7-13 May 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 13 May, 2017
Russian peasants photographed by Albert Rhys Williams during his journey through Russia in 1917
7 May

Article in Pravda
Comrades! Under oppressive tsarist rule the worker’s word was silenced and the worker’s art could not flourish in the shadows. The proletariat – this Titan of all revolutions and the creator of mankind’s bright future – must have its own mighty art, its poets and artists. Proletarian art will only reach its full potential, of course, under a socialist system. But even now, when some of the fetters that enchain the proletariat have been cast off, the sparks of a free art must burst into a bright flame.

8 May

Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
In general my own situation is full of fears for the future and misgivings, and I can't see the merest glimpse of hope, except through God's help. To speak of Russia's situation is difficult. The fact is that the revolution is consolidating, and of course in a strongly socialist direction ... the future is very murky and the only thing that's clear is that many trials and tribulations lie ahead ... Of course I'm objective enough not to equate Russia's interest with my own. But how I fear for my family. Poor Mama, why has she lived so long! Mysterious are God's ways! And I too - why did I not die sooner? The only thing I can say is that God's will will be done, however much suffering it may involve. And speaking of God, the new Russia is demonstrating a serious falling away from faith. It's hard to define the extent to which people are turning away from God but there can be no doubt that this is the case.
(L.A. Tikhomirov,  Diary 1915-1917 , Moscow 2008)

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador  (despatch to the Foreign Office)
The last two weeks have been very anxious ones, as the victory which the Government had won over the Soviet in the matter of the note to the Powers was not nearly so complete as Miliukoff had imagined. So long as the Soviet maintained its exclusive right to dispose of the troops, the Government, as Prince Lvoff remarked, was ‘an authority without power’, while the Workmen’s Council was ‘a power without authority’. Under such conditions it was impossible for Guchkoff, as Minister of War, and for Korniloff, as military governor of Petrograd, to accept responsibility for the maintenance of discipline in the army. They both, consequently, resigned, while the former declared that if things were to continue as they were the army would cease to exist as a fighting force in three weeks’ time. Guchkoff’s resignation precipitated matters, and Lvoff, Kerensky and Tereschenko came to the conclusion that, as the Soviet was too powerful a factor to be either suppressed or disregarded, the only way of putting an end to the anomaly of a dual Government was to form a Coalition.
(Sir George Buchanan,   My Mission to Russia  , London 1923)

9 May

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Today I witnessed an ‘extremely Russian’ scene. At the tram stop a woman and her child boarded at the front of the tram (she could have got in at the back, it wasn’t so crowded). The tram driver was not having this infringement of the rules and declared that the tram ‘was not going any further’. Everywhere else in the world the passengers would have taken the driver’s side and would have helped the woman to enter via the rear. But here exactly the opposite occurred! The whole wagon took issue with the driver, hurling insults and reproaches at him … Maybe such a thing expresses some wonderful characteristic of Russia … But in today’s climate this phenomenon can fill me with horror, precisely because it is spontaneous, unpremeditated, and not consolidated by a sense of ‘higher’ duty. Even Kerensky won’t be able to deal with it…
(Alexander Benois  ,   Diary 1916-1918  , Moscow 2006)

10 May

Diary of Nicholas II
In the afternoon we worked hard in the garden and even started to plant a few vegetables.
(Sergei Mironenko (ed.),   Nicholas and Alexandra: The Last Imperial Family of Tsarist Russia , London 1998)

11 May

Article by Lenin in Pravda
However maliciously the press of the capitalists and their friends may slander us, denouncing us as anarchists, we still repeat: we are not anarchists, we are ardent upholders of the best organisation of the masses and of a most firm ‘state’ authority – but the state we want is not a bourgeois parliamentary republic, but a Republic of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies.
(Lenin, 'The Russian Revolution',  Pravda )

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
You talk of ‘night’, ‘darkness’. Yes, for now everything is still night, but the dawn is close, because nobody will keep that gleam of hope behind thick curtains and leave the people in the dark. It’s possible that much will change for the worse and with the dawn, in the light of day, we’ll see that it shouldn’t have been done like this, but the lesson will be a useful one: it’s necessary, nothing is unnecessary… These are not rose-tinted spectacles, no. Here in Petrograd there are many unpleasant aspects to life. Those who come here from other towns are taken aback at the debauchery and difficulties of our life in ‘Piter’, and perhaps it is here that the revolution is felt most of all, since the uprising began from here. It’s not us so much as subsequent generations who will benefit, but we lived through the events themselves…
(Viktor Berdinskikh,   Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919  , St Petersburg 2016)

12 May

Amateur artist M.S. Smirnov on drawing Lenin at the Putilov Works
The young workers constructed a tribune, which was painted red. The committee argued over the text for the slogan. Finally they fixed a slogan to the centre of the tribune which read ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ Lenin arrived with Antonov-Ovseyenko. They came in a small black truck. Vladimir Ilich was in a cap and a light overcoat, which he took off before he made his speech. I stared intently and tried to convey Lenin’s face, I wanted to capture his sharp look, his character. His trimmed, light beard and moustache didn’t cover the outline of his lips. Occasionally he would clench his lips and his cheeks would hollow out, as if he was sucking them in. And his face changed all the time. His suit lay heavily on him. The chain of an old watch hung from the top pocket of his waistcoat. And with his right hand he held onto the lapel of his jacket. His left hand was lowered. Hurriedly I drew him, knowing the great importance of this endeavor and feeling that this could be my only chance to draw the great leader from nature. I heard the cry: ‘Let Lenin speak!...’ The noise, the applause, the shouts of ‘Hurrah!’ … I tried to draw Lenin’s profile. He spoke calmly, slightly leaning forward and gesticulating with his right hand, while holding his cap in his left hand.
(V.P. Lapshin, Artistic Life of Moscow and Petrograd in 1917 , Moscow 1983)

Appeal to the peasants from a Committee of Soldiers’ Deputies, printed in the Menshevik newspaper Rabochaia gazeta
Comrade peasants, our fathers and brothers!

Our freedom, our liberty, is in danger. Rumours have reached us that say certain wild, dangerous people are going from one remote village in our vast and long-suffering Homeland to another and burning the landowners’ hay, burning the grain, killing the livestock, demolishing structures. And seeing them, our ignorant, uninformed peasants are joining the robbers to menace and plunder landowners’ estates. We, your sons and brothers who wear the soldier’s grey overcoat, call upon you from our trenches: Stop! What are you doing? Do you want to leave our army without bread, meat or fodder? Do you want the Germans to capture us with their bare hands right here as we starve? Do you want to wreck our Homeland and your own freedom? Do you want us to have Tsar Nicholas II back with the old ways, the birch rods, the gallows, the penal detachments, the guards, the Ingush? Instead of land and liberty, do you want poverty and misery worse even than before? If not, then don’t lay a hand on anyone else’s property, and maintain order.
Committee of Soldiers’ Deputies, 540th Sukhinichsky Infantry Regiment
(Mark D. Steinberg,  Voices of Revolution, 1917  , New Haven and London 2001)

13 May

During breakfast the Order was brought to us: Kerensky was coming to Podgaytsy! He would come and harangue our soldiers with heartening words. Pray Heaven that his influence would succeed in re-organising the already disorganised Front Line troops … At first glance, he looked small and insignificant. He wore a darkish uniform and there was nothing about him to indicate the magnetic power he was able to wield. I remember clearly a feeling of disappointment. Was this man really the Kerensky? He looked less than his 36 years and his beardless face made him even younger. For a while he stood in silence; then he began to speak, slowly at first and very clearly. As he spoke, one realised immediately the source of his power. His sincerity was unquestionable; and his eloquence literally hypnotised us.
(Florence Farmborough,  Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary 1914-18 , London 1974)


13 May 2017

The artist's account of drawing Lenin as he addressed the crowd is striking, partly because his image is so familiar to us as an idealised tool of propaganda after his death; it's almost strange to think that he was drawn from life. What is it about historical figures that make them so hard to picture eating their breakfast, or, god forbid, answering a call of nature? In an article in the New Statesman this week, Catherine Merridale, describes Lenin as 'quick to crack a joke' which again doesn't fit the mental image one has of him. The single-mindedness which led a fellow exile to describe him as 'the only man for whom revolution is the preoccupation 24 hours a day' is more the image, as is Lenin reading 148 books and 232 articles in English, French and German in a few months in 1916 for his essay on 'Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism'. 'The Soviets exaggerated Lenin's so-called genius', writes Merridale, 'but he was certainly tenacious and quick. What he was missing was the gene for self-doubt and humility. The man's arrogance left others panting in his wake. Years earlier, in his student days (when he was balding fast), friends used to joke among themselves that he had such a big brain that it was pushing his hair out.' Hmm, missing the gene for self-doubt and humility - remind you of anyone on the current political scene..?

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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