The Russian Revolution week by week

16–29 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.


16 April 
Memoir of Pierre Gilliard, tutor to the Tsar’s children
In the evening a long conversation with Their Majesties on the subject of Alexei’s lessons. We must find a way out since we have no longer any tutors. The Tsar is going to make himself responsible for History and Geography, the Tsarina will take charge of his religious instruction. The other subjects will be shared between Baroness Buxhoeveden (English), Mlle. Schneider (Arithmetic), Dr Botkin (Russian) and myself.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


17 April 
Letter from Sofia Yudina in Petrograd to her friend Nina Agafonnikova in Vyatka
My dear Ninochka! Thank you for your letter! … In general I’m very downhearted, I’ve almost a permanent headache, which I discern now and again, and there’s so little air, it feels so enclosed and stuffy, one feels wretched … How we’ll get to [Polyana] I’ve no idea: Papa wants to go but they can’t make up their mind. It’s true that getting tickets and going is another thing altogether. To register you have to stand in line for three days near the ticket office — day and night: a queue to register to get a ticket!… Living at Polyana, far from what’s going on, will be hard, but I just want to disappear somewhere … How difficult one’s personal, internal life is at the moment.
(Viktor Berdinskikh, Letters from Petrograd: 1916–1919 , St Petersburg 2016)


18 April
Communication by P.N. Miliukov, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to the Russian Diplomats in the Allied Countries
 … Firmly convinced of the victorious issue of the present war, and in perfect agreement with our Allies, the Provisional Government is likewise confident that the problems which were created by this war will be solved by the creation on a firm basis of a lasting peace, and that, inspired by identical sentiments, the Allied Democrats will find means of establishing the guarantees and penalties necessary to prevent any recourse to sanguinary war in the future.
(Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920, New York 1920)


Diary entry of Nicholas II
Abroad it’s the 1 May today, so our blockheads decided to celebrate with street processions, musical choirs and red flags. Apparently they came right into the park and placed wreaths on the tomb. The weather changed for the worse during these celebrations, and thick wet snow started to fall! I went out for a walk at 3.45, when everything was over and the sun had come out. Worked for an hour and a half with Tatiana. In the evening I started to read aloud to the children: A Millionaire Girl.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


20 April 
Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador 
Thursday was a very critical day. In the afternoon a number of regiments marched to the space in front of the Palais Marie, where the Council of Ministers sits, and joined the crowd that had already assembled there to demonstrate against the Government. Cries of ‘Down with the Government’, ‘Down with Miliukoff’, were raised, but eventually the troops were persuaded to return to their barracks. Later in the evening there were counter-demonstrations directed chiefly against Lenin and his adherents, and after several Ministers had addressed the crowd from the balcony of the palace the tide turned in their favour … A collision took place on the Nevski between a pro-Lenin and an anti-Lenin crowd, in which several persons were killed and wounded. Between 9 and 10.30 P.M. I had to go out three times on the balcony of the Embassy to receive ovations and to address crowds who were demonstrating for the Government and the Allies. During one of them a free fight took place between the supporters of the Government and the Leninites.
(Sir George Buchanan, My Mission to Russia, London 1923)


Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
An immense crowd of workers, some of them armed, was moving towards Nevsky from the Vyborg side. There were also a lot of soldiers with them … Tremendous excitement reigned generally in the working-class districts, the factories, and the barracks. Many factories were idle. Local meetings were taking place everywhere. All this on account of Miliukov’s Note, which had appeared that day in all the newspapers.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record, Oxford 1955)


21 April 
Appeal by the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies
Citizens: At the moment when the fate of the country is being decided, every hasty step threatens us with danger. Demonstrations arising from the note of the Government regarding foreign policy resulted in clashes on the streets. There are wounded and killed. For the sake of the salvation of the revolution from the threatening confusion, we are making a passionate appeal to you: Preserve quiet, order and discipline. 
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917, New Haven and London 2001)


23 April 
Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
The state of anarchy is confirmed and extends further and further every day. Petrograd is no longer the only centre: it’s the same everywhere, in Moscow, in Kiev, and confusion and disorder reign. The two influences of the government and of the Committee cancel each other out, and the result of this double authority is chaos and anarchy. Everyone does as he pleases, and from now on it is useless to count on any concerted effort from Russia.
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)


24 April 
Cable from Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor, to the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies
In view of the grave crisis through which the Russian people are passing, we assure you that you can rely absolutely upon the whole-hearted support and co-operation of the American people in the great war against our common enemy, Kaiserism. In the fulfilment of that cause, the present American Government has the support of 90 per cent of the American people, including the working classes of both the cities and agricultural sections … America’s workers share the view of the Council of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Delegates that the only way in which the German people can bring the war to an early end is by imitating the glorious example of the Russian people, compelling the abdication of the Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs and driving the tyrannous nobility, bureaucracy, and the military caste from power.
(Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920, New York 1920)


Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
After lunch I went to see Countess Kleinmichel. The poor woman arouses one’s pity. She has been guarded for forty days by a gang of soldiers who stole things from her house, made holes in the pictures, ruined the tapestries, and so on. There were sixty of them who behaved as complete masters in her house and penetrated even to her bedroom. They let no one into the house and they did not even allow her to see her doctor. They stole part of her silver, and the arms which were in the smoking-room, and so on. And now, the big drawing-room has been turned into a meeting-place for the area section of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Committee, with wooden trestle tables set up, beside which the little pink chairs are arranged … The Countess received me in her bedroom. She is very brave, and views the events calmly … She told me that she has the wherewithal to kill herself, rather than be murdered if fresh troubles arise. ‘After all,’ she said, ‘I have lived for seventy years; it’s not everyone who reaches this age: one must know how to die.’ 
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)


27 April
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
Countess Adam Lamoyska, who arrived here from Kiev yesterday, tells me that she dare not return to her family place at Petchara, in Podolia, which has been her refuge since the invasion of Poland; a dangerous agitation is on foot among the peasants. ‘Hitherto’, she told me, ‘they have all been faithful and attached to my mother, who has certainly done everything she could for them. But since the revolution everything has changed. We see them standing about at the castle gate or in the park, pretending to divide up our lands in dumb show. One of them will affect to want the wood by the river; another puts in for the gardens and proposes to turn them into folds. They go on talking like that for hours and do not stop even when my mother, one of my sisters or myself go up to them.’ The same attitude is observable in all the provinces, so it is clear that Lenin’s propaganda among the peasants is beginning to bear fruit. In the eyes of the moujiks, that great reform of 1861, the emancipation of the serfs, has always been regarded as a prelude to the general expropriation they have been obstinately expecting for centuries; their idea is that the partition of all land, the ‘tcherny peredel’ or ‘black partition’, as they call it, is due to them by virtue of a natural, imprescriptible and primordial right. Lenin’s apostles have an easy task in persuading them that the hour for this last act of justice is at length about to strike. 
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


29 April
Lenin, ‘On the present political situation’, speech at the All-Russian Conference of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks)
The Russian Revolution is only the first stage of the first of the proletarian revolutions that are inevitably being brought about by the war. In all the countries there grows a rebellious spirit among large masses of the people against the capitalist class, and there grows the consciousness of the proletariat that only the passing of power into its hands, and the abolition of private property in the means of production, will save humanity from ruin. In all countries, especially in the most advanced, England and Germany, hundreds of Socialists who have not gone over to the side of ‘their’ national bourgeoisie, have been thrown into prison by the governments of capitalism which have thus given an object lesson that they are afraid of the proletarian revolution which is growing in the depths of the masses of the people.
(The Russian Revolution by V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin: Writings and Speeches from the February Revolution to the October Revolution, 1917, London 1938)


29 April 2017 
The first-hand accounts of the period between the two revolutions of 1917 give an overriding sense of hope and fear, expectation and almost simultaneous disappointment. Kerensky gives greater freedoms to the ordinary soldier, but the ordinary soldier decides he’s had enough of fighting a war against a people he now realises are no different to himself. The streets are the forum for political argument and discourse, while those associated with the old regime are beginning to think they must leave the country altogether. The parallels are becoming a little tired, perhaps, but momentous events, like Britain’s exit from the European Union, seem to be accompanied or presaged by a heightened level of background noise; there is a sense of expectation, people are talking, worrying, planning.

Looking back at the inter-revolution months, Boris Pasternak described it as a golden period, when ‘the air was seized from end to end with fervid inspiration’: ‘A multitude of excited, keenly watchful souls would stop one another, flock together, form crowds and think aloud “in council”, as they would have said in the old days […]. The infectious universality of their elation blurred the boundaries between man and nature. In that famous summer of 1917, in the interval between two revolutionary periods, it seemed that the roads, the trees and the stars were rallying and speechifying right along with the people. The air was seized from end to end with fervid inspiration that blazed for thousands of versts — it appeared to be a person with a name, to be clairvoyant and possessed of a soul’ (1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, London 2016).