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7 March 2017

From the 1917 Revolution archive: The Bolshevik Revolution

This New Statesman report by the historian Julius West gives an eye-witness account of the start of Bolshevik rule in Russia. It tells of the smelly, smokey atmosphere surrounding the Smolny Palace on the nights of 7-9 November - as Soviet delegates gathered to ratify the revolution.

By New Statesman

I. Smolny Night

When the Provisional Government of Russia had decided to give the Taurida Palace a new coat of paint by way of preparation for the Constituent Assembly to be held therein, it was clear that the tenants could not remain where they were. Other accommodation had to be provided, and the Smolny Institute was selected. Now the tenants of the State Duma building were the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates, the All-Russian Executive of the Soviets, and innumerable organisations and departments connected therewith. The Smolny, on the other hand, had been a school for the girls of the Russian aristocracy. It is a huge three-storey building with convent-like corridors and a general air of the Regency period. After some little rowdiness due to the Soviet’s action in annexing the Government’s furniture the move was made, and the local aristocratic female ghosts shuddered. During the last few days I have felt peculiarly conscious of their perturbation.

The Smolny Institute – architecturally, at any rate – is all a young ladies seminary should be. It has two wings, one on each side, a pediment supported by pillars with Corinthian capitals, a forecourt, and a public garden in front. But on, say, the morning of November 8th, 1917, it would hardly have passed for what it once was. The forecourt was filled with motors of every variety, from cycles to armoured cars. A creature belonging to the tank family performed a clattering waddles amongst its smaller relatives, as if inspecting some distant and youthful cousins. A few quick-firers were perched up in front of the entrance. Machine-guns in various stages of usefulness pointed themselves at the universe. Soldiers with fixed bayonets and sailors carrying rifles pervaded the place generally, apparently filled in beautiful unanimity with the one desire of inspecting credentials. Occasionally little processions entered containing, as a nucleus, a member of the Provisional government, or a Cadet or two, belonging to one of those few units suspected of supporting that effete institution. So much for the outside.

[See also: Why Vladimir Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

The inside impressed the sense of smell most of all. A blind man would diagnose it as consisting of peasant soldiers, tea, black bread, freshly-printed-upon paper, vegetable soup, apples, tobacco smoke, cigarette-ends, and a very small number of women. These, in fact, are the ingredients of revolutionary atmosphere. But atmospheric conditions, after all, do not determine organisation. Let us take a look round. There are fewer book and pamphlet stalls than usual. The wares are heavily Marxian; there are no pamphlets, translated from the English, and very few books. Philip Gibb’s The Soul of the War, in Russian, is prominent. The British Constitution and the social legislation of New Zealand are approvingly described by several Menshevik writers. A room where once young ladies embroidered table-centres contains the Military Revolutionary Committee, and is the actual headquarters (if any) of the revolution. A young ensign is sitting at a table with a telephone, receiving written or telegraphic reports from messengers lined up in a queue which passes before him. The ensign, generally speaking, reads the wire or message and puts it down. Most of the messages report all well and call for no action. Sometimes, however, he has to use the telephone or give an order. Such is the Intelligence Department of a revolution.

The All-Russian Conference of Soviets (which is really the cause of our being here) meets in the large hall of the Smolny – a hall on which the architect has lavished no imagination, and which holds, with an effort, about to thousand persons. There is a platform, there are a number of pillars neatly arranged in two rows, and the conference in progress; Thursday’s session, for example. It was called for 1 p.m., but at that hour the delegates were still sleeping of the effects of the previous day’s conference, which had gone on until half-past five in the morning. Besides, there were all manner of fractional and committee meetings to be held before the conference could meet. So we sit about and improve on one another’s rumours. The Bolsheviks would form a coalition Government with the Social Revolutionaries.

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“What” With Chernov and Avksentiev?”
“Certainly not. Only with the extreme left S.R.’s.”
“But they’ve just refused to support the Bolsheviks.”
“No; that was the S.R. Internationalists.”
“You mean the S.R Maximalist fraction. I’ve just had it on good authority that they’ve been offered two posts in the Cabinet.”
“I don’t believe it…”

Which is untrue. Everybody believes everything, and nobody gets impatient. At half past eight a few people walking up the middle gangway get a great reception. The hall is immediately overcrowded. The platform is occupied by people who talk to one another for forty minutes, apparently forgetting all about the conference.

[See also: Britain, Russia and the Cold War]

Lenin’s appearance gave me a feeling that I had already made his acquaintance in some previous incarnation. A short man with a large head, clean-shaven (for purposes of disguise), the expression of a pained humorist, considerable obstinacy, equally considerable ability. But the clothes seemed all wrong. And then I remembered. It was Auberon Quin I had been really thinking of. Apart from the fact that revolutionists do not wear frock-coats, Lenin is a precise reproduction of Mr. Chesteron’s own pictures of his Napoleon of Notting Hill. And when Lenin explained his projects the approximation of fact and fiction became almost oppressive.

At ten minutes past nine we begin. There is apparently a definite procedure in accordance with which Russian conferences are supposed to be conducted. But its details are known to few and are jealously guarded. Anyhow, this is what happened. First a delegate read a declaration from his group condemning the entire conference. Then a delegate representing a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of his particular fraction of a fraction. After which a delegate from the Donetz basin reported that disturbances were taking place down that way, and that Kaledin and his Cossacks were expected. Another delegate arose and read out a political programme passed by his Soviet. Then Lenin got up and announced the practical measures to be taken to obtain peace. Presumably England knows all about them, so they need not be repeated. England, however, probably does not know that Lenin stated his belief in the special efficacy of his appeal on British labour, on the grounds that the Chartist movement had shown the peculiarly sensitive class-consciousness of the English working-man. It was a movement to be copied in all countries…. This amazing reference should not lead anybody to suppose that Lenin’s speech was that of a theorist. It was (to me, at any rate) surprisingly practical. He admitted that even his peace proposals might not be accepted and that Russian would have to do on fighting. Yet, even as he recited the difficulties confronting him, the audience visibly came under his spell. In twenty minutes he had finished.

Short speeches became the rule; and a leader who can hypnotise a Russian conference into making short speeches is a leader indeed. Poles and Letts, Lithuanians and Ukrainians declared their approval of the proposals. So, too, did various quasi-Bolshevik speakers belonging to other parties. Lenin replied, emphasising the difficulties of the proposal; it was put to the vote and carried nem.con. To tremendous cheering. Universal peace settled after a discussion of an hour and a quarter, a bourgeois newspaper correspondent cynically observed. But it was impossible for anybody present not a cynic to check the rising feeling that Lenin’s speech might turn out to be a landmark in human history. Two thousands crowded enthusiasts and a study room have a curious effect upon one’s convictions.

[See also: Russia’s turbulent century of revolutions, from Lenin to Stalin]

At twenty minutes to eleven the chairman, Kamenev, announced that the meeting would now proceed to abolish private property in land, so far as owners who did not themselves cultivate their own property were concerned. Another proposal of earth-shaking importance was handled in another twenty minutes’ speech. Again delegates rose and approved. One or two asked for a committee to consider details, but the details were already worked out, and if they didn’t like them they had only themselves to blame, said Lenin. After all, they had had about eight months to decide what they really did want, and if they hadn’t made up their minds yet a committee wouldn’t be likely to help them to get much forrader. However, some factions insisted that they ought to consider the matter separately. Very well, said Lenin, let’s adjourn. For how long? Put to the vote, it was settled that the interval was to last half an hour and it lasted two hours.

When we met again it appeared for some time that we had forgotten all about the land. A soldier from the Macedonian front protested against a Russian army fighting so far from home, in the company of the beastly French, too. A Bolshevik appeal against pogroms was read. A Ukrainian soldier demanded independence for his part of Russia, and said the Ukrainian republic would always regard Russia as an elder sister. Then the land proposal was voted upon and carried unanimously.

It was somewhere about this time that somebody said something that aroused cheers rather louder than usual. A delegate began to sing the international. The whole meeting rose and sang too. Then somebody else said that the dead must not be forgotten. The audience rose again and sang the unforgettable “Eternal Memory” with which the Russian revolution honours its fallen. The deep voices of the men, unaccompanied, singing words which for the moment made all differences seem as trivial as they really were, left an impression upon the meeting which never really wore off. From about 2 to 6a.m., when it broke up, the conference, whatever its dissensions, was filled with the faith that makes miracles not merely possible but obvious.

The land proposal had been carried unanimously; but that did not settle it. Various delegates now rose and moved amendments. It had been proposed to exclude deserters from the benefits of the measure. Somebody now moved that this disqualification be deleted. Deserters, he said, were manufactured by Kerensky’s Government, and ought not to be published for what was not really their own fault. An officer replied. He agreed that desertion was a misfortune rather than a crime, but maintained that the best men did not desert, and that the disqualification should remain. Then the meeting began to express its feelings, and the officer became inaudible. Lenin smoother the troubled waters by saying that the Government would consider the matter. How quickly parliamentary technique can be mastered!

At half-past two Kamenev said that the new Government had been formed. We all knew it had long ago, but the new Cabinet had already acquired the vice of keeping the public in the dark. Besides, there was the novelty of legislating without knowing who was the Government. And then we were told that the Government was to be called the council of National Commissars, that Lenin was Premier and Trotsky Commissar of Foreign Affairs. And the cheering was terrific, although some of us may have wondered what sort of reception the new Ministers would get from their departmental subordinates, and the matter was discussed acrimoniously, and carried unanimously, and the conference was declared at an end.

Such were the proceedings during two nights, during which those present believed that the fate of Russia was in their hands.

[See also: The delusions that bind communism and liberalism]

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