Tsar to Lenin, first released in 1937, ranks among the twentieth century’s greatest film documentaries. It presents an extraordinary cinematic account of the Russian Revolution—from the mass uprising which overthrew the centuries-old Tsarist regime in February 1917, to the Bolshevik-led insurrection eight months later that established the first socialist workers’ state, and the final victory in 1921 of the new Soviet regime over counter-revolutionary forces after a three-year-long civil war. Based on archival footage assembled over more than a decade by the legendary Herman Axelbank (1900-1979), Tsar to Lenin provides an unparalleled film record of a revolutionary movement, embracing millions, which “shook the world” and changed the course of history.
The narration by Max Eastman (1883-1969), the pioneer American radical, conveys with emotion and humanity the drama and pathos of the revolution. Hailed by film critics as a masterpiece upon its premier, Tsar to Lenin aroused fierce opposition from those who feared the consequences of its truthful portrayal of events. First, the Stalinist organizations—which could not abide the documentary’s depiction of the leading role played by Leon Trotsky in the revolution and civil war—threatened a boycott of theaters that showed the film. Later, during the McCarthyite era and the Cold War, public showings of Tsar to Lenin were all but impossible. Seventy-five years after its premier, the importance of Tsar to Lenin remains undiminished. Indeed, the fresh wave of historical falsification provoked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 lends to this film exceptional relevance. In a new period of global capitalist crisis, Tsar to Lenin bears witness to a moment in history when socialist ideals inspired the greatest revolutionary movement in world history.