Show Hide image

From the NS archive: The Bolshevik Revolution

15 December 1917: The people of Petrograd have become used to the firing, the taking of government buildings, the looting, the atrocities.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

Julius West (born Julius Rappoport in St Petersburg in 1891) reported from the city of his birth, then called Petrograd, during the chaos of the Bolshevik revolution. What he describes is less a noble uprising than a multi-party conflict with competing armies and competing versions of socialism. It was less than two months since Lenin and his supporters had sought to overthrow the provisional government but the people of Petrograd, said West, had become used to the firing, the taking of government buildings, the looting, and even the atrocities. From his standpoint, as services shut down and food ran low, a stalemate was developing because neither side had enough men to push for victory.

***

A week’s continuous contemplation of Petrograd makes one feel sorry for its future historians, unless, indeed, they happen to be classical scholars. Classical study, I think, generally includes a course of Mr Maurice Baring’s works, which contain some extracts alleged to have come out of the diary of an English governess in Paris during the French Revolution. Read those extracts, and you get the sensations of the bourgeois resident in the Petrograd of today. He is on his dignity; he is vaguely aware that his city is in the hands of a crowd with whom he has no connection; and he stays at home as much as he can. If he meets a friend he generally asks him how it is all going to finish. And where the devil is the Provisional Government’s army?

The resident, in fact, knows extremely little. For a week Petrograd has been very nearly cut off from the rest of Russia, and entirely separated from the outside world. The train service is casual; the telephones can only be used for official business; the telegraph, apparently, no longer exists. All the non-Socialist papers have been stopped, and the Socialist papers which do not support the Bolsheviks are coming out under great difficulties, succumbing one after another. The news published is highly coloured, and there is very little of it, anyway. The public is frankly unable to make head or tail of the whole business. Remember that four armies are supposed to be marching on Petrograd. First of all there is the Provisional Government, somewhere in the outer suburbs; we can hear its guns occasionally. This is being chased by Bolsheviks coming to help the Lenin Government. This army consists of detachments from the Northern Front and parts of the garrisons of Reval and Narva. Then there are the Germans who, according to current rumour, are landing indiscriminately all over the place. And some time after they all get here, the Cossacks will arrive from the south, under General Kaledin. And we shall all have the time of our lives.

The soldiers one meets all express the same sentiment: “Wish we could catch Kerensky – we’d soon drop him into the Neva.” The Soviet, having placed him in office, now looks on him as a traitor – it has gone to the left, he has gone to the right. The bourgeois always disapproved of his Socialism, and the fact that he was a compromise. And the rest of the population is filled with the perfectly natural desire to hit a man because he is down. Petrograd, all things considered, is extraordinarily quiet. There have been siege and murder and massacre; but the promiscuous “joy-firing” which was a feature of the July outbreak has lost most of its attractions.

The Bolsheviks’ plan of campaign was essentially sound. They had a list of the buildings to be occupied, and they occupied them. First on the list was the government bank – that needed very few men. The Winter Palace required larger numbers, but as soon as it was taken some hundreds of soldiers and “Red Guards” (armed factory workers and mostly young fellows of about twenty, very slightly disciplined) were set free for the next job. The Government offices were merely policed by Red Guards. An enormous number of these youths were put on to preventing outrages by professional criminals.

When the seats of the Government had been captured, the only part of the garrison remaining loyal to the Provisional Government was dealt with. Here the atrocities occurred. One officers’ training school after another was surrounded, fired at with rifles, machine-guns, and, in one case at least, artillery, and captured. Wherever the Cadets (“Junkers”) had put up an obstinate resistance, something in the nature of a massacre occurred; otherwise they might hope for decent treatment. At one officers’ training school, the Red Guards and the mob, irritated by a resistance of several hours, which had made a street appear as if an exceptionally competent Zeppelin had been at work, at the end rushed into the ruined building and looted wildly and viciously. Boots were torn off corpses, and I heard men outside the school yelling at those inside to hand out more boots through the windows, and receive the reply: “There aren’t any more dead here.”

In spite of this and similar affairs, in spite of intermittent gunfire and the very occasional cracking of rifles, the town is quiet. On Sunday 4 November, when Petrograd was expecting an outbreak, and none occurred, the principal streets were deserted. On Sunday 11 November, when the firing was still taking place, the Nevsky swarmed with well-dressed people. Large crowds got as near as they could to the Telephone Station in the Morskaya, hoping to see its capture. And here it may not be out of place to notice the wonderfully prompt way in which the population has adapted itself to the present state of siege. A week ago Petrograd was the most nervous city on earth. A friend suddenly remarked with emphasis, as he nearly twisted his ankle, “Bozhe moy!” (My God). And a panic or something very much like it at once spread down the street for some hundreds of yards. But now! I was in the Nevsky when a sailor lifted up his rifle and fired, apparently for no other reason than épater le bourgeois. And a few people ran, and a good many stopped, but there was nothing in the nature of a panic.

The revolution has had a peculiar and immediate effect on oratory, both of the Soviet and the Municipal Duma. Up to a week ago long speeches were the rule, and they were seldom regarded as successful unless they contained at least due reference to the “categoritchesky imperativ”. This has now gone. Short speeches are now all the fashion. Lenin abolished the present land system in a twenty minutes’ speech, while speeches at the Municipal Duma, where the anti-Bolshevik movement flies a neutral flag, seldom exceed the length of a respectable interruption. But what posterity will chiefly miss seeing will be the posters. Posters always were a feature of the Revolution, but during the last few days they have attained their apotheosis. The walls scream with the names of the Council of National Commissars, as Lenin’s Government calls itself. The Edict on Peace yells at one. The Land “Decret” is all over the place. Other posters tell one what is alleged to be happening in Moscow (entirely misleading news, between ourselves), that shops which obstinately remain shut will have their stocks confiscated, that the “counterrevolution” is at it again, and that more Red Guards are wanted. And among and between them all is a pathetically inopportune little poster for which British propaganda must be responsible; it is headed “How the British Soldier regards Discipline”, and is signed “Tomi Atkins”.

The shortage of Red Guards is really the whole Bolshevik position in a nutshell. The Provisional Government has not the power to remain in office; the Bolsheviks have not quite enough force to turn it out. They completely underestimated the number of men needed to run the country. This is the sort of thing which has been happening in consequence:

(Scene: The Ministry of Labour. Enter one SHLIAPNIKOV.)

SHLIAPNIKOV (in the entrance hall). – I am the new Minister of Labour.

THE HALL PORTER (dispassionately). – Really? First floor, along the hall, last door on the left.

(Exit SHLIAPNIKOV accordingly. HALL PORTER puts on his coat and galoshes and goes home.)

SHLIAPNIKOV (in his cabinet). – Porter . . . Porter . . . PORTER! (After much delay an attendant enters.) Tell the heads of the Departments I want to talk to them. Send them all in here. I am the new Minister. (Attendant goes out and returns after about ten minutes.) ATTENDANT– I’m sorry, but I can’t find any.

SHLIAPNIKOV – What! Not here at twelve o’clock! Tell them to come to me as soon as they get here. I’ll make an example of ’em.

ATTENDANT – Well, the fact is they’ve all just gone home. We’re all going home. All except a chauffeur. I’m going home. Good bye. (Exit.)

SHLIAPNIKOV (rushes out of his cabinet and finds building deserted. In the yard a chauffeur, tinkering with a car). – Get that thing ready at once to take me to the Smolny.

CHAUFFEUR (severely). – AND WHERE AM I TO GET MY BENZINE FROM?

CURTAIN.

Every Government office, in fact, has gone on strike. A great many shops are still shut, or else doing business in a furtive sort of way. All motors have been requisitioned by the Soviet, even the ambulances belonging to the Municipal Council. The railway workers are understood to have gone on strike with the object of preventing bloodshed; starvation will make everybody more reasonable, apparently. Soldiers behave as if under hypnotism, or just awaking from it. I heard a soldier catch at the word “heroes” in a tramcar and repeat sleepily: “They are all heroes. Lenin is a hero, Trotsky is a hero, Kamenev is a hero. But, I tell you, the other people have got some heroes too. Rodzianko is a hero, Miliukov is a hero.”

But we go to bed early, and that, no doubt, is very good for us. Because the Governments of Russia during the last month or two have been so busy suppressing one another that they haven’t had the time to put the clock back, and we are still in mid-November, enjoying the blessings of the Daylight Saving Act.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)