26 November - 2 December 1917

  • 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)

Towards the end of November occurred the ‘wine-pogrom’ – looting of the wine cellars – beginning with the plundering of the Winter Palace vaults. For days there were drunken soldiers on the streets … in all this was evident the hand of the counter-revolutionists, who distributed among the regiments plans showing the location of the stores of liquor. The Commissars of Smolny began by pleading and arguing, followed by pitched battles between soldiers and Red Guards … Finally the Military Revolutionary Committee sent out companies of sailors with machine-guns, who fired mercilessly upon the rioters, killing many; and by executive order the wine-cellars were invaded by Committees with hatchets, who smashed the bottles – or blew them up with dynamite.
(John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World , New York 1919)

26 November

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Last night the tovariches looted the cellars of the Winter Palace, where there were thousands of bottles. Naturally, the drinkers expressed their joy by letting off their guns; all these people walk about with rifles and bayonets all day long, and these become rather dangerous toys when handled by drunkards. All the same, a few willing firemen were found to smash what remained of the bottles and flood the cellar, in order to prevent further attempts. A certain number of tovariches remained prostrate in the middle of this ‘abundance’, and perished there. It is sickening to see such good stuff thrown away: there were bottles of Tokay there of the time of Catherine the Great, and it has all been gulped down by these Vodka swiggers.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

27 November

Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
[Museum preservation commissar Grigory] Yatmanov suggested at our meeting that we come up with conservation measures in view of the fact that the Military Revolutionary Committee had already decreed that all stocks of wine in St Petersburg should be destroyed – as if the city’s artistic treasures would not be at risk as a result (it came out at this point that on Thursday/Friday night drunken soldiers got into the Winter Palace and created a certain amount of mayhem, they went to the church singing gallery, got as far as [Catherine the Great’s] Library and went on the rampage in the New Hermitage)  … Finally Lunacharsky turned up. He immediately began assuring us that the whole thing was exaggerated and that he was planning to sell all the wine abroad, in exchange for gold and ‘textiles’, which were so needed by the proletariat.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916-1918 , Moscow 2006)

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Although this unpleasant town seems quiet, it is ominously so! The long feared excesses are beginning, for on Thursday night last the soldiers of the regiment guarding the Winter Palace broke into the wine cellars of the palace and made off with a fair share of the 300,000 bottles there … One can smell the wine and spirits this afternoon more than a block away. Intoxication is noticeably increasing.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

28 November

Parliamentary report headed 'Mr Churchill on a Perilous Moment'
Mr Churchill, the Minister of Munitions, addressed a large meeting last night in the Corn Exchange, Bedford…
‘Anyone can see for himself what has happened in Russia. Russia has been thoroughly beaten by the Germans. Her great heart has been broken, not only by German might, but by German intrigue; not only by German steel, but by German gold. Russia has fallen on the ground prostrate in exhaustion and in agony. No one can tell what fearful vicissitudes will come to Russia or how or when she will arise, but arise she will. (Cheers.) It is this melancholy event which has prolonged the war, that has robbed the French and the British and the Italian armies of the prize that was, perhaps, almost within their reach this summer; it is this event, and this event alone, that has exposed us to perils and sorrows and sufferings which we have not deserved, which we cannot avoid, but under which we shall not bend.' (Loud cheers.)
(Report in The Times )

29 November

Stalin's Speech at the Congress of the Finnish Social Democratic Labour Party
I would like first of all to bring you the joyous news of the victories of the Russian Revolution … Bondage to the landlords has been broken, for power in the rural districts has passed into the hands of the peasants. The power of the generals has been broken, for power in the army is now concentrated in the hands of the soldiers. A curb has been put on the capitalists, for workers’ control is rapidly being established over the factories, works and banks. The whole country, the towns and villages, the rear and the front, is studded with revolutionary committees of workers, soldiers and peasants who are taking the reins of government in their own hands.
(V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, The Russian Revolution: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917 , London 1938)

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
If one had to describe the regime which Russia is suffering from at the moment, one could call it a ‘soldiers’ dictatorship’. It was the soldiers who supported the Bolsheviks, because they promised peace: now they tend to go even further than them and to carry Lenin along with them, in the unleashed flood of their animal instincts … Yesterday, on the corner of the Liteiny Prospekt and Furchtadskaya Street, two soldiers were bargaining for apples with an old woman street vendor. Deciding that the price was too high, one of them shot her in the head while the other ran her through with his bayonet. Naturally, nobody dared to do anything to the two soldier murderers, who went quietly on their way watched by an indifferent crowd and munching the apples which they had acquired so cheaply.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

30 November

Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
They are still plundering the wine-cellars: and in the morning the snow outside the ransacked shops is a purplish colour and smells of stale dregs … Among the cellar-wreckers there are also some men with good intentions who are trying to smash the bottles of wine to prevent drunkenness and disorder.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917-1918 , London 1969)

The Bolshevik government continued to try and destroy wine stores before the mob got to them: in the Duma cellars 36,000 bottles of brandy were smashed; three million rubles worth of champagne was destroyed elsewhere. There was, however, one unforeseen consequence of the job of the official bottle-smashers: even if they piously refrained from drinking any of the wine themselves, they became hopelessly inebriated from all the fumes.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917 , London 2017)

1 December

Diary entry of Joshua Butler Wright, Counselor of the American Embassy, Petrograd
Another night of continual shooting, seemingly centred in this part of the city and this morning we find that the wine and general provision shop on the corner of the next street was ransacked – as was the shoe shop next to it! The looting is spreading!! The same sort of thing is reported from all over the city. Accosted by a very drunk individual as Amerikanski tovarishch late this afternoon but managed to shake him off … Dined at Norwegian legation. A large diplomatic dinner strangely enough. Missed Harriet fearfully.
( Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright , London 2002)

2 December

The writer Maksim Gorky to his wife, E.P. Peshkova
I was not exactly ill, although I was a little unwell. A little discomfort in the lungs is nothing; I've had two sessions of X-ray treatment already and I'm feeling better. But my nerves are completely shattered. Completely. I can't sleep and my mood is so miserable that it's simply awful. I'm trying to hide from those around me, but how does one do that? Things are bad for Russia, bad! ... I hope you aren't going to the Crimea! Wait a bit!
( Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters , Oxford 1997)


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2 December 2017

I hadn’t clocked the extent of the wine episodes, post- both revolutions. It’s understandable that everyone should go a bit mad, particularly soldiers desensitised by their recent experience at the front. But the scale of it, described in these entries, is pretty extraordinary, with even the pious intentions of the bottle-smashers leading to inebriation! There’s a new book out by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa called Crime and Punishment in the Russian Revolution (Harvard University Press) that looks at the rise in violent crime between March 1917 and March 1918. He ascribes this partly to the new municipal police force that replaced the tsarist police and which was infiltrated, he claims, by former criminals. There was no proper judicial system and the prison system broke down. With people taking the law into their own hands, mob justice began to rule – something Lenin, according to Hasegawa, felt was an expression of justifiable popular anger against the bourgeois order… until it got out of hand, as the wine pogroms reveal, and the Bolsheviks ‘resorted to draconian measures: shoot to kill any criminals on the spot’. The author’s thesis is that the need to clamp down on this violent lawlessness led to all common crimes being deemed counter-revolutionary acts (and therefore under Cheka control) – and that ultimately this was an important factor in the establishment of a totalitarian state. Whether you accept this or not, it’s interesting to consider the role of alcohol in framing the Soviet century: wine – a symbol, perhaps, of bourgeois decadence – leading to tighter controls in the early days of Bolshevik rule; vodka – the scourge of the working man – playing its nefarious part in the system’s demise many decades later.

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)


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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)
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