The Russian Revolution week by week
29 January — 4 February 1917
A hundred years ago this year, Russia overthrew a monarchy and started off on a path that eventually led to 70 years of communism.
As publishers of books on Russian culture (www.fontanka.co.uk) we wanted to trace the events of this momentous year week by week, in personal testimony and memoir.
Letter from Aleksei Peshkov [Maxim Gorky] to his wife E.P. Peshkova, from Petrograd
I very much advise against your coming here, Katia! … The situation is critical. If transport stops for two weeks, famine will set in. There’s already no flour here. The session of the Duma probably won’t open on the 14th, although all manner of turmoil could occur on that day … Things here in general are alarming and grim, and there would be nothing for you to do. I’m giving a reading on the first. It will be a success. Zinovii Peshkov [Gorky’s godson] has been promoted to lieutenant, he has been sent by the French to America and is getting forty dollars a day! He’s having an affair with Countess Chernikh, wife of the Sarajevan consul, the one who aided the Austrian plot against Serbia. The countess, who is English by birth, asked her husband for a divorce when the war began, and now Zinovii’s turned up! … Aleksei Peshkov is working like an ox. I’ve caught a cold, I’ve lost my voice, I’m sneezing, and I’m afraid that I won’t get better by the first! But that’s nothing! Everything here is abominable. I say this to you not by way of consolation, but just because that’s how it is.
(Maksim Gorky: Selected Letters, Oxford 1997)
Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
A meeting with the Hermitage at 11, this time in the museum itself. All Hermitage people. Everyone extremely pleasant to me, from the director Dm. Iv. Tolstoi down. Seems they’ve decided to draw a veil over my article last year [about poor restoration of museum’s paintings] . Iskersky [curator] once again revealed a surprising degree of ignorance. The question of what to do with the large paintings at Gatchina Palace was also discussed. They include a huge forest landscape with figures, showing the ‘Flight into Egypt’ (Lipgart [curator of paintings] claims that it’s an early Titian! I’m more inclined to attribute it to Domenico Campagnola) … These paintings were taken to the Hermitage temporarily for restoration, but they would like to ‘incorporate’ them. Will the Dowager Empress [Maria Feodorovna] agree to this? After all, she is fundamentally opposed to any changes to Gatchina’s artistic ensemble: ‘As it was under the late Sovereign, so it must remain!’
(Alexander Benois , Diary 1916–1918 , Moscow 2006)
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Eleven workmen, members of the Central Committee of Military Industries, have just been arrested on a charge of ‘plotting a revolutionary movement with the object of proclaiming a republic’. Arrests of this kind are common enough in Russia, but in the ordinary way the public hears nothing about them. After a secret trial, the accused are sent to a state gaol or banished to the depths of Siberia. The press never mentions the matter, and quite frequently even their families do not know what has happened to their missing relative. The silence in which these summary convictions are wrapped has a good deal to do with the tragic notoriety of the Okhrana. But this time the element of mystery has been dispensed with. A sensational communiqué informs the press of the arrest of the twelve workmen. This is Protopopov’s way of showing how busy he is in saving tsarism and society.
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)
Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Visit from Scamoni [printer] again. He is convinced there won’t be any serious disturbances, only some isolated and fruitless strikes resulting from specific harassment of workers. But he’s basing his judgement on the business he runs — and the Golike-Vyborg printing house is run on far more cultured lines than many other, bigger enterprises. Their workers, it seems, are happy with their situation, which has greatly improved in recent times. ‘Their doorkeeper now earns more than the typesetter used to’.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916–1918, Moscow 2006)
Diary entry of James L. Houghteling, Jr, attaché at the American Embassy, Petrograd
This is a church holiday, and G. and I went out to Lyubertsi, the Harvester Company’s industrial town ten miles out, to ski with the Varkalas … The travelling was up-hill and down-dale but the snow was fairly hard and the air clear and exhilarating. We came to no fences nor boundary marks till we neared the monastery … After an hour we came out on the top of steep slopes above the valley of the Moskva River … Here we had glorious coasting, so good that we climbed up and tried again. On the second trip down, I carelessly raised one foot and had the pleasure of seeing my ski dash off down the hill ahead of me. Of course I had a beautiful fall and the rest of the slide was a mélange of hopping, tripping and bad language.
(James L. Houghteling, Jr, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, New York 1918)
Letter from Nicholas II to his cousin George V
My dearest Georgie,
I thank you very much for your kind long letter …The weak state of our railways has since long preoccupied me. The rolling stock has been and remains insufficient and we can hardly repair the worn out engines and cars, because nearly all the manufactories and fabrics of the country work for the army. That is why the question of transport of stores and food becomes acute, especially in winter, when the rivers and canals are frozen. Everything is being done to ameliorate this state of things which I hope will be overcome in April. But I never lose courage and egg on the ministers to make them and those under them work as hard as they can. But whatever the difficulties may be yet in store for us — we shall go on with this awful war to the end.
Alix and I send May and your children our fond love.
With my very best wishes for your welfare and happiness. Ever my dearest Georgie, your most devoted cousin and friend,
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion , London 1996)
Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
Moscow is dark, they’re not lighting the lamps. So of course the robbers are having a field day. What a difficult time! It’s not just the maid who’s barely surviving, even the cat Barsik has got as thin as a skeleton. There’s nothing to eat — he eats potato. Today I gave Masha 40 kopecks to buy him some offal. He loves it but when there’s nothing to buy, there’s nothing to give him. He’s already polished off every mouse going. Poor old cat.
(L.A. Tikhomirov, Diary 1915–1917, Moscow 2008)
4 February 2017
A review in the Guardian of the Royal Academy’s Revolution exhibition that’s due to open next weekend. In fact the article takes issue with the title rather than the exhibition, which the reviewer hasn’t yet seen, and whether it’s right to be celebrating revolutionary art in this way — art that glorifies the victory of a regime achieved through terrible bloodshed.
Not sure I agree with the premise, but it got me thinking about contemporary Russian or earlier Soviet attitudes to the seismic events of 1917. It’s easy (particularly for students of Russian art and literature) to be misty-eyed about a revolution that forged the work of poets and artists such as Mayakovsky, Stepanova and Rodchenko in its fire; less so perhaps for those who lived with the consequences. Dmitry Furman, who died in 2011, has been described as ‘a scholar … who joined political integrity and intellectual originality in a body of work that addressed the fate of his country, and the past of the world, in ways that were equally and strikingly passionate and dispassionate’.
In response to the ‘what ifs’, the different paths Russia could have taken in the early twentieth century, Furman wrote this: ‘This was, in the end, our revolution, engendered by our culture. In countries with a cultural tradition such as that of England, the USA or the Netherlands, this kind of revolution would be essentially impossible. With us, though, powerful forces were pushing us towards it, forces linked to internal cultural factors that were specifically ours: the cultural rift between the top and bottom of society; the ‘westernized’ orientation of the intelligentsia and its desire … not just to catch up with the West but surpass it and make Russia the lodestar for the whole world; the inflexibility of a political and ideological structure that made gradual, evolved development almost impossible; and the archaic mindset of the popular masses, who could only grasp revolutionary ideology in a quasi-religious form. Maybe there could have been other ways, perhaps less bloody, perhaps more so, but to imagine that if 1917 hadn’t happened Russia would have developed peacefully and quickly, and would now be some kind of USA-equivalent — it’s virtually impossible.’