16-29 April 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 28 Apr, 2017

The first, rather halfhearted, Bolshevik bid for power occurred in April, less than three weeks after Lenin’s return. The pretext was a disagreement between the government and the Soviet over war aims. The Soviet wanted to pursue the war till victory, but to conclude it with a peace without ‘annexations and indemnities’. Miliukov, the Foreign Minister, had different ideas, desiring to claim for Russia the Turkish Straits and Constantinople promised her by the Allies in 1915, when they feared she might drop out of the war. Conflicting signals sent by the government on this matter led to street demonstrations by military units brought out by radical junior officers. The Bolsheviks joined these disturbances under slogans calling for the resignation of the government in favour of the Soviet. General Lavr Kornilov, the Commander of the Petrograd Military District, asked the cabinet for permission to suppress the riot by force, but this was denied, and order was restored by agreement with the Ispolkom. Disgusted with the government’s indecision, Kornilov asked to be relieved of his duties and assigned to the front. He would be heard from again. Evaluating the lessons of April, Lenin concluded that the Bolsheviks had been ‘insufficiently revolutionary’ in their tactics.
(Richard Pipes,  A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)

16 April

Memoir of Pierre Gilliard, tutor to the Tsar's children
In the evening a long conversation with Their Majesties on the subject of Alexei’s lessons. We must find a way out since we have no longer any tutors. The Tsar is going to make himself responsible for History and Geography, the Tsarina will take charge of his religious instruction. The other subjects will be shared between Baroness Buxhoeveden (English), Mlle. Schneider (Arithmetic), Dr Botkin (Russian) and myself.
(Sergei Mironenko,  A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

17 April

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
My dear Ninochka! Thank you for your letter! … In general I’m very downhearted, I’ve almost a permanent headache, which I discern now and again, and there’s so little air, it feels so enclosed and stuffy, one feels wretched … How we’ll get to [Polyana] I’ve no idea: Papa wants to go but they can’t make up their mind. It’s true that getting tickets and going is another thing altogether. To register you have to stand in line for three days near the ticket office – day and night: a queue to register to get a ticket!... Living at Polyana, far from what’s going on, will be hard, but I just want to disappear somewhere … How difficult one’s personal, internal life is at the moment.
(Viktor Berdinskikh,  Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)

18 April

Communication by P.N. Miliukov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Russian Diplomats in the Allied Countries
Our enemies have striven lately to sow discord among our Allies by propagating absurd reports regarding the alleged intention of Russia to conclude a separate peace with the Central Powers … Firmly convinced of the victorious issue of the present war, and in perfect agreement with our Allies, the Provisional Government is likewise confident that the problems which were created by this war will be solved by the creation on a firm basis of a lasting peace, and that, inspired by identical sentiments, the Allied Democrats will find means of establishing the guarantees and penalties necessary to prevent any recourse to sanguinary war in the future.
( Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920 , New York 1920)

Diary entry of Nicholas II
Abroad it’s the 1 May today, so our blockheads decided to celebrate with street processions, musical choirs and red flags. Apparently they came right into the park and placed wreaths on the tomb. The weather changed for the worse during these celebrations, and thick wet snow started to fall! I went out for a walk at 3.45, when everything was over and the sun had come out. Worked for an hour and a half with Tatiana. In the evening I started to read aloud to the children: A Millionaire Girl.
(Sergei Mironenko,  A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

20 April

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador 
Thursday was a very critical day. In the afternoon a number of regiments marched to the space in front of the Palais Marie, where the Council of Ministers sits, and joined the crowd that had already assembled there to demonstrate against the Government. Cries of ‘Down with the Government’, ‘Down with Miliukoff’, were raised, but eventually the troops were persuaded to return to their barracks. Later in the evening there were counter-demonstrations directed chiefly against Lenin and his adherents, and after several Ministers had addressed the crowd from the balcony of the palace the tide turned in their favour … A collision took place on the Nevski between a pro-Lenin and an anti-Lenin crowd, in which several persons were killed and wounded. Between 9 and 10.30 P.M. I had to go out three times on the balcony of the Embassy to receive ovations and to address crowds who were demonstrating for the Government and the Allies. During one of them a free fight took place between the supporters of the Government and the Leninites.
(Sir George Buchanan,  My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
An immense crowd of workers, some of them armed, was moving towards Nevsky from the Vyborg side. There were also a lot of soldiers with them … Tremendous excitement reigned generally in the working-class districts, the factories, and the barracks. Many factories were idle. Local meetings were taking place everywhere. All this on account of Miliukov’s Note, which had appeared that day in all the newspapers.
(N.N. Sukhanov,  The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record , Oxford 1955)

21 April

Appeal by the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies
Citizens: At the moment when the fate of the country is being decided, every hasty step threatens us with danger. Demonstrations arising from the note of the Government regarding foreign policy resulted in clashes on the streets. There are wounded and killed. For the sake of the salvation of the revolution from the threatening confusion, we are making a passionate appeal to you: Preserve quiet, order and discipline.
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)

23 April

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The state of anarchy is confirmed and extends further and further every day. Petrograd is no longer the only centre: it’s the same everywhere, in Moscow, in Kiev, and confusion and disorder reign. The two influences of the government and of the Committee cancel each other out, and the result of this double authority is chaos and anarchy. Everyone does as he pleases, and from now on it is useless to count on any concerted effort from Russia.
(Louis de Robien,  The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

24 April

Cable from Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies
In view of the grave crisis through which the Russian people are passing, we assure you that you can rely absolutely upon the whole-hearted support and co-operation of the American people in the great war against our common enemy, Kaiserism. In the fulfilment of that cause, the present American Government has the support of 90 per cent of the American people, including the working classes of both the cities and agricultural sections. In free America, as in free Russia, the agitators for a peace favourable to Prussian militarism have been allowed to express their opinions, so that the conscious and unconscious tools of the Kaiser appear more influential than they really are … America’s workers share the view of the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates that the only way in which the German people can bring the war to an early end is by imitating the glorious example of the Russian people, compelling the abdication of the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs and driving the tyrannous nobility, bureaucracy, and the military caste from power.
( Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920 , New York 1920)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
After lunch I went to see Countess Kleinmichel. The poor woman arouses one’s pity. She has been guarded for forty days by a gang of soldiers who stole things from her house, made holes in the pictures, ruined the tapestries, and so on. There were sixty of them who behaved as complete masters in her house and penetrated even to her bedroom. They let no one into the house and they did not even allow her to see her doctor. They stole part of her silver, and the arms which were in the smoking-room, and so on. And now, the big drawing-room has been turned into a meeting-place for the area section of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Committee, with wooden trestle tables set up, beside which the little pink chairs are arranged… The floor is filthy… no carpet on the stairs, the tapestries have gone, and I felt sick at heart to find the house, which was once so well kept, in this state. The Countess received me in her bedroom. She is very brave, and views the events calmly … She told me that she has the wherewithal to kill herself, rather than be murdered if fresh troubles arise. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘I have lived for seventy years; it’s not everyone who reaches this age: one must know how to die.’
(Louis de Robien,  The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

26 April

Letter to the Petrograd Soviet from the peasants of Rakalovsk Volost, Viatka Province
We, the undersigned peasants, citizens of Viatka Prov., … having gathered on 26 April 1917 in a volost assembly, have deliberated, and have decided to send the following to the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies, with a copy to the Provisional Government: Our 1st thought and decision is the following: for us not to have a tsar, because we have now found out that they were always enemies of the people, and the last tsar also carried on a friendship with the Germans… Our 2nd thought is the land; the land must be transferred to those who labour on it. Cabinet, appanage, monastery, church, and major estate owners’ lands must be surrendered to the people without compensation, for they were earned not by labour but by various amorous escapades, not to mention through sly and devious behaviour around the tsar. … Our 3rd thought is about liberty. We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery. We want space and light. We need for our young people to be taught in higher schools – this is necessary but it must be at the state’s expense, because we don’t have money of our own: the tsars have collected so much from us, and they hired guards using our money, and they lashed us with whips for every word of truth, and for reading books in which the truth was written, they put us in prison. And thus we demand freedom of speech, the press, assembly, unions and strikes, and the inviolability of the person … Our 4th thought is a terrible one – about the war. We are sick and tired of it, we pity our brothers, fathers, and sons, and we regret their blood, but we need to beat the German because he wants to encroach on our freedom. We will die rather than give him our freedom…Next, we have read in the newspapers that they want to deport Nicholas II to England and set pensions for high dignitaries, the old enemies of the people, and therefore we ask that the Soviet of Soldiers’ and Workers’ Deputies under no circumstances allow the former tsar to be deported to England…
Sincerely yours, Citizen-peasants, 130 illiterate men
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)

27 April

Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Countess Adam Lamoyska, who arrived here from Kiev yesterday, tells me that she dare not return to her family place at Petchara, in Podolia, which has been her refuge since the invasion of Poland; a dangerous agitation is on foot among the peasants. ‘Hitherto’, she told me, ‘they have all been faithful and attached to my mother, who has certainly done everything she could for them. But since the revolution everything has changed. We see them standing about at the castle gate or in the park, pretending to divide up our lands in dumb show. One of them will affect to want the wood by the river; another puts in for the gardens and proposes to turn them into folds. They go on talking like that for hours and do not stop even when my mother, one of my sisters or myself go up to them.’ The same attitude is observable in all the provinces, so it is clear that Lenin’s propaganda among the peasants is beginning to bear fruit. In the eyes of the moujiks, that great reform of 1861, the emancipation of the serfs, has always been regarded as a prelude to the general expropriation they have been obstinately expecting for centuries; their idea is that the partition of all land, the ‘tcherny peredel’ or ‘black partition’, as they call it, is due to them by virtue of a natural, imprescriptible and primordial right. Lenin’s apostles have an easy task in persuading them that the hour for this last act of justice is at length about to strike.
(Maurice Paléologue,  An Ambassador's Memoirs 1914-1917 , London 1973)

28 April

Memoir of Olga Paley
I must admit that I really didn’t want to leave the country. But mainly to persuade the grand duke [her morganatic husband Grand Duke Paul, Nicholas II’s uncle] to leave, I requested a meeting with the all-powerful Kerensky. He apologised in his response – the only time he was polite – and said that he was too busy and could not come to me, but he would receive me in the Large Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Fairly nervous, I went through to the rooms that used to be occupied by the Minister of Court Count Fredericks and his wife, where I often used to go. Some sort of aide with long greasy, slicked down hair, wearing pince-nez and a handkerchief of dubious cleanliness wrapped round an abscess, met me and conducted me to the office. I waited five minutes. Finally Kerensky appeared and in a casual, familiar tone invited me to sit down. I immediately explained the reason for my visit. ‘I’ve come to ask permission to leave Russia: the Grand Duke Paul, our children and myself.’ ‘Leave?’, Kerensky responded sharply. ‘For where?’ ‘France, where we have a house and friends, and where we can still be happy.’ ‘No’, he answered. ‘I cannot allow you to leave for France. What would the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies say if I allowed the grand duke to leave, the former grand duke’, he immediately corrected himself. ‘You can go to the Caucasus, to Crimea, to Finland, but not to France.’ ‘So, you need us, do you?’ I asked. ‘Well, as far as I’m concerned I’d let you go right away, but what will the Soviets say?’ I wanted to get up but he stopped me and launched into a scathing attack on the autocratic state, which according to him was responsible for so many crimes and unlawful acts. I had only one thought - to get away from this pitiful person as quickly as possible and never ever see him again.
(Cited in A.F. Kerensky: Pro et Contra , St Petersburg 2016)

29 April

Lenin, ‘On the present political situation’, speech at the All-Russian Conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks)
The Russian Revolution is only the first stage of the first of the proletarian revolutions that are inevitably being brought about by the war. In all the countries there grows a rebellious spirit among large masses of the people against the capitalist class, and there grows the consciousness of the proletariat that only the passing of power into its hands, and the abolition of private property in the means of production, will save humanity from ruin. In all countries, especially in the most advanced, England and Germany, hundreds of Socialists who have not gone over to the side of ‘their’ national bourgeoisie, have been thrown into prison by the governments of capitalism which have thus given an object lesson that they are afraid of the proletarian revolution which is growing in the depths of the masses of the people.
( The Russian Revolution by V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917 , London 1938)



29 April 2017

The first-hand accounts of the period between the two revolutions of 1917 give an overriding sense of hope and fear, expectation and almost simultaneous disappointment. Kerensky gives greater freedoms to the ordinary soldier, but the ordinary soldier decides he's had enough of fighting a war against people, he now realises, are no different to himself. The streets are the forum for political argument and discourse, while those associated with the old regime are beginning to think they must leave the country altogether. The parallels are becoming a little tired, perhaps, but momentous events, like Britain's exit from the European Union, seem to be accompanied or presaged by a heightened level of background noise; there is a sense of expectation, people are talking, worrying, planning. Looking back at the inter-revolution months, Boris Pasternak described it as a golden period, when 'the air was seized from end to end with fervid inspiration': 'A multitude of excited, keenly watchful souls would stop one another, flock together, form crowds and think aloud "in council", as they would have said in the old days [...]. The infectious universality of their elation blurred the boundaries between man and nature. In that famous summer of 1917, in the interval between two revolutionary periods, it seemed that the roads, the trees and the stars were rallying and speechifying right along with the people. The air was seized from end to end with fervid inspiration that blazed for thousands of versts - it appeared to be a person with a name, to be clairvoyant and possessed of a soul' ( 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution , London 2016).

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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