It was the original shot that was heard around the world. At 21.45 on the bleak evening of October 25th, 1917, the forward gun of the Russian navy cruiser, Aurora, fired a single blank shot into the Saint Petersburg gloom.
It was nothing less than the starting pistol for the Communist revolution; a stain that would spread and engulf Russia for literally decades. Once that shot was fired, nothing would ever be the same again.
It signalled the beginning of the assault on the Winter Palace; an attack aided by a number of sailors from the Aurora herself. And it culminated in the bloody butchery of the Tsar, the Tsarina and their helpless children in a basement cellar in Ekaterinburg less than two years later.
The Soviets decided to preserve the totemic cruiser- a veteran of the disastrous Russian naval debacle of Tsushima- as the symbol of the revolution. And the petrified, gaunt grey cruiser still squats at anchor in the heart of the city to this day, her trio of tall, spindly funnels still clawing at the city skyline. She really does look and feel like something from another time and place; and that is exactly what she is.
The Aurora herself was nothing especially remarkable. One of three sister ships, and the only one to survive Russia’s humiliation at the hands of the nascent Japanese navy, she was launched in 1900, right there in Saint Petersburg itself. With a tonnage of around 7,000 and a main armament of eight six inch guns, the 416 foot long, coal powered cruiser had a maximum speed of around nineteen knots. She was already outclassed by newer foreign ships by the time she entered service in 1903.
Aurora was lucky to escape the near annihilation of the flower of the Tsar’s navy at the battle of Tsushima, in 1905. She made her way back to the Baltic more by luck than anything else.
In 1917, her main armament was almost doubled to a total of fourteen six inch guns. Beyond her brief starring role in the October 1917 revolution, the Aurora achieved little of note, save for her own survival. She spent long periods being used as a training ship. But her one starring role in 1917 had already garnered her the status of a national icon.
She was already long in the tooth when German bombers sank her in the harbour of Saint Petersburg on September 30th, 1941. Raised after the war, she was repaired over 1945 through 1947, awarded a raft of battle honours, and readied for permanent immolation as a museum to the triumphant cause of Communism.
Today the squat, stumpy little cruiser remains the oldest commissioned vessel in the Russian Navy, although in any actual combat she would last only fractionally longer than a snowflake in Hell. The commission, though purely symbolic, is taken very seriously; Aurora is commanded by a captain of the first rank. And she has an active service crew. As such, she is also regarded as a living, interactive museum. Incredibly, she still flies the same ensign that was hoisted aboard her when the ship was originally commissioned, way back in 1903.
Aurora has hosted an incredible estimated twenty-eight million visitors since 1956, up to the present. Though all of her hull below the waterline has been replaced with an all welded new skin, the ship above water remains a trim, grey talking point; a time machine that is actually more akin to some kind of unreal exclamation mark, solid and uncompromising against a series of summer and winter backdrops.
The Aurora might not have the fantastic war record of HMS Belfast, her near English equivalent that sits on the Thames. And she certainly has none of the still bristling, powerful swagger of the mighty USS Missouri out at Pearl Harbour. Yet in many ways, the Aurora is one of the most significant ships ever built; almost as much so as, say, the Titanic. And ultimately much longer lived.
If Moscow has Lenin’s embalmed, waxy corpse, then Saint Petersburg- the true cradle of the revolution- has the grim, grey, petrified carcass of the Aurora. Even if you only gaze up at her for a moment as you drive or walk past, it is like looking into the very antechamber of history itself.