July 01, 2011

Time Waits For No One

Time Waits For No One
Soviet watches of the 1930s to 1960s, from the collection of Alexander Shuvayev. (swissoviet.meshok.ru) Alexei Sovertkov

IN THE WAKE of the 1917 October Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin set about restoring the important monuments that had been destroyed during the turmoil. At the top of the list was the Kremlin’s Spasskaya Bashnya, the sandy-colored clock tower that rises up over Red Square. Struck by a stray shell, the clock no longer worked. n Lenin struggled to find an engineer up to the task of renovating the enormous timepiece. Eventually, locksmith Nikolai Behrens came forward who, with the help of his sons, restored the clock in time for the one-year anniversary of the revolution. Lenin, though, was not content with simply returning the clock to its previous condition. In an early example of his 1918 “Plan of Monumental Propaganda,” he also ordered that the clock play new revolutionary music. The artist and musician Mikhail Cheremnykh put together arrangements of The Internationale and You Fell A Victim, the former chiming at 12 am and the latter at 12 pm. n This was a new tune for a new era: a celebration of the proletarian revolution and a constant reminder of the new collective ethos of the Soviet state. Broadcast on the radio across all of the republics, these chimes would give the same fuzzy feeling that a British listener of BBC Radio 4 gets upon hearing the hourly beeps. n Lenin’s obsession with timepieces, and understanding of their importance for the realization of a Soviet utopia, neither started nor ended with the Spasskaya Tower. Exiled in Switzerland at the beginning of the twentieth century, Lenin, already an experienced political revolutionary, met a young fellow exile: Vladimir Osipovich Pruss. Hearing that Lenin was the man to go to with problems, Pruss had tracked him down to ask his advice on how to obtain a passport. He desperately needed it to marry his fiancée. Lenin not only sorted out this problem, but after questioning the young exile, also offered him some wise counsel. He advised him to train in clock-making, taking care that he move to live among Protestants rather than Catholics, whom he said were “somewhat quarrelsome.”

Like a good disciple, Pruss followed Lenin’s advice, and in a case of old-fashioned networking, after the revolution was appointed head of the Soviet clock-making industry. This marked the beginning of a transformation of the clock industry — a cornerstone of industrialization, and a weapon in the struggle for ever greater productivity and efficiency.

The growth of clock-making in the USSR, from modest pre-revolutionary importer and assembler, to second only to the Swiss in the number and types of timepieces produced, is more than a tale of technological achievement. The spread of clocks and watches produced a sea change in the rhythm of life and societal relations for many living on the territory of the USSR. In short: 1917 was, for them, also a revolution in time.

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