15-21 January 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 20 Jan, 2017
Nicholas II at General Headquarters, Baranovichi
(photo State Archive of the Russian Federation)
15 January
Letter from the poet Nikolai Gumilyov to Larisa Reisner
My dear Lerichka,
You will of course be cross with me, I’m writing to you for the first time since I left, and have already received two wonderful letters from you. But on the very first day I got here I found myself in the trenches, firing a machine gun at the Germans as they fired back at me, and two weeks have gone by in this pursuit. Only the most fervent scribbler can write from the trenches: there are no chairs, the ceiling leaks, the table is inhabited by several huge rats that growl at you if you approach. And for entire days I’ve been lying in the snow looking at the stars and drawing a line between us in my head, tracing the outline of your face looking down at me from the heavens. It’s a delightful way to spend time. You must try it somehow … How I now regret those wasted years when I listened to ignorant critics and sought something sincere and heartfelt in my poems rather than practising rondeaus, rondels, lays, virelays and so on … I must act more like the cavalryman, with impudent daring, and believe, as in wartime, in my hussar happiness. And in any case I am happy, because the joy of creativity is mixed with the realisation that without my love for you I couldn’t hope to write such a thing even from this great distance.
I kiss your dear, dear little hands unceasingly,
Your Hafiz

The artist and architect Foma Railyan writes
The general atmosphere today is too depressing for creativity, too oppressive for the poet's soul ... All around is just barbarism and pandemonium, the past is destroyed, there is no present.'
(F. Railyan, 'On the influence of war on creativity', Petrogradaskii Listok )

16 January
Letter from Lenin in Geneva to the French-born revolutionary Inessa Armand
Dear Friend!
If Switzerland gets dragged into the war, the French will immediately occupy Geneva. So being in Geneva will mean being in France and having relations with Russia. Therefore I’m thinking of handing over to you the party funds (which you should keep in a little bag, sewn up, on your person, because the bank won’t issue money in wartime) … This is only planning, for the moment it’s between us.
I think that we’ll stay in Zurich, that war is unlikely.
Best wishes and handshake!
Your Lenin

18 January
Diary entry of James L. Houghteling, Jr, attaché at the American Embassy, Petrograd
There is no doubt that a revolution is coming. G- says that in the provinces it is regarded as certain, and that people think it will be very bloody. The Tsar's actions alone are enough to provoke a revolt. Last fall he put into office the pro-German Stürmer. The latter immediately attacked the Zemstvo Union as a detriment to the war, but his own Ministers of War and Marine, acting upon representations from Generals Alexeieff, Ruzsky, and Brusiloff, reported that they could not get along without the Union. This fiasco and Miliukoff's denunciation of Stürmer in the Duma, drove him from office, the first time popular opinion has been able to exert such strength. The Tsar is said to have asked for the recall of Sir George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, as an accomplice of Miliukoff, but to have met with a prompt refusal from Great Britain. Then Trepoff went in as a liberal, but the Tsar saddled him with Protopopoff, the worst reactionary of all, as Home Minister controlling the police and the press. While the Premier was expostulating and Nikolas vacillating, Rasputin was killed and the Tsar immediately grew stubborn, confirmed Protopopoff and forced Trepoff out. Now we have a nice old reactionary philanthropist as nominal head of ministry, with Protopopoff as the real government. The Duma has been adjourned and while it is scheduled to assemble on February 27th [14th], the wise ones say it will never meet. Meanwhile the throne has fewer adherents every day.
(James L. Houghteling, Jr,  A Diary of the Russian Revolution , New York 1918)

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Dinner with the Nabokovs and some dismal, taciturn English military man (a Captain Mortimer, if I'm not mistaken). Tried to touch on the war but failed completely ... The Englishman kept quiet and just smoked his pipe, then muttered something lugubriously about the boches, who obviously should be annihilated to the last man. Elena Ivanovna [Nabokov] has a very sweet new dachshund, the successor to her grouchy old cat. Maybe the cat was more interesting but I have a soft spot for dachshunds.
(Alexander Benois , Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

19 January
On 19 January an official announcement of imminent bread rationing - as little as one pound per person a day - sparked panic buying. People were now standing so long in line at the bakers' shops that they were suffering from hypothermia. If they were lucky enough to get any, they would hurry off, 'hugging close to themselves the warm piece of bread they had bought, in a vain attempt to receive from it a little heat' ... Hunger was made worse by the continuing sub-zero temperatures affecting the supply of fuel to the city by rail. Rowing boats on the Neva were chopped up for firewood, and even more desperate measures were resorted to: 'at dead of night' people slunk into the nearest cemetery 'to fill whole sacks with the wooden crosses from the graves of poor folk' and take them home for their fires.
(Helen Rappaport,  Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2016)

20 January
Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
I'm constantly racking my brains as to how the monarchy can be saved. And truth to tell, I can't see a remedy. The main point is that the Sovereign cannot, of course, become a new person and change his character. With huge force of will and a strong adherence to  one plan,  one course of behaviour, generally speaking he could rescue  everything , and escape this most desperate situation. But this is precisely what he will not do and what he cannot do. He will continue to hesitate and lurch from one plan to the next. And this being the case - in such a muddled situation - it can only end in collapse ... unless there is some providential intervention.
(L.A. Tikhomirov,  Diary 1915-1917 , Moscow 2008)

21 January
Great Britain's ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, tells of the Allied Mission that came to Petrograd in January/February 1917 to boost Russia's morale in the war effort
... on [January 21] we were all invited to a gala dinner at the palace at Tsarskoe. As doyen of the diplomatic body, I had the honour of being placed on the Emperor's right, and His Majesty talked to me during the great part of the dinner. The only questions, to which I called his attention, were the food crisis and Russia's man power. As regarded the first, I told him that, according to my reports, there was such a scarcity of foodstuffs in some provinces that the supplies were not expected to last more than a fortnight. With regard to the second question, I observed that Russia was not making the most of her vast man power ... For myself, personally, a melancholy interest attaches to this dinner, for it was the last occasion on which I ever saw the Emperor. At the same time it is some satisfaction to me to remember his marked friendliness at what, unsuspected by either of us, was to be our last interview. It was as if His Majesty wished to show me that not only did he not resent my outspoken language at my recent audience, but that he appreciated the motives which prompted me to speak so frankly to him.
(Sir George Buchanan,  My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

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21 January 2017
A politically charged week with the UK outlining its approach to leaving the European Union, and a new president in the White House. As Russia's involvement in the US presidential elections comes under the microscope and everyone wonders exactly what sort of new world order will emerge under the stewardship of Messrs Putin and Trump, it's interesting to look back a hundred years to the state of Russo-American relations then. In an article in The Atlantic Monthly a few years after the Revolution, President Woodrow Wilson wrote that it 'was against "capitalism" that the Russian leaders directed their attack. It was capitalism that made them see red; and it is against capitalism under one name or another that the discontented classes everywhere draw their indictment.' In words that have resonance today in debates over globalisation and workers' rights, he continues: 'Is it not ... too true that capitalists have often seemed to regard the men whom they use as mere instruments of profit, whose physical and mental powers it was legitimate to exploit with as slight cost to themselves as possible, either of money or sympathy? ... [Justice] must include sympathy and helpfulness and a willing to forgo self-interest in order to promote the welfare, happiness, and contentment of others and of the community as a whole. This is what our age is blindly feeling after in its reaction against what it deems the too great selfishness of the capitalistic system.' More Obama than Trump, perhaps... An excellent commentary on the contemporary political scene in Russia can be found at The Open Wall weekly blog.

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)


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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)

 

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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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