17-31 December 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 31 Dec, 2017
Russian Christmas postcard, 1917
17 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
I came back this evening from the Vassily Ostrov in a sledge accompanied by Pingaud and we entered into conversation with the driver … Pingaud asked him what he thought of the Allies and the enemies, and which nation he preferred; to which he gave the admirable reply, worthy of Tolstoy: ‘It doesn’t make any difference, they all eat bread like we do.’ … What a lesson for the people who think they rule the world, and how these words of an illiterate peasant driving me home on a moonlight night in savage, remote Russia, seemed beautiful and profound to me compared with the bombastic proclamations we have become accustomed to through the eloquence of statesmen.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

18 December

Letter to The Times from its Petrograd correspondent
It is notorious – and has been proved by documents in the possession of M. Kerensky’s government, part of which have been published – that Germany commissioned and financed Lenin to go to Russia in order to sow disaffection in the Russian Army … The German Revolution in Russia has been carried out by Lenin and his associates with the aid of a) ignorant and undisciplined reservists who did not wish to fight, b) of workmen who had been deceived by their leaders into believing that they could live without working by the plunder of capital, and c) of rustics deluded by the dream of free land for all. And, I may add, we find the Soviets, or councils of workmen’s, soldiers’, and peasants’ delegates – a sort of revolutionary Parliament – composed of ‘workmen’ who did not work, of ‘soldiers’ who did not fight, and of ‘peasants’ who did not plough.
( The Times )

19 December

Letter to The Times
When at the critical moment the Tsar was appealed to to undertake immediate and drastic reforms as the only means of salvation, he hesitated, abdicated, and deserted his people. I mention that the Russian Revolution was originally purely Russian, and that it must be our interest to influence Russia to pass through and out of her present trouble without in any way sacrificing her identity. From this standpoint … it is more just to regard the Trotszkys and Lenins as extreme Russian fanatics rather than as traitors and agents of Germany.
C. Grabowsky, 33 Bishopsgate
( The Times )

Leader in  The Times
The whole civilized world must look forward with awe to the year which opens today [1 January by the Gregorian calendar]. All men can foresee that it is pregnant with events which will shape the destinies of States and peoples for generations yet unborn. But no nation does it promise to be so fateful as to the Russians. For good or evil it will decide their place in history, and the decision rests very largely with themselves. That heightens the interest of the immense tragedy they are playing… The seizure of all private banks – the State Bank had been seized before – is the latest achievement of these apostles of the Revolutionary millennium. How long their reign may last and how the negotiations may effects its duration we need not now surmise.
( The Times )


Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Rather an ominous New Year’s Day! I wonder what this year will bring forth for us and for this distracted country. We can only keep on trying and helping and cheering up the relatively few patriotic Russians who are working for their country.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

20 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The Bolsheviks recently seized the banks and have now definitely taken them over and have decreed that they are nationalised … Heartrending scenes take place. I was told that outside one of the Nevsky banks an old lady took a sentry to task, at the risk of getting shot point blank: ‘You scoundrel! It’s thanks to you and the likes of you that they’ve been able to commit all these hideous crimes … You are responsible for my children dying of hunger because I cannot give them the bread which I have saved up for them … In the name of God who is in the Kazan Cathedral, right next to you, I curse you…’ The soldier went pale, threw his rifle on the ground, and fled.’
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

21 December

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
A howling blizzard – the heaviest snow fall that I have seen here – and almost everything paralyzed in consequence. The peace negotiations between the Russians and Germans appear to be broken off on account of the German terms … The news is made public that the British ambassador is going home on account of health. We know that to be the real reason but it is most unfortunate that it should take place at this time, for this de facto power is bound to misconstrue it. It militates against the prestige of the Allies and had necessitated some ‘knuckling under’ by the British, I fear, in order that they might obtain free transit and safe conduct for Sir George.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

22 December

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
For the social and cultural historian the evening [with Gorky] would furnish incredible material. And in particular that this is what is talked about and discussed even at Gorky’s in such terrible times shows that we, the Russian people, do not deserve any other fate than that which awaits our society and our government, our Russian people … Unfortunately, I don’t have the skill of a Dostoevesky or a Tolstoy to convey and record a Russian evening that’s so typical of today in every detail. Its very essence, its narrow-mindedness, the general tone, the jumping from subject to subject, the kind of overall complacency and optimism that conceals a staggering frivolity. And it was exactly this frivolity and fantasy-land that Gorky accused Lenin and Trotsky of last night (‘opportunists’ and so forth)!
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

24 December

Diary entry of Nicholas II
Before our walk we prepared gifts for everyone and decorated the Christmas trees. At tea time – before five o’clock – Alix and I went to the guard house and prepared a tree for the first platoon of the 4th regiment. We sat with the sentries. After dinner it was the suite’s turn to have a tree, and we had ours just before 8 o’clock. The service was very late as the father could not come earlier because of the service in the church. Those of the sentries who were free also attended.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

25 December

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Rumor that three of the regiments of Petrograd garrison will soon rise against the Soviet! That will be nice. This is the Russian Christmas. I haven’t ever wished anyone a ‘Happy’ or ‘Merry’ one with more fervor than I have some of these distracted people.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Sir George Buchanan left this morning. The departure has made a strong impression on the town, and people are trying to interpret it as the sign of coming rupture.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

We had arrived [in Moscow] on Monday, 25th December, at 12.30 p.m. I had returned like a vagrant, bereft of all that I had held dear. My Red Cross work was over; my wartime wanderings had ceased. There was an emptiness in heart and mind which was deeply distressing. Life seemed suddenly to have come to a full-stop. What the future held in store, it was impossible to predict; it all looked too dark and void. But in the remote background there was always, God be praised, my country – England! Like a beacon it shone through the darkness and beckoned me home.
(Florence Farmborough, Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary 1914-18 , London 1974)

26 December

President Wilson’s Address to Congress (on the Brest-Litovsk negotiations)
No statesman who has had the least conception of his responsibility ought for a moment to permit himself to continue this tragical and appalling outpouring of blood and treasure unless he is sure … that the objects of the vital sacrifice are part and parcel of the very life of Society, and that the people for whom he speaks think them right and imperative as he does. There is, moreover, a voice calling for these definitions of principle and of purpose which is, it seems to me, more thrilling and more compelling than any of the many moving voices with which the troubled air of the world is filled. It is the voice of the Russian people. They are prostrate and all but helpless, it would seem, before the grim power of Germany, which has hitherto known no relenting and no pity. Their power, apparently, is shattered. And yet their soul is not subservient. They will not yield either in principle or in action … Whether their present leaders believe it or not, it is our heartfelt desire and hope that some way may be opened whereby we may be privileged to assist the people of Russia to attain their utmost hope of liberty and ordered peace.
( Russian-American Relations: March 1917-March 1920 , New York 1920)

28 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The Brest-Litovsk talks are making no progress and there are obviously some difficulties. Consequently, the populace is discontented because peace has not yet been signed. It is rumoured that a movement against the Bolsheviks is starting and that it may come to a head on the occasion of the Russian first of January.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

31 December

Diary entry of Nicholas II
Not too cold a day, with gusts of wind. Towards evening Alexei got up, as he was able to put on his shoe. After tea we all went our separate ways until it was time to meet the New Year. Lord! Save Russia!
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)


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31 December 2017

And so to the end of the year. ‘Lord! Save Russia!’ is perhaps all there is left to say after twelve months that have seen the demise of two regimes and the onset of civil war. Ahead lies several years of desperate struggle before the iron fist of the communist state proscribes order and one-party rule. But of course a country’s fate is never sealed. Seventy years later, as students of Russian language and culture, we were to witness the demise of this totalitarian state and the descent, once more, into chaos and struggle.

This blog may continue in some form, still to be decided. In the meantime, our attention turns to a forthcoming Fontanka book on 1917 and its aftermath, again told through eyewitness accounts but this time using unpublished material researched by Project 1917 – a collaboration between a Moscow team led by the writer Mikhail Zygar and Pushkin House. Publication, we hope, in July 2018.

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 31 Dec, 2017
Russian Christmas postcard, 1917
By Mark Sutcliffe 16 Dec, 2017
Child's drawing of a Bolshevik, November 1917. The flag reads 'Down with the war and the bourgeois'; the child's inscription reads 'The Bolshevik. A Bolshevik is someone who is against the war'. (State Historical Museum, Moscow) 
By Mark Sutcliffe 09 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)


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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)
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