13-19 August 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 19 Aug, 2017
A wiry little little man with strong Tartar features. He wore a general's full-dress uniform with a sword and red-striped trousers. His speech was begun in a blunt soldierly manner by a declaration that he had nothing to do with politics. He had come there, he said, to tell the truth about the condition of the Russian army. Discipline had simply ceased to exist. The army was becoming nothing more than a rabble. Soldiers stole the property, not only of the State, but also of private citizens, and scoured the country plundering and terrorizing. The Russian army was becoming a greater danger to the peaceful population of the western provinces than any invading German army could be.
British journalist Morgan Philips Price, reporting on Kornilov in August 1917

13 August

Message from President Wilson to the National Conference in Moscow
I take the liberty to send to the members of the great council now meeting in Moscow the cordial greetings of their friends, the people of the United States, to express their confidence in the ultimate triumph of ideals of democracy and self-government against all enemies within and without, and to give their renewed assurance of every material and moral assistance they can extend to the Government of Russia in the promotion of the common cause in which the two nations are unselfishly united.
( Russian-American Relations: March 1917-March 1920 , New York 1920)

14 August

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
No news of Moscow conference today, no papers being published, and telephone connection with Moscow very poor. We have extended one hundred million dollars more to Russia with the distinct proviso, however … that it is to be expended for specific purposes ‘on the condition that Russia continues the struggle against the common enemy.’
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

When [Kornilov] arrived in Moscow on August 14, over Kerensky’s objections, to attend a State Conference, he was wildly cheered. For Kerensky, who regarded Kornilov’s reception as a personal affront, this incident marked a watershed. According to his subsequent testimony, ‘after the Moscow conference, it was clear to me that the next attempt at a blow would come from the right and not from the left’.
(Richard Pipes,   A Concise History of the Russian Revolution  , London 1995)

Diary of Zinaida Gippius
Kerensky is a railway car that has come off the tracks. He wobbles and sways painfully and without the slightest conviction. He is a man near the end and it looks like his end will be without honour.’
(Orlando Figes,   A People's Tragedy , London 1996)

Valia Dolgorukov to his brother Pavel from Tobolsk
My dear Pavel,
We arrived in Tobolsk at 6 in the evening. In order to see the house and find out what had been prepared, Makarov and I decided to go into town before the others and do a reconnaissance. The picture was depressing in general, and in complete contrast to Ivan’s description … a dirty, boarded up, smelly house consisting of 13 rooms, with some furniture, and terrible bathrooms and toilets … This is the seventh day when we are cleaning, painting and getting the houses in order while we and the family are still on the steamboat Russia. The cabins are very small and the facilities, for women at least, miserable. Alexei and Maria have caught cold. His arm is hurting a lot and he often cries at night. Gilliard has been lying in his cabin for the last eight days, he has some sort of boils on his arm and legs. And a slight fever. It is easier to get provisions here and significantly cheaper. Milk, eggs, butter and fish are plentiful. The family is bearing everything with great sang-froid and courage.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)

18 August

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to the Imperial Court
I could not … conceal from [Kerensky] how painful it was to me to watch what was going on in Petrograd. While British soldiers were shedding their blood for Russia, Russian soldiers were loafing in the streets, fishing in the river and riding on the trams, and German agents were everywhere. He could not deny this, but said that measures would be taken promptly to remedy these abuses.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

19 August

All rumours of incipient coups notwithstanding, after the Moscow conference, Kerensky was willing to accept the crushing curbs on political rights that Kornilov demanded, hoping they might stem the tide of anarchy … Kornilov pressed his advantage. On 19 August, he telegraphed Kerensky to ‘insistently assert the necessity’ of giving him command of the Petrograd Military District, the city and areas surrounding. At this, though, Kerensky still drew the line.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)


19 August 2017

I keep claiming to be through with historical parallels, but sometimes they're hard to avoid. August is a strange month when politics takes time off and journalists hunt around for things to write about. In Russia August seems to be a month for abortive coups: Kornilov's in 1917; the putschists in 1991. In both instances the coup's failure in the short term heralded the government's demise a little further down the line, and helped bring to power regimes antipathetic to the coup's aims. In 1917 it was the Bolsheviks; in 1991, it was Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, whose resistance to the coup enhanced his popular support. For those who may have forgotten the chain of events in 1991, here's a potted resume: 

'The coup of August 1991 was timed to prevent the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the centre and the republics in favour of the latter, and was scheduled for 20 August. On 18 August, a group of five military and state officials arrived at Gorbachev’s presidential holiday home on the Crimean coast to attempt to persuade him to endorse a declaration of a state of emergency. Gorbachev’s angry refusal to do so was the first indication that the coup plotters had miscalculated. While Gorbachev was held virtual prisoner, the State Committee ordered tanks and other military vehicles into the streets of the capital and announced on television that they had to take action because Gorbachev was ill and incapacitated. Some of the republics’ leaders went along with the coup; others adopted a wait-and-see approach. A few declared the coup unconstitutional. Among them was Yeltsin who made his way to the White House, the Russian parliament building, and, with CNN’s cameras rolling, mounted a disabled tank to rally supporters of democracy. The soldiers and elite KGB units ordered into the streets by the State Committee refused to fire on or disperse the demonstrators. By 21 August the leaders of the coup had given up. An exhausted Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find it totally transformed. When he visited the Russian parliament, Yeltsin's stronghold, he was humiliated by Yeltsin and taunted by the deputies. Reluctantly, he agreed to Yeltsin's dissolution of the Communist Party which was held responsible for the coup and resigned as the party’s General Secretary. Yeltsin thereupon proceeded to abolish or take over the institutions of the now moribund Soviet Union' (Lewis Siegelbaum). I remember August 1991 well since I was supposed to be flying to Moscow the day it all started but my flight was cancelled. Or maybe I chickened out. History doesn't relate...

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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