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)


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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 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)
By Mark Sutcliffe 30 Sep, 2017
Florence Farmborough at the Russian Front, 1915 (painted from a photograph)
By Mark Sutcliffe 23 Sep, 2017
The man with whom the moderates urged caution, Kerensky, remained pitifully weak, and growing weaker. He struggled, lashed out to shore up his authority. On 18 September he pronounced the dissolution of the Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet. The sailors responded simply that his order was 'considered inoperative'. The Democratic Conference, too, strained for relevance ... The proceedings were outdoing their own absurdity.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

17 September


All power to the Soviets – such is the slogan of the new movement… All power to the imperialist bourgeoisie – such is the slogan of the Kerensky Government. There is no room for doubt. We have two powers before us: the power of Kerensky and his government, and the power of the Soviets and the Committees. The fight between these two powers is the characteristic feature of the present moment. Either the power of the Kerensky Government – and then the rule of the landlords and capitalists, war and chaos. Or the power of the Soviets – and then the rule of the workers and peasants, peace and the liquidation of chaos.
(J. Stalin, ‘All Power to the Soviets’,  The Russian Revolution , London 1938)


18 September

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
I don’t know much about art, I’d love to know more. If you were here and there was no war, we’d go to the Hermitage, everywhere, and we’d learn. Arkasha would go with us the first few times and teach us how to look, how to see and find the beauty in paintings … But unfortunately, sadly, we can’t do any of this. The Hermitage is closed: it’s being evacuated and only, probably, in about four or five years will it be possible to see pictures in the Hermitage again…
(Viktor Berdinskikh,  Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)


19 September

Report in the Times headed ‘Good work of Democratic conference’
The conference has lost much of its nervousness and seems to be finding itself. There was a good deal of wandering from the main point, which is to decide the form of government which will be in control until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly. Nor is this to be wondered at when it is considered how little experience the Russian masses have had in conducting politics. There is no doubt that the Conference is realizing the terrible situation in which the country finds itself, and is trying to the utmost to bend its energies in the direction of a solution.
(‘Coalition Probable in Russia’, The Times (from our correspondent))

20 September

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Yesterday’s conference was typical of the political chaos now reigning in this distracted country. First vote was for coalition, second to eliminate those implicated with Kornilov, third to eliminate Kadets, and fourth (submitted for no perceivable reason) overwhelmingly against coalition! Whereupon the somewhat dazed ‘presidium’ decided to enlarge itself and to adjourn conference until 6.00 PM today. The two outstanding facts were the extreme unpopularity of the Kadets and the quiet power of the Maximalist [Bolshevik] faction. I forgot to say yesterday that a charming piece of German propaganda is to have a cartoon and the Russian words ‘Why fight for capitalistic England’ on every sheet of toilet paper in the Russian latrines at the front.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)


21 September

Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia
The Bolsheviks, who form a compact minority, have alone a definite political programme. They are more active and better organized than any other group, and until they and the ideas which they represent are finally squashed, the country will remain a prey to anarchy and disorder ... If the Government are not strong enough to put down the Bolsheviks by force, at the risk of breaking altogether with the Soviet, the only alternative will be a Bolshevik Government.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia , London 1923)

22 September

Report in The Times
Russia is a woman labouring in childbirth, and this is the moment chosen by Germany to strike her down. Whatever may be the strict rights of the case, the spirit of history will never forgive her. The liberty which has been painfully born in Russia will rise to vindicate her in the coming generation, and will become the most implacable foe of a future Germany.
(‘Reprisals’, The Times)


23 September

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
In the provinces, the hostility of the peasants towards the workers is increasing and the moujiks are refusing to sell their products to feed the workers, whom they accuse of having caused the economic crisis through their idleness. The workers are doing less and less work because it does not provide them with a living, and because on their part they do not want to do anything for the peasants who refuse to supply them. It is a vicious circle which makes the economic situation more serious every day. The result is armed conflict, pogroms, and disorders of every kind.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

 

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23 September 2017

Party conference season is upon us and excitement is rising to an almost noticeable level. Actually, that's not entirely fair. There is a good deal of anticipation this year, thanks to Corbyn fever and Maybot uncertainty, with Brexit looming large over everything. The stakes are higher than normal, just as they were for the All-Russian Democratic Conference in Petrograd a hundred years earlier. (Corbyn is no Stalin, but a small amendment to the 17 September quotation has a certain resonance: Either the power of the May Government – and then the rule of the landlords and capitalists, war and chaos. Or the power of the Labour left – and then the rule of the workers and peasants, peace and the liquidation of chaos. ) Nobody really suspected that a month after this conference the country would be in greater turmoil than ever before (though the British ambassador, Buchanan, seems to make a good stab at such a prediction, in a book published six years later). Descriptions of the conference reveal all factions to be in various degrees of confusion and internal strife. Perhaps if its representatives had talked about transitional arrangements that avoided a cliff-edge scenario, leading to a new promised land of fairness and prosperity for all, things might have been different... Soft, not hard, revolution then.

By Mark Sutcliffe 16 Sep, 2017
A half-length portrait of a young female Russian soldier serving with the Russian Women's 'Battalion of Death', 1917. The Battalion was formed by the Provisional Government in Petrograd after the February Revolution. The soldier is carrying a shortened Mosin-Nagant rifle, with bayonet fixed. Her head has been completely shaved (© IWM (Q 106251)
By Mark Sutcliffe 09 Sep, 2017
Lotarevo estate, Tambov province (former home of the Vyazemsky family)
By Mark Sutcliffe 02 Sep, 2017
There was a breath of autumn already in the sky. The unforgettable summer was ending, and the sun set early in the sea. We could not sufficiently admire our marvellous Petersburg.
By Mark Sutcliffe 26 Aug, 2017
Column of Russian prisoners captured in the fighting near Riga, August 1917 (© IWM Q 86647)
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
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