8-14 October 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 14 Oct, 2017
There entered a clean-shaven, bespectacled, grey-haired man, ‘every bit like a Lutheran minister’,
Alexandra Kollontai remembered.

8 October

Letter from Lenin to the Bolshevik Comrades attending the Regional Congress of the Soviets of the Northern Region
Comrades, Our revolution is passing through a highly critical period … A gigantic task is being imposed upon the responsible leaders of our Party, failure to perform which will involve the danger of a total collapse of the internationalist proletarian movement. The situation is such that verily, procrastination is like unto death … In the vicinity of Petrograd and in Petrograd itself – that is where the insurrection can, and must, be decided on and effected … The fleet, Kronstadt, Viborg, Reval, can and must advance on Petrograd; they must smash the Kornilov regiments, rouse both the capitals, start a mass agitation for a government which will immediately give the land to the peasants and immediately make proposals for peace, and must overthrow Kerensky’s government and establish such a government. Verily, procrastination is like unto death.
(V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, The Russian Revolution: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917 , London 1938)

9 October

Report in The Times
The Maximalist [Bolshevik], M. Trotsky, President of the Petrograd Soviet, made a violent attack on the Government, describing it as irresponsible and assailing its bourgeois elements, ‘who,’ he continued, ‘by their attitude are causing insurrection among the peasants, increasing disorganisation and trying to render the Constituent Assembly abortive.’ ‘The Maximalists,’ he declared, ‘cannot work with the Government or with the Preliminary Parliament, which I am leaving in order to say to the workmen, soldiers, and peasants that Petrograd, the Revolution, and the people are in danger.’ The Maximalists then left the Chamber, shouting, ‘Long live a democratic and honourable peace! Long live the Constituent Assembly!’
(‘Opening of Preliminary Parliament’, The Times )

10 October

As Sukhanov left his home for the Soviet on the morning of the 10th, his wife Galina Flakserman eyed nasty skies and made him promise not to try to return that night, but to stay at his office … Unlike her diarist husband, who was previously an independent and had recently joined the Menshevik left, Galina Flakserman was a long-time Bolshevik activist, on the staff of Izvestia. Unbeknownst to him, she had quietly informed her comrades that comings and goings at her roomy, many-entranced apartment would be unlikely to draw attention. Thus, with her husband out of the way, the Bolshevik CC came visiting. At least twelve of the twenty-one-committee were there … There entered a clean-shaven, bespectacled, grey-haired man, ‘every bit like a Lutheran minister’, Alexandra Kollontai remembered. The CC stared at the newcomer. Absent-mindedly, he doffed his wig like a hat, to reveal a familiar bald pate. Lenin had arrived.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of History! This supreme and decisive session took place in my own home … without my knowledge … For such a cardinal session not only did people come from Moscow, but the Lord of Hosts himself, with his henchman, crept out of the underground. Lenin appeared in a wig, but without his beard. Zinoviev appeared with a beard, but without his shock of hair. The meeting went on for about ten hours, until about 3 o’clock in the morning … However, I don’t actually know much about the exact course of this meeting, or even about its outcome. It’s clear that the question of an uprising was put … It was decided to begin the uprising as quickly as possible, depending on circumstances but not on the Congress.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record , Oxford 1955)

11 October

British Consul Arthur Woodhouse in a letter home
Things are coming to a pretty pass here. I confess I should like to be out of it, but this is not the time to show the white feather. I could not ask for leave now, no matter how imminent the danger. There are over 1,000 Britishers here still, and I and my staff may be of use and assistance to them in an emergency.
(Helen Rappaport,   Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2017)

Memoir of Fedor Raskolnikov, naval cadet at Kronstadt
The proximity of a proletarian rising in Russia, as prologue to the world socialist revolution, became the subject of all our discussions in prison … Even behind bars, in a stuffy, stagnant cell, we felt instinctively that the superficial calm that outwardly seemed to prevail presaged an approaching storm … At last, on October 11, my turn [for release] came … Stepping out of the prison on to the Vyborg-Side embankment and breathing in deeply the cool evening breeze that blew from the river, I felt that joyous sense of freedom which is known only to those who have learnt to value it while behind bards. I took a tram at the Finland Station and quickly reached Smolny … In the mood of the delegates to the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region which was taking place at that time .. an unusual elation, an extreme animation was noticeable … They told me straightaway that the CC had decided on armed insurrection. But there was a group of comrades, headed by Zinoviev and Kamenev, who did not agree with this decision and regarded a rising a premature and doomed to defeat.
(F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917  , New York 1982, first published 1925)

12 October

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia
On [Kerensky] expressing the fear that there was a strong anti-Russian feeling both in England and France, I said that though the British public was ready to make allowances for her difficulties, it was but natural that they should, after the fall of Riga, have abandoned all hope of her continuing to take an active part in the war … Bolshevism was at the root of all the evils from which Russia was suffering, and if he would but eradicate it he would go down to history, not only as the leading figure of the revolution, but as the saviour of his country. Kerensky admitted the truth of what I had said, but contended that he could not do this unless the Bolsheviks themselves provoked the intervention of the Government by an armed uprising.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia  , London 1923)

13 October

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Kerensky is becoming more and more unpopular, in spite of certain grotesque demonstrations such as this one: the inhabitants of a district in Central Russia have asked him to take over the supreme religious power, and want to make him into a kind of Pope as well as a dictator, whereas even the Tsar was really neither one nor the other. Nobody takes him seriously, except in the Embassy. A rather amusing sonnet about him has appeared, dedicated to the beds in the Winter Palace, and complaining that they are reserved for hysteria cases … for Alexander Feodorovich (Kerensky’s first names) and then Alexandra Feodorovna (the Empress).
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)


14 October 2017

The BBC2 semi-dramatisation of how the Bolsheviks took power, shown this week, was a curious thing. Talking heads in the form of Figes, Mieville, Rappaport, Sebag-Montefiore, Tariq Ali, Martin Amis and others were interspersed with moody reconstructions of late-night meetings, and dramatic moments such as Lenin’s unbearded return to the Bolshevik CC (cf Sukhanov above). The programme felt rather staged and unconvincing, with a lot of agonised expressions and fist-clenching by Lenin, but the reviewers liked it. Odd, though, that Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace is rolled out every time, with a brief disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction and yet somehow presented as historical footage. There’s a sense of directorial sleight of hand, as if the rather prosaic taking of the palace desperately needs a re-write. In some supra-historical way, Eisenstein’s version has become the accepted version. John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World , currently being serialised on Radio 4, is also presented with tremendous vigour, and properly so as the book is nothing if not dramatic. Historical truth, though, is often as elusive in a book that was originally published - in 1919 - with an introduction by Lenin. ‘Reed was not’, writes one reviewer, ‘an ideal observer. He knew little Russian, his grasp of events was sometimes shaky, and his facts were often suspect.’ Still, that puts him in good company, and Reed is undoubtedly a good read. 

A hundred years ago, Russia overthrew a monarchy and started off on a path that led to 70 years of communism. Follow events here week by week through eyewitness accounts.

By Mark Sutcliffe 18 Nov, 2017

A peculiar atmosphere prevailed at the conferences of the highest administrative councils of Soviet Russia, presided over by Lenin. Despite all the efforts of an officious secretary to impart to each session the character of a cabinet meeting, we could not help feeling that here we were, attending another sitting of an underground revolutionary committee! … Many of the commissars remained seated in their topcoats or greatcoats; most of them wore the forbidding leather jackets. In the wintertime some wore felt boots and thick sweaters. They remained thus clothed throughout the meetings.
(Richard Pipes, quoting the Menshevik Simon Liberman,   A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)

12 November

The Bolsheviki are forming councils, committees, sub-committees, courts, leagues, parties, societies; they are talented talkers and gifted orators. The masses of the people flock to their call. Already they have established the nucleus of the Proletarian Republic and drawn up their political programme; and, what is more surprising, they have successfully organised the Red Army – in great part drawn from the disloyal soldiers of the Imperial Army. One and all wage war against the ‘intelligentsia’ and the ‘bourgeoisie’ – nicknames given to the educated people and to the middle-class or ‘idle rich’. There is no doubt that Lenin and Trotsky are intent on exterminating the Russian intellectual classes.
(Florence Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary 1914-18 , London 1974)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Alexandre Benois, who is president of the Fine Arts Commission, told me that the damage done to the Winter Palace is not as bad as people thought. It is confined to the theft of a few objects in the rooms of Alexander II and Nicholas I.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

13 November

Report in The Times headed ‘Bolshevism repudiated at Washington’
M. Bakhmetieff, the Russian Ambassador, has officially repudiated the Bolshevist regime in Petrograd. He has addressed to Mr. Lansing a long letter which explains that he will continue to carry out the duties entrusted to him at the Embassy regardless of the Bolshevists or any other temporary rule of violence in Russia … M. Bakhmetieff declares in his letter his confidence that the sound, constructive element in Russia will soon arise and sweep aside the Bolshevists or any others who, in opposition to the true spirit of the nation, seek to betray the Allies and withdraw from the war.
(From our correspondent, New York, The Times )

In a highly sensational speech, delivered before the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, Trotsky expressed the hope that General Dukhonin would act in conformity with the policy of the Government … The peace ‘decree’, Trotsky continued, marked the beginning of a new era in history. It came as a surprise to the routine-loving governing classes of Europe, who first regarded it as a mere party manifesto, not as an act of the Russian Government … The greatest hostility was exhibited on the part of England, ‘who plays a leading part at the present juncture and who has suffered least from the war, while she stands to gain most. France, who had suffered most, responded to the Russian revolution with the bourgeoisie Ministry of M. Clemenceau, which was the last effort of French Imperialism. Italy, disillusioned by her losses, welcomed it with enthusiasm. America had joined in the war, not for the sake of ideals, as President Wilson declared, but with a view to financial and industrial advantages.
(Report in The Times )

14 November

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia
In my opinion, the only safe course left to us is to give Russia back her word and to tell her people that, realizing how worn out they are by the war and the disorganization inseparable from a great revolution, we leave it to them to decide whether they will purchase peace on Germany’s terms or fight on with the Allies … It has always been my one aim and object to keep Russia in the war, but one cannot force an exhausted nation to fight against its will.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

Report in The Times headed ‘Escape of Ex-Tsar’s Daughter’
American audiences are shortly to have the privilege of listening to appeals on behalf of the Russian people from a young woman who will be presented to them under the simple name of Miss Tatiana Nicolaievna Romanoff. She is understood to be the 20-year-old daughter of the deposed Tsar. On the authority of M. Ivan Narodny, of the News Bureau of the Russian Post Office in New York, the American newspapers today publish romantic accounts of the escape of the former Grand Duchess from Tobolsk. Miss Romanoff, according to these accounts, underwent a fictitious ceremony of marriage with a son of her father’s former Court Chamberlain, Count Fredericks, and thereby gained a certain measure of freedom from observation, which she utilized in order to make her escape to Kharbin for Sand Francisco. M. Narodny, who prefaces his narrative with the observation ‘these are strange times in Russia,’ says that the Tsar’s daughter when she arrives here will work for the Russian Civilian Relief Society. She will write short fairy stories, give dance performances, and desires to lecture to American women on conditions in Russia.
(From our correspondent, New York, The Times )

15 November

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
In my heart of hearts I am convinced that in his soul and in his being the Russian is freer than anyone. Even under the tsarist regime there was nowhere in the world with such freedom (even to the level of libertinism) of way of life, conversation, thought, as in Russia. Even our proverbial ‘right to disgrace’ is only an expression of the freedom that is within and inherent to everyone, based on racial characteristics but nurtured in the Christian idea of ‘the kingdom of God being within us’.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

16 November

Pauline Crosby, wife of American naval attaché, in a letter home
In general the news is: Petrograd is still here; a part of Moscow is no longer there; many handsome estates are no longer anywhere; the Bolsheviki are everywhere.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2017)

From somewhere torches appeared, blazing orange in the night, a thousand times reflected in the facets of the ice, streaming smokily over the throng as it moved down the bank of the Fontanka singing, between crowds that stood in astonished silence. ‘Long live the Revolutionary Army! Long live the Red Guard! Long live the Peasants!’ So the great procession wound through the city, growing and unfurling ever new red banners lettered in gold. Two old peasants, bowed with toil, were walking hand in hand, their faces illumined with child-like bliss. ‘Well,’ said one, ‘I’d like to see them take away our land again, now!’
(John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World , New York 1919)

17 November

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Things are happening fast, and yesterday Trotsky was able to make a triumphant announcement to the Assembly of Soviets (which has been joined by the Council of Peasants, which up to now had remained with the opposition and had rejected all contact with the Bolsheviks). The announcement is to the effect that armistice negotiations have begun.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

18 November

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The Allies here continue to give an impression of complete confusion … Meanwhile Trotsky keeps the score and no longer misses a single false move on the part of his adversaries. He has become very self-assured and has not hesitated to send a very firm note to Sir George [Buchanan] asking for two Russian anarchists who are being held in England to be released immediately … People say that the Commissars even contemplated shutting up Sir George himself as a hostage in Peter-and-Paul.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)


18 November 2017

The report by the New York correspondent of The Times of the escape of Tatiana, one of Nicholas II’s daughters, must have been one of the first accounts of the Romanov children avoiding their terrible fate at the hands of the Bolsheviks; a fate that was proved decisively through DNA tests only in the 1990s. Such romantic stories – or as we now call them, ‘fake news’ – subsequently became legion, focusing on Anastasia and Alexei in particular. This report is interesting precisely because it is so early, when the family was still alive and reasonably well in Tobolsk and yet to be moved to Ekaterinburg, where they were all murdered in July 1918. It’s also, frankly, bizarre, with mention of the Grand Duchess preparing to give dance performances to the American public. It makes one wonder what would have become of the former imperial family had they been offered asylum by George V or indeed been spirited away from the Crimean coast like many of their circle. In exile the children would no doubt have married, had children of their own – their grandchildren would be easily alive today, perhaps even back in favour with the current regime. Stranger things have happened (are happening).

By Mark Sutcliffe 11 Nov, 2017
The Winter Palace during a spectacular light show to mark the anniversary of the revolution,
as per the Gregorian calendar. 5 November 2017
By Mark Sutcliffe 05 Nov, 2017
Red peasant, soldier and working man to the cossack: 'Cossack, who are you with? Them or us?'
By Mark Sutcliffe 28 Oct, 2017
Students and soldiers firing across the Moika River at police who are resisting the revolutionaries,  24 October 1917
© IWM (Q 69411)
By Mark Sutcliffe 21 Oct, 2017
Revolutionaries remove the remaining relics of the Imperial Regime from the facade of official buildings, Petrograd
© IWM (Q 69406)
By Mark Sutcliffe 14 Oct, 2017
There entered a clean-shaven, bespectacled, grey-haired man, ‘every bit like a Lutheran minister’,
Alexandra Kollontai remembered.
By Mark Sutcliffe 06 Oct, 2017
Masses of Russian prisoners captured in the fighting near Riga, September 1917 © IWM (Q 86680)
By Mark Sutcliffe 30 Sep, 2017
Florence Farmborough at the Russian Front, 1915 (painted from a photograph)
By Mark Sutcliffe 23 Sep, 2017
The man with whom the moderates urged caution, Kerensky, remained pitifully weak, and growing weaker. He struggled, lashed out to shore up his authority. On 18 September he pronounced the dissolution of the Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet. The sailors responded simply that his order was 'considered inoperative'. The Democratic Conference, too, strained for relevance ... The proceedings were outdoing their own absurdity.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

17 September

All power to the Soviets – such is the slogan of the new movement… All power to the imperialist bourgeoisie – such is the slogan of the Kerensky Government. There is no room for doubt. We have two powers before us: the power of Kerensky and his government, and the power of the Soviets and the Committees. The fight between these two powers is the characteristic feature of the present moment. Either the power of the Kerensky Government – and then the rule of the landlords and capitalists, war and chaos. Or the power of the Soviets – and then the rule of the workers and peasants, peace and the liquidation of chaos.
(J. Stalin, ‘All Power to the Soviets’,  The Russian Revolution , London 1938)

18 September

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
I don’t know much about art, I’d love to know more. If you were here and there was no war, we’d go to the Hermitage, everywhere, and we’d learn. Arkasha would go with us the first few times and teach us how to look, how to see and find the beauty in paintings … But unfortunately, sadly, we can’t do any of this. The Hermitage is closed: it’s being evacuated and only, probably, in about four or five years will it be possible to see pictures in the Hermitage again…
(Viktor Berdinskikh,  Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)

19 September

Report in the Times headed ‘Good work of Democratic conference’
The conference has lost much of its nervousness and seems to be finding itself. There was a good deal of wandering from the main point, which is to decide the form of government which will be in control until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Nor is this to be wondered at when it is considered how little experience the Russian masses have had in conducting politics. There is no doubt that the Conference is realizing the terrible situation in which the country finds itself, and is trying to the utmost to bend its energies in the direction of a solution.
(‘Coalition Probable in Russia’, The Times (from our correspondent))

20 September

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Yesterday’s conference was typical of the political chaos now reigning in this distracted country. First vote was for coalition, second to eliminate those implicated with Kornilov, third to eliminate Kadets, and fourth (submitted for no perceivable reason) overwhelmingly against coalition! Whereupon the somewhat dazed ‘presidium’ decided to enlarge itself and to adjourn conference until 6.00 PM today. The two outstanding facts were the extreme unpopularity of the Kadets and the quiet power of the Maximalist [Bolshevik] faction. I forgot to say yesterday that a charming piece of German propaganda is to have a cartoon and the Russian words ‘Why fight for capitalistic England’ on every sheet of toilet paper in the Russian latrines at the front.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

21 September

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia
The Bolsheviks, who form a compact minority, have alone a definite political programme. They are more active and better organized than any other group, and until they and the ideas which they represent are finally squashed, the country will remain a prey to anarchy and disorder ... If the Government are not strong enough to put down the Bolsheviks by force, at the risk of breaking altogether with the Soviet, the only alternative will be a Bolshevik Government.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

22 September

Report in The Times
Russia is a woman labouring in childbirth, and this is the moment chosen by Germany to strike her down. Whatever may be the strict rights of the case, the spirit of history will never forgive her. The liberty which has been painfully born in Russia will rise to vindicate her in the coming generation, and will become the most implacable foe of a future Germany.
(‘Reprisals’, The Times)

23 September

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
In the provinces, the hostility of the peasants towards the workers is increasing and the moujiks are refusing to sell their products to feed the workers, whom they accuse of having caused the economic crisis through their idleness. The workers are doing less and less work because it does not provide them with a living, and because on their part they do not want to do anything for the peasants who refuse to supply them. It is a vicious circle which makes the economic situation more serious every day. The result is armed conflict, pogroms, and disorders of every kind.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)



23 September 2017

Party conference season is upon us and excitement is rising to an almost noticeable level. Actually, that's not entirely fair. There is a good deal of anticipation this year, thanks to Corbyn fever and Maybot uncertainty, with Brexit looming large over everything. The stakes are higher than normal, just as they were for the All-Russian Democratic Conference in Petrograd a hundred years earlier. (Corbyn is no Stalin, but a small amendment to the 17 September quotation has a certain resonance: Either the power of the May Government – and then the rule of the landlords and capitalists, war and chaos. Or the power of the Labour left – and then the rule of the workers and peasants, peace and the liquidation of chaos. ) Nobody really suspected that a month after this conference the country would be in greater turmoil than ever before (though the British ambassador, Buchanan, seems to make a good stab at such a prediction, in a book published six years later). Descriptions of the conference reveal all factions to be in various degrees of confusion and internal strife. Perhaps if its representatives had talked about transitional arrangements that avoided a cliff-edge scenario, leading to a new promised land of fairness and prosperity for all, things might have been different... Soft, not hard, revolution then.

By Mark Sutcliffe 16 Sep, 2017
A half-length portrait of a young female Russian soldier serving with the Russian Women's 'Battalion of Death', 1917. The Battalion was formed by the Provisional Government in Petrograd after the February Revolution. The soldier is carrying a shortened Mosin-Nagant rifle, with bayonet fixed. Her head has been completely shaved (© IWM (Q 106251)
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