from ‘1917 Illustrated - The Book of the Year’
'The Events of the Russian Revolution'
by Julius West

A Record of Notable Achievements and Events

photos by Donald Thompson


A revolution in Russia had long been recognised as inevitable, but its actual occurrence was only made possible by a series of accidents. The Imperial Court had authorised negotiations with Germany in 1916, with the object of concluding a separate peace. The military leaders at the front were hampered in every way; the supply of munitions and necessaries of every description was deliberately disorganised with the intention of rendering any plans for an offensive ineffective in advance. Roumania was betrayed to Germany by way of propitiation.

The first rumble of the coming storm was heard in the Duma on November 16th, 1916, two days after the opening of the session. Milyukov delivered a tumultuous attack on the Government, giving a detailed account of the Germanophile intrigues of Sturmer, the Premier, and hinting obliquely but obviously at the personal influence of the Empress—and Rasputin. The speech caused an enormous sensation. Its publication was prohibited by the censorship, but this measure merely stimulated the wide circulation of privately printed reports. Milyukov's daring intervention was enthusiastically applauded, and the Naval and War Ministers lost no time in declaring that the army and the navy were solidly behind the Duma. Within a few days Sturmer resigned, and the Naval and War Ministers were dismissed.

It had by this time become clear that the old regime was in danger. The Government therefore decided to rely on the tactics of 1906. It would provoke demonstrations, and crush them. By picking out the leaders, it would obviate the probability of a serious rising. The demonstrations would be used as an explanation to Russia's Allies of the impossibility of her continued military help, and an excuse for concluding the longed-for separate peace. For four further months, consequently, the Government artistically nourished the already existing discontent. The food supplies of the great towns were scientifically disorganised, until prices reached a level beyond the wildest dreams of an English profiteer. All the restrictions which irritate were brought into play. The press censorship was made more drastic. Workmen were arrested on trivial pretexts. A few strikes and lock-outs were arranged; these also had the effect of checking the supply of munitions.


magazine photo of Rasputin


Death of Rasputin

On New Year's Eve, Rasputin was killed by two men related to the Imperial family, and by Purishkevitch, a member of the Duma, who had distinguished himself before the war by the noisy fury with which he had defended the old regime. The press had been forbidden to mention Rasputin living. Rasputin dead, however, was the subject of notices which ran to acres rather than columns. All the scandals with which he was connected were dragged into daylight, and discussed. The week following his death saw the poor remains of the prestige of the Imperial family finally demolished. It followed, therefore, that the Government, though it might to a certain extent succeed in withdrawing popular sentiment from the war, could not attract it to the support of the Autocracy.

It will be seen, consequently, that everything began to turn against the Government. The Army at the front opposed it, because it attempted to hinder the war. Some Socialist organisations were working underground against the Government because it was carrying on a war. The land-owning nobility attacked the Court because it was traitorous. Orthodox religious opinion refused its support because of the scandal of the bishops nominated by Rasputin. Liberal, middle-class opinion opposed the Government for its reaction. The working classes showed signs of restiveness as the result of the increased cost of living.

The Government, however, blindly went on making preparations to deal with a rising of quite amateur dimensions, heedless of the forces which it was uniting against itself. The Court suspected nothing. On March 12th, when street fighting was going on, and the Duma had already taken over the control of things, one of my friends met Apraxin, a secretary of the Empress, wandering about the streets of Petrograd. "The Empress believes nothing," he said; "she has been told by telephone and telegram that a revolution has broken out, and all she says is 'The soldiers will put it down this time as they have done before I've come here from Tsarskoye Selo to see for myself. Perhaps she'll believe it then." And the Emperor, on being told by Shulgin, very shortly after the signature of the Act of Abdication, that it might have been avoided if he had consented to a responsible Cabinet a few months earlier, dreamily- asked, "Do you think so?" Neither Emperor nor Empress had suspected the forces collecting against them.

About the beginning of March, the Government decided that the moment had come to stage-manage the riot necessary to its purpose. Machine-guns were mounted on house-tops, ostensibly for protection from hostile aircraft.


photos by Donald Thompson


How the Revolution Began

It is all but impossible to say exactly how the Revolution began, at what point the incidents of industrial warfare and the excited discussions of men and women assembled in food queues developed into an anti-government movement. On March 6th, some bakers' shops were looted. The next day a lock-out occurred at the Putilov works, and the employees marched in threatening processions through the industrial quarters of Petrograd. On March 8th, a number of strikes and the first conflicts between workmen and police took place. On March 9th, the strike movement had practically spread into every large factory in the town, and street fighting was in progress in many places. On the 10th the protection of the town from the strikers was placed in the hands of the military, but many of the men put on guard were recent recruits, not thoroughly disciplined and a good deal of fraternisation was noticed. The Progressive Bloc (including the majority of the Deputies) met in the Duma and condemned the Government; by this action the Duma became the centre of the struggle.

March 11th (Sunday) was the turning-point. All Petrograd was in the streets. Orators at street-corners proclaimed a revolution. Either on this day or the previous one a Cossack officer had ordered his men to attack a detachment of mounted police who were dispersing a crowd. The garrison troops in many cases refused to obey orders and discussed the situation instead. The greater number of the casualties of the Revolution were suffered on this Sunday. On this day Rodzianko, the President of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Emperor offering him his last chance. "It is necessary to summon quickly persons enjoying the confidence of the country to form a new Government. Delay is impossible. Every delay is equivalent to death. I pray God that a share of the responsibility should not fall on him who bears the crowu." The message was also wired to Generals Brussilov and Russky, with the request that they should intercede with the Emperor. Both Generals accepted the invitation. But it was too late to save the monarchy. On the previous day (Saturday, the 10th) Nicholas had signed an ukaze proroguing the Duma. This arrived in Petrograd on the Monday morning. Rodzianko immediately summoned a meeting of the leaders of the parties forming the Progressive Bloc. It was decided that the Duma should ignore the ukaze.

In the meantime the garrison had got completely out of hand. Officers and men alike had turned against the police. Prisons and police-courts were attacked by the people. It appears that the incendiary efforts often secured the enthusiastic, if anonymous, co-operation of the police, who were more than willing to help in the destruction of the records of their past. For three days, for example, tanks of petrol kept arriving at the police court in the Liteiny Prospect, brought by unknown men from unknown stores. As it is, however, lists of thousands of agents provocateurs came to light (with details of their activities) in various parts of the country, and were duly published in the papers.

The Soldiers Support the Duma

By Monday morning, apparently, no less than 25,00a soldiers had decided to support the Duma. The Prime Minister, Prince Golitsin, who had, only two days earlier, countersigned the Tsar's ukaze, now telephoned his resignation to Rodzianko. During the day the other members of the cabinet surrendered to the Duma or sent in their resignations. The late Minister of Justice, Shcheglovitov surrendered to his successor in office, a young man who led a little party in the Duma known as the "Group of Labour"—the only Socialist party which had supported the war. The name of the young man was Kerensky.

An event of the utmost importance occurred at the Duma during this wonderful day. An immense procession including the Volhynsky and Simeonovsky regiments, (the first to revolt), marched up to the Duma. They were met by Kerensky and by Cheidse, the latter a Georgian Socialist Deputy, who, speaking in the name of the hastily-constructed temporary Executive Committee of the Duma, took over for an hour or two the command of the revolutionary troops. He posted sentries about the Taurida Palace. Now a few hours earlier Cheidse had summoned a meeting at the Palace of a committee which had been conducting an anti-Government agitation for several years — the Council of Workmen's Delegates. This published a proclamation, in the course of the day, to the workmen and soldiers of Petrograd, inviting them to elect representatives at the rate of one soldier from every company, and one workman from every thousand. So the Council of Workers and Soldiers' Delegates was formed, Cheidse remaining its Chairman. It is important to note that the C.W.S.D. was in existence, publishing appeals, and acting as if the Duma had delegated its powers to it, three clear days before the first Provisional Government was formed. The Provisional Government has not yet made up for being left behind at the start in this manner.


photos by Donald Thompson


Mutiny at Cronstadt

During the next three days the excitement subsided very considerably. Crowds of working-men and soldiers stormed the Peter and Paul fortress, the Kresty Prison, and the Arsenal. The weapons acquired in the process were used to finish off the gendarmerie, who, perched up on housetops, were still firing on the people. The garrison at Cronstadt mutinied, murdered an unpopular Admiral, and acted with great cruelty towards a large number of its officers. The gendarmerie melted away. The principal Ministers and officials of the old regime were arrested or disappeared. The quantity of bloodshed was almost miraculously small; a week or two later the total number of casualties in Petrograd was officially reported to be in the neighbourhood of 2,000, of which only about 150 were deaths.

On Thursday, March 15th, the temporary Executive Committee of the Duma settled on the constitution of the Provisional Government. It was left to Milyukov to announce the names and the intentions of the New Ministry. The great Catherine Hall of the Taurida Palace was crammed with an enthusiastic mass of soldiers and civilians to hear the man who had done more than any other to defeat the old order. His statement of the personnel and the aims of the Provisional Government was tumultuously applauded, and Milyukov, having shouted himself hoarse, was carried out of the Hall, shoulder-high, by the only unanimous crowd which the Revolution has yet succeeded in producing. He was followed by Kerensky. The latter had been vice-chairman of the Council of Workmen's Delegates in its underground days. On being appointed Minister of Justice he had seen fit to appear before the new C.W.S.D. to ask for their sanction. He and Cheidse had, between them, influenced the selection of the mmbers of the Provisional Government. Kerensky now made it appear that the C.W.S.D. were the dominant partner, without whose approval the Provisional Government could do nothing, and maintained that the "cost" of the C.W.S.D.'s support would be an amnesty for all political offenders, and the equivalent of a Habeas Corpus. So began the dual control which was to prove so disastrous in the next few months.

The Tsar Abdicates

The same evening, close on midnight, Gutchkov (now War Minister) and Shulgin found the Tsar in the Imperial train, returning from the front, and invited him to abdicate in favour of his son Alexis, with the Grand Duke Michael as Regent. The Emperor impassively told the deputation that he would not be parted from his son, but would abdicate entirely in favour of his brother. Nicholas drafted his own Act of Abdication, behaving throughout with dignity, almost with cordiality. The next day, the Grand Duke Michael refused the Crown, unless it were offered him by the Constituent Assembly. Since that day the question of the return to power of the Romanovs has not been reopened, and it is doubtful if it will ever be.

The Revolution in the Provinces was accomplished with even less disorder than in Petrograd. A routine of revolution may be said to have established itself, consisting of excited crowds, processions, the formation of local C.W.S.D.s, the acceptance of the Provisional Government by some officials and the arrest of the others by the C.W.S.D.s. Disturbances occurred in some cases, especially at towns with large garrisons, e.g., at Reval and Helsingfors. The Revolution, nevertheless, was Petrograd's affair, in the sense that the capital had to bear the bulk of the losses and see to the greater part of the staging. It should be borne in mind that the Petrograd of the Revolution was not the Petrograd of the Romanovs. Things had been changing rapidly during the three years of the war. In 1914, there were, it is said, between 80,000 and 85,000 metal-workers in Petrograd. During the next three years, about 40,000 of these were called up. The total number of metal-workers nevertheless increased to 350,000. A new population of about 300,000 adults had drifted from the villages into an already overcrowded capital. The garrison had been increased. The flood of deserters from the army had begun to flow even before the Revolution. Perhaps a million adult Russians, for the most part illiterate, used to a low standard of life, had been added to Petrograd. Among these newcomers extravagant doctrines, religious, political and economic, found cheerful adherents. It was the newcomers who made the Petrograd C.W.S.D. unstable both as to intention and execution. To a certain extent the phenomenon of a huge "floating" population could be observed in all the great industrial centres, but not so strikingly as in the capital of Peter.

The Return of Lenin

It will be gathered from the foregoing account that the Revolution was singularly poor in dramatic episodes. After the restoration of order, life in Russia settled down to an almost normal rhythm, interrupted only by such relatively insignificant incidents as Conferences, demonstrations, "expropriations” of landowners by peasants, and infrequent outbreaks against the newly established order. The most interesting of the last was the agitation conducted by and around Lenin. He returned to Russia from his Swiss exile about a month after the Revolution. —travelling across Germany. On his arrival in Petrograd, he received the enthusiastic ovation which was then given to all returning exiles. He then began to preach his " peace-at-any-price" and anarchist- communist doctrines, but found his audiences were small and impatient. With an armed body of followers he descended upon a villa occupied by a ballet-dancer, Ksheshinskaya, and upon the editorial and printing offices of the Ministry of Agriculture. The former coup gave him a headquarters at an important strategic point in Petrograd; the latter gave him a press and a vast supply of paper, which combined to produce a little daily sheet named Pravda ("Truth"), which attacked everybody (especially the Provisional Government) and every country (especially the Allies) and demanded immediate peace, and the disintegration of Russia into small self- governing republics. It also demanded a genuine revolution, a "social revolution," with the consequent violent extinction of the "bourgeois," and the "capitalist class." There are reasons to believe that Lenin is a fanatic; a fool rather than a rogue. But his propaganda was cultivated by German agents who realised its disruptive possibilities, and Lenin, willy-nilly, became the centre of enemy influences and of entirely unpolitical crime, carried on under a Socialist mask. Not until the end of July did the Provisional Government venture to suppress Lenin's activities by force, and even then the principal actor was allowed to escape.

The beginning and rise of the Petrograd C.W.S.D. has already been described. Although the Executive Committee altered the basis of representation, soon after the beginning, almost solid in its support of the Government, but its influence was spoilt in advance by the vacillations of its predecessor, the first Petrograd C.W.S.D. Every occasion of the reconstitution of the Government—and the indications are that these will be pretty frequent—will almost certainly be accompanied by a tussle between the Octobrists and Constitutional Democrats ("Cadets"), representing the liberal middle- classes, on one hand, and the C.W.S.D. on the other. The latter's influence drove Milyukov out of the Provisional Government, two months after its formation, and forced the Cabinet, until then predominantly a Cadet body, to add five Socialists to its members. Of these, two, Tseretelli and Skobelev, have done much to stabilise matters, one has gone, one is colourless, and the remaining one, Chernov, was largely responsible for the second reconstitution of the Government, in August, 1917, owing to his intransigent attitude on the land question.

The government of Russia has been very largely a case of government by Conferences. The central authority was weak and divided; hence nothing could interfere with the political activities of any powerful group. As a result of this state of things, and partly under the influence of Communist doctrinaires, a movement for the independence of various areas was soon obvious. Cronstadt, the island-fortress which guards Petrograd from attack from the sea, was one of the first places to declare its "independence," and accompanied its action by a few atrocities. Villages, towns, and areas of every size threatened to split off from Russia. The Finnish Diet passed a bill declaring itself independent through every stage but the last, when the Provisional Government intervened, and the Diet (or Seign), lost its nerve. Finland's attempt to break away was accompanied by a similar movement on the part of Karelia, (the Eastern part of Finland with the Province of Oolnets and part of Archangel), which has an area exceeding that of the United Kingdom, and a population below that of Manchester. The most serious movement of this sort was an attempt, fomented by Austria, to secure the independence of the Ukraine, with its population of 25,000,000, extending across the whole south of Russia.

The Desertions from the Army

For some months before the Revolution, feeling in the Army had been turning against the Government, and, as a natural consequence, against the war. Desertions were frequent, and discipline was generally unstable. Immediately after the Revolution, the Provisional Government and the C.W.S.D. published a "Declaration of the Rights of the Soldier." All corporal punishment and the death penalty in the army was abolished, saluting was made optional, a soldier was to be on the same level as a civilian in respect of freedom of association, etc., and his officers' control was limited in several directions. It was expected that this enfranchisement of the soldier would have the effect of stiffening up discipline. The Army, unfortunately, largely composed as it was of entirely illiterate peasants, failed to respond to the trust which was being placed in it. Desertions immediately increased. Rumours of land redistribution sent many tens of thousands of soldiers home to their villages, lest they should be left out when the new share-out took place. It is difficult to estimate the total number of desertions in July, the number of deserters who had returned to the front was officially given as 200,000—obviously a much smaller figure than the actual desertions. Against this movement to the rear must be set a movement forwards, on the part of several units loyal to the Revolution, who were not at the front when the flood of desertions began, and who wished to be sent forward at once as an example to the weaker brethren.

Such have been the outstanding features of the Revolution. They have been accompanied by every form of economic unrest and instability, the effect of which, however, may not be so devastating as might be imagined. Russia's social and industrial structure may be likened to a Japanese house; the simplicity of the architecture makes earthquakes comparatively harmless and inexpensive. There can be no doubt that the Russia of, say 1937, will abundantly justify the Revolution.

If the Revolution has been curiously unspectacular in its development, it has nevertheless provided the world with one of the most wonderful exhibitions of human determination which the world has ever seen. There are few figures in history to compare with Kerensky; the young man who, while suffering from an incurable disease, succeeded by his stupendous vitality in checking the forces of disruption, and making himself the incarnation of all that is finest in the Revolutionary idea.

Julius West

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