The Russian Revolution week by week

12–18 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.


Towards Palace Square from the New Hermitage, St Petersburg

12 March 
Diary of Nicholas II, Tsarskoe Selo
We spent this feast day [Annunciation] in unbelievable conditions — under arrest in our own house and without the slightest possibility of communicating either with Mama or our relatives!
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


Letter from Lord Stamfordham, George V’s private secretary, to the Foreign Secretary, A.J. Balfour
My dear Balfour,
Every day the King is becoming more concerned about the question of the Emperor and Empress of Russia coming to this country. His Majesty receives letters from people in all classes of life, known or unknown to him, saying how much the matter is being discussed, not only in Clubs but by working men, and that Labour Members in the House of Commons are expressing adverse opinions to the proposal. As you know from the first the King has thought the presence of the Imperial Family (especially of the Empress) in this country would raise all sorts of difficulties, and I feel sure that you appreciate how awkward it will be for our Royal Family who are closely connected both with the Emperor and Empress.


Later the same day, 12 March

My dear Balfour, 
The King wishes me to write again on the subject of my letter of this morning. He must beg you to represent to the Prime Minister that from all he hears and reads in the Press, the residence in this country of the Ex-Emperor and Empress would be strongly resented by the public, and would undoubtedly compromise the position of the King and Queen from whom it is already generally supposed the invitation has emanated … Buchanan ought to be instructed to tell Milyukov that the opposition to the Emperor and Empress coming here is so strong that we must be allowed to withdraw from the consent previously given to the Russian Government’s proposal. 
Yours very truly, Stamfordham
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


13 March
Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
Went over to Paléologue, having long ago agreed to visit the World of Art exhibition with him, but instead of that we sat for an hour and a half in his study going through the latest events. He is seriously scared. Against my insistence that universal peace must be sought as soon as possible, he set out a whole scenario of how the entire burden of the war would in this case land on Russia, because whereas the other Allies have a bargaining chip — Mesopotamia, colonies and so forth — Russia doesn’t. At the same time he outlined what he sees as the hopeless situation the country is in, its total disorganisation and effective inability to continue the war. … Suing unilaterally for peace would result in bankruptcy as we wouldn’t benefit from the commercial opportunities with Germany that would come after its final destruction … Some pages or junkers are on duty at the Embassy. They salute you with particular zeal when you come across them. For some reason I felt very sorry for them. If something were to happen to the Embassy, they’d be the first to perish
(Alexander Benois,Diary 1916–1918, Moscow 2006)


14 March
Petrograd Soviet: Call to the Peoples of the World
Comrade-proletarians, and toilers of all countries:
We, Russian workers and soldiers, united in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, send you warmest greetings and announce the great event. The Russian democracy has shattered in the dust the age-long despotism of the Tsar and enters your family of nations as an equal, and as a mighty force in the struggle for our common liberation. Our victory is a great victory for the free­dom and democracy of the world. The chief pillar of reaction in the world, the ‘Gendarme of Europe’, is no more. May the earth turn to heavy granite on his grave! Long live freedom! Long live the international solidarity of the proletariat, and its struggle for final victory! Our work is not yet finished: the shades of the old order have not yet been dispersed, and not a few enemies are gathering their forces against the Russian revolution … Toilers of all countries: We hold out to you the hand of brotherhood across the mountains of our brothers’ corpses, across rivers of innocent blood and tears, over the smoking ruins of cities and villages, over the wreckage of the treasuries of civilization; — we appeal to you for the reestablishment and strengthening of international unity. In it is the pledge of our future victories and the complete liberation of humanity.
Proletarians of all countries, unite!
(Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, Izvestiia)


Diary of Nicholas II, Tsarskoe Selo
We started to fast, but this fast did not begin happily. After church, Kerensky arrived and asked us to limit our meetings to meal times and to sit separately from the children; this is apparently necessary to appease the famous Workers’ Soviet and the Soldiers’ Deputies! We had to agree, in order to avoid the use of force.
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)


Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
At Tsarskoe Selo a closer watch is being kept over the fallen sovereigns. The Emperor still presents an extraordinary spectacle of indifference and imperturbability. He spends, in his calm and casual way, his day skimming the papers, smoking cigarettes, doing puzzles, playing with his children and sweeping up snow in the garden. He seems to find a kind of relief in being at length free of the burden of supreme power. The Empress, on the other hand, has taken to mystical exaltation; she is always saying: ‘It is God who has sent us this ordeal; I accept it thankfully for my eternal salvation.’
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


16 March
Speech by Alexander Kerensky in Finland
I came here not only to greet you but to bring the Finnish people the news of its freedom, which the liberated Russian peasant, worker and soldier has given you. From now, comrades, all doubt is dispelled … Comrades, let me tell you today that the enemies of the old regime, all citizens of Finland who carried out political crimes, are from this moment our brothers, and I declare a full amnesty.
(A.F. Kerensky, Diary of a Politician, Moscow 2007)


17 March
Diary entry of Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
The most dangerous germ involved in the revolution has been developing during the last few days with the most alarming rapidity. Finland, Livonia, Esthonia, Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, Georgia and Siberia, are demanding their independence, or, failing that, complete autonomy. That Russia is doomed to federalism is highly probable.
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)


18 March 2017 
The British monarchy’s ability to see which way the wind is blowing has often been cited as a reason for its longevity. Sometimes it gets it spectacularly wrong, as with the death of Princess Diana twenty years ago this September, when public opinion turned against it and the Queen was forced into a statement she seemed anything but keen to make. Eighty years before that it would seem they made an even worse decision over whether to give sanctuary to Nicholas II and his family. Certainly, knowing the fate of the Russian royal family just over a year later, it’s hard to conclude otherwise. And yet it could be argued that this was another example of the British royals’ chilly instinct for self-preservation, deciding to withdraw an earlier offer to their Russian cousins in the face of growing public opposition and an increasingly republican tone to public discourse.

In a recent doctoral dissertation, Claire McKee tells how the British ambassador in Petrograd, George Buchanan, reported back to London the threat of ‘serious consequences’ issued by a visiting socialist politician, William Thorne, if Nicholas and Alexandra were allowed to come to England. A few weeks later H.G. Wells was writing ‘The tsar is not an evil figure, he is not a strong figure but he is the sort that trails revolution in its wake. He has ended one dynasty already. Our royal family owes it to itself that he brings not the infection of his misfortunes thither.’

Post-script. A bit late for the February anniversary (not untypically — a few years ago a friend and I arrived for a Nabokov conference in St Petersburg exactly a week late), but the city this week (hence the slightly tangential image that heads this post) has been an eye-opener. Not sure what I was expecting — not necessarily banners across Nevsky Prospekt proclaiming the end of empire, but certainly … something. Instead, there is almost universal indifference. A small exhibition here, a private ceremony marking the Provisional Government there, but nothing that comes close to matching the Royal Academy show or the level of interest in the West. Revolutionary fervour in the cradle of the revolution, it seems, is in short supply. The analysis of two Russian friends couldn’t have been more different: nobody has much appetite for celebrating something that has little direct bearing on life today, said one, and in any case is it a cause for celebration, does the Russian government really want to mark a popular uprising that toppled a tsar? You’re too early, said the other, everyone’s gearing up for October (or November new style). So I’ll just have to head out again and find out who’s right. And try not to miss it.