Russian Revolution 100

The morning after: How clashes, rumours and propaganda began within hours of the Russian Revolution

A hundred years of the Revolution: The fourth in a series of excerpts from John Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’.

Day broke on a city in the wildest excitement and confusion, a whole nation having up in long hissing swells of storm. Superficially all was quiet; hundreds of thousands of people retired at a prudent hour, got up early, and went to work. In Petrograd the street cars were running, the stores and restaurants open, theatres going, an exhibition of paintings advertised. All the complex routine of common life – humdrum even in war-time – proceeded as usual. Nothing is so astounding as the vitality of the social organism – how it persists, feeding itself, clothing itself, amusing itself, in the face of the worst calamities...

The air was full of rumours about Kerensky, who was said to have raised the Front, and to be leading a great army against the capital. Volia Naroda published a prikaz launched by him at Pskov:

“The disorders caused by the insane attempt of the Bolsheviki place the country on the verge of a precipice, and demand the effort of our entire will, our courage and the devotion of every one of us, to win through the terrible trial which the fatherland is undergoing...

Until the declaration of the composition of the new Government – if one is formed – every one ought to remain at his post and fulfil his duty toward bleeding Russia. It must be remembered that the least interference with existing army organisations can bring on irreparable misfortunes, by opening the Front to the enemy. Therefore it is indispensable to preserve at any price the morale of the troops, by assuring complete order and the preservation of the army from new shocks, and by maintaining absolute confidence between officers and their subordinates. I order all the chiefs and commissars, in the name of the safety of the country, to stay at their posts, as I myself retain the post of Supreme Commander, until the Provisional Government of the Republic shall declare its will...

In answer, this placard on all the walls:

“The ex-ministers Konovalov, Kishkin, Terestchenko, Maliantovitch, Nikitin and others have been arrested by the Military Revolutionary Committee. Kerensky has fled. All army organisations are ordered to take every measure for the immediate arrest of Kerensky and his conveyance to Petrograd.

All assistance given to Kerensky will be punished as a serious crime against the state.”

In the high amphitheatrical Nicolai Hall that afternoon I saw the Duma sitting in permanence, tempestuous, grouping around it all the forces of opposition. The old mayor, Schreider, majestic with his white hair and beard, was describing his visit to Smolny the night before, to protest in the name of the Municipal Self-Government. “The Duma, being the only existing legal government in the city, elected by equal, direct and secret suffrage, would not recognise the new power,” he had told Trotzky.

And Trotzky had answered, “There is a constitutional remedy for that. The Duma can be dissolved and re-elected.” At this report there was a furious outcry.

“If one recognises a government by bayonet,” continued the old man, addressing the Duma, “well, we have one; but I consider legitimate only a government recognised by the majority, and not one created by the usurpation of a minority!” Wild applause on all benches except those of the Bolsheviki. Amid renewed tumult the mayor announced that the Bolsheviki already were violating municipal autonomy by appointing commissars in many departments.

The Bolshevik speaker shouted, trying to make himself heard, that the decision of the Congress of Soviets meant that all Russia backed up the action of the Bolsheviki.

“You!” he cried. “You are not the real representative of the people of Petrograd!” Shrieks of “Insult! Insult!” The old mayor, with dignity, reminded him that the Duma was elected by the freest possible popular vote. “Yes,” he answered, “but that was a long time ago – like the Tsay-ee-kah – like the Army Committee.”

“There has been no new Congress of Soviets!” they yelled at him.

“The Bolshevik faction refuses to remain any longer in this nest of counter-revolution.” Uproar. “And we demand a re-election of the Duma...” Whereupon the Bolsheviki left the chamber, followed by cries of “German agents! Down with the traitors!”

Shingariov, Cadet, then demanded that all municipal functionaries who had consented to be commissars of the Military Revolutionary Committee be discharged from their position and indicted. Schreider was on his feet, putting a motion to the effect that the Duma protested against the menace of the Bolsheviki to dissolve it, and as the legal representative of the population, it would refuse to leave its post.

Hall of Sessions of the State Duma | Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Hall of Sessions of the State Duma | Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Outside, the Alexander Hall was crowded for the meeting of the Committee for Salvation, and Skobeliev was again speaking. “Never yet,” he said, “was the fate of the Revolution so acute, never yet did the question of the existence of the Russian state excite so much anxiety, never yet did history put so harshly and categorically the question – is Russia to be or not to be! The great hour for the salvation of the Revolution has arrived, and in consciousness thereof we observe the close union of the live forces of the revolutionary democracy, by whose organised will a centre for the salvation of the country and the Revolution has already been created...” And much of the same sort. “We shall die sooner than surrender our post!”

Amid violent applause it was announced that the Union of Railway Workers had joined the Committee for Salvation. A few moments later the post and telegraph employees came in; then some Mensheviki Internationalists entered the hall, to cheers. The railway men said they did not recognise the Bolsheviki and had taken the entire railroad apparatus into their own hands, refusing to entrust it to any usurpatory power. The telegraphers’ delegate declared that the operators had flatly refused to work their instruments as long as the Bolshevik Commissar was in the office. The postmen would not deliver or accept mail at Smolny...all the Smolny telephones were cut off. With great glee it was reported how Uritzky had gone to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to demand the secret treaties, and how Neratov had put him out. The Government employees were all stopping work.

It was war – war deliberately planned, Russian fashion; war by strike and sabotage.

As we sat there the chairman read a list of names and assignments; so-and-so was to make the round of the Ministries; another was to visit the banks; some ten or twelve were to work the barracks and persuade the soldiers to remain neutral – “Russian soldiers, do not shed the blood of your brothers!”; a committee was to go and confer with Kerensky; still others were despatched to provincial cities, to form branches of the Committee for Salvation, and link together the anti-Bolshevik elements.

At The Gates of Smolny, 1917 | Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
At The Gates of Smolny, 1917 | Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The crowd was in high spirits. “These Bolsheviki will try to dictate to the intelligentzia? We’ll show them!” – Nothing could be more striking than the contrast between this assemblage and the Congress of Soviets. There, great masses of shabby soldiers, grimy workmen, peasants – poor men, bent and scarred in the brute struggle for existence; here the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders – Avksentievs, Dans, Liebers – the former Socialist Ministers – Skobelievs, Tchernovs, – rubbed shoulders with Cadets like oily Shatsky, sleek Vinaver; with journalists, students, intellectuals of almost all camps. This Duma crowd was well-fed, well-dressed; I did not see more than three proletarians among them all...

News came. Kornilov’s faithful Tekhintsi had slaughtered his guards at Bykhov, and he had escaped. Kaledin was marching north. The Soviet of Moscow had set up a Military Revolutionary Committee, and was negotiating with the commandant of the city for possession of the arsenal, so that the workers might be armed.

With these facts was mixed an astounding jumble of rumours, distortions, and plain lies. For instance, an intelligent young Cadet, formerly private secretary to Miliukov and then to Terestchenko, drew us aside and told us all about the taking of the Winter Palace.

“The Bolsheviki were led by German and Austrian officers,” he affirmed.

“Is that so?” we replied, politely. “How do you know?”

“A friend of mine was there and saw them.”

“How could he tell they were German officers?”

“Oh, because they wore German uniforms!”

There were hundreds of such absurd tales, and they were not only solemnly published by the anti-Bolshevik press, but believed by the most unlikely persons – Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviki who had always been distinguished by their sober devotion to facts.

But more serious were the stories of Bolshevik violence and terrorism. For example, it was said that the Red Guards had not only thoroughly looted the Winter Palace, but that they had massacred the yunkers after disarming them, had killed some of the ministers in cold blood; and as for the woman soldiers, most of them had been violated, and many had committed suicide because of the tortures they had gone through. All these stories were swallowed whole by the crowd in the Duma. And worse still, the mothers and fathers of the students and of the women read these frightful details, often accompanied by lists of names, and toward nightfall the Duma began to be besieged by frantic citizens.

A typical case is that of Prince Tumanov, whose body, it was announced in many newspapers, had been found floating in the Moika Canal. A few hours later this was denied by the Prince’s family, who added that the Prince was under arrest so the press identified the dead man as General Demissov. The General having also come to life, we investigated, and could find no trace of any body found whatever.

Up on the corner of the Liteiny, five or six Red Guards and a couple of sailors had surrounded a newsdealer and were demanding that he hand over his copies of the Menshevik Rabot-chaya Gazeta (Workers’ Gazette). Angrily he shouted at them, shaking his fist, as one of the sailors tore the papers from his stand. An ugly crowd had gathered around, abusing the patrol. One little workman kept explaining doggedly to the people and the newsdealer, over and over again, “It has Kerensky’s proclamation in it. It says we killed Russian people. It will make bloodshed…”

Excerpted from Ten Days That Shook The World by John Reed.

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