1-7 January 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 07 Jan, 2017

Final weeks of the Russian monarchy

Nicholas and Alexandra in a photo of the late 1890s, inscribed by Alexandra with the words 'Mama' and 'Papa 1917'
(photo State Archive of the Russian Federation)
Petrograd police report on the political situation in Russia just prior to 1917
The rapidly increasing disorganisation of transport, the unchecked orgy of abuses by unscrupulous men in every branch of commerce and industry, and in public and political life as well ... the dishonesty of minor government officials in the provinces - all these things have led to an unfair distribution of foodstuffs and articles of prime necessity ... The population of the capital and large cities are in fact already suffering from hunger. [...] There is little doubt that rumours [that Russia is on the eve of a revolution] are exaggerated as compared with the actual conditions, but nevertheless the situation is serious enough to deserve immediate attention. [...] one is forced to admit that there is a great deal of truth in the pronouncements of the leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party who maintain 'that events of primary importance are approaching, events which are entirely unforeseen by the Government, which are bewildering and terrible, and at the same time unavoidable.'
( Report on the political situation in Russia on the Eve of the Revolution of February as Viewed by the Police , October 1916)

1 January

Nicholas II's diary entry for the final New Year of his reign
At six o'clock we went to church. In the evening I worked. At ten to midnight we went to the service. I prayed fervently to the Lord to have mercy on Russia. 
(Sergei Mironenko (ed.),  Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia , London 1998)

Alexander Benois, St Petersburg artist and critic, writes in his diary on the same day
What will the coming year bring? If only it would bring peace, the rest would follow. But for there to be peace, people must come to their senses, there needs to be a 'will for peace' ... This should be clear even to such blockheads as Milyukov and his ilk [Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Constitutional Democrats, or Kadets, was a staunch advocate of Russia's role in the war; he subsequently became Minister of Foreign Affairs in the first Provisional government] who are leading Russia to destruction in the name of the heresies they preach! And yet the idiocy of man is limitless and all-powerful, and it is entirely possible that we will end up in general ruin and cataclysm!
(Alexander Benois , Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

Pyotr Gnedich, art historian, critic and dramatist, writes in a Petrograd newspaper
New Year. And the cruel, bloody war still goes on. For the third year in a row we greet the New Year surrounded by the ghosts of its nightmares ... There can be no return to the past. Our boats are burned. We have to accept that the old order is collapsing like a decrepit piece of junk that's no good for anything. A new structure will emerge ... The New Year is a milestone, a turning post at which we measure the path we've trod ... There are many sorrows and horrors ahead, but we must bear them and emerge from the quagmire to a brighter way.
(Pyotr Gnedich, 'At New Year!',  Petrogradskaya gazeta , 1 January 1917)

Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Today, the first day of the New Year according to the orthodox calendar, the Emperor received the congratulations of the Diplomatic Corps at Tsarskoe Selo. The cold is intense - minus 38! [...] As usual Nicholas II was kind and natural and even affected a certain care-free air; but his pale, thin face betrayed the nature of his secret thoughts. While he was making his rounds, I talked to my Italian colleague, the Marchese Carlotti, and we simultaneously passed the same observation: among the whole of the Tsar's brilliant and glittering suite there was not a face which did not express anxiety...
(Maurice Paléologue,  An Ambassador's Memoirs 1914-1917 , London 1973)

2 January
Diary entry of Captain I.I. Rengarten of the Baltic Fleet
They say that the empress has a strong will and that the sovereign does as she says; that all the ministers, if they don't want to be sacked, have to report not just to the sovereign but to the empress as well. So that in effect she is ruling. There's also talk of her distinctly German sympathies... The scoundrels! What are they doing to my country!? Just thinking about it makes your head spin.

(Diary of I.I. Rengarten,  The February Revolution in the Baltic Fleet )

Report in  The Times headed 'Rasputin Dead'
The body of the notorious monk Rasputin was found on the bank of one of the branches of the Neva this morning. An enquiry has been opened. Gregory Rasputin, the peasant 'fakir', whose death has been previously reported on more than one occasion, exercised for several years a sinister influence in Russia. He was a favourite at Court, and enjoyed the patronage of the Empress, who is believed to have attributed the birth of the Tsarevitch to his intercession. [...] Handsome, with long reddish hair and beard, broad shouldered, vigorous and erect, Rasputin had an extraordinary personality, and his so-called religious salons at Petrograd were frequented by all sorts and conditions of people, from generals to beggars.

Letter from Felix Yusupov, one of Rasputin's assassins, to his mother Xenia
Dear Mamasha!
I thank you very much for your letter. I am forbidden to write, and could not do so earlier. I was afraid it would be seized on the way. I am tortured by the thought that you and the Empress Marie will think of the man who did this as a murderer and a criminal, and that this feeling will prevail over all others. However much you may recognise the veracity of this act and the reasons which prompted its execution, in the depths of your heart you will always have the feeling 'But he's still a murderer!' I can say absolutely definitely that he is not a murderer and only the weapon of providence which gave him that inexplicable superhuman strength and peace of mind, which enabled him to carry out his duty to this country and the Tsar, by destroying that evil diabolic power, which was a disgrace to Russia and the whole world, and before which all had been powerless until now. 
(Sergei Mironenko,  A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

3 January
Report in The Times headed 'End of a Nightmare'
It is stated that there were three bullet wounds in Rasputin's body, in the head, chest, and side. He was killed at the Petrograd house of one of the most aristocratic families in Russia, and his body was then conveyed to the mouth of the Neva in a motor-car and dropped through the ice. The names of those who took part in the deed are generally know. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of Russia breathes more freely for the removal of a most baleful influence, recognised as one of the pivots of the Germanophil forces. This hideous medieval nightmare is now dissipating, and no purpose would be served by recapitulating its immoral horrors. One may leave history to marvel at the power wielded by the uneducated Siberian peasant, with his notorious depravity, whose name is execrated throughout the length and breadth of the Empire. His unlimited sway over certain personalities is generally ascribed to hypnotic powers.

5 January 
Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
Incidentally we've got another Minister of War - some chap called Belyaev. Shuvayev's been fired. Private reports say that the inhabitants of Odessa are getting nervous. The Germans are indeed getting closer and closer! Things are not looking good. [...] As for Rasputin's body, the papers are saying that he's been sent off to Siberia, to Pokrovskoe, though private rumours persist that the body was taken by car to Tsarskoe Selo and even buried, it would seem, in Fedorovsky cathedral. What's true or untrue I have no idea, but it can only be a matter of regret that the body was pulled out from the ice. If it had been carried away by the water to the Gulf of Finland, many of these subsequent scandals wouldn't have arisen. But such, it seems, is the will of God.
(L.A. Tikhomirov,  Diary 1915-1917 , Moscow 2008)

7 January
Extract from a history of the revolution
On January 7, 1917, [Nicholas] received a visit from Mikhail Rodzianko, the Chairman of the Duma. He listened impassively to the familiar warnings, but when Rodzianko urged him not to put the people in a position of having 'to choose between you and the good of the country,' Nicholas 'pressed his head between his hands' and said, 'Is it possible that for twenty-two years it was all a mistake?'
(Richard Pipes,  A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)


7 January 2017
That was then, this is now. Just a few extra lines every week, with links to relevant sites about the revolution centenary or events taking place over the year. Hopefully this will be useful, but it's probably best to admit straight up that this blog is essentially an exercise in self-indulgence. Fontanka tried very hard to come up with a good publishing idea to mark the anniversary but it seemed that others had got there first or we couldn't get the backing. So rather than let the year go by unmarked, we thought it would be interesting to trace the course of events in personal testimonies, diaries, newspaper reports and so on - interesting for us, that is. If others stumble across it and find it so, that will be a boon. There's no attempt at historical analysis or balance - like magpies we're just gathering together bits and pieces that catch our eye, hopefully some of which will come from books long forgotten or sources originally in Russian. The only criterion is chronology, and we hope to keep it going through the year on a weekly basis. Some weeks there will be more to read than others, with February and October, of course, being the ones to look out for...

And speaking of chronology, a quick note on dates. Soviet Russia changed from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar at the beginning of 1918, which means that in 1917 the country was still running two weeks behind Western Europe. This can make for some confusion, particularly as some sources use one system and others the other. We'll aim for consistency by sticking to the Julian calendar (the February and October revolutions thereby stay true to their names, rather than slipping over into March and November), but discrepancies may remain. We will do our best to clear and credit all photos; any infringement will be put right as soon as we're notified.

Over the next few weeks we'll mention some of the events marking the Revolution in the UK and beyond, as well as in Russia. The big one to look out for in London is the forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, curated by Dr Natalia Murray -  Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932   - which opens on 11 February. More anon.

Have just come across a Russian project marking the anniversary in a similar, though more comprehensive, way. For Russian speakers, see project 1917 which provides day by day extracts and photographs that chronicle the year's events.

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)
More Posts
Share by: