15-21 October 1917

  • 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)
15 October

Letter to Nicholas II from his sister Xenia, from Ai-Todor, Crimea
They have removed our guard, many sailors asked for leave, some asked to return to Sebastopol, i.e. they were ‘thoroughly fed up’ being here. At first we had many misunderstandings with them, but finally we all got used to each other and they understood that we are neither criminals, nor are we involved in propaganda! But the thought of how you must grieve and suffer for our poor dearly beloved country and army – makes my heart ache and bleed. What have they done to us? Why destroy everything?
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

16 October

Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
The Military Revolutionary Committee was an apparatus for the overthrow of the Government and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks. And on October 16th this ‘motion’ was presented to the Soviet plenum for approval. There were heated protests from a Menshevik orator, whose fraction, in this meeting of a thousand men, numbered fifty people. ‘The Bolsheviks won’t answer the straight question whether or not they are preparing a coup. This is either cowardice or lack of confidence in their own strength’ (laughter in the audience). ‘But the projected Military Revolutionary Committee is nothing but a revolutionary staff for the seizure of power…’
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record , Oxford 1955)


What Lenin wanted was a formal endorsement of the previous decision [in favour of insurrection], though one leaving open the form and precise timing of insurrection … Zinoviev, by contrast, called for flatly prohibiting the organising of an uprising before the Second Congress … For Zinoviev, six votes for, fifteen against, three abstentions. For Lenin, four abstentions, two opposed, and nineteen in favour … Though the schedule was still up for debate, for the second time in a week the Bolsheviks had voted for insurrection … in Novaya zhizn … Kamenev published a stunning attack: ‘At the present … the instigation of an armed uprising before and independent of the Soviet Congress would be an impermissible and even fatal step for the proletariat and the revolution.’
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

17 October

Resolution by a general meeting of peasants, Petrograd province, 17 October 1917
We henceforth and forever will not trust any longer an authority that is not responsible to the people … The Soviet must immediately exercise all its powers to carry out the will of the revolutionary people:
1. Immediately propose to all the countries warring with us, as well as to our allies, an honest democratic peace…
2. Immediately declare all the land public…
3. Immediately institute state control over capital and production…
8. Immediately repeal the death penalty, which brings shame upon revolutionary Russia before the revolutionary democracy of the entire world.
Chairman of the assembly, A.P. Vorobyov
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)

18 October

Kamenev's Letter in Gorky's paper Novaya Zhizn
Not only Zinoviev and I, but also a number of practical comrades, think that to take the initiative in an armed insurrection at the present moment … is an inadmissible step ruinous to the proletariat and the Revolution. To stake everything on insurrection in the coming days would be an act of despair. And our party is too strong, it has too great a future before us, to take such a step.
(Victor Sebestyen, Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait , London 2017)


Letter from Lenin to the Members of the Bolshevik Party
Comrades,
I have not yet been able to receive the Petrograd papers for Wednesday, October 18. When the full text of Kamenev’s and Zinoviev’s declaration, published in Novaya Zhizn, which is not a Party paper, was transmitted to me by telephone, I refused to believe it … Just think of it! It is known in Party circles that the Party since September has been discussing the question of insurrection. Nobody has ever heard of a single letter or leaflet written by either of the person named! Now, on the eve, one might say, of the Congress of Soviets, two prominent Bolsheviks come out against the majority, and, obviously, against the Central Committee … I should consider it disgraceful on my part if I were to hesitate to condemn these former comrades because of my former close relations with them. I declare outright that I no longer consider either of them comrades and that I will fight with all my might, both in the Central Committee and at the Congress, to secure their expulsion from the Party.
( The Russian Revolution: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution , London 1938)


19 October

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
The Petrograd situation is distinctly threatening! The Bolsheviks are well armed and the temper of the army and the fleet rapidly getting worse … The actions of the sailors are fearful – the subordinates of a most popular officer at Oesel raped his wife and daughter and then killed them – upon his return the officer shot himself.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

20 October

Kerensky to Vladimir Nabokov
I would be prepared to offer prayers to produce this uprising. I have greater forces than necessary. They will be utterly crushed.
(Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy , London 1996)

Diary of Nicholas II
Today is the 23rd anniversary of dear Papa’s death, what circumstances are we forced to live it in! God, how sad I feel for poor Russia!
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

21 October

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
After an excellent performance of La Passrelle, in which Mlle Didier was charming and Hasti screamingly funny in the part of a manservant, I went to end the evening in the house of young Countess Keller. There I heard that old Princess Urussov arrived this morning from Lapotkovo, her estate at Tula; she fled from there without being able to take anything except the clothes which she stood up in. The peasants have burned and pillaged everything.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

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21 October 2017

The closer you get to the action the more the dust gets in your eyes. For those living through the turbulent events of October 1917 every day was a whirligig of rumour, half-truth and speculation. Those who were supposedly in control, like Kerensky, were left twisting in the wind (see his professed desire for an uprising which would be ‘utterly crushed’), while Lenin was busy fulminating against his cautious colleagues Kamenev and Zinoviev. The establishment of the Military Revolutionary Committee was a key moment: the uprising now had some real muscle behind it. Four days and counting…

The New Statesman has marked the Great October this week with another article by the historian David Reynolds. He takes a look at the Russian century 1917-2017, and identifies five major upheavals: the February revolution (which ‘came as almost a relief for the British government’, no longer having to fight alongside the world’s leading autocracy), swiftly followed by October (which led to five years of civil war and established the polarised ideologies that characterised the twentieth century); Stalin’s brutal attempts to create a modern USSR (‘We are 50 or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years … or we shall go under’); ‘Hitler’s revolution’, meaning the impact of the 1941-45 war on the people of the Soviet Union; Khrushchev’s revolution in education and housing (which for the first time enabled Soviet citizens to discuss their lives freely in their own, non-communal, kitchens); and Gorbachev – the revolutionary nature of whose rule ‘is beyond dispute’. And what of Putin? Reynolds’ thesis is that quiet revolutions are no less significant than the dramatic days of February or October. And that just as Khrushchev’s reforms led eventually to greater freedoms under Gorby, so now ‘social media has been quietly transforming urban Russia for several years. Here is the latest phase of glasnost – again rarely noted in Britain.’ The author, wisely, does not try to predict the outcome of this latest revolution.

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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