The Russian Revolution week by week

5–11 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.


One of many personal testimonies and memoirs of the Russian Revolution, from the stacks of the London Library

5 February
Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
There were two intelligent men: Alexander III and Bismarck. Bismarck said ‘never fight against Russia’. Alexander III said, ‘don’t get involved with either Germany or England’. Both the Germans and we managed to forget the words of those intelligent men and now we’re paying for it.
(L.A. Tikhomirov, Diary 1915–1917, Moscow 2008)


Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to the Imperial Court, in a telegraph to the Foreign Office
Though attacks are occasionally made on us as in the reactionary gutter Press, the anti-British campaign has died out and Anglo-Russian relations were never better than at present … It may, indeed, be safely said that the mass of the people fully appreciate the enormous services which Great Britain is rendering with her fleet, her armies and her purse, and that it is to her that they look for the realization of their hopes of final victory … 
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia, London 1923)


6 February 
Diary entry of James L. Houghteling, Jr, attaché at the American Embassy, Petrograd
I heard yesterday the story of the spiritualist séance engineered by Protopopoff for the Tsar. It was at Tsarskoe Selo. The Tsar, Tsarina, their two eldest daughters, the minister and his right-hand man gathered around the table. Suddenly Protopopoff grew rigid, with set eyes and tense arms outstretched; then after some minutes he pulled himself together and said, ‘There has just appeared to me the spirit of St. Gregory Rasputin; and he bids us continue to strengthen the Holy Autocracy.’ The Tsar sat staring and believed every word of it. I hear this story is current, with some variations, and is regarded as gospel truth, in many ‘well-informed circles.’
(James L. Houghteling, Jr, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, New York 1918)


9 February 
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
I have just been reading the letters of Tchadaiev, a paradox-loving and discerning author, the ironical enemy of Slav particularism and the great and inspired philosopher who thundered his eloquent prophecies at the Russian people in or about the year 1840. I have incidentally noted the following profound observation: “The Russians are one of those nations which seem to exist only to give humanity terrible lessons. Of a certainty these lessons will not be wasted. But who can foretell the sufferings and trials in store for Russia before she returns to the normal course of her destiny and her place in the bosom of humanity?”
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


10 February 
Diary entry of Olga, eldest daughter of Nicholas and Alexandra
Have an earache — lying down — Polyakov examined, and said it was the inflammation of the middle ear. Had breakfast with Papa and Linevich. Mama in daybed. During the day in bed. 36,8, 37,2, 38,2, 38,0 [body temperature through the day] . At 6 lay down on the sofa in the Red Room … Mama and Papa came by. Fell asleep early until 12 o’clock, then almost didn’t sleep at all. 
(The Diary of Olga Romanov, Yardley 2014)


11 February 
Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
In the evening went to Vasily Zubov’s lecture in the Tenishev hall. He was talking about Fra Angelico — all familiar things but I enjoyed seeing many of the frescoes almost life size on the screen, and small paintings enlarged to the dimensions of huge altarpieces … The Catholic bishop was there again, with a few prelates. Princess Shakhovskaya (the pilot) gave them sweets and wine in the interval. As my childhood attachment to the religion of my ancestors, and the enjoyment of its pomp and ceremony, hasn’t yet completely died, I rather enjoy this type of stranglehold that Catholicism has over Russian society (I even allowed myself the pleasure of kissing His Holiness’s ring). All the same, it goes without saying that there’s no point expecting any enlightenment from that quarter! There, in the innermost depths, is just the same idiocy as everywhere else, as is evident from the fat, round, bland and completely closed-off faces of these senior servants of the papal state.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916–1918 , Moscow 2006)


11 February 2017 
After a few weeks there are several ‘characters’ emerging. The urbane French ambassador Paléologue, his slightly self-satisfied British counterpart Buchanan, the waspish Tikhomirov for whom the shortage of flour is a truly ominous sign, the American attaché Houghteling who seems to find it all a bit of a gas, the cerebral Benois whose views were not untypical of the day but give us pause a century later. Most of them have stepped out of the shelves of the London Library where one of my time-wasting amusements is to look at the ‘exit’ stamps in the flyleaves (yes, I am that sad). It’s not uncommon to find books that have not been taken out for decades, and one or two that have never ventured beyond St James’s Square. When sentenced to five years of doctoral study a while ago, I soon realised that the Library was my lifeline — not just because it had such a remarkable Russian collection, but because nobody else seemed to have discovered it! Quite a number of books on St Petersburg’s more arcane cultural history took up long-term residence in Yorkshire, with an occasional, slightly apologetic, reminder from the Library to confirm that they were still in my safekeeping. For all this it seems one should thank Charles Hagberg Wright, who was Librarian from 1894 to 1940, partly educated in Russia, came to know Gorky and Tolstoy, and built up the Library’s Russian list.