20-26 August 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 26 Aug, 2017
Column of Russian prisoners captured in the fighting near Riga, August 1917 (© IWM Q 86647)

It was not only the hard right considering martial law under Kornilov. In anguish, lugubriously, incoherently, bizarrely, grasping at a possible way out, so was Kerensky himself … agitated at the possibility of Bolshevik uprising, [he] was split between opposition to martial law, and a belief in its necessity.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

21 August

On 21 August another blow to Russia’s war effort came with news that the strategically important Baltic port of Riga, 350 miles to the south-west, had fallen to the Germans – or, rather, its Russian defenders had simply abandoned it to them without a fight. Despite this, a state of denial about the Russian army’s disintegration persisted in the capital. Willem Oudendijk had gone to the opera that evening with his wife to hear Chaliapin sing in Rimsky Korsakov’s Rusalka: the audience had been wildly enthusiastic, rushing forward from their seats and ‘recalling Chaliapin before the footlights over and over again at the end of every Act. There seemed no thought of revolution, or the Germans, or war that evening. Petrograd was now in the war zone; but what did it matter? Here was Chaliapin singing! Cheer! And applaud! Bravo, Chaliapin!’
(Helen Rappaport,  Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2017)


22 August

On the morning of August 22, [conservative Vladimir] Lvov paid a visit to Kerensky. He implied in veiled terms that he represented an influential party which believed the government should be strengthened with the addition of public figures close to the military. Kerensky subsequently claimed that the instant the interview was over, he dismissed it from his mind. Lvov, however, proceeded to Mogilev to sound out Kornilov.
(Richard Pipes,   A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)

23 August

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
People tell scandalous stories about [Kerensky], and the latest pretext for these is his divorce, and his re-marriage to one of his sisters-in-law, who is a very young student at the Conservatoire. Amongst the people, it is said that he has got divorced to marry the Tsar’s daughter, and that his is going to become Regent. It’s the kind of story they love here, and the Slav imagination is busy embroidering on these fantastic themes … we shall see it all later on at the opera with some Chaliapin, or at the ballet with some Karsavina.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

24 August

Account by Vladimir Lvov, member of the State Duma for Samara Region
I arrived at Stavka [Army HQ] on 24 August; no vehicles met us so Dobrynsky and I took a cab … to the hotel where I had to share a room with the Cossack captain Rodionov … From his first words Rodionov knocked me sideways by saying that the supreme commander had signed Kerensky’s death warrant … although Kerensky had not officially asked me to conduct talks with Kornilov, I decided that I could speak on his behalf, since he had shown willingness to reorganize the government … To my question as to whether it was true that the armed forces would not support the government in the event of a Bolshevik uprising, Kornilov reassured me by saying that the situation was very difficult but it would not get to this stage; the troops would do their duty and support the government.
(V.N. Lvov, 'My Talks with Kerensky and Kornilov', A.F. Kerensky: Pro et Contra, St Petersburg 2016)


Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
A Bolshevik uprising is now looked for by Sunday. We are forced to take the first preparatory steps looking to the removal of our most important archives to a place of safety.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

25 August

Account by Vladimir Lvov, member of the State Duma for Samara Region
My second meeting with Kornilov took place on the morning of 25 August … He started by elaborating the general situation: Riga was taken, Rumania could be cut off at any moment, the mood in the ranks was despondent, the army was wanting to pin the blame on those responsible for its ignominy at the front and rear … Kornilov then added: ‘From 27 August to 1 September a Bolshevik insurrection is expected, their plan being to overthrow the government and replace them, and conclude an immediate separate peace … Do not think I say this on my own account, but in order to save the country I see no other option but to transfer all military and civilian power into the hands of a supreme commander.’
(V.N. Lvov, 'My Talks with Kerensky and Kornilov', A.F. Kerensky: Pro et Contra, St Petersburg 2016)

26 August

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The internal situation is still far from brilliant. One has the feeling that there is increasing disagreement between Kerensky and Kornilov, and that the extremist parties are taking advantage of it to gain ground … The populace, which had at first accepted the fall of Riga philosophically, is now seized with panic and is trying to get out of Petrograd at all costs. In Kanyuchennaya Street I saw a hundred-yard-long queue of people waiting for tickets outside the Wagons-lits office. There was such a scramble at the Nicholas Station yesterday that several people were suffocated by the crowd and killed.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

Letter to Kerensky from G. Korotkov, a worker in the provincial town of Slaviansk, Kharkov Province
To Mr. War Minister Kerensky
I will be brief, Mr. War Minister.
I consider it my sacred duty to inform you that the Provisional Government should expect a new counterrevolution. The mood among the popular masses is decidedly counterrevolutionary in view of the failure in battle of the Russian Army. The peasants arriving in the town of Slaviansk say openly that only the tsar can save Russia and bring all the food prices down; they are extremely embittered against the bourgeoisie and the workers, who are constantly engaged in party struggle, they are embittered against the soldiers, who to their disgrace have fled from the Germans…
P.S. Once you have read this all the way through, Mr. War Minister, you may think I am right-wing, like Purishkevich and so on. No! I am a simple worker who sympathises with the popular socialists, but above all I am a citizen of Russia.
G. Korotkov, Slaviansk, 26 August 1917
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)


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26 August 2017

The concept of the strong, forceful leader is a consistent one in Russian history. A tsar shows weakness, he is replaced by someone with a bit more grit (Peter III by Catherine the Great for example). In 1917 this process was accelerated and accentuated. Nicholas, for all his authoritarian impulses, is seen to be weak. He is replaced by the energetic, apparently decisive Kerensky. But over the summer Kerensky starts to look more vulnerable. His appeals to the troops not to ‘vote for peace with their legs’ fall increasingly on deaf ears, he fails to make any real progress with land reform, his government veers from crisis to crisis. And when, in July and August, the dual threat to Petrograd of German advances and Bolshevik uprisings becomes impossible to ignore, another strong man puts himself in the line of succession: Lavr Kornilov, general and putative dictator of Russia. Who knows what would have happened if his coup had been successful, but the strongman model is equally familiar to historians of the Soviet period. Allow some light and shade into the fortress mentality of the Kremlin (e.g. Gorby) and the whole thing can come crashing down. History being, as someone said, just one damned thing after another, it’s hardly surprising that the latest Russian strongman is not far from ratcheting up a quarter of a century in power. He’s done his research.

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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