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)


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 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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