Welcome to The Nineteen Seventeen Chronicle, a brand new project to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. With the kind permission of Gale Primary Sources and The British Library, we have scoured the archives to piece together the story of the 1917 as told by British Newspapers at the time, and it may not be the story you were expecting. Events in Petrograd and across the Russian empire unfolded at such a speed, international newspapers struggled to keep up and, as you can probably imagine, reports were delayed, inaccurate, biased or just plain wrong. Who ever said fake news was a new phenomenon anyway?!
Pull up an armchair, light up a pipe, and let us take you back to 1917....
Please note: all dates are taken from British newspapers, therefore use the Gregorian Calendar rather than the Julian calendar that in use in Russia at the time. Please don't panic when the February Revolution seems to be happening in March, and the October Revolution in November!
It's January 1917 and the war is having a profound impact on Russian society.
Tsar Nicholas has left the capital to lead his men on the front line, but after years of heavy fighting, the Russian army is weary and depleted. Back home, food shortages are rife, people are hungry and the Russian parliament is growing increasing angry...
With a mounting economic crisis, luxuries being imported into Russia were considered offensive. Many voluntary associations tried to take action, including the Moscow Artists for the Russian Army and Victims of War group who suggesting introducing a 'League of Thriftiness' and running special workshops to teach actresses how to simplify women's clothing as an attempt to 'halt the overflow of luxury'. Eventually, the government also took action, with an official directive to ban importation of luxury goods into the country.*
*Tumanova, A., & Lemeneva-Wollesen, E. (2014). Voluntary Associations in Moscow and Petrograd and Their Role in Patriotic Campaigns During World War I (1914-February 1917). Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, 62(3), neue folge, 345-370. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43819666
Rasputin is one of the most mysterious characters in Russian history. Born in the remote Siberian village of Pokrovskoe, on the 10th January 1869, he was a mystic, healer and infamous ladies man. His ability to soothe young prince Alexei's haemophilia brought him close to the royal family, and he became the Alexandria's closest adviser while the Tsar was away at the front. As this article notes, his enemies considered him to be a German spy. His death, at the hands of three Russian aristocrats, Prince Felix Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich and MP Vladimir Purishkevich is also steeped in mystery. In December 1916 Rasputin sent this letter to Nicholas foretelling his own death:
“I feel that I shall leave life before January 1st. I wish to make known to the Russian people, to Papa (the Tsar), to the Russian Mother (the Tsarina) and to the Children what they must understand. If I am killed by common assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, the Tsar of Russia, will have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years. But if I am murdered by boyars, nobles, and if they shed my blood, their hands will remain soiled with my blood for twenty-five years and they will leave Russia. Brothers will kill brothers, and they will kill each other and hate each other, and for twenty-five years there will be no peace in the country. The Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigory has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death, then none of your children will remain alive for more than two years. And if they do, they will beg for death as they will see the defeat of Russia, see the Antichrist coming, plague, poverty, destroyed churches, and desecrated sanctuaries where everyone is dead. The Russian Tsar, you will be killed by the Russian people and the people will be cursed and will serve as the devil’s weapon killing each other everywhere. Three times for 25 years they will destroy the Russian people and the orthodox faith and the Russian land will die. I shall be killed. I am no longer among the living. Pray, pray, be strong, and think of your blessed family. ”
Count Aleksandr Konstantinovich Benckendorff was ambassador to the United Kingdom from 1903 until his death on 11th January 1917. He played an important role in in the creation of Entente Cordiale and the Russia-UK alliance during the First World War. Interestingly, although he was considered one of the best Russian diplomats, he wasn't fluent in Russian. He was the only Russian diplomat allowed to write to the Tsar in French!
In spite of war and political turmoil, it is great to discover that the scout movement remained at the top of diplomatic agendas for Great Britain, Italy, Romania and Belgium.
In the seventeen months of Alexandria's rule, from September 1915 to February 1917, Russia had four Prime Ministers, three Foreign Ministers, three War Ministers, five Ministers of the Interior, Two Ministers of Transport and Four Ministers of Agriculture. The "ministerial leapfrog" removed comptetent men from power and disorganised the work of government as no on was in office long enough to work out their own responisibilites.*
Nikolai Dmitriyevich Golitsyn was to be the last Prime Pinister of Imperial Russia. He wasn't particularly keen to take over from his predecessor Alexander Trepov, and he even begged the Tsar to cancel his appointment, claiming he wasn't prepared for the role.
Trepov had been appointed only a few months earlier on the 23rd November 1916 and he was determined to make concessions to win over the moderates in the Duma. As part of this, he hoped to remove 4 of the most unpopular statesmen from their high ranking positions, including a protege of Rasputin, the very unpopular Alexander Protopopov. Failing in this task, and at the same time incurring the wrath of the Tsarina for opposing her beloved Rasputin, he resigned.
Golitzyn on the other hand, was probably right is claiming lack of preparedness, although it is difficult to imagine any statesmen who could truly be prepared for the chaos unfolding in Russia. He was killed by the Bolsheviks in Saint Petersburg on the 2nd July 1925.
Figes, Orlando (2014). A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924. London: The Bodley.
The story of the Russian army on the Western Front seems to have been almost forgotten by history, so it was nice to come a cross this article in the Derby Daily Telegraph.
In 1915, the French requested 300,000 Russian troops be sent to assist their own army on the Western Front. This figure was unrealistically high but a Russian Expeditionary Force of 40,000 men was agreed upon and the first troops arrived in Marseille in April 1916. The correspondent notes:
"The Russian soldiers as no novices in war. Four-fifths of them have seen hard fighting on the eastern front, and they are all picked men both in regard to physique and character to represent worthily the Russian army in France"
While their character and physiques may well have been sound, it is unlikely that 4/5ths were experienced soldiers from the Eastern Front since they were mainly made up of drafts from Reserve Units from Moscow and Samara. While the 1st regiment's troops were mainly conscripted factory workers, the 2nd were peasants from rural areas. The correspondent describes them as:
"big, well grown fellows. Physically they are up to the best standard of any of the belligerent armies I have seen, except perhaps of our own Australians and Canadians. They wear a uniform in which at a distance they look not unlike our men. Close at hand, and when you see them bareheaded, you realise that they represent a racial type which is foreign to western Europe. There is something about their close shorn round heads and ruddy faces, with the salient cheek bones, which are new to the man who has never crossed the Vistula in his travels."
News of the February Revolution was initially kept a secret by the Russian officers, but by the 12th April it had reached the men and reactions were mixed. While the peasants of the second regiment expressed their continued loyalty to the tsar, the factory workers of the first regiment were delighted with the success of the uprising. Afraid of the spread of revolutionary ideas, the French placed suspected pro-revolutionary soldiers under guard. When they mutinied, the uprisings were brutally suppressed and thousands were deported to penal camps in North Africa and France. The remaining Russian soldiers, who were still committed to the war effort, joined the French army as part of the Russian Legion, where they served courageously. By the end of the war, there were less than 500 Russians left in the French army, most of which remained in France.
Despite having made considerable concessions in 1906, Nicholas limited the power of the Duma by stating that the Tsar, and not the Duma, would appoint ministers, conduct foreign affairs, have the right to rule by decree whenever the assembly was not in session. Furthermore, the Duma could not pass laws without the Tsar’s agreement, making it dependent on his approval for any action
The Duma was very often in the opposition to the Tsar, and as a result, Nicholas refused to let the Duma play a significant role in the war effort. In so doing, he isolated himself politically and allowed the growth of an angry alternative government which eventually resulted in the Duma plot to overthrow him. Many of its member formed the backbone of the Provisional Government which took power in March 1917.
Despite the Tsars confidence in his Empire's natural resources, in reality the diversion of resources to the Front for the war effort caused severe problems for the civilian population, creating much civil unrest.
Food shortages were rife in urban areas. Conscription of peasants, as well as the requisitioning of their horses, made it difficult to sustain the agricultural output of an already backwards economy. Furthermore, town populations were on the rise due to increasing demand for labour in war industries. To make matter worse, the transport system was completely inadequate and broke down under the strain of war. Finally, high inflation meant that food became unaffortable in urban areas and the peasants began to horde stocks as selling it on was unprofitable. As a result, there were severe food shortages in Petrograd.
It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the riots that started the February Revolution, began as bread protests on International Women's Day, instigated by a female population struggling to feed their families.
Lady Buchanan, wife of the British Ambassador to Russia, was very active in relief work in Petrograd during the war. She organised a feeding point for refugees, a maternity home and, most notably, the British colony hospital for wounded Russian soldiers. Located in Pokrovsky House on Vasilevsky Island, the hospital continued its work until June 1917, when worsening conditions in the city led to its closure.
It's February 1917 and war rages on.
A sense of anticipation hangs in the air as it becomes clear that a new dawn is about to break. The country cannot go on as it is, but its future is far from certain.
Not sure how successful this business venture was...
Although no revolution has taken place yet, it is already abundantly clear to British journalists that Russia’s long term problems combined with the strain of war is going to have a dramatic impact on the country. It would not be long before they discovered just how dramatic the changes were to be.
The Anglo-Russian Hospital opened in Petrograd on 12 February 1916. Staff and equipment were sent from Britain, the nurses were paid £4-5 a month plus expenses and they were provided with uniform and some other outfit. It was run by Lady Muriel Paget, and should not be confused with the ‘British Colony Hospital’, that also existed in Petrograd at the time.
One of the main problems in Petrograd during the war was a severe shortage of food caused by difficulties in transportation, military requisitioning of horses, conscription of agricultural workers and high inflation. The measures put forward in the Minister of Agriculture’s speed were clearly insufficient, as the February (March) Revolution was to eventually be initiated by women workers' protests over bread shortages
Alexis Aladin was a Russian politician who formed and led the Trudoviks, the Peasants' Party. He was elected to the First Duma in 1906.
Having been arrested and imprisoned by the Bolsheviks in late 1917, he managed to escape and spent the last years of his life in Britain trying to bridge the gap between various Russian political groups and Western society.
Aladin was very attached to the UK, speaking fluent English and having many friends there. Trotsky wrote that Aladin was a man who “never removed an English pipe from his mouth and therefore considered himself a specialist in international affairs”
Check back soon for the March edition of The Nineteen Seventeen Chronicle