Memoirs & Diaries - The October Revolution
From the balcony of the Swedish embassy one morning in July 1917, I saw warships and small boats filled with Kronstadt sailors and the Red Guard coming up the Neva.
To the sound of the "Marseillaise" and the loud hurrahs of Petersburg Bolsheviki gathered on the bank, the sailors left the ships at double-quick. Their intention was to take the Kerenski cabinet by surprise. Some of the Bolsheviki were armed only with a policeman's sword; others had carbines or muskets of various design. Many wore red scarves around their bodies or red cockades on their caps.
The embassy building was situated on the banks of the Neva, just below the first bridge over the river. Thus all ships coming from the Baltic or from Kronstadt which were too large to pass under the bridge had to anchor in front of the embassy.
Many angry looks were directed up at me from the crowd, who, seeing me on the balcony of a palatial house, took me for a hated bourgeois. A sailor called up to me, "We'll pay a visit to you this evening to find where you keep your money and whether you have any brandy in your cellars." However, the red-scarfed heroes came neither on that nor on the next evening.
They left the ships at double-quick; they came back spent, ragged, and dirty-singly or in twos and threes. Without caps and without weapons they came looking for their ships. Some carried their muskets concealed under their coats and only brought them out when the proximity of the boats made them feel safe from their pursuers.
Many had fallen during the adventure; a good third must have been taken prisoner; the survivors hastily weighed anchor and went silently down stream in the falling darkness.
While at the embassy I saw Kerenski and heard him speak. After the sailors' deputation with the ultimatum from Kronstadt had been arrested, he went on board a ship held by the mutineers.
I could observe him closely as he came down the street accompanied by his adjutant and some staff officers. He wore a black Russian blouse fastened high at the neck and hanging over his trousers and a black tasselled girdle around his hips. Officers and soldiers he greeted with a brief handshake; I heard plainly his curt "Good morning, comrades."
On board ship lie spoke to the assembled sailors so impressively and convincingly that their mood changed completely. His last words were greeted with cheers; the black flag of anarchy which the ship was flying was hauled down, and in its place was raised the red flag of the Revolution. Ten minutes later the cruiser with Kerenski on board left its anchorage for Kronstadt.
Had Kerenski concluded peace earlier, had he in midsummer 1917 not given the order for a last attack upon the German lines, he would probably still sit upon the "golden chair." It was the military breakdown that caused his overthrow. During the fall of 1917, the situation slipped rapidly out of his control. I could draw a thousand pictures of the increasing anarchy; let a few such suffice.
On the street railways hubbub and license ruled. The cars were literally stuffed with soldiers, who of course paid no fare and whose behaviour was so insolent and speech so filthy that no respectable woman could think of riding with them.
At any moment a quarrel was likely to break out. When this occurred, the passengers instantly ranged themselves into two hostile camps, declaiming and arguing as in a popular mass meeting. From their talk I learned how embittered against the Bolsheviki were the greater part of the people of Petersburg.
Only the peasant soldiers, who had no conception of the meaning of Socialism, and the ragged, uneducated proletariat belonged to the Bolsheviki. The organized factory workers lined up with the Social Revolutionists. Non-commissioned officers and clerks also were opposed to the Bolsheviki, and the master craftsmen, the educated classes, and members of the Conservative and Liberal parties positively foamed with rage if one mentioned the Bolsheviki to them. As the peasant soldiers, however, possessed rifles and machine guns, the helpless majority had to nurse their rage in silence.
Among the passengers once standing in a car, I saw an officer of the Women's Battalion of Death. With a white fur cap saucily perched on her head, her hair combed high under it, and spurs on her boots, she was a sturdy and pleasing figure. Standing in front of her was a slovenly looking sailor, the band of his cap so loosely fastened that it hung almost over one eye. On it I read the name of his ship, the Pamjat Asowa, "In Memory of Asow" - Asow, the revolutionist.
Soon the sailor began a conversation with the "lady soldier." "Well, my officer in petticoats, whom do you want to make war against now?" Receiving no answer, he broke out with "The devil take the wench" and other remarks unfit to print. The girl turned first red, then white; but the fellow kept up his stream of vile talk until she left the car. Not one of the onlookers took her part.
That happened in November. In the vicinity of the Winter Palace, where I got out, signs of the shooting which took place there at the time of Kerenski's fall were plainly visible. Thousands of rifle and machine gun bullets were lodged in the walls. The windows were almost all shattered and had paper stuck over the holes.
There were plenty of people on the street, but few among them that were well dressed. People in possession of good clothes had, indeed, good reason to stay inside their own four walls. In one of the cross streets of the Nevski Prospect, that is, in the very heart of the city, I myself saw three soldiers stop a lady and in spite of her tears and appeals for mercy take her shoes off her feet. The poor creature, still moaning, had to go home through the deep snow in her stocking feet, while the "comrades" sold their booty on the next street corner for two hundred roubles.
At about this time the contents of strong boxes in the banks were confiscated. Anxious throngs of people gathered before the doors of the banks, but no one was allowed to enter. Owners of buildings might not deposit their rents, but must turn them over to the Commissariat. Nor could a house owner keep more rooms for himself than there were members in his family.
Many days there was no electric light at all in dwellings or on the streets; or the lights went out at five o'clock in the afternoon.
Every court, every establishment, every community, was a little republic by itself. There was no general law or standard to which all men must conform. In the Petersburg district, for example, the head of the precinct decreed that government employees should receive a salary of three hundred roubles a month. This applied to everybody, from the man who checked overcoats and rubbers at the door to his own exalted self; not the productivity but the person was rewarded. In other public departments other regulations were laid down, each chief acting as he saw fit.
Among the soldiery, especially, turbulence and anarchy prevailed. All officers, from the commander of the regiment to the youngest lieutenant, were chosen by the soldiers. The men of a regiment met together, debated the matter excitedly, and then took a vote. Whoever received the most votes became the commander, whether or not he had the necessary education or ability for such a responsible post. The candidate who received the second largest number of votes became the second in command, and so on down.
Former officers if not re-elected were reduced to the rank and pay of private soldiers. No account was taken of their age or the families they might have dependent on them. So to escape starvation many ex-colonels, captains, and lieutenants took any work they could find to do. Officers of the Guard were to be seen acting as baggage men in the railway stations or as dock hands along the water front.
The soldiers passed their time playing cards and carrying on a small trade in cigarettes, spirits, and old clothing. Or they formed into bands and with fixed bayonets, "in the name of the law," entered and searched the houses of prosperous citizens. Everything which was not fastened down they carried off. At the slightest show of resistance they threatened the inmates with death. Men were killed like cattle on these occasions.
A lady told me later how these beasts in soldiers' uniforms had slowly tortured her husband to death before her own and her children's eyes. After chopping off his fingers one by one and putting out his eyes, they dragged him half conscious down the stairs and clubbed and bayoneted him to death. Then four soldiers stuck the bleeding corpse on their bayonets and carried it overhead as a panoply through the streets of Petersburg to the river. There they scraped the body off on the bridge railing and pitched it into the water.
I saw this family two days after the murder. The mother lay in bed out of her mind. The son, a university student, answered every question with the words, "They spitted him and threw him into the river." The seventeen-year-old daughter sat in a corner of the room on the floor weeping steadily, oblivious of what went on about her. Only the little sister, three years old, sat under the table and played with her doll.
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. V, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
"Bellied" was a term used to describe when a tank's underside was caught upon an obstacle such that its tracks were unable to grip the earth.
- Did you know?