The Russian Revolution week by week

2–15 April 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.


Statue of Lenin outside the Finland Station, St Petersburg

3 April 
Lenin and his party arrived in Petrograd on April 3 at 11.10 p.m. It happened to be the final day of the All-Russian Bolshevik Conference, and his followers prepared him for a welcome accorded to no other political figure in post-tsarist Russia. As the train pulled into Finland station, a band struck up the ‘Marseillaise’; outside the terminal stood an armoured car illuminated by a projector. Lenin mounted the car to deliver a short message, and then, followed by a crowd, rode to Kshesinskaia’s villa. There he delivered a speech whose militancy stupefied everyone present. Its thrust was that the transition from the ‘bourgeois’ phases of the revolution to the socialist one had to be accomplished in a matter of weeks rather than years … Later that day Lenin read to his followers a document which came to be known as ‘the April Theses’. It impressed most members of his audience as written by someone out of touch with reality, if not positively mad. Lenin proposed renunciation of the war; immediate transition to the next phase of the Revolution; denial of any support to the Provisional Government; transfer of all power to the soviets; dissolution of the army in favour of a people’s militia; confiscation of landlord property and nationalization of all land; integration of Russia’s financial institutions into a single National Bank under soviet supervision; soviet control of production and distribution; and creation of a new International. 
(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
I cannot forget that speech, like a flash of lightning, which shook and astonished not only me, a heretic accidentally thrown into delirium, but also the true believers. I aver that no one had expected anything like it. It seemed as if all the elemental forces had risen from their lairs and the spirit of universal destruction, which knew no obstacles, no doubts, neither human difficulties nor human calculations, circled in Ksheskinskaia’s hall above the heads of the enchanted disciples. 
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record, Oxford 1955)


4 April
Cable from German agent in Stockholm to Berlin 
Lenin’s entry into Russia was successful. He is working exactly as we desire.

(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


Resolution of workers of the Petrograd Pipe Factory, printed in Izvestiia
We, the workers of shop no. 3 at the Petrograd Pipe Factory, having assembled in a meeting of 2,600, are deeply indignant at the persecution on the part of the bourgeois press and various dark and ignorant persons who, while trying to sow hostility between workers and soldiers, say that the workers are not working but only demanding an increase in their wages and an eight-hour day. This, comrade soldiers, is not true. We appreciate the gravity of the present moment and, aware that our brothers and fathers are sitting there in the damp trenches, defending our Free and Great Russia, we are prepared to work not eight but twelve hours, and more if necessary and if we have the metal, material, and fuel. We ask you, comrade soldiers, not to believe the various provocative rumours but to select a delegation and send them to see us in the factories … With comradely greetings, the workers of shop no. 3.
 
Chairman of the meeting, F. Golakhov, Secretary, I. Gavrilov 
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917, New Haven and London 2001)


5 April
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
This morning Miliukov gleefully remarked to me: ‘Lenin was a hopeless failure with the Soviet yesterday. He argued the pacifist cause so heatedly, and with such effrontery and lack of tact, that he was compelled to stop and leave the room amidst a storm of booing. He will never survive it.’ I answered him in Russian fashion: ‘God grant it!’ But I very much fear that once again Miliukov will prove the dupe of his own optimism. Lenin’s arrival is in fact represented to me as the most dangerous ordeal the Russian revolution could have to face.
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


6 April
Report in The Times (from our own correspondent in the Balkan peninsula)
Odessa: The revolutionary movement pursues its course in Southern Russia with a tranquillity that seems almost miraculous. Here in Odessa there has not been a drop of blood shed. Meetings have been held, orderly demonstrations have taken place in the streets, but there have been no riots. Travelling hither from Jassy last Monday I was unable to discover any symptoms of popular excitement. The railway stations presented their usual aspect. All railway employees and the police have sworn fidelity to the new regime. Trains have become more punctual and supplies of provisions now reach Odessa more regularly. In all this this region a heavy snowfall has been followed by a rapid thaw, and the floods have claimed more victims than the bloodless revolution.
(‘The Revolution in Southern Russia: Tranquil Transformation’, The Times )


8 April
Memoirs of Count Benckendorf
On this day, the officer commanding the incoming Guard was a former sergeant-major who, as soon as he had arrived at the Palace, had made himself conspicuous by his violence and his revolutionary opinions. He wished to search the Palace, threatening everyone with worse treatment if he found anything suspicious. When the Emperor held out his hand, he moved a step back and said, ‘Not for anything in the world.’ Then the Emperor advanced a step and said, ‘What have you got against me?’ He remained open-mouthed, turned on his heel, and left the room.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


Report in The Times (by a ‘competent observer, who witnessed the Revolution in Russia, and has just returned to Western Europe’)
The most astonishing feature of the whole Revolution was the revelation of the weakness of the Tsar’s hold upon the people, peasants and workmen alike. He was nothing to them, hardly even a name. I have visited several parts of the country since the Revolution, and have nowhere found regret at the abdication of the Tsar. The peasants are far more interested in the local landowners than in the ex-Emperor. They seem scarcely to have been affected by the propaganda for a free distribution of the land, but have in many places expressed a wish to be allowed to buy land at fair prices from the Government. It is true that one peasant woman whom I saw wept on hearing of the abdication of the Tsar. ‘How shall we now say our prayers?’ she asked tearfully. It was explained to her that she could now pray for the Duma. This substitution of the name of the Duma for that of the Tsar is now widespread in Russia: and prayers are daily offered for the welfare and health of the Duma.
(‘How Tsardom Fell. New Sidelights on the Revolution’, The Times)


10 April
Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to the Imperial Court
Kerensky dined at the Embassy last night … and in a long conversation I told him quite frankly why my confidence in the army, and even in the Provisional Government, was shaken. He admitted the accuracy of the facts which I cited, but said that he knew his people and that he only hoped that the Germans would not delay taking the offensive, as, when once the fighting began, the army would pull itself together. He wanted, he said, to make the war a national one, as it was in England and France. He saw no danger of the Provisional Government being overthrown, as only a small minority of the troops were on the side of the Soviet. He added that the Communistic doctrines preached by Lenin have made the Socialists lose ground.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia , London 1923)


14 April
Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
First of all — there can be no doubt about it — Lenin is an extraordinary phenomenon, a man of absolutely exceptional intellectual power … he represents an unusually happy combination of theoretician and popular leader … The Bolshevik party was the work of his hands, and his alone. The very thought of going against Lenin was frightening and odious, and required from the Bolshevik mass what it was incapable of giving … without Lenin, there was nothing and no one in the party.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record, Oxford 1955)


15 April 2017
Quite an interesting counter-factual piece in the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, wondering what would have happened if the war had not sapped morale to the extent that it did, and Russia had continued to a victorious conclusion:

‘Let’s suppose that the arctic conditions didn’t happen, the workers’ protests weren’t so widespread, the demonstrators weren’t harried and so on — and that the Russian empire continued more or less without a hitch until the spring. What would then have happened? Russia, having survived the winter with enormous difficulty, tries with all its might to hold the front. Soldiers are increasingly less keen to fight, but the front holds and Germany is forced to retain the strength of its forces. In April 1917 the USA enters the fray. Since the informal truce between Russia and Turkey doesn’t happen, the advance by English troops into Mesopotamia is far more successful. By the end of 1917 it’s clear that Germany cannot continue the war and the hope that Russia will pull out is not envisaged. Germany capitulates by the end of the year. Russia receives its cherished Bosphorus and Dardanelles, and as victor claims it share in the war indemnity. The army quickly and at times randomly reduces from 7 million men under arms at the end of the war to the pre-war figure of 1.5 million. Another 3 million are released from captivity. Most of them are peasants. They’re embittered, tired of war, they’ve learnt how to kill and handle a weapon. The victorious tsar is garlanded with laurels. The capital celebrates the victory. But who has benefited? The elite, of course … But the land question hasn’t gone away, particularly with the peasants returning from the war to find destruction, sometimes family members killed, land or property taken off them. And this is not all. The country is hit by inflation. Prices are three times higher than before the war. The main pre-war trading partners — Germany and Austro-Hungary — lie in ruins. Industry has been shifted onto a war footing and cannot meet the needs of the population. The regions are populated by refugees, displaced people, prisoners. Everyone wants to get home as quickly as possible. The roads are paralysed by a scarcity of engines and trucks. There’s little bread, but the cities in any case can’t offer the villages goods in exchange for food. Furthermore, the soldiers who have spent time in Europe, especially the Russian expeditionary force that fought in France, are now convinced that life over there is better. As a result, in the spring of 1918 the country undergoes an epidemic of peasant unrest, led by those who fought on the front. Estates are put to the torch, officials are killed, the country comes to a halt. The army doesn’t want to fight against its former comrades-in-arms. In many provinces the soldiers stand alongside the peasants. The cities are beset by uprisings from lack of bread. The Duma accuses the government and tsar of being unable to resolve the peasant issue. Political activity becomes more extreme, particularly in the case of the Socialist Revolutionary party. A huge number of soviets are created as an alternative source of authority.’

The end result, the author concludes, of this ‘alternative history’ is almost certainly revolution, removal of the tsar, and a bitter civil war; in other words, what actually happened, just delayed by a year or so. The key event was therefore not the revolution as such but Russia’s involvement in the First World War, which was little short of inevitable. It was this, he suggests, which led to the ‘catastrophe of 1917’.