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This Month in History
Compiled by Drew Ingersoll

September 4, 1917: Under public pressure, Provisional Government releases Bolshevik leaders from prison.

After the failed July Days Revolution of 1917, numerous Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky, were jailed for treason by the Russian Provisional Government. Besides the arrests, their lack of preparation for open revolt cost them the support of soldiers and workers — their main constituent group. However, after General Lavr Kornilov’s reactionary coup failed, thanks in part to the Bolshevik resistance, they recaptured the proletarian endorsement they needed. The Bolsheviks, subsequently, earned their get-out-of-jail-free card.

September 5, 1819: Gottlieb von Bellingshausen sets sail to circumnavigate the world.

Wait, Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen is Russian? Verily, he is Estonian, but he sailed under the Russian flag. And while doing so, he became the first man to set eyes on the Antarctic mainland. In fact, he was lucky to be the first — it is said that Captain Cook came within 75 miles of the coast but had to turn back because of ice. Von Bellingshausen’s discovery on January 27, 1820, laid the foundation for Russian influence in Antarctica to this day.

September 6, 1991: Leningrad is renamed St. Petersburg.

Since Peter the Great forged St. Petersburg from the swamps of the Neva River in 1703, it has witnessed transformation and revolution. Nevertheless, the city survives with its original name, albeit twice changed. In 1914, it was renamed Petrograd in response to claims that “Petersburg” was too Germanic. The Bolsheviks then changed the name to Leningrad aft er Lenin’s death in 1924. But on September 6, 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, the city’s original name was restored.

September 8, 1380: Russian forces defeat the Golden Horde in the Battle of Kulikovo.

With the power of Moscow increasing under Prince Dmitry Ivanovich, the principality decided to cease paying tribute to the Golden Horde. Mongol leaders responded by mobilizing their forces. On the morning of September 8, 1380, Russian and Mongol forces met at Kulikovo, at the Don River basin. After a Russian ambush inflicted heavy losses on the Mongol cavalry, it became clear that the Russians would be victorious. The battle proved to be the turning point in the Russians’ struggle to free themselves from the Tatar-Mongol Yoke and is remembered as one of the most important events paving the road to a unified Russia.

September 9, 1828: Lev Tolstoy is born.

September 14, 1812: Napoleon’s army enters a deserted Moscow.

Summing up Tolstoy’s life in a hundred words is a daunting task, so let’s let Anton Chekhov do the talking: “When literature possesses a Tolstoy, it is easy and pleasant to be a writer; even when you know you have achieved nothing yourself and are still achieving nothing, this is not as terrible as it might otherwise be, because Tolstoy achieves for everyone. What he does serves to justify all the hopes and aspirations invested in literature.

Much to Napoleon’s dismay, there was no Russian delegation that rolled out the red carpet at the gates of Moscow. Instead, he was met with an empty city — devoid of people, supplies, and red carpets. As the Grande Armée (some 650,000 men) began to pillage the city, fires began to break out. In the end, over three-quarters of its buildings burned to the ground. Without proper food or shelter, the Grande Armée was forced to return home. Napoleon began his retreat in the middle of October, with the Russian winter about to set in. After a less-than-pleasant journey home, only 27,000 men remained in the now not-so-Grande Armée. Desertion, suicide, starvation, and hypothermia were the main culprits.

September 15, 1771: Plague panic causes riot on Red Square.

By the spring of 1771, Moscow was in the grips of a plague epidemic. Panicked city officials enforced quarantines, closed public baths, and ordered the destruction of contaminated private property. Moscow’s economy virtually came to a halt — no food, no clean water, no work. By September the streets were filled with torrents of angry, destitute citizens. On September 15, a crowd demanding a change in the city’s policies entered Red Square, broke into the Kremlin, and destroyed the Chudov Monastery. Following the creation of a commission to pacify the rioters, the burning of private property ceased, and citizens were provided with work and food. It was the Russian winter, however, that would finally subdue the epidemic and free the city from the grip of the riots. 

September 21, 1993: Russian Constitutional Crisis

On September 21, 1993, Boris Yeltsin dissolved the Russian Parliament in order to curtail contention against his consolidation of power and economic initiatives. The move, contravening the then-functioning constitution, was rejected by the legislature, which then voted to impeach Yeltsin immediately. The army remained loyal to Yeltsin and besieged the representatives inside the White House. The Russian representatives appointed Alexander Rutskoy as the acting president of Russia, and he immediately denounced Yeltsin’s move as a step toward a coup d’etat. Fighting broke out in the streets, some citing it as the bloodiest fighting in Moscow since the October Revolution of 1917. “Russia needs order,” Yeltsin stated in the aft ermath, while introducing his new draft of the constitution. The constitution, which consolidated sweeping executive power and disenfranchised the legislature, was passed in a referendum on December 12.

September 23, 1983: Stanislav Petrov saves the world.

When Russian Air Force Lieutenant Stanislav Petrov was on duty at the Serpukhov-15 bunker near Moscow on Friday night, September 23, he had no clue that in a few hours he would save the world. When his computer reported an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from the United States, he quite literally had seconds to make a decision. He reasoned that an actual nuclear attack by the U.S. would certainly have required hundreds of missiles to disable Soviet defenses, but the computer reported only five. Furthermore, he knew that the satellite system’s reliability had already been questioned in the past. Lucky for us, he decided not to push the red button.

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