The Russian Revolution week by week
8–14 October 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 Lenin to the Bolshevik Comrades attending the Regional Congress of the Soviets of the Northern Region
Comrades, Our revolution is passing through a highly critical period … A gigantic task is being imposed upon the responsible leaders of our Party, failure to perform which will involve the danger of a total collapse of the internationalist proletarian movement. The situation is such that verily, procrastination is like unto death … In the vicinity of Petrograd and in Petrograd itself — that is where the insurrection can, and must, be decided on and effected … The fleet, Kronstadt, Viborg, Reval, can and must advance on Petrograd; they must smash the Kornilov regiments, rouse both the capitals, start a mass agitation for a government which will immediately give the land to the peasants and immediately make proposals for peace, and must overthrow Kerensky’s government and establish such a government. Verily, procrastination is like unto death.
(V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, The Russian Revolution: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917, London 1938)
Report in The Times
The Maximalist [Bolshevik], M. Trotsky, President of the Petrograd Soviet, made a violent attack on the Government, describing it as irresponsible and assailing its bourgeois elements, ‘who,’ he continued, ‘by their attitude are causing insurrection among the peasants, increasing disorganisation and trying to render the Constituent Assembly abortive.’ ‘The Maximalists,’ he declared, ‘cannot work with the Government or with the Preliminary Parliament, which I am leaving in order to say to the workmen, soldiers, and peasants that Petrograd, the Revolution, and the people are in danger.’ The Maximalists then left the Chamber, shouting, ‘Long live a democratic and honourable peace! Long live the Constituent Assembly!’
(‘Opening of Preliminary Parliament’, The Times)
As Sukhanov left his home for the Soviet on the morning of the 10th, his wife Galina Flakserman eyed nasty skies and made him promise not to try to return that night, but to stay at his office … Unlike her diarist husband, who was previously an independent and had recently joined the Menshevik left, Galina Flakserman was a long-time Bolshevik activist, on the staff of Izvestia. Unbeknownst to him, she had quietly informed her comrades that comings and goings at her roomy, many-entranced apartment would be unlikely to draw attention. Thus, with her husband out of the way, the Bolshevik CC came visiting. At least twelve of the twenty-one-committee were there … There entered a clean-shaven, bespectacled, grey-haired man, ‘every bit like a Lutheran minister’, Alexandra Kollontai remembered. The CC stared at the newcomer. Absent-mindedly, he doffed his wig like a hat, to reveal a familiar bald pate. Lenin had arrived.
(China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, London 2017)
Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of History! This supreme and decisive session took place in my own home … without my knowledge … For such a cardinal session not only did people come from Moscow, but the Lord of Hosts himself, with his henchman, crept out of the underground. Lenin appeared in a wig, but without his beard. Zinoviev appeared with a beard, but without his shock of hair. The meeting went on for about ten hours, until about 3 o’clock in the morning … However, I don’t actually know much about the exact course of this meeting, or even about its outcome. It’s clear that the question of an uprising was put … It was decided to begin the uprising as quickly as possible, depending on circumstances but not on the Congress.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record, Oxford 1955)
British Consul Arthur Woodhouse in a letter home
Things are coming to a pretty pass here. I confess I should like to be out of it, but this is not the time to show the white feather. I could not ask for leave now, no matter how imminent the danger. There are over 1,000 Britishers here still, and I and my staff may be of use and assistance to them in an emergency.
(Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917, London 2017)
Memoir of Fedor Raskolnikov, naval cadet at Kronstadt
The proximity of a proletarian rising in Russia, as prologue to the world socialist revolution, became the subject of all our discussions in prison … Even behind bars, in a stuffy, stagnant cell, we felt instinctively that the superficial calm that outwardly seemed to prevail presaged an approaching storm … At last, on October 11, my turn [for release] came … Stepping out of the prison on to the Vyborg-Side embankment and breathing in deeply the cool evening breeze that blew from the river, I felt that joyous sense of freedom which is known only to those who have learnt to value it while behind bards. I took a tram at the Finland Station and quickly reached Smolny … In the mood of the delegates to the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region which was taking place at that time .. an unusual elation, an extreme animation was noticeable … They told me straightaway that the CC had decided on armed insurrection. But there was a group of comrades, headed by Zinoviev and Kamenev, who did not agree with this decision and regarded a rising a premature and doomed to defeat.
(F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, New York 1982, first published 1925)
Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia
On [Kerensky] expressing the fear that there was a strong anti-Russian feeling both in England and France, I said that though the British public was ready to make allowances for her difficulties, it was but natural that they should, after the fall of Riga, have abandoned all hope of her continuing to take an active part in the war … Bolshevism was at the root of all the evils from which Russia was suffering, and if he would but eradicate it he would go down to history, not only as the leading figure of the revolution, but as the saviour of his country. Kerensky admitted the truth of what I had said, but contended that he could not do this unless the Bolsheviks themselves provoked the intervention of the Government by an armed uprising.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia, London 1923)
Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Kerensky is becoming more and more unpopular, in spite of certain grotesque demonstrations such as this one: the inhabitants of a district in Central Russia have asked him to take over the supreme religious power, and want to make him into a kind of Pope as well as a dictator, whereas even the Tsar was really neither one nor the other. Nobody takes him seriously, except in the Embassy. A rather amusing sonnet about him has appeared, dedicated to the beds in the Winter Palace, and complaining that they are reserved for hysteria cases … for Alexander Feodorovich (Kerensky’s first names) and then Alexandra Feodorovna (the Empress).
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)
14 October 2017
The BBC2 semi-dramatisation of how the Bolsheviks took power, shown this week, was a curious thing. Talking heads in the form of Figes, Mieville, Rappaport, Sebag-Montefiore, Tariq Ali, Martin Amis and others were interspersed with moody reconstructions of late-night meetings, and dramatic moments such as Lenin’s unbearded return to the Bolshevik CC (cf Sukhanov above). The programme felt rather staged and unconvincing, with a lot of agonised expressions and fist-clenching by Lenin, but the reviewers liked it. Odd, though, that Eisenstein’s storming of the Winter Palace is rolled out every time, with a brief disclaimer that it’s a work of fiction and yet somehow presented as historical footage. There’s a sense of directorial sleight of hand, as if the rather prosaic taking of the palace desperately needs a re-write. In some supra-historical way, Eisenstein’s version has become the accepted version. John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, currently being serialised on Radio 4, is also presented with tremendous vigour, and properly so as the book is nothing if not dramatic. Historical truth, though, is often as elusive in a book that was originally published — in 1919 — with an introduction by Lenin. ‘Reed was not’, writes one reviewer, ‘an ideal observer. He knew little Russian, his grasp of events was sometimes shaky, and his facts were often suspect.’ Still, that puts him in good company, and Reed is undoubtedly a good read.