3-9 December 1917

  • 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)

On 16 November a Soviet delegation left for the Belorussian town of Brest-Litovsk to sign an armistice with the Germans. In mid-December Trotsky was sent to drag out the peace-talks for as long as possible in the hope of stirring revolution in the West. The Germans' patience soon ran out. They opened talks with the Ukrainians, who were ready to accept a German protectorate to win their independence from Bolshevik Russia, and used this threat to pressure the Russians to accept their tough demands for peace, including the separation of Poland from Russia and the German annexation of Lithuania and most of Latvia. Trotsky called for an adjournment and returned to Petrograd to confer with the rest of the Bolshevik leaders. 
(Orlando Figes:  http://www.orlandofiges.info/section6_TheOctoberRevolution1917/RevolutionaryWarorPeace.php )

3 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
I ended the evening at the Military Mission, where General Niessel very kindly made me stay for dinner. I had a long talk with Captain Sadoul, a socialist and a friend of Trotsky’s. He told me that Trotsky receives quantities of love-letters, flowers and cakes, just like Kerensky used to. He would do well to be on his guard.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

4 December

Letter to the Central Executive Committee of Soviets from a group of Putilov factory workers, Petrograd
Comrades, Yesterday we wrote a letter saying that you have earned yourselves enemies in the person of the workers by being more concerned about the bourgeoisie than about the lower class of workers and peasants. For the second month, workers have failed to receive their pound of sugar, but you are giving it to the bourgeois confectioners who make sugar into all kinds of candles at ten rubles a pound. As if a poor worker could buy that … You ought to be worrying about the problems of everyday life, and take your percentage by the thousands and not the hundreds, from the rich and not the poor. The power is in your hands, don’t make yourselves enemies of the people. Requisition footwear and clothing and food reserves from the rich.
Your comrades from the Putilov works
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)

Lenin's Ultimatum to Ukraine, Warning Against Independence
All that concerns the national rights and the independence of Ukraine we, the commissaries of the people, freely recognise without any limits or conditions. Nevertheless, we accuse the Rada of Ukraine of the fact that, under cover of phrases and declarations regarding national independence, it has given itself over to a systematic bourgeois policy … By sheltering the counter-revolutionary movement of Kaledine, and by running counter to the will of the great mass of Cossack workmen in allowing the armies favourable to Kaledine to pass through the Ukraine, and at the same time refusing such passage to the armies hostile to that General, the Rada is opening the way to an unheard-of treason against the revolution ... For the reasons given, the Council of The People's Commissaries, calling to witness the Ukrainian People's Republic, submits to the Rada the following questions:
1. Does the Rada promise to renounce in future all action for the disorganisation of the common front?
2. Does the Rada promise to refuse in future to permit the passage over Ukrainian territory of any troops going into the region of the Don, the Urals?
3. Does the Rada promise to lend assistance to the armies of the revolution in the struggle against the counter-revolutionary forces of the Cadets and of Kaledine?
4. Does the Rada promise to put an end to the attempts to crush the armies of the Soviet and of the Red Guard in the Ukraine, and return their arms, immediately and without delay, to those from whom they have been taken?
In case a satisfactory reply has not been received within twenty-four hours, the Soviet of the People's Commissaries will consider the Rada in a state of war with the influence of the Soviet in Russia and in Ukraine.
( Source Records of the Great War , Vol. VI, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923)

5 December

V.I. Lenin and J. Stalin, 'To all the toiling Moslems of Russia and the East'
Comrades and Brothers,
Great events are taking place in Russia … The old edifice of bondage and slavery is tottering under the blows of the Russian Revolution. The days of the world of despotism and oppression are numbered … The rule of capitalist plunder and violence is collapsing. The ground is tottering under the feet of the imperialist marauders. In face of these great events, we appeal to you, the toiling and disinherited Moslems of Russia and the East. Moslems of Russia, Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea, Kirghiz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkestan, Turks and Tatars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and Cortzi of Caucasia, all whose mosques and prayer houses were being destroyed and whose faith and customs trampled under foot by the tsars and oppressors of Russia: Henceforth your faith and your customs, your national and cultural institutions are proclaimed to be free and inviolable … Moslems of Russia, Moslems of the East, in this work of refashioning the world we count on your sympathy and support.
Dzhugashvili-Stalin, People’s Commissar of National Affairs & V. Ulianov (Lenin), Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, Pravda
(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
Today Trotsky made a new move towards us and … he came to the Embassy, where he spent over an hour in conversation with M. Noulens. This visit, which was purely a courtesy one, does not imply any recognition of the Soviet government on our part but it is a first attempt at contact, from which much can be expected … The conversation … took a more personal turn. Trotsky described his tribulations during the first year of the war when he was harried by the Tsar’s ambassadors and deported at their demand from France to Spain, from Spain to the United States and from the United States to Canada. He finally got stranded in Halifax, where the English interned him in a concentration camp, while Mme Trotsky and her children were locked up in the house of a policeman. M. Trotsky seems to have been much affected by this separation. He at once started to spread revolutionary propaganda among the three hundred Germans who were interned with him, and in a few weeks he had converted them all to the Bolshevik way of thinking.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

‘Trotsky against the cadets’
Replying to some speakers [at Smolny] who disapproved of violence being offered to members of the Constituent Assembly, Trotsky said: - ‘You are shocked at the mild form of terror we exercise against our class enemies, but take notice that not more than a month hence that terror will assume a more terrible form, on the model of that of the great French Revolution. No prison but the guillotine for our enemies. It is not immoral for a democracy to crush another class. That is its right.’
(Report in The Times )

6 December

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
The German menace is now uppermost in everyone’s mind! Whether it be true that the armistice is iniquitous and will allow the Central Powers to move their troops from one front to the other; whether it will permit German and Austrian officers to establish a staff and bureau here; whether Russia becomes a vassal of Germany or a passive neutral; whether she can profit by this disruption or must wait until it has subsided – all of this makes no difference. Germany will draw heavily upon Russia to recoup her economic and material losses and we must be prepared to offset it in any way that may be deemed possible. I wish that we had more assurance that Washington knew this phase of it and that we had a deeper thinking man at the head here.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

7 December

‘Armistice Illusions’ (from our special correspondent)
The success of the ‘Government’ in bringing about an armistice and initiating peace negotiations is celebrated with resounding paeans in the Bolshevist camp. Victory is claimed for the proletariat over German Imperialism. ‘The will of the Russian soldiers,’ writes Pravda, ‘has dictated the Armistice. The German plenipotentiaries yielded to us on the question of troops from East to West.’ The real truth seems to be that large masses of German and Austrian troops have already left for the West … According to various journals, the German military delegates at Brest-Litovsk have asked on behalf of the Kaiser what are Russia’s intentions with regard to the ex-Emperor and the members of the Imperial Family. The People’s Commissioners, informed of this request, sounded some members of the Imperial Family still residing at Tsarskoe Selo, who replied that the best solution would be to let them go abroad. The ‘Government’ is stated to have agreed to this in principle, but wishes to obtain the decision of the Constituent Assembly.
(Report in The Times )

‘Ultimatum to the Rada’
The ‘Government’ has addressed an ultimatum to the Ukraine Rada, accusing it of following a bourgeois policy by not recognising Bolshevist authority in the Ukraine …  It is rumoured tonight that the Rada has rejected [its] demands. The area of civil war is thus extended to the Ukraine.
(Report in The Times )

8 December

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
I have a certain sympathy for these visionaries who believe in the future of humanity. Instead of lolling about in the apartments of the Winter Palace like Kerensky, they lead a communal life at Smolny, and together they all eat a simple dish of gruel which is brought in every day for the Comrade Commissars’ dinner.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

9 December

The talks at Brest resumed on December 9. Kuhlmann again headed the German delegation. The Austrian mission was chaired by Count Czernin, the Minister of Foreign Affairs; present were also the foreign ministers of Turkey and Bulgaria. The German peace proposals called for the separation from Russia of Poland as well as Courland and Lithuania, all of which at the time were under German military occupation … Ioffe, under instructions to drag out the talks, made for vague and unrealistic counterproposals (they had been drafted by Lenin), calling for peace ‘without annexations and indemnities’ and ‘national self-determination’ for the European nations as well as the colonies. In effect, the Russian delegation, behaving as if Russia had won the war, asked the Central Powers to give up all their wartime conquests.
(Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919 , London 1990)

The scene in the Council Chamber at Brest-Litovsk was worthy of the art of some great historical painter. On one side sat the bland and alert representatives of the Central Powers, black-coated or much beribboned and bestarred, exquisitely polite …. Opposite the ranks of Teutondom sat the Russians, mostly dirty and ill-clad, who smoked their large pipes placidly through the debates. Much of the discussion seemed not to interest them, and they intervened in monosyllables, save when an incursion into the ethos of politics let loose a flood of confused metaphysics. The Conference had the air partly of an assembly of well-mannered employers trying to deal with a specially obtuse delegation of workmen, partly of urbane hosts presiding at a village school treat.
(J. Buchan, A History of the Great War , Boston 1922)


9 December 2017

The treaty of Brest-Litovsk that signalled the end of Russia’s involvement in the war was the conclusion of months of gradual withdrawal. Its year of revolution had created enormous complications in waging war, many of them well documented in these personal testimonies. In July Ukraine had asserted the right of self-determination and its governing Rada (council) began to act as an independent government. The October Revolution then of course exacerbated this process of national fragmentation. Ukraine was represented at Brest-Litovsk first as a ‘sovereign Ukrainian state’ and then, after the Rada’s rejection of the ultimatum (above) demanding political control of Ukraine, as an ‘independent belligerent’. In a journal article Clifford F. Wargelin suggests that Ukraine’s involvement in the negotiations, which opened the way for others, notably Poland, to make similar representations over independence, was an example of ‘spontaneous popular nationalism that transcended the ideological and geopolitical interests of both sides in the war and threatened to disrupt not only the peace negotiations but the stability and territorial integrity of all of the eastern European empires’. The background is complex (later in the negotiations the rival Kharkov-based Ukrainian Bolshevik government turned up, demanding to negotiate in place of the delegation representing the Rada in Kiev), and presumably some gnarled roots of the current Russian/Ukrainian conflict can be traced back to this time. The Brest-Litovsk talks were to continue for several months, until the treaty was eventually signed in March, but one interesting issue that remains unresolved is the extent to which the Germans tried to intervene in the fate of the tsar and his family. In her book on the last days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport mentions a secret codicil to Brest-Litovsk that guaranteed their safe handover to the Germans. It’s hard to find evidence of this, though there is a certain amount of online speculation involving the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and the usual ‘survival stories’. But Wilhelm, related by marriage, presumably did raise the issue, and perhaps more convincingly than George V, the tsar’s cousin and supposed ally.

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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