The Russian Revolution week by week

19–25 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.


Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia

22 February 
The Tsar, reassured by Protopopov that he had the situation in hand, left for the front on February 22: he would return two weeks later as Nicholas Romanov, a private citizen. 
(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


23 February 
On Thursday, 23 February, the temperature in Petrograd rose to a spring-like minus five degrees. People emerged from their winter hibernation to enjoy the sun and join in the hunt for food. Nevsky Prospekt was crowded with shoppers. The mild weather was set to continue until 3 March — by which time the tsarist regime would have collapsed. Not for the first time in Russian history the weather was to play a decisive role. 
(Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy, London 1996)


Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
It is to be feared that revolutionary agitators and German agents are profiting by the conditions. It is said that there is a certain amount of unrest in the suburbs. I went out at about four o’clock to take Friquet for a walk, and went as far as the Nevsky Prospekt. I met a small group of demonstrators who were, however, quite quiet and surrounded by police. Everything is perfectly calm and the passers-by watch them with amused sympathy. In Sadovaya Street the trams have stopped … I don’t know whether it is because of other demonstrations, or simply because of a power breakdown … That evening, a big dinner at the Embassy … After dinner, Alexandre Benois confirms that there have been some incidents in the outskirts. They say that at one place a tram was overturned. 
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)


Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
There was a grand dinner at Paléologue’s this evening. Something ominous is brewing! On the Vyborg side there have been some widespread disturbances, the result of bread shortages (the only surprise is that they haven’t happened sooner!) … We wouldn’t have made it to Paléologue’s because of the complete absence of cabs had not the kind Gorchakovs sent a car for us … The embassy looked very festive, with chandeliers ablaze and the dining table extended down the whole length of the main dining-room upstairs … [Louis] De Robien and I spent a good quarter of an hour in the recess of one of the windows in the drawing room stealthily pulling back the curtains to follow what was going on on Liteiny Bridge … we could see large crowds of people making their way in a constant stream towards the city … The Gorchakovs took us home as well. [Benois added the note: ‘We never imagined that this would be our last visit, that the evening we had just enjoyed was the last gathering of Petersburg society.’] 
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916–1918, Moscow 2006)


Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
I had Trepov, Count Tolstoi, Director of the Hermitage, my Spanish colleague, Villasinda, and a score of my regular guests to dinner this evening. The occurrences in the streets were responsible for a shade of anxiety which marked our faces and our conversation. I asked Trepov what steps the Government was taking to bring food supplies to Petrograd, as unless they are taken the situation will probably soon get worse. His replies were anything but reassuring. When I returned to my other guests, I found all traces of anxiety had vanished from their features and their talk. The main object of conversation was an evening party which Princess Leon Radziwill is giving on Sunday: it wall be a large and brilliant party, and everyone was hoping that there will be music and dancing. Trepov and I stared at each other. The same words came to our lips: ‘What a curious time to arrange a party!’ In one group, various opinions were being passed on the dancers of the Marie Theatre and whether the palm for excellence should be awarded to Pavlova, Kchechinskaia or Karsavina, etc. In spite of the fact that revolution is in the air in his capital, the Emperor, who has spent the last two months at Tsarskoie-Selo, left for General Headquarters this evening. 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


Letter from Nicholas at General Headquarters to Alexandra
My own beloved Sunny, 
Loving thanks for your precious letter — you left in my compartment — I read it greedily before going to bed. It did me good, in my solitude, after two months being together, if not to hear your sweet voice, atleast [sic] to be comforted by those lines of tender love! …. It is so quiet in this house, no rumbling about, no excited shouts! I imagine he [Aleksei] is asleep in the bedroom! All his tiny things, photos & toys are kept in good order in the bedroom & in the bowwindow [sic] room! Ne nado! On the other hand, what a luck that he did not come here with me now only to fall ill & lie in that small bedroom of our’s! God grant the measles may continue with no complications & better all the children at once have it! … What you write about being firm — the master — is perfectly true. I do not forget it — be sure of that, but I need not bellow at the people right & left every moment. A quiet sharp remark or answer is enough very often to put the one or the other into his place. Now, Lovy-mine dear, it is late. Good-night, God bless our slumber, sleep well without the animal warmth. 
(The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917, ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, London 1999)


24 February 
Diary entry of James L. Houghteling, Jr, attaché at the American Embassy, Petrograd
Russia is a great place in which not to do shopping. The salespeople simply don’t want to wait on you, don’t care whether you buy or not. The foreigners leave them far behind in trade and the best shops are manned with English, Belgians, Swedes and Baltickers. Formerly the Germans were the great shop-keepers of Russia. 
(James L. Houghteling, Jr, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, New York 1918)


25 February 
Letter from Alexandra at Tsarskoe Selo to Nicholas
My own priceless, beloved treasure 
8° & gently snowing — so far I sleep very well, but miss you my Love more than words can say. — The rows [disorders] in town and strikes are more than provoking … Its a hooligan movement, young boys & girls running about & screaming that they have no bread, only to excite — & then the workmen preventing others fr. work — if it were very cold they wld. probably stay in doors. But this will all pass & quieten down — if the Duma wld. only behave itself — one does not print the worst speeches but I find that antidynastic ones ought to be at once very severely punished as its time of war, yet more so. 
(The Complete Wartime Correspondence of Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra: April 1914-March 1917, ed. Joseph T. Fuhrmann, London 1999)


Memoir of A.P. Balk, Governor of Petrograd
February 25 was a total defeat for us. Not only were the leaders of the revolutionary actions convinced that the troops were acting without spirit, even unwillingly, but the crowd also sensed the weakness of the authorities and became emboldened. The decision of the military authorities to impose control by force, in exceptional circumstances to use arms, not only poured oil on the fire but shook up the troops and allowed them to think that the authorities … feared ‘the people’. 
(Ronald Kowalski, The Russian Revolution 1917–1921, London & New York 1997)


Extract from a history of the revolution
Whatever chance there was of containing the incipient rebellion was destroyed with the arrival in the evening of February 25 of a telegram from Nicholas to the city’s military commander demanding that he restore order by force. Nicholas, who continued to receive soothing reports from Protopopov, had no idea how charged the situation in the capital had become. 
(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


Alexander Shliapnikov, leading Bolshevik and later first Soviet Commissar of Labour
What revolution? Give the workers a pound of bread and the movement will fizzle. 
(Cited in Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, London 1995)


25 February 2017 
Hisham Matar, the British-Libyan writer, has written a powerful book, The Return, about his family’s involvement with the opposition struggle in Libya from before and since independence. ‘Revolutions have their momentum’, he writes, ‘and once you join the current it is very difficult to escape the rapids. Revolutions are not solid gates through which nations pass but a force comparable to a storm that sweeps all before it.’

A hundred years ago, Russia was about to experience the first storm, one that swept away centuries of tsarist rule and left Russia with an opportunity — a genuine democratic moment — that for a few short months it tried to grasp. But the momentum Matar refers to seems inescapable, the consequences can go far beyond those anticipated. And as with his desperate attempts to find out what happened to his father, the personal cost — the tragedy — of revolution is immeasurable.