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7 March 2017

From the 1917 Revolution archive: A Petrograd Diary

Julius West's reports for the New Statesman offer a first hand account of the uneasy beginnings of Bolshevik rule.

By New Statesman

The Revolution is almost blatantly materialist, but here and there one comes upon traces of a sort of feeling that this will not do. The most striking evidence of this perhaps unconscious inclination towards mysticism is the recently widespread use of the adjective “stikhiyny,” which now qualifies the description of almost every human action. Now “stikhiyny” means elemental, perhaps intuitive. One finds Bolshevik leaders justifying most of the things for which they are responsible by the statement that they resulted from elemental forces. Revolution, one soon comes to feel, is a matter of these forces rather than of deliberate organisation. So, too, Petlura, the Ukrainian War Minister, told me that the movement led by him was “elemental.” The teachings of Sorel and Bergson have no ostensible connection with the current explanation of events. The “elemental” may be a convenient method of evading responsibility; it may be the first sign of a reaction against Marxist materialism, but I cannot help believing, rejoicingly, that it is a mark of discontent.

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


The Soldiers who are sent up from the front as delegates to the Peasants’ Soviet seem to belong to a type different from those who attend the meetings of the Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Council. The peasant-soldiers are less educated, less practised speakers, and less versed in party subtleties. In fact, they frequently upset the plans of their political leaders by refusing to follow party lines. They refused to approve of Lenin, even when that master-humorist came down to their Soviet and harangued an audience consisting of men who called themselves Bolsheviks and Left Social Revolutionaries. As to the Right’s S.R.’s – well, they provide small comfort to the Smolny Government. I heard a White Russian soldier deliver a ten minutes’ speech to the “Right” peasants. He was clearly uneducated, he was no orator, but he spoke from the depths of his soul. “We White Russians,” he said, “will have to pay for your neglect, for your crimes. You have admitted the Bolsheviks, and one thing is certain as the result of a Bolshevik Government: White Russia will be handed over to the Germans – White Russia, where Russia first saw the light of day. The White Russians will be swept of the fact of the earth. When you issue an appeal to the peasants tell them of their Motherland; it is the Motherland which is perishing. Never mind about ‘world ideals.’ We are poor, uneducated folk, and we don’t know what ‘world ideals’ are, and we don’t care what they mean. But we know what the Motherland is.” Before he had been speaking for five minutes he was in tears; by the time he had ended the whole roomful of soldiers was weeping profusely, and strong men’s tears were dripping noisily on to my notebook. A day or two later I heard an even less polished peasant sailor, speaking for his class, inveighing against the members of the Smolny Cabinet. “We are the real fighters. We didn’t go abroad; we stayed at home. We went to the front; we were killed. We went to prison; we bore all the sufferings of the old order, and we are damned is we, the peasants, acknowledge these self-appointed persons as our leaders. We are the real Bolsheviks – [i.e., the real majority]…. Where would the Revolution have been if it hadn’t been for the peasant soldier?” Lest anybody should hasten, like the Duchess, to deduce a moral, I ought to add that a fortnight or so after these things had been said, I saw that identical White Russia, at one of the final meetings of the All-Russia Peasants’ Conference, enthusiastically applauding the Bolshevik and Left S.R. speakers…

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

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The Bolsheviks before their success had fought shy of attacking the Church in particular or religion in general. They had left this to their quasi-allies, the Anarchists. The political power left in the hands of the Church was unascertainable. It might turn out to be a troublesome opponent if it were attacked; so it was left alone – for a while. A few weeks before the November coup the Bolsheviks took steps to see how far they could go. They started a daily paper, in order to carry on propaganda amongst the peasantry, called Derevenskaya Byednota (“Village Poverty”). This occasionally went out of its way to denounce the village “pope” in his educational capacity. The village “pope,” as well as his superiors, did not seem to mind. The Bolsheviks went a step farther. Here and there anti-religious lectures were given. I went to one of them at the Cirque Moderne. The lecturer was a bit of a humorist of the Marble Arch variety, and he distinctly amused his audience. He told them about Darwin, the nebular hypothesis, the existence of pseudo-Christs, and all the other double-edged swords with which the Atheist sooner or later generally commits suicide. The audience took it all like lambs. They obviously extremely enjoyed the novel sensation of being told that there was no God, and that they had, so to speak, been standing on their heads all their lives. And when the speaker had done, and question-time came, well, then…. One man after another asked the most elementary questions, showing that the argument had been entirely beyond him. “If God hadn’t made the world, then who had?” “Where did the first man come from?” “If there had been several Christs, why did the Church only talk about one?” This sort of inquisition went on for over an hour, and I pitied the lecturer. Then came the November Revolution. In Moscow, while Bolsheviks and Cadets were chasing one another round the Kremlin, while bullets were perforating Prince Kropotkin’s windows, in the Church of the Redeemer the hierarchy of Russian Orthodoxy was enthroning the Metropolitan of Moscow as Patriarch of Russia. A week or two later the Bolshevik Government set to work. It worked out a decree on “civil marriage,” hitherto a euphemism for permanent cohabitation. The Republic is to recognise only civil marriage. Persons wishing to marry simply say so to their local authority, and there they are. No disqualifications are to apply to illegitimacy. The parents of a child are the persons who notify themselves as such to the local authority. And then in January, a “marriage-bureau” was set up for the registration of such civil marriages. It was housed in the late offices of the Imperial Stud.

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


The Bolshevik conscience was very deeply shocked by the practice, revealed by the opening of Foreign Office bags, of sending personal effects through their means by and from Foreign Office officials and members of the staffs of embassies and legations. So two auction sales were got up in the Foreign Office in Petrograd to dispose of the “contraband” which the officials had caused to be smuggled into the country, using the privileges accorded to diplomatic correspondence for the satisfaction of their personal desires. Clothes were the majority of the articles placed on sale, the receipts being devoted to the purchase of other clothes for the Russia Army. I attended one of these sales. A sailor acted as auctioneer. Bidding was keen; one fancied that some of the buyers were really ransoming their own property. Humour flowed as rapidly as I have known it to flow in time of revolution. Thus, a chessboard set it put up. (As if they couldn’t be bought in Russia! Really, one couldn’t get up very much sympathy with the chinovnik deprived of men.) Bidding opens at ten roubles. A voice from the crowd: “Is the set complete?” The auctioneer: “Yes, quote complete. There are even two extra pieces.” A voice: “Two kings too many.”


The state of indiscipline among the Petrograd garrison is illustrated by a series of incidents inside and out the Winter Palace, December 3rd – 6th, 1917. One the eve of the first-mentioned day a number of soldiers from the adjoining Preobrazhensky (if one had to translate the name literally, one would have to call the soldiers “the Transfigured ones”) who were in a less helpless condition occasionally fired off their rifles at one another or at Petrograd in general; the number of casualties was extraordinarily small. The cellars held too much to be emptied as nature directed, and the idea that the place was to be emptied had apparently fixed itself on the Pre-ect. consciousness. The Soldiers therefore began trading. At least, not at once. They began by giving bottles away, but not for long, as there are limits to human kindness. The price of a bottle of wine of any description soon rose from one rouble to twenty. Then they started selling water, filling the already empty bottles with it, and selling them for whatever could be got. After which the soldiers began searching casual passers-by to make sure that no good drink was escaping. And all the time the Russian Army wandered about the streets busily joy-firing in the central part of the town. A few queer things happened, of course; for instance, a lady musician returning home from an engagement was stopped in her sleigh by a somewhat drunken soldier, who demanded her fur coat, arguing his right to it with a fixed bayonet. Having received the coat, he noticed that the lady was wearing some articles of jewellery, which he collected. Then he demanded her clothes, which he also got, one by one, in spite of the tearful protests of the owner. When the lady had been reduced to her most intimate garments, the soldier noticed she was shivering. (It must have been several degrees below freezing-point on that particular night.) He thereupon gallantly offered her his overcoat, in which she was allowed to finish her journey. When she examined the contents of its bulging pockets she found they contained some tens of thousands of roublesworth of paper money!

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

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