21-27 May 1917

  • By Mark Sutcliffe
  • 27 May, 2017
Arnold Lakhovsky, Square in a Provincial Town, 1917

Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
There were indeed many excesses, perhaps more than before. Lynch-law, the destruction of houses and shops, jeering at and attacks on officers, provincial authorities, or private persons, unauthorized arrests, seizures, and beatings-up – were recorded every day by tens and hundreds. In the country burnings and destruction of country houses became more frequent. The peasants were beginning to ‘regulate’ land-tenure according to their own ideas, forbidding the illegal felling of trees, driving off the landlords’ stock, taking the stock of grain under their own control, and refusing to permit them to be taken to stations and wharves.
(N.N. Sukhanov,  The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record  , Oxford 1955)

21 May

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Spring has suddenly turned into summer overnight – and the trees are shooting forth green faster than any foliage I ever saw. It tempted the ambassador and myself to the country to play golf in the afternoon – a poor course but lovely country. My first glimpse of suburban life and found it greatly resembles our western towns in many ways; ill kept small places, swarms of children, log houses, etc. Surely among all the people that we saw in the country and in the large parks of Petrograd there seemed no sign of anarchy or violence. The people seemed rather to be emerging from a rather dazed state of surprise at the complete liberty which they suddenly gained.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

Article in The Times on the Labour conference in Leeds
Mr Ramsay MacDonald moved the first resolution, congratulating the Russian people on a Revolution which had overthrown tyranny … ‘We share,’ he added, ‘the aspirations of the Russian democracy. They turn to us for counsel and support. Let us go to them and say “In the name of everything you hold sacred, restrain the anarchy in your midst; find a cause for unity, maintain your Revolution, stand by your principles, put yourselves at the head of the democracies of Europe, give us inspiration so that you and we together, shoulder to shoulder, will march out, bringing humanity still further upward.’
‘Socialists on War Aims’, The Times

From the protocol of a general meeting of workers of the Okulovsky Paper Factory and local peasants of Krestetsk Uezd, Novgorod Province, 21 May 1917
Let our socialist comrades in the Ministry as well as in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies know that even in the remote provinces we hear their summons to save free Russia and know their work and devotion to the people and with them burn with the desire to work for the common goal –the Salvation of Free Democratic Russia.
(Mark D. Steinberg,   Voices of Revolution, 1917 , New Haven and London 2001)

22 May

On the 22nd [Lenin] addressed the delegates [of the First All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Soviets] in person, hammering home his support for the poorest peasants and demanding the redistribution of land.
(ChinaMiéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution , London 2017)

The opening day of this first Labour Parliament of Russia was very memorable. From an early hour in the morning the corridors and halls of the Naval Cadet Corps in the Vassily Ostroff were filled with delegates arriving from East and West. Each group as it arrived bore the mark of the region from which it hailed. Here was a picturesque group of Ukrainians round a samovar and an accordion. There was a group of sunburnt soldiers from the garrisons in Central Asia. There were some dark-eyed natives from the Caucasus. There were lusty soldiers from the trenches, and serious-looking officers; there were artizans from the Moscow factories and mining representatives from the Don.
(M.P. Price, My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution , London 1921)

24 May

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Kerensky has occasional bursts of energy and is trying to take the army in hand again: he has reorganized the courts-martial and ordered them to severely punish all attempts at desertion. All requests to resign presented by officers are refused and General Gurko, who, because of the growing lack of discipline has asked to be relieved of his command of the central group of armies, has been put at the head of a mere division. Generalissimo Alexeiev has been replaced by General Brussilov, the victor of Galicia. But what can all these measures accomplish against the forces of anarchy which are causing the army to disintegrate, and against which all words are useless?
(Louis de Robien,  The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)


Diary entry of an anonymous Englishman
Felix Yusupov and his wife to tea in the loggia. Afterwards, in the garden, he told me the whole story of the murder of Rasputin.
( The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd 1915-1917 , New York 1919)

25 May

Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
Today the weather is fine: sky as blue as blue, white clouds. I’m sitting by the open window: the lightest of breezes, the smell of the garden, the long grass gently moving, the ceaseless chirping of the birds – the warblers and chaffinches. And so many nightingales at night! And frogs!.. Mama is tired from the journey, Papa is okay, feels fine, just worried by the chaos in our household. Lena doesn’t know where to put herself, she’s reading Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. We don’t hear a word from her.
(Viktor Berdinskikh,  Letters from Petrograd: 1916-1919 , St Petersburg 2016)


26 May

Article in The Times
When Russia stepped forth from her prison she stepped into Utopia, and she has not yet discovered that it is Utopia. All this is quite natural, but it is embarrassing and dangerous. If it be not corrected Russia will fall away from the great Alliance against barbarism or will stultify the Alliance by an inadequate peace. Our difficulty is Germany’s opportunity, and she has not been slow to use her opportunity. Into the Russian lines German aeroplanes have dropped multiplied forgeries. These purport to be copies of letters from Russian homes to Russian soldiers – letters which fell into German hands when the soldiers to whom they were addressed become prisoners of war. Here is one of those forgeries: –'Dear Soldiers, – You ought to know that Russia would have concluded peace long ago had it not been for England, but we want peace – we are thirsting for it. Working men, who have now the opportunity of making their wishes known, are demanding peace. Nobody has the right to say that the Russian workman is against peace. England has no right to say that. Whatever the outcome of this evil war, we cannot expect any gratitude from England. Therefore we must shake ourselves free of England. This is the demand of the people. This is its holy will. I have nothing more to write. I am well, and hope the same of you. Your loving brother, Nicolai'.
('The New Russia: From Prison into Utopia' by C. Hagberg Wright,  The Times )


27 May

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
I've recently become indifferent to everything. An elemental tragedy is almost certain to be played out, and what its outcome will be, nobody for the moment can say.
(Alexander Benois ,   Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)




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27 May 2017  

Narodnaya volya (People’s Will) was the revolutionary organisation behind the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and many other terrorist acts in the decades leading up to the 1917 Revolution. Lenin’s brother, Alexander Ulyanov, was involved with one of its subsequent incarnations, and was hanged at the age of seventeen. Lenin’s ferocious commitment to overthrowing the tsarist regime has often been ascribed to this event, an extreme example, perhaps, of unintended consequences.

In the week of the Manchester bombing, it would be wrong to equate Russia’s revolutionary movement with Islamist fanaticism, the one committed to the demise of a brutal authoritarian government, the other blindly waging war against those who enjoy the freedoms of democratic government. But lessons of unintended consequences are often ignored by those in power, and it can be important to take a step back. The instinct of people to come together, to look for mutual reassurance and seek out the good in the face of inexplicable horror, was witnessed in the vigil in Manchester’s Albert Square, and in particular Tony Walsh’s poem ‘ This is the Place ’ – a stirring tribute to the city’s contribution to the world, an acknowledgement of the hurt, but most of all a reminder that people coming together, and working together, can create a place where a Muslim man supports his elderly Jewish neighbour as they stand united in grief.

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 08 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)


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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)
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