bolsheviks russian

Zinaida Serebriakova (1884-1967)
“House of Cards” (1919)

At the time of this painting, just 2 years after the October Revolution of 1917, Serebriakova’s husband had died of typhus, contracted in a Bolshevik jail. She was left without any income, responsible for her four children and her sick mother. All her husband’s reserves had been plundered, so the family suffered from hunger. “House of Cards” depicts her four children.


Drunken Bolsheviks and the Greatest Hangover in History,

On October 25th, 1917 Bolshevik soldiers and sailors stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, former home of the Russian Czars.  Among the wealth and grandeur of the palace, the revolutionaries stumbled upon perhaps the greatest treasure of the Romanov Dynasty; Nicholas II’s personal wine cellar, which housed the largest collection of fine wines, liquors, and cordials in the world.

Having thousands of heavily armed men and civilians in the proximity of the largest cache of booze on the planet was certainly a big problem for Bolshevik officers and politicians.  Already Bolshevik soldiers were carting out kegs and bottles, beginning a Bolshevik boozing spree that would quickly get out of hand.  At first Bolshevik leaders considered blasting the cellars with high explosives, however it was feared that this would severely damage the palace.  Finally Bolshevik leaders ordered the cellars be barricaded and placed under heavy guard while the booze was disposed of.  At first the booze was hauled out in crates to be dumped, however convoys tasked with this duty were ambushed by drunken soldiers and civilians. Finally it was decided to simply pour the booze down the drain.  This plan failed when people by the thousands gathered around the palace drains with buckets.

Finally, the large drunken Bolshevik mob stormed the Winter Palace a second time, easily overwhelming the guards and overrunning the cellar.  Immediately, St. Petersburg erupted into an orgy of drunken rioting and looting.  Boozed up Bolsheviks began fighting or having sex in streets. Rape and murder was common, so were brawls and shootouts among heavily armed soldiers. Many people were killed by stray bullets as soldiers fired their weapons into the air in celebration.  Martial law was declared and a Bolshevik army was dispatched to gain control over this situation.  However, this did little as many of the oncoming soldiers joined in on the fun. After about a month of alcohol induced chaos, the booze ran out, and order was restored in St. Petersburg.  The resulting hangover must have been terrible.

Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (1868 - 1918)

“What am I going to do? What is going to happen to me, to you, to Alix, to Mother, to all Russia?“

Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov was born on May 6, 1868, in the Alexander Palace in Tsarskoye Selo, south of St. Petersburg. He was the eldest son of his parents, Alexander Alexandrovich, the heir to the Russian throne, and Princess Dagmar of Denmark. Nicolas’s grandfather was the Tsar, Alexander II, known as the Liberator for emancipating Russia’s serfs in 1863. Their family, the Romanov dynasty, had ruled Russia for three hundred years. Nicholas would be the last emperor.

Unlike his soft-hearted, liberal grandfather, Nicholas’s father was a reactionary, whose conservative and religious values strongly influenced Nicholas’s beliefs. In 1891, Nicholas’s father acceded to the throne when Alexander II was murdered by an anarchist revolutionary. This murder convinced both Alexander III, and his son, against offering further reforms. Yet Nicholas’s education did not prepare him at all for his future role as Russian emperor.

Although he had a close relationship with his mother, Nicholas’s father believed his son to be silly and weak. Tsar Alexander III was a very strong ruler and saw no need to share a job with his uninterested heir. He refused to let him participate in any affairs of state; once, when Nicholas was twenty-five, a minister suggested that he be allowed to head a committee to supervise the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Alexander III was incredulous. “Have you ever tried to discuss anything of consequence with him?” asked the Tsar about his son and heir. “He is still absolutely a child; he has only infantile judgements. How would he be able to become president of a committee?”

The Romanov family in 1893. From left to right: Tsarevich Nicholas, Grand Duke George, Empress Maria Feodorovna (Princess Dagmar of Denmark), Grand Duchess Olga, Grand Duchess Xenia, Grand Duke Michael, Tsar Alexander III seated.

In neither his education nor his temperament did Nicholas show much aptitude to be emperor. He enjoyed foreign languages and history, but struggled with economics and politics. In general he preferred sport to books, when older he delighted in the military and served for a year when he was nine-teen. In 1894 he married Princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, a German noble, with whom he had four daughters and a son, Alexei. Alexandra was an assertive woman whose personality dominated the weaker Nicholas, and she strongly reinforced his belief in autocratic rule and his resistance to democratic reforms. In contrast to his political life, Nicholas’s home life was serene. He was a wonderful family man, a devout Orthodox Christian, and devoted to his wife and children.

The same year that he married, Nicholas became the Tsar when his father died of kidney disease. The newly-crowned emperor had not expected to be thrust into the role so soon, and he panicked about running the vast Russian empire all by himself. It was the moment, he wrote, that he “had dreaded all his life.” He confessed his fears to a cousin: “Sandro, what am I going to do? What is going to happen to me, to you, to Alix, to Mother, to all Russia? I am not prepared to be Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling. I have no idea of even how to talk to ministers.”

Nicholas determined to uphold the status quo as Tsar, but unfortunately evens abroad and at home forced his hand. Hoping not to be left out of the imperial scramble, Russia grew its industry in the Far East, and forced concessions from China in Manchuria. Yet Russian’s expansion provoked the Japanese, who attacked Russia’s eastern border in 1904, beginning the Russo-Japanese War. Europeans were convinced that the white Russians would easily triumph over the “yellow” Japanese, but the Japanese embarked on a series of victories ending in the total destruction of the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tshushima in 1905.

Nicholas and Alix’s engagement photo, 1894.

The defeat was a stunning humiliation for Russian prestige. At home it sparked outrage and crisis that turned to strikes and riots. In January 1905, Russian troops opened fire on demonstrators in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, killing many. Outrage turned to outright revolution, and eventually the Tsar was forced to grant concessions in a constitution, as well as establish an elected parliament, the Duma.

Despite some elements of democratic reform, Nicholas tightened his autocratic rule. Secret police crushed revolutionary elements in the cities, and voting laws prevented the election of radicals. A travel guide for foreigners published in 1914 warned against taking photos in rail stations - offenders would be arrested.

The Tsar’s most pressing crisis, however, was at home. His son and heir, the Tsarevich Alexei, had hemophilia, the scourge of interbred European royal families. Nicholas and Alexandra despaired for their child and sought any means to help him. They turned to an unlikely source, a disheveled mysticfrom Siberia named Grigori Rasputin. Rasputin’s monasticism belied his true character, that of a debauched womanizer and con-man. Russian noble society despised him, but Alexandra especially confided in him, and Rasputin strengthened her belief in Nicholas’s divine right to rule. His influence steadily eroded the trust Russian people felt for their Tsar.

Nicholas (left) with his cousin King George V of England. They are wearing German military uniforms while on a visit to Berlin. Despite their likeness, George refused to help Nicholas or offer him asylum during the Russian Revolution, fearing that he might be toppled as well.

Nicholas’s failing popularity received a boost in 1914, when Russia went to war against Germany and Austria. Although Nicholas was close to his cousin, the Kaiser (they wrote to each other as “Nicky” and “Willy”), Russians enlisted en masse and displayed loyalty and love for their royal family. Yet endless failures at the front burst newfound support for the Tsar, especially when Nicholas took over from his cousin as supreme commander in 1915, a position in which he demonstrated no talent. The unending string of military disaster was now firmly pinned on him. Worse, economic deprivations at home soon turned into crisis. Russia was deeply in debt and many were starving. Approval of the royal family soured; they were thought to be living in luxury while ordinary Russians died at the front or starved at home.

In March 1917 (February of the old Russian calendar), demonstrations in St. Petersburg (now Petrograd) again turned to revolution. This time, Nicholas had no army to turn to - the military was in a state of collapse, with many soldiers deserting to go back home and take part in the revolution. Helpless, Nicholas abdicated on March 15, 1917. He hoped to go to England for asylum, but the British government (fearing he might provoke the British left) refused his request. Five hundred years of Russian Tsardom ended with NIcholas.

A shaky liberal-socialist Provisional Government was set up to replace the monarchy, but the war continued to go badly. Nicholas went into house arrest in the Urals with his family. His situation worsened in the fall of 1917, when a radical communist party, the Bolsheviks, ousted the Provisional Government. Civil war began in Russia between the Bolshevik “Reds” and the “Whites”, a complex mix of warlords and political parties who opposed the Bolsheviks.

The Russian royals played no role in the Civil War, but the Bolsheviks feared that the Tsar and his family could become a symbol for the White armies to rally around. Nicholas, Alexandra, and their children were transported to a house in Yekaterinburg for safe-keeping, but in the summer of 1918 the war was going poorly for the Reds and the Czech Legion, a unit of the White army, was rapidly advancing towards Yekaterinburg.

Nicholas in captivity at Tsarskoye Selo. This is one of the last photos taken in his life.

On the night of July 16-17, as the Czechs neared, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin ordered the execution of the royal family. What actually happened is still shrouded in some state secrecy, but what is known is that a truckload of local Bolsheviks and foreign soldiers entered the house and ordered the ex-Tsar and his family to the basement. The Empress asked for chairs for her and thirteen-year-old Alexei to sit upon. The Red commander brought in two chairs, and then informed the stunned Tsar that he had been condemned to death. “What? What?” asked the Tsar. The executioners brought out revolvers and began shooting the family. The four daughters, between twenty-two and seven-teen years old, had been hiding some of their jewels in their clothes which deflected the bullets. The Bolshevik shooters stabbed them with bayonets and shot them in their heads, and stabbed to death their maid, who had shielded herself with a pillow full of jewels.

The executioners burnt, dismembered, and buried the bodies. In 1976 a team of investigators found their grave, but did not release the information until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rumors had long abounded that one of the daughters, seven-teen year-old Anastasia, had survived and escaped the massacre, which were put to rest. In 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church canonized the family as saints; today the place where they were buried is the site of a church.

Ludendorff Agrees to Send Lenin to Russia

Parvus (left) with Trotsky (center) and Menshevik leader Leo Deutsch (right).

March 25 1917, Bad Kreuznach–The revolution in Russia opened up hope for the Germans that Russia, no longer expecting a great imperial victory, could be removed from the war diplomatically.  However, the first indications out of the Provisional Government were that they intended to honor their commitments to the Allies and continue with the war.  In fact, some Germans incorrectly believed that the revolution had been organized by British agents to remove the unpopular Czar and put the war effort on a stronger, more democratic footing.

A Marxist revolutionary, Alexander Helphand (codename Parvus) was working for German intelligence in Copenhagen.  He had been friends with Lenin since 1900, and thought that now would be the perfect opportunity to send Lenin back to Russia from exile in Switzerland.  He told the German ambassador in Copenhagen that Lenin was “much more raving mad” than the leaders of the Soviet or the Provisional Government, that he would create “the greatest possible chaos,” seize power himself, and conclude a separate peace with Germany.  

The German government was soon convinced, though they took little interest in Lenin or Bolshevism itself; copies of his articles sent to Berlin were never read.  The question now was how to get Lenin to Russia, which would almost necessarily require transit through German territory.  On March 25, after meeting with Parvus, Ludendorff agreed to send the Bolsheviks in Switzerland by train through Germany to the Baltic coast, from where they would then travel to Russia via Sweden.  Lenin, however, still took some convincing, insisting that he be sent on a “sealed train” so that there would be a legal fiction that he never legally entered Germany and thus did not collaborate with the Germans; he ultimately agreed on March 31, and would depart Switzerland on April 8.

Today in 1916: British Attempt to Strike Back at Zeppelins
Today in 1915:  UK Colonial Secretary Issues Memo on “The Spoils”

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution.

Kadets Leave Provisional Government over Ukraine

Prince Georgy Lvov (1861-1925), Prime Minister March - July 1917.  He resigned after the coalition he was leading fell apart due to the Kadets’ departure.

July 15 1917, Petrograd–The Provisional Government was composed of an uneasy coalition of various revolutionary parties, ranging from the liberal Kadets on the right to the radical Mensheviks on the left.  (Lenin’s Bolsheviks were not represented in the Provisional Government, but had a considerable presence in the Soviets and the armed forces.)  The leaders of the Provisional Government hoped that these parties could put aside their differences for the sake of the revolution and the war effort until a permanent government was established, but this truce fell apart entirely by early July.

The Kadets, already indignant about the other parties’ positions on land and labour reform, were outraged when the Provisional Government agreed on July 15 to recognize Ukraine’s self-declared autonomy.  Miliukov, no longer Foreign Minister but still the most influential Kadet, called it the “chopping up of Russia under the slogan of self-determination.”  Later that day, the remaining Kadet ministers resigned from the government, breaking apart the revolutionary coalition and severely weakening the Provisional Government.

The Prime Minister, Prince Lvov, despaired for the revolution and resigned the next day (though this, and his replacement by Kerensky, would not be announced for another four days).  Though by this point, events on the streets may have contributed to this decision as well.  He wrote his parents:

It was already clear to me about a week ago that there was no way out.  Without a doubt the country is heading for a general slaughter, famine, the collapse of the front, where half the soldiers will perish, and the ruin of the urban population.  The cultural inheritance of the nation, its people and civilization, will be destroyed.  Armies of migrants, then small groups, and then maybe no more than individual people, will roam around the country fighting each other with rifles and then no more than clubs.  I will not live to see it, and, I hope, neither will you.

Today in 1916: South Africans Fight for Delville Wood
Today in 1915: South Wales Coal Miners Strike
Today in 1914: Lützow Warns British Ambassador of Imminent Austrian Note To Serbia

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.

Lenin Arrives in Petrograd

Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station, in a Stalin-era painting.  Note how Stalin is pictured above Lenin; he was not actually present, and in fact was not overly impressed by Lenin’s April Theses.

April 16 1917, Petrograd–After a long journey via Germany, the Baltic, Sweden, and Finland (then part of Russia), Lenin arrived by train in Petrograd shortly before midnight on April 16.  This happened to coincide with the last day of the All-Russian Bolshevik Conference, and they gave him a grand welcome at the train station, along with representatives of the Petrograd Soviet.  A band struck up the Marseillaise (not Lenin’s preferred Internationale) as revolutionary sailors stood at attention.

Lenin was not expecting this sort of reception, and gave a short impromptu speech in the waiting room of the station.  His fellow Bolsheviks soon escorted him outside the station, to an armored car that was to lead a procession to the conference.  Lenin went up onto the turret of the armored car, silhouetted by a electric light, and started an impassioned speech that continued as the armored car went along the streets of Petrograd.  The speech’s text is unknown; here is a short selection from his speech in the waiting room:

Any day now the whole of European capitalism may crash.  The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch.  Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!

At the meeting of the Bolsheviks that night, Lenin delivered a ninety-minute speech in a similar vein, starting at two in the morning.  He was convinced that the “second stage” of the revolution, in which the proletariat would take power.  He called for an immediate end to the war, and to not negotiate with the other liberal or socialist parties that merely called for a war without annexation.  “To demand of a government of capitalists that it should renounce annexations is a nonsense, a crying mockery.”  

The speech was not received well; most thought that Lenin’s urging for a continued revolution (even if he did acknowledge some patience might be required) were ill-thought-out at best.  Lenin had not been in the country for years, had not been present in February; even so, they thought, he still must have known that Russia was not ready for such a drastic step, which would only lead to reaction and counter-revolution.  Lenin recognized this attitude as his speech was winding down, and concluded: “You comrades have a trusting attitude to the government.  If that is so, our paths diverge.  I prefer to remain in a minority.” Lenin crystallized these thoughts in a short treatise, his April Theses, which were published in Pravda, after some delay, and with a note explaining that it did not represent the view of the rest of Petrograd’s Bolsheviks.

Earlier Today:  The Nivelle Offensive

Sources include: Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution; Catherine Meridale, Lenin on the Train.

The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses.


Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution Preface

Kronstadt Naval Base Rebels Against Provisional Government

June 1 1917, Kronstadt–The naval base at Kronstadt, in the Gulf of Finland twenty miles west of Petrograd, was in the vanguard of the revolution in February.  Its sailors–young, literate, bored, and with universal hate for their officers–were among the most radical of the revolutionaries.  Many of the officers were killed during the revolution, while others were imprisoned.  Repeated efforts by Kerensky to restore a normal military hierarchy and transfer the imprisoned officers to the mainland were rebuffed.  The fortress was controlled by the Soviet formed by the sailors, and this was dominated by the Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Socialist Revolutionaries.

On June 1, the Kronstadt Soviet declared itself free from the authority of the Provisional Government, and ejected the commissar that Kerensky had sent from the Petrograd Soviet.  That the main naval base protecting Petrograd was now in the hands of the Bolsheviks and other radicals frightened the city.  One of the Bolshevik leaders on Kronstadt recalled (though perhaps playing up its significance):

In their eyes, Kronstadt was a symbol of strange horror, the devil incarnate, a terrifying specter of anarchy, a nightmare rebirth of the Paris Commune on Russian soil.

The Bolsheviks on the mainland, however, were less enthusiastic.  Lenin, while an advocate of further revolution, knew that the Petrograd Soviet was not the right target–and was also furious that they had gone against his wishes.  Trotsky, on the other hand, newly arrived from his detention in Canada, had encouraged the revolt, though he was not himself a Bolshevik at this point.

Within a few days, after negotiations with a Menshevik representative from the Provisional Government (and daily berating from Lenin), the Kronstadt Soviet backed down.  They recognized the authority of the Provisional Government, but now got to elect their own commissar.

Today in 1916: Jutland: Scheer Escapes
Today in 1915: Kaiser Limits U-Boat Campaign; Bryan Confronts Wilson

Sources include: Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy.