10-16 December 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) 
10 December

News was brought by a Zemski official from Yassy that civil war has commenced in real earnest. The Bolsheviki in Petrograd and Moscow have proclaimed that all aristocratic, wealthy, cultured, religious and educated people are to be classed as bourgeoisie and denounced as enemies of the New Proletarian State of Russia. If they show resistance to the laws laid down by the Bolsheviki, they will be considered counter-revolutionaries and their lives forfeited … We have been thinking well and deeply about the situation and the longer that we ponder over it the more grievous does it become. So, Bolshevism is slowly sweeping southwards, engulfing towns and villages and the bourgeoisie in its path … It is clear that, at the present time, the danger does not lie with the Austro-German enemy, but with the Russian proletariat … The war and the horrors of warfare are completely eclipsed by those other more hideous horrors of the savage civil war raging in the heart of Russia.
(Florence Farmborough,   Nurse at the Russian Front: A Diary 1914-18 , London 1974)

11 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Contant’s restaurant is the only one which has been able to keep its wine-cellar safe up to now, by installing twenty or so hefty chaps provided with rifles, machine-guns and grenades, whom it pays, feeds and supplies with drink in abundance. Up to now nobody has dared attack them, but the mere fact that one can organize ‘forts Chabrol’ in the capital, who are able to resist all attack, shows the extent of the anarchy in which we are living … It’s certainly an interesting situation – but will end in war between the different quarters of the town, between the streets, and between the houses. Meanwhile, we have already reached civil war, and ultimatums are being delivered between Smolny and the Ukraine rada, according to all the rules of the old diplomacy. In these conditions it was not worth making peace with the Germans … though it’s true that peace between Russians will be infinitely less dangerous!
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

12 December

On 12 December by the Russian calendar, the British, American and other remaining foreigners shut out the grim realities of starving Petrograd to celebrate Christmas – for by the European, Gregorian calendar it was 25 December. ‘In the midst of war and revolution,’ Bessie Beatty remembered, ‘we not only celebrated Christmas but we celebrated it twice.’ And to her ‘sunshine-fed California soul’, that Christmas ‘stepped ready-made from a fairy tale’. Muddy Petrograd, made even more mournful by the tattered exteriors of the neglected and bullet-marked stucco buildings, was now transformed by the breathtaking beauty of a winter that came ‘toppling out of the heavens’ … Against such a backdrop, Beatty wrote, even Christmas 1917 was magical, ‘however empty the shops or troubled the people’.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2017)

13 December

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Art (real, inspirational art) has never been enslaved, rather it has always been a manifestation of human freedom. Masterpieces are not created under duress, ‘on purpose’ or ‘deliberately’ – even if the rod is being wielded by entirely democratic organisations … When despots take it upon themselves to teach – particularly on matters where they should be taking instruction themselves – the result is pretty wretched. And now we have the people as monarch wanting to interfere in artistic life.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

From Lenin's 'Theses on the Constituent Assembly'
Only the complete victory of the workers and peasants over the bourgeois and landlord rebellion, only the ruthless military suppression of this rebellion of the slaveowners can really safeguard the proletarian and peasant revolution.
(V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, The Russian Revolution: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917 , London 1938)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Events are unfolding with implacable logic, and the bourgeois regime of the Milyukovs and Guchkovs, founded on riots and supported by all well-disposed people, has had to end in anarchy while waiting for the return of the autocrat who will, I hope, subdue everyone by the rule of the knout. Our own bourgeois Revolution of 1789 lapsed into excesses of the Terror, and ended with Bonaparte and his wars. But that was not enough to cure us.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

14 December

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
Everything’s much the same here. Whether people sigh or get worked up it’s irrelevant, you can’t do anything to change the general course of events. Arkadik describes the current situation like this: that there was a bog grown over with sludge and so on, the ‘run-off’ was old and had filled with mud and finally it gave way and all the sludge and scum and mud flowed out in a wide flood that couldn’t be contained, but eventually this flood will ease – and leave a pure living water, a stream. And it will find its own course…
(Viktor Berdinskikh, Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)

16 December

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
A telegram today brings the joyful news of the safe arrival in Washington on the 26th of Harriet and Butler Jr., only 20 days from Petrograd to Washington, five of them having been spent in Stockholm and Christiania. This, I believe, is a record. I now feel so immeasurably relieved that even the gloomy situation here does not dismay me. The German Military Commission arrived today, and are given special hotel accommodations and automobiles! I still indulge the persistent opinion that a sudden coup d’etat is far from impossible.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)


16 December 2017

This is probably the penultimate post marking the centenary year. A similar blog may restart in 2018 but it's unlikely to be week-by-week. I said at the beginning that it was a fairly self-indulgent endeavour and so it has proved, particularly as my attempts to publicise it have been non-existent. A few things have become clearer: history isn't obscured by time, it's pretty obscure from the beginning; humour and lightness of touch do defy time - de Robien, Houghteling, Farmborough, sometimes Benois feel very much alive; pathos and vulnerability likewise - Sofia Yudina, the letters and appeals from workers and peasants; and of course the sense of chance, the fall of the dice, the opportune or inopportune moment. The endless what ifs. As of now, nothing is certain. Russia is spinning into civil war and there seems little chance that the Bolsheviks - those 'visionaries who believe in the future of humanity' as de Robien only half-ironically described them - will hold onto power. Who knows what the next year, never mind next hundred years, might bring?

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)


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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