The Russian Revolution week by week

30 April — 6 May 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.


The Bolsheviks influenced minds mainly by means of the printed word. By June, Pravda had a run of 85,000 copies. They also put out provincial papers, papers addressed to special groups (e.g. female workers and ethnic minorities), and a multitude of pamphlets. They paid particular attention to the men in uniform … In the spring of 1917 they distributed to the troops about 100,000 papers a day, which, given that Russia had 12 million men under arms, was enough to supply one Bolshevik daily per company … These publications spread Lenin’s message, but in a veiled form … Such organisational and publishing activities required a great deal of money. Much, if not most, of it came from Germany. 
(Richard Pipes, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution , London 1995)


30 April 
Diary entry of Alexander Benois, artist and critic
To summarise my acquaintance [with French ambassador Paléologue] I will say that I judge him less than others … On a purely personal basis I regret that I’m losing a pleasant, lively and amusing companion … Moreover, he has a very low opinion of our government’s mindset, including Kerensky. He has the impression that the Provisional Government is just a continuation of hapless Nicholas II. And therefore it’s the undoubted downfall of the first act of the Russian Revolution.
(Alexander Benois, Diary 1916–1918, Moscow 2006)


1 May 
Article in The Times
Discussion of developments in Russia is still confined rigidly in Germany to the Socialist Press. For weeks past the non-Socialist organs, although they cannot conceal their excitement about the prospects of the Stockholm plot, have published no serious comment on the Russian situation. But they were moved to paroxysms of joy by the false report of the departure of the British Ambassador from Petrograd. The Cologne Gazette learned from Copenhagen that Sir George Buchanan left the British Embassy secretly, ‘by a back-door’. The Munchner Neuste Nachrichten reported from Berlin that the Ambassador had ‘made himself impossible’ in Petrograd, and would not return. The Berliner Tageblatt, after expressing some slight doubt as to the accuracy of the news, said: ‘The sudden departure of the Ambassador is very natural. It is explained by his recognition that his part is finished, and that there remains nothing for him to do on Russian soil, since the policy pursued by him and, under his influence, by the Provisional Government, has been shattered … The English statesmen, unless they want to experience fresh disasters, will have to send to the Neva a different Ambassador with quite different instructions.’
(‘The Plot against Russia’, The Times)


Article in The Times
A great impression has been produced here by General Brusiloff’s latest speech, which points out certain serious shortcomings in the Army and deplores the agitation for the conclusion of a premature peace, the relaxation of discipline, the number of deserters, and the tendency to fraternize with the enemy that has manifested itself since Easter. He stated that the enemy tempted the troops by offers of vodka, and endeavoured to deceive them by proclamations. He mentioned an instance in which the Russian artillery had prepared to fire on Germans advancing with vodka and white flags. He also dwelt on the numbers of deserters, who exercised a baneful influence in the rear, along the railways, and in the villages. He declared that lack of discipline must entail the ruin of Russia.
(‘Vodka and White Flags’, The Times, from our own correspondent in the Balkan peninsula)


4 May
Diary entry of Louis de Robien, attaché at the French Embassy
Russia has slipped further down the dangerous slope. Kerensky becomes Minister for War in the place of Guchkov. Milyukov is expected to be replaced by Tereschenko. Nobody knows yet whether the other Kadets will remain … The worst is to be feared from Russia, who staged the revolution in order to have peace, and who wants peace at any price … Several people coming from Moscow and Kiev tell me that these two towns are as contaminated as Petrograd. And yet, up to now there have been no serious disturbances in the big centres. It is, rather, a slow disintegration. It is not the same in the country districts. The soldiers charged with keeping order in the surroundings of Orel have joined forces with the peasants. They have pillaged the stocks of alcohol and have set fire to all the estates. The newspapers say that the horizon is a red circle every night in this district. 
(Louis de Robien, The Diary of a Diplomat in Russia 1917–1918, London 1969)


5 May 
Memoir by the Menshevik Nikolai Sukhanov
By 2 o’clock in the morning of May 5th everything was ready. The portfolios have been quickly assigned, and all the doubtful points settled in this way: Kerensky got the War Ministry and the Admiralty, Pereverzev the Ministry of Justice; Peshekhonov Supply, Skobelev Labour, Tsereteli Posts and Telegraphs. The Coalition had been created. The formal union of the Soviet petty-bourgeois majority with the big bourgeoisie had been ratified in a written constitution … Now only the last act remained, the final chord, the apotheosis.
(N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: a Personal Record, Oxford 1955)


Letter to the independent socialist newspaper Novaia zhizn
To All Russian Women and Mothers:
 
We, a group of Russian women and mothers, are joining the protest of the working people against the war. We are also extending our hand to women and mothers the world over. We are deeply convinced that our extended hand will meet the extended hands of mothers the world over. No annexations or indemnities can compensate a mother for a murdered son. Enough blood. Enough of this horrible bloodshed, which is utterly pointless for working people. Enough of sacrificing our sons to the capitalists’ inflamed greed. We don’t need any annexations or indemnities. Instead, let us safeguard our sons for the good of all the working people the world over. Let them apply all their efforts not to a fratricidal war but to the cause of peace and the brotherhood of all peoples. And let us, Russian women and mothers, be proud knowing that we were the first to extend our brotherly hand to all the mothers the world over.
Smolensk Initiative Group of Women and Mothers 
(Mark D. Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917, New Haven and London 2001)


6 May
Declaration by the Second Provisional Government, published in Izvestiia
Reorganised and strengthened by the entrance of new representatives of the Revolutionary Democracy, the Provisional Government declares that it will resolutely and whole-heartedly put into practice the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity — under whose banner the great Russian Revolution has come into being. 
(Russian-American Relations March 1917-March 1920, New York 1920)


6 May 2017
This week’s posting draws on several newspapers — German, Russian and British. In today’s Guardian the novelist China Miéville muses on the relevance of the revolution for the world today. In fact he asks a very similar question to the one I put to Russian friends in St Petersburg a few weeks ago: how the government will mark the anniversary in October. ‘Would it remember the centenary with celebration or anathema? “They will say there was a struggle,” [Miéville] was told, “and that eventually, Russia won.”’ He quotes the dissident Bolshevik Victor Serge, writing in 1937: ‘It is often said that “the germ of all Stalinism was in Bolshevism at its beginning. Well, I have no objection. Only, Bolshevism also contained many other germs, a mass of other germs, and those who lived through the enthusiasm of the first years of the first victorious socialist revolution ought not to forget it. To judge the living man by the death germs which the autopsy reveals in the corpse — and which he may have carried in him since birth — is that very sensible?’

Miéville makes an interesting point about the revolution turning in on itself: ‘Without hope there’s no drive to overturn an ugly world. Without pessimism, a frank evaluation of the difficulties, necessities can all too easily be recast as virtues. Thus after Lenin’s death the party’s adoption of Stalin’s 1924 theory of “socialism in one country”. This overturned a long commitment to internationalism, the certainty that the Russian revolution could not survive in isolation. The failure of the European revolutions provoked this — it was a shift born of despair. But announcing, ultimately celebrating, an autarchic socialism was a catastrophe. A hard-headed pessimism would have been less damaging than this bad hope.’