Red Flag

Full Program Description

Red Flag
Communism brings hope -- and horrors -- to Russia's millions
Original broadcast: Monday, April 20 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)


In January 1917, the Russian empire is still governed by the all-powerful Tsar Nicholas II -- one man, answerable only to God, who rules more than 170 million people. The Tsar's armies have grown increasingly demoralized and disaffected fighting in the First World War: Russia has been bleeding for almost three years. Two million have died. February sees the Tsar overthrown and a provisional government installed in his place.

IMAGE OF LENIN Then, in October, Vladimir Lenin's Bolsheviks storm the Winter Palace and seize power, promising the Russian people a dictatorship of the proletariat and a new era of classless equality, freedom, peace, and prosperity. In Red Flag, the people who were there explain how Communism became an all-consuming, all-explaining ideology that appealed to their deepest hopes and dreams. Red Flag hears testimony of members of the Red Guard, party activists, students, and workers striving to build a modern industrial state. And through them, we hear how the Communist dream turned into a nightmare.

Twenty-five-year-old poet Alexander Briansky remembers the October Revolution and the taking of the Winter Palace: "Everyone rushed forward, shouting `Hurrah!' We climbed over the gates and broke into the Winter Palace. I was at the front and ran up the stairs and stumbled into a big hall where there was a whole detachment of officer-cadets with their rifles at the ready. I shouted `Throw down your rifles!' and they threw down their rifles as if to order."

IMAGE OF POSTER For Briansky, the Revolution meant an end to exploitation. Lenin pledged that "the oppressed masses will themselves form the government." Ella Shistyer, a student and electrical engineer, sums up the fervor of many: "What I liked was the promise of a happy, classless society in the future, in which everyone would enjoy all the good created by society. . . . The Revolution gave me the right to feel equal to any man. It gave me the right to work, to study what I wanted to study."

In the 1920s, millions learned to read, women were able to work as men's equals -- and even orchestras became free from the "tyranny" of the conductor. Moscow musician Izo Degtyar remembers that "the founder of the orchestra said that it was the musician who mattered, and that he should liberate himself from the fetters of the conductor. If you didn't like something, you all had a vote. It was a real innovation."

But despite all the talk about equality, the Russian masses did have a conductor who directed everything -- and he was Lenin. By the time of his death in 1924, Lenin had created a one-party State and an elaborate system of control. Under Joseph Stalin, the pace of change accelerated as he sought to convert the country from an agrarian, peasant economy into a modern industrial power at breakneck speed. Millions labored to build the enormous new factories, highways, and dams that Stalin demanded.

Red Flag shows Tatiana Fedorova, a construction worker, in a Soviet newsreel of the 1930s thanking, on behalf of all young people, "our party and dear Comrade Stalin for this joy we have." Today she remembers: "Stalin set a task: build this or build that -- and, thanks to the fact that people trusted him, and the enthusiasm of young people, it was possible. Remember, this was a country where people were illiterate [and] wore birch-bark shoes. Even now, I think it's like something out of a fairy tale."

IMAGE OF LINES OF WORKING MEN But it was not a fairy tale. Stalin's use of terror as a weapon of government intensified. One by one all possible challenges to his rule were removed. Churches were demolished and village priests were forced to renounce God. Stalin decided that kulaks -- prosperous landed peasants -- were a barrier to the collectivization of farming and should be "liquidated as a class." More than three million were shot, or died in exile or prison camps. The state seized control of their land and farming equipment. They confiscated food and grain. Seven million peasants starved to death.

Pelageya Ovcharenko, a villager in the Ukraine, was, as a child, almost taken to be buried by the State "body collectors": "Three people came up to the house. One tended to the horses; two were piling up corpses on the cart. They threw on my mother. They threw on my father. My father gestured to me [and] I knew I had to go and hide. The men swore, but could not find me. . . . The corpses were piled up like bales of straw. The men took the cart to a big hole and tipped the bodies in regardless of whether they were dead or alive."

IMAGE OF PRISONERS No one was safe. In 1937, Nikolai Bukharin, a powerful member of the Politburo who rivaled Stalin for power in the 1920s, was arrested, forced to "confess" his plots against the State in a show trial -- and executed. His widow, Anna Larina, remembers: "It was terrifying, tragic. He literally fell down on his knees before me and asked forgiveness for ruining my life. He said that if he could ever have imagined that his life would end this way, he would have run as far away as possible from me. No matter how strong his love, he would have suppressed it. He asked me never to forget his letter, which is now called his testament, and without fail to bring up his son a Bolshevik. That's the kind of faith he had. A Bolshevik to the end."

But it was not just possible political rivals that concerned Stalin. Stalin saw enemies everywhere; anyone and everyone was at risk. Death warrants were delivered to every city and province in the Soviet Union. Secret Police orders assigned each Soviet region arbitrary quotas for Stalin's purges.

In the second half of the 1930s, an estimated seven million people were sent to prison camps. Even the devoted Ella Shistyer -- who had worked so tirelessly to help build the new State -- found herself enslaved in a labor camp for "transgressions" she never understood.

Mikhail Mindlin was sent to the mines in Siberia: "The important thing was not to die of hunger. It was considered that if you survived the first winter you would get through the sentence. Most people didn't survive."

Ella Shistyer also survived the camps: "There was no socialism under Stalin. Stalin himself destroyed socialism. If it hadn't been Stalin, it would have been someone else. Someone would have destroyed this system."

In the camps, ordinary men and women toiled and died for a political system whose rhetoric and utopian promise became one of the most powerful forces of the century. And far from failing, the Communist system would go on to dominate the lives of many more after the end of the Second World War.

Red Flag is produced and directed by Bill Treharne Jones; the narrator is John Forsythe. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.


About the Series | Episodes | Timeline | Your Stories | Thematic Overview | Teacher's Guide

People's Century | WGBH | PBS Online | Search PBS | Feedback | Shop | ©