The Russian Revolution week by week
22–28 January 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 Georges-Maurice Paléologue, French Ambassador to Russia
On [19 January] Germany decided to extend the strict application of the maritime blockade to the whole coast-line of Europe. The act is a ruthless cancellation of the solemn assurances which America obtained from the German Chancellor that naval warfare should be restricted after the Lusitania , Ancona and Sussex has been torpedoed. The reply of the Federal Government has been prompt. Yesterday, President Wilson asked the senate for authority to employ any means which may become necessary to protect American ships and citizens in the exercise of their peaceful activities … The Russian public has favourably received this important piece of news, but the impression it conveys is but vague and superficial. For Russia knows nothing of America; she does not even suspect what a great drama has been taking place in the conscience of the American people during the last twenty months.
(Maurice Paléologue, An Ambassador’s Memoirs 1914–1917, London 1973)
Letter from Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich (Sandro) to Nicholas II, his brother-in-law
…events have shown that Your advisors continue to lead You and Russia towards certain ruin, and in such circumstances it would be a crime to remain silent before both God, You, and Russia. Discontent is growing rapidly and the further it goes, the greater the gap between You and Your People … In conclusion I have to say that, however strange it may seem, the government is today the organ that is preparing revolution, the people do not want it, but the government is using all available means to create as many discontented people as possible, and is succeeding. we are witnessing the unheard of spectacle of a revolution from above, not below.
your devoted Sandro
(Sergei Mironenko, A Lifelong Passion, London 1996)
Times article headed ‘The New Russia’
Under the stimulus of war the national growth of Russia has proceeded at an unprecedented pace … Rapid growth is ever a painful process, particularly so when it affects a huge and complex organism, and so we must not be astonished at the present crisis … The conditions prevailing in Russia … are clearly so dissimilar from those of any other country engaged in the present struggle that comparisons, for instance with England, are likely to confuse rather than to illustrate any attempt to make the situation comprehensible to the English reader … The people themselves are very different in many ways; different in character, habits, and ideas, different in their outlook upon life, in their comprehension of the ordinary standards of duty or of subservience to law. In most respects these differences tend to disappear as the Russian people advance along the path of progress, while the fundamental, abiding characteristics of the nation — a passionate love of truth and an equal detestation of cant and shams — will save them from its pitfalls.
(The Times, From our own correspondent, Petrograd)
Diary entry of Nicholas II
Thaw overnight — the first since beginning of December. Was clear and very windy. Received Bark [finance minister] and Voinovsky-Krigier [communications minister]; met engineer-constructor of Murmansk railway, Goryachkovsky. Went for walk with daughters and worked on the foundations of the snow tower … Read for a short time in the evening.
Diary entry of Lev Tikhomirov, revolutionary and later conservative thinker
Everybody is sounding off about treason, literally everybody. Maybe a lot of it is made up. For example they’re saying about the Allied delegation that’s here now that the central aim of their visit is to investigate the drowning of Lord Kitchener, claiming that it was Stürmer who gave the information to the Germans. The rumour is that only Stürmer knew Kitchener’s exact route… But if Stürmer did know it, others must have too. His patrons must have known about it. Public discourse is turning from Stürmer to those at the very top. Nobody is being subjected to more accusations than the Empress. Literally everybody is against her. But this is also undermining trust in the Sovereign himself, though this lack of faith takes a different form — that he is surrounded by treachery and is incapable of seeing it … In a word, the country is full of rumours that show the extent of the collapse in trust in the Sovereign’s ability to govern, and some kind of real desire for a coup. A coup is seen as the only way to destroy the treachery. There’s been nothing like it since the time of Louis XVI. Does the Sovereign know the situation he’s in? What’s he thinking of doing in such dangerous circumstances? Apparently he’s been saying, ‘The intelligentsia is against me, but the people and the army are behind me: I have nothing to fear.’ But if this is genuinely his opinion, it is not entirely correct. Maybe the people and the army are generally behind him, but only conditionally, and not with any faith in his ability to rule or even break out of this web of ‘treachery’. And such an atmosphere leads to the idea of extricating him from the ‘treachery’ by force and giving him other ‘advisors’. This is enough to spark off a state coup. And it’s not just coming from the ‘revolutionaries’, nor even the ‘intelligentsia’, but a huge mass of citizens. The situation has nothing in common with the time of Emperor Alexander II, for example, when the people were genuinely with the Tsar. Now those who are against the Tsar — i.e. who have lost their faith in him — number vast swathes of ordinary citizens, even those who were monarchists and on the right in 1905, who selflessly stood against the revolution. It goes without saying that the revolutionaries are using this to their best advantage …. While the Sovereign evidently has no idea of the horror of this situation.
(L.A. Tikhomirov, Diary 1915–1917, Moscow 2008)
28 January 2017
We none of us know what is round the corner but what comes through many of these contemporary accounts is how many people were predicting the overthrow of the monarchy in some form. While Nicholas himself was keeping a careful record of the weather conditions, meetings with ministers, and what he was reading to his children, others apparently sensed the approaching storm. Perhaps 1905 had to some extent occluded the Tsar’s vision: in his mind he was still father of his people, who in wartime needed him more than ever. But war turned out to be the decisive factor in the revolution.
The ‘what ifs’ are somehow particularly poignant in the context of 1917. What if the Empress’s background had been something other than German; what if war hadn’t contributed to a disastrous economic situation; what if Lenin had been prevented from returning to Russia. Such counterfactual teases are the subject of a new book edited by Tony Brenton, former UK ambassador to Russia, called Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution . Other publications marking the anniversary include Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution — first-hand testimony of foreigners who found themselves in the eye of the storm — and a wonderful book published by Pushkin Press entitled 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, selected by Boris Dralyuk.