weapons he created.
The crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin mutinied on the 27th June 1905, an uprising that was immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film.
Potemkin entered service in early 1905 after her gun turrets were fitted, and therefore did not take part in the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Instead, by the end of June she was off the coast of Ukraine completing maneuvers. It was here that rotten meat allegedly containing maggots was brought on board to feed the crew. Dissatisfied with the ship’s doctor’s opinion that it was fit for human consumption, the crew complained to the captain.
The ship’s second in command, Commander Giliarovsky, confronted the sailor’s delegation and killed spokesman Grigory Vakulenchuk. This triggered the mutiny, in which seven of the ship’s eighteen officers including Giliarovsky and the Captain were killed. The crew chose quartermaster Afanasi Matushenko to take control.
Having hoisted the red flag, the Potemkin set sail for Odessa where a general strike was underway. Here they brought the body of the revolutionary spokesman Vakulenchuk ashore and laid it on the Odessa Steps, where it acted as a focal point for locals to show their support for the sailors. However, by the evening the authorities received orders from the Tsar to take firm action. Estimates say that up to 2,000 civilians were killed.
The Potemkin left Odessa the next day and sailed for Constanța in Romania. The ship was surrendered to the Romanian authorities in return for the sailors receiving safe passage. Potemkin was handed back to the Russian navy, and was renamed Panteleimon.
Napoleon’s Grande Armée began its failed invasion of Russia when it crossed the Neman River in what Russians refer to as the Patriotic War of 1812.
Russia had upset Napoleon by withdrawing from the Continental System, a French-led embargo against trade with Britain, in 1810. Meanwhile the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, was concerned by the formation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw to the south. Napoleon consequently led his army across the Neman River in an attempt to secure Poland from the threat of a Russian invasion, and to force the Tsar to once again cease trading with Britain.
Up to 650,000 French soldiers invaded Russian Poland on 24 June for what Napoleon hoped would be a quick victory. The Grande Armée made significant progress into the Russian interior, forcing the Tsar’s vastly outnumbered forces back into Lithuania, but erratic weather conditions made the advance difficult. Supply wagons struggled on muddy tracks caused by thunderstorms while the troops were affected by sunstroke and disease in the hot and humid swamp-like conditions.
The retreating Russians also adopted scorched-earth tactics that destroyed farmland and villages, making it increasingly difficult for Napoleon to feed his army. Despite the problems this caused, the French successfully advanced for almost three months before reaching Moscow. The city had been evacuated, and Napoleon’s hopes of agreeing a peace treaty with Alexander were not realised.
Realising that his troops could not survive the winter, Napoleon led his army out of Moscow at the end of October. However, his numbers were seriously depleted and by December an estimated 380,000 men had died while another 100,000 had been captured.