The Russian Revolution week by week
19–25 March 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.
Diary entry of James L. Houghteling, Jr, attaché at the American Embassy, Petrograd
We have heard that at Kronstadt the sailors revolted with much bloodshed, killing 170 officers, including a very efficient and popular admiral who had been put in command at the request of the British. The sailors seem to be responsible for the few excesses of the revolution.
(James L. Houghteling, Jr, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, New York 1918)
Memoir of Fedor Raskolnikov, naval cadet at Kronstadt
Soon afterward there hastened into the room [at Gorky’s flat] where I was awaiting the end of this rather boring meeting the well-known writer I. Bunin, who is now on the run. When he learnt that I had come from Kronstadt, Bunin bombarded me with a whole heap of philistine questions: ‘Is it true that anarchy reigns in Kronstadt? Is it true that unimaginable excesses are going on there? Is it true that the sailors are killing any officer they come upon in the streets of Kronstadt?’ In a tone that permitted no objection I rebutted all these bourgeois calumnies. Bunin, sitting with his legs crossed on the ottoman, listened with great interest to my calm explanations and fixed his sharp eyes upon me. My officer’s uniform evidently gave him confidence, as he offered no objections to what I said.
(F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, New York 1982, first published 1925)
Memoir of Princess Paley
The life of the august prisoners was monotonous, mournful, devoid of all joy. The restrictions were rigorous. The Provisional Government granted them credits, characterised by the utmost parsimony. All their letters were opened, the use of the telephone was denied them. Boorish, and frequently drunken, sentries were posted everywhere. The sole distraction of the Emperor was to break up the ice on a little canal which runs along the barrier of the Imperial Park.
(Princess Paley, Memories of Russia, 1916–1919, London 1924)
Diary entry of Nicholas II
After lunch, I went out into the park with Alexei and spent the time breaking the ice by our summer landing pier; a crowd of loiterers again stood by the railings and stared at us from start to finish.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)
Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
My dear Ninochka!
… Do you read the papers, maybe it’s not interesting for you or they don’t allow it? Here we spend a lot of time poring over the papers. I get up late (what a bore!): earlier than 10 I can’t even think of getting up! I get up, drink some coffee and read the papers, then I play [the piano], and get on with other things — somehow everything moves at such a slow pace here… I agree with this point of the social-democratic programme — to limit and take over landed estates — but it really worries Papa and Mama: they’ve put so much into Polyana, created it through their own hard work and have looked upon it as a little refuge for when they are old. Now this probably won’t happen… Moreover, lessons have almost stopped, all these Romanovs are leaving, the price of everything is going up — and Papa is very worried, he’s getting tired … Tomorrow is the funeral of those who lost their lives on the Field of Mars: sounds like it will be quite a ceremony, judging by the programme for the procession. We will probably stay at home … we won’t see anything anyway, better to read about it in the papers.
(Viktor Berdinskikh, Letters from Petrograd: 1916–1919, St Petersburg 2016)
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Today there has been a great ceremony on the Champ-de-Mars, where the victims of the revolutionary rising, the ‘nation’s heroes’ and ‘martyrs to liberty’, have been given a state burial … Since early morning, huge and interminable processions, headed by military bands and carrying black banners, threaded their way through the streets of the city to collect from the hospitals the two hundred and ten coffins destined for revolutionary apotheosis.
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)
Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
It would be an understatement to say that the funeral went off brilliantly. It was a magnificent and moving triumphal procession of the revolution and of the masses who made it. As for its size, it surpassed anything ever seen. Buchanan, the British Ambassador, watched it from his Embassy, whose windows looked on to the Champ de Mars and the Neva Embankment, and stated categorically that Europe had never seen anything like it.
(The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record by N.N. Sukhanov, Oxford 1955)
Diary entry of an anonymous Englishman
The burial procession of the victims of the Revolution in the Champ de Mars began to pass the end of Michail Street along the Nevski at 8.40. During the next three hours I saw only four coffins go by, and there were in all only twelve coffins in that procession which passed up the Nevski.
(The Russian Diary of an Englishman, Petrograd 1915–1917, New York 1919)
Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The declaration of war by the United States has had no effect whatsoever on the Russian people … In spite of their lofty principles, the United States are only coming into the war to get their money back … Besides, they are on the other side of the Atlantic. When one thinks about it all, one wonders what use their alliance can be to us at the moment, except by way of moral support!
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)
25 March 2017
A Hermitage translation for its forthcoming Anselm Kiefer exhibition has wiped out this week, hence this late posting. But the different takes on the event of the week — the funeral (on 23 March) of those who lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the revolution — is another reminder of how history depends almost entirely on who’s writing it.
Managed at last to get to the Royal Academy Revolution exhibition which is every bit as good as everyone says. In his introduction to the catalogue, co-curator John Milner highlights the significance of artists in promoting the new world order, not just the well-known names of the avant-garde but more conventional academic painters like Isaak Brodsky who painted famous portraits of Lenin and Stalin: ‘The Bolshevik government needed recognisable images of its leaders and heroes to consolidate the foundation myths on which the Soviet state was constructed.’ Still, pretty hard, in my view, to beat Alexander Deineka and his extraordinary paintings.
It was while we were in the Royal Academy that the attack on Westminster Bridge took place. Random loss of life today, no less than a hundred years ago; freedoms that need defending, no less than a hundred years ago.