28 May - 3 June 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 03 Jun, 2017
Kerensky visiting the front, summer 1917

An offensive was scheduled for mid-June. Kerensky’s personal contribution to it consisted in rousing the troops with patriotic speeches; these had an enormous immediate effect which evaporated as soon as he departed. The generals, trying to command an increasingly undisciplined army, regarded such rhetoric sceptically, dubbing the Minister ‘Persuader in Chief’. The will to fight was no longer there. According to Kerensky, the Revolution had persuaded the troops that there was no point in fighting. ‘After three years of bitter suffering’, he recalled, ‘millions of war-weary soldiers were asking themselves: “Why should I die now when at home a new, freer life is only beginning?”’ The malaise was encouraged by the ambivalent attitude of the Soviet, which continued to urge them to fight in the same breath that it condemned the war as ‘imperialist’.
(Richard Pipes,   A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)

28 May

Article in the Sunday Times
This revolution is the most colossal social upheaval the world has ever known. It has not fallen on a soil well prepared in advance, but has fallen as a bombshell amongst 150 million of people, 80 per cent of whom are ignorant peasants. It is hardly understood in this country that the revolution is now the one paramount interest to the peasant’s mind, that the war occupies but a very secondary place in his thoughts.
E. Ashmead Bartlett, ‘Our Task Ahead’, Sunday Times

29 May

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Public opinion is as changeable as a summer day – and today my British colleagues feel pessimistic as regards the socialists, who they say are ‘agin’ everybody and prepared to make friends with no one.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
We went for a drive in a car through the immense park [at Peterhof], where the roots of the great trees are bathed by the blue waters of the Gulf of Finland. The park is filled with statues, colonnades, pavilions, hermitages, kiosks, boskets, fountains, pools and water follies, each one prettier than the last … Unfortunately, this splendid scene is defiled by the crowds of soldiers who wander about, all unbuttoned and filthy, sprawling on the lawns and grass walks and reading out their proclamations under the colonnades … they were dressing on the terrace, whose marble balustrades were hung with their thrown off clothes and their doubtful underwear … the reign of the people is hardly an aesthetic one and when I saw them I thought of how, in the past, in many of the towns of Russia there were placards outside the park gates, forbidding the entry of ‘soldiers and dogs’.  
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)


1 June

By the first week of June it became clear that Kronstadt, Tsaritzin and Krasnoyarsk were only Bolshevik islands. The rest of the country was following the lead of the parties of compromise.
(M.P. Price,  My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution , London 1921)

Memoir of Fedor Raskolnikov, naval cadet at Kronstadt
By June 1917 Kronstadt had been firmly mastered by our Party. True, we did not have a majority even in the Soviet there, but the actual influence of the Bolsheviks was, in essentials, unlimited … long before the October Revolution, all power in Kronstadt was de facto in the hands of the local Soviet – in other words, was held by our Party, which actually guided the Soviet’s current activity.
(F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 , New York 1982, first published 1925)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrived in Petrograd in early June 1917 ‘with a prayer from the English nation to the Russian nation, that you may continue the war on which depends the face of civilization and freedom’. She truly believed, she insisted … ‘in the kindness of heart and the soul of Russia’.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution , London 2017)

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova from Vyatka
We’ve just eaten, Lena has started practising [on the piano] and I’ve gone to the studio. As soon as Lena finishes playing I will play. I play three or four hours every day … In the evening it’s boring: the Toropovs aren’t here yet … we haven’t been getting papers or letters for ages, and have no idea how to send the letters we write … Papa’s and Mama’s moods are not good, and it’s very sad and worse than anything, perhaps. The mood of the local peasants is fine and sympathetic, for the moment this all seems peaceful. They seem to react to events in a very sensible, sane way, as far as we can tell from talking to them. They’re interested in how the revolution came about in Piter, what’s happened to the tsar, where he is, what they’re now doing with him…
(Viktor Berdinskikh, Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)

2 June

Report on a speech by the Russian Chargé d'Affaires
In addressing you I am appealing to a certain portion of the British people, who, after the war, will help Russia to rebuild the industrial fabric of my country. I venture to say that of all the peoples allied for the purpose of exterminating once and for all the poisonous gas of Prussianism, I do not think that any two have manifested in a clearer and more striking manner their deep-rooted desire for national and permanent friendship than Great Britain and Russia. (Cheers.) They are allies not only in arms but in peace.
M. Nabokoff, Minister Plenipotentiary in charge of the Russian Embassy in London, ‘Russia’s Duty to her Allies’, The Times

3 June

Diary entry of an anonymous Englishman
Yalta. Princess Serge Dolgoruki died quite suddenly at the age of thirty-six, leaving six children by a former husband – the eldest only thirteen – and one little Dolgoruka. She has been unconscious for two days from a mistaken dose of veronal. She is to be buried on Wednesday. She was a charming lady, loved by everybody, and was an intimate friend of the Grand Duchess Xenia. Her death has greatly upset us all.
( The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd 1915-1917 , New York 1919)



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3 June 2017

De Robien’s comments (29 May) about the ‘filthy’ and ‘unbuttoned’ soldiers at Peterhof are indicative of how much the Russian army had changed since the Revolution but they were only exercising their new privileges. An article by Robert Feldman (Soviet Studies, 1968) describes how quickly military authority broke down after the change of regime. The tsarist military code (articles 99, 100, 101, 102 and 104 to be precise) forbade the Russian soldier from smoking in the street, riding inside tramcars, frequenting clubs and public dances, and eating in restaurants or other places where drinks were sold. He wasn’t allowed to attend public lectures or theatrical performances, or even read books or newspapers without first having them vetted by his commanding officer. The Petrograd Soviet did away with these ‘degrading regulations’, giving soldiers complete civic freedom. This in turn alarmed the army’s high honchos, like Generals Ruzsky on the Northern Front and Alekseev, Chief of Staff, who pleaded with the new Minister of War Guchkov to prevent the ‘disease of disintegration’. Kerensky’s morale-raising tour of the front had only short-lived impact and by 1 June – just three weeks before a planned offensive against the Germans – he had replaced Alekseev along with the commanders of four of the five fronts. Feldman sums up the subsequent June offensive as dealing the Russian army ‘a blow from which it was never to recover’.

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 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)


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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)
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)
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