14-20 May 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 20 May, 2017
Lenin speaking to the workers of the Putilov Factory, 1917. Painting by Isaak Brodsky
Factory workers now began to shift their loyalties from unions organised horizontally, along professional lines, to those organised vertically, by enterprises. This development promoted syndicalism, a form of anarchism that called for the abolition of the state and for worker control of the national economy ... Lenin now identified himself with syndicalism, joining calls for 'worker control' of industry. This gained for his party a strong following among industrial workers: at the First Conference of Petrograd Factory Committees at the end of May, the Bolsheviks controlled at least two-thirds of the delegates.
(Richard Pipes,   A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)

14 May

Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
On May 14th Kerensky published an Order to the army – concerning an offensive … ‘In the name of the salvation of free Russia, you will go where your commanders and your Government send you. On your bayonet-points you will be bearing peace, truth and justice. You will go forward in serried ranks, kept firm by the discipline of your duty and your supreme love for the revolution and your country.’ The proclamation was written with verve and breathed sincere ‘heroic’ emotion. Kerensky undoubtedly felt himself to be a hero of 1793. And he was of course equal to the heroes of the great French Revolution, but – not of the Russian.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record , Oxford 1955)

15 May

Appeal by the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to the Socialists of all Countries
Comrades: The Russian Revolution was born in the fire of the world war. This war is a monstrous crime on the part of the imperialists of all the countries, who, by their lust for annexations, by their mad race of armaments, have prepared and made inevitable the world conflagration … Let the movement for peace, started by the Russian Revolution, be brought to a conclusion by the efforts of the International Proletariat.
( Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920 , New York 1920)

16 May

Extract from the Cologne Gazette
We must be quite clear about the fact that, if the Russian chooses the Englishman as his friend, the world-power of Germany is relegated to a misty distance; it is, indeed, doubtful whether in that event, our object can ever be achieved. Moreover, in addition to this loss, we shall have for a long time to come to reckon with Continental struggles which will cost blood, money and strength.
The Times, ‘Ways to World-Power’, Through German Eyes, The Times

17 May

Our country is definitely turning into some sort of madhouse with lunatics in command, while people who have not yet lost their reason huddle fearfully against the walls.
(From the newspaper Rech, cited in N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record , Oxford 1955)

18 May

Memoir of Fedor Raskolnikov, naval cadet at Kronstadt
Hardly anywhere in Russia was the deputy of Prince Lvov and Kerensky in such a pathetic situation as [Provisional Government commissar] Pepelyayev was at Kronstadt. In actual fact he possessed no power: the fate of Kronstadt was controlled by our valiant Soviet. [Author summoned to Lenin to explain why the Soviet had taken control of Kronstadt.] We opened the door. Comrade Lenin was sitting close to his desk and, his head bent low over the paper, was hurriedly scribbling his next article for Pravda. When he had finished writing he laid down his pen and directed at me a gloomy glance from under his brows. ‘What have you been up to out there? How could you take such a step without consulting the CC? This is a breach of party discipline. For such things, we shall shoot people,’ said Vladimir Ilyich, giving me a dressing down. […] ‘Declaring Soviet power in Kronstadt alone, separately from all the rest of Russia, is utopian, utterly absurd.’
(F.F. Raskolnikov,  Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 , New York 1982, first published 1925)

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
The fever from which all Russia is suffering has spread to our official servants now – and we have had two dvornik strikes since the revolution … They demand impossible wages and simply refuse to leave the premises when discharged on the ground that no one can be so treated in these days of liberty! The black flag has again appeared in parades on the Nevsky this afternoon in which workmen and extremists participated.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

19 May

Diary entry of an anonymous Englishman
Yalta. All round and everywhere there is only anxiety. Countess Betsy Schuvalov has just arrived from Kislovodsk, where she saw the Grand Duchess Vladimir most days, and has brought me a piteous letter from her in which she complains most bitterly of her lot. She has not been out of her house for more than two months. As she has moved into a smaller house, she lives entirely in one bed-sitting room. What can I do? Surely the best thing is to do nothing; but how can she be expected to take this view, never in her life having been denied anything?
(The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd 1915-1917 , New York 1919)

20 May

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Today was the funeral of our old Stepanida Andreyevna Skovorodina, who was taken on as wet-nurse to my brother Misha back in 1862 and then served as our housemaid. For the last few years she’s been living with Misha, but died in hospital. To my shame, despite a call from Misha to remind me, it completely went out of my mind and I only remembered late this evening. What’s terrible is not just that I failed to pay my final respects to the deceased, but I inadvertently showed a lack of consideration once again to the feelings of those closest to me.
(Alexander Benois ,   Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)


20 May 2017

History is written by the victors, said Churchill, Napoleon, Goring or Walter Benjamin (depending on your Google search outcome), but it’s equally true to say that it’s written by the elite, whether intellectual or social. Reading this week’s extracts, I can’t feel too much sympathy for Grand Duchess Vladimir (great name) and her down-sizing trials, while the thoughts of wet-nurse Stepanida Andreyevna would have been just as enlightening as those of her erstwhile charges. Perhaps more so. I suppose domestic staff, industrial workers and farm labourers had neither the education nor inclination (nor – above all – time) to sit at a desk and pontificate. More’s the pity. And it’s worth remembering this, that our sense of history as real, felt emotion – personalized history – comes very much from one sector of society, and it’s very easy to place all others into stereotyped categories: the oppressed peasantry, the militant factory workers, and so on.

The Socialist Worker online is running a weekly article about an aspect of the Revolution: https://socialistworker.co.uk/tag/view/628 . While not necessarily righting this wrong, it does at least put the focus firmly back on to Trotsky’s definition of a history of a revolution, as ‘a history of a forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.’ For several months, this even seemed possible.

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 08 Dec, 2017
German officers welcoming Soviet delegates at Brest-Litovsk for the Peace Conference. Soviet delegates left to right: Adolph Joffe, Lev Karakhan and Leon Trotsky, the Head of the Soviet Delegation © IWM (Q 70777)
By Mark Sutcliffe 02 Dec, 2017

‘The whole of Petrograd is drunk’ – Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar for Enlightenment
(painting by Ivan Vladimirov of the looting of a wine shop, Petrograd, 1917)

By Mark Sutcliffe 25 Nov, 2017
General Nikolai Dukhonin, last commander of the Tsarist army, killed by revolutionary sailors on 20 November
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)
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