Source: The Catastrophe
Transcriber: Jonas Holmgren
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.
THE months immediately preceding the outbreak of the Great War found Russia seething with revolutionary sentiment.
Political leaders who kept in constant, active contact with all elements of the population realized that Russia stood on the eve of a new upheaval, and were preparing for it. With a group of friends I spent the spring and summer of 1914 in traveling from one end of Russia to the other, organizing and marshaling everywhere the political and social forces of the country for the coming joint offensive of all bourgeois liberal, proletarian and peasant parties and organizations against Czarism, and for the establishment of a democratic parliamentary regime.
I was firmly convinced that the revolutionary movement would break out openly before very long. Enormous mass meetings, attended by many thousands, conspiratory gatherings in the provincial cities, and the passive attitude of the Czarist authorities towards the frank expression of the people's will at my mass meetings all evidenced a deep psychological crisis, of the kind that always precedes the final act of an advancing revolutionary movement and a radical change in the supreme political authority of a nation.
I remember well the arrival of the dispatch announcing Austria's ultimatum to Serbia. I was in Samara, a big political and commercial center on the Volga. It was late in the evening and I had just come from a great mass meeting. The city was throbbing with political excitement. Next morning I boarded a steamer to go to Saratoff, the leading city of my Duma constituency, where preparations had been made for another rally. With me were a group of political coworkers and friends who had come to see us off. We were exchanging latest impressions and expressing amazement at the mounting fever heat of the political situation in the country, the tensity of which was surprising even to us. Suddenly we perceived a group of newsboys running towards the gangplank, crying: "Austria's Ultimatum to Serbia!" In that moment our mood underwent a decided change; in the cry of the newsboys we sensed at once the first breath of the historic hurricane.
The entire international situation in Europe left no doubt that war was inevitable. Bidding good-by to our local friends, we boarded the steamer. Nothing seemed altered in the serene expanse of the mighty river, the boiling summer sun, the merry passengers disporting themselves on deck. Without talking to any one and concealing our troubled spirit, our little group of political workers from the Duma hurriedly called a "council of war." It was decided to cancel our propaganda tour at once, to halt the internal political struggle and to return immediately to Petrograd. We realized that it was necessary to concentrate all the strength of the country upon the organization of the national defense, as it was quite clear that the government, enmeshed in Rasputin's web, would not be able to handle the task of the War and would bring Russia to defeat and ruin.
Quite intuitively I perceived that Czarism would not survive the War and that on the fields of battle would Russia's liberty be born. It was thus that, as the representative of the Labor party in the Duma, I later formulated this thought at the Duma's historic session upon the occasion of the official declaration of war.
On the steamer I expressed the same thought to none other than the sister of Nicolai Lenin. The explanation of my conversation with the sister of the chieftain of Bolshevism is perhaps not without interest. The Ulianoff (Lenin) and Kerensky families had lived in Simbirsk, on the Volga. My father had been principal of the two local high schools, one for boys and the other for girls. Lenin's father, Ulianoff (the future head of the so-called Soviet government adopted the name of Lenin as a pseudonym), had been inspector of elementary schools in the province of Simbirsk. All his children had been educated in the local high schools, under my father's supervision. After old Ulianoff's death, my father, by virtue of his close association with the Ulianoff family, had become the family's guardian. In the reminiscences of my childhood I have retained no impressions of Nicolai Lenin and his brothers and sisters, as there was a wide difference in our ages. It was quite natural, however, that meeting Lenin's sister accidentally on a river steamboat I should have entered into conversation with her. After exchanging a few reminiscences of our childhood days, the conversation turned upon Lenin himself, who had been living for many years as a political exile in Western Europe.
"But don't worry," I said. "You will soon see him again. There will be war and it will open to him the road to Russia."
My prophecy, half serious and half in jest, was realized. Alas, to Russia's sorrow!
I have set down these lines so that my readers may realize the tense and complex internal situation under which Russia entered the War. In order that Russia's war drama may be understood, it is necessary to keep in mind that the War did not provoke, but merely postponed temporarily, the revolutionary movement which had been gathering increasing momentum with inexorable stubbornness.
For the sake of the national defense against an enemy splendidly armed and organized, the deep, patriotic instinct of the people dictated to them the duty of halting the inner political struggle against Czarism. The people's urge for national unity and their desire to lay aside all internal conflicts for the time being were indeed remarkable. The entire nation presented a united front against the external foe.
At the moment of the outbreak of the Great War, history presented to Russian absolutism what was perhaps the only chance it ever had to gain an understanding of the people and to make peace with them in the name of a common love for Russia, by uniting around the government all the live, decent and honest political forces of the country. But the government deliberately threw away this only chance, which, had it been taken advantage of, would have saved Russia from dissolution and ruin. The government's reply to the patriotic outburst of the people was to redouble the force and pressure of the reaction. To save Russia, the Russian people had to fight on two fronts: on the military front, almost unarmed and unequipped, they had to resist a powerful enemy armed to the teeth, while internally they had to defend themselves against the intrigues, corruption and inefficiency of Rasputin's minions, eager to retain their power and quite unconcerned about the fate of the country. The preservation of absolutism and the cause of successful resistance to the enemy stood in tragic contradiction to one another.
Russia's national consciousness was confronted with a problem of tremendous difficulty, a problem which, as future events demonstrated, was insoluble. It was necessary to remove from power those who were destroying Russia, and at the same time to protect the army and the entire administrative apparatus of the state from perturbations which, in time of war, might prove fatal.
I am quite convinced that but for the War the Revolution would have come not later than the spring of 1915, perhaps even at the end of 1914. The War interrupted the crusade for the liberty and salvation of Russia, and the nation—under a regime already doomed to destruction and under the leadership of men like Rasputin, Sukhomlinoff and their ilk—was obliged to fight an enemy excellently equipped and organized.
In other respects, also, Russia was differently situated from the other belligerent powers. She came into the War unprepared and was quite unable to make up for her lack of preparedness during the course of the War. With the outbreak of the War she was obliged to reorganize her economic and financial structure from top to bottom. This reorganization was necessitated by the blockade that encircled Russia and by the prohibition of the sale of vodka, which had been not only the chief source of state revenue, but one of the chief means of promoting trade between town and country, between producer and consumer. Much has been said about the blockade of Germany as an instrument of her defeat, but few realize that Russia, least equipped of all the great powers technically and industrially, suffered even more than Germany from the isolation imposed upon her by the War. Germany was cut off from the world but she was able to maintain close contact with the nations associated with her. Russia was cut off even from her allies. The lack of direct communication made the transport of ammunition, machinery and equipment, in any appreciable quantities, impossible. It was barely possible to send limited and inadequate shipments through Sweden and by way of the Murmansk Railroad, which was opened only in the autumn of 1916 and never worked well. What little could be sent through Vladivostok, which was thousands of miles from the seat of war, was a negligible fraction of what Russia needed.
The world is quite familiar with the effects of the Allied blockade on Germany, so that I hardly need emphasize the workings of this terrible weapon with regard to Russia. In order to realize what it means for a country at war to be cut off from the whole world, one need only imagine what would have happened to France if her coasts had been inaccessible to the supplies of men and material which came to her in unlimited quantities from all corners of the earth.
"One can compare Russia to a house, the doors and windows of which are hermetically sealed and which can be penetrated only by means of its chimneys and water pipes," said the representatives of the Inter-Allied Council on their visit to Petrograd in February, 1917.
The second factor in the upheaval in Russia's economic life was the prohibition of the sale of vodka on the very first day of the War. I do not mean to imply that the state merely lost one-third of its revenue. To make the population sober and increase its productivity and individual incomes is worth the loss of a billion to the state. But when the peasants stopped drinking they began to eat. The consumption of bread increased from fourteen to twenty-one or more pouds[1*] per capita. Meat, butter and eggs were consumed by the producers in unheard-of quantities. When they could no longer spend their profits on vodka, the peasants not only began to eat the produce they had been accustomed to sell, but they started buying household necessities and even luxuries. Very soon, however, there was nothing left for them to buy, for the supply of goods in the towns was not equal to the requirements of a well-to-do and sober peasantry, being adequate only to the needs of a poor and drunken class of consumers. It was quite impossible during the War to equalize supply and demand. On the contrary, the supply actually decreased when factories producing commodities for the internal trade were turned exclusively to the production of war and military material. Nor was it possible to import goods. When the villagers found that they could spend their money neither on vodka nor on household goods they stopped selling produce. After hoarding their money for some time (the amount of currency held in the villages increased" by six billion rubles in the first years of the War) they found that the value of the money had depreciated. Arguing on the simple business principle that it was better to hoard grain than depreciating and useless money, they determined to keep their grain. To prevent seizure by the government, they buried it in pits. I remember how, as early as in 1915, the Budget Commission of the Duma was racking its brain on how to extract grain or money from the peasants.
Once mobilized, the army absorbed a large proportion of the country's food supply. It consumed as much meat and butter as the entire population did before the War. Before the War Russia exported from 400,000,000 to 600,000,000 pouds of cereals annually, and in the first year of the War the government purchased 300,000,000 pouds for the army alone. In 1916 the army consumed 1,000,000,000 pouds of cereals, which was only 200,000,000 pouds less than Russia had provided for her home and foreign markets before the War.
The needs of the army and the oversupply in the villages brought about an acute crisis in the "granary of Europe"—a crisis which soon developed into a catastrophe. The sobriety and prosperity of the peasant class upset the trade of the entire country and resulted in a large shortage of supplies. Economic anarchy ensued.
But there were also other factors in the general economic upheaval. The import of coal ceased almost entirely and there was a shortage of fuel for the arms and munition factories and for the railways. The Petrograd district, the main center of the metallurgical industry, suffered most because before the War it had depended almost entirely on foreign coal. Not only did the foreign coal disappear but the output of Russia's mines also diminished, owing to the improvident mobilization of miners, the lack of mining machinery and equipment, the presence of poorly trained and underfed labor and the frequency of sporadic, anarchic strikes.
In short, the economic condition of Russia during the War was in itself sufficient to produce a catastrophe. Only the wisest possible utilization of the country's resources, the most careful and economical distribution of commodities and of the means of production could have made possible the solution of the nation's grave economic and financial problems. The entire industrial and political life of the country should have been reorganized from the very beginning of the War so as to create a real coordination of all the vital forces. But instead of a competent government, Russia had at her head Rasputin, supported by a clique of criminals, feeble dotards, incompetents and greedy adventurers. This government merely utilized the War and the general patriotic spirit animating the country as an opportunity for the destruction of all the independent institutions of national life. The War became a pretext for men like N. Maklakoff, Sukhomlinoff and others for the suppression of the hated movement of opposition and revolution, which had the support of fully ninety-five per cent of the population. The chieftains of Czarism launched upon a veritable orgy of arrogance and violence. All labor organizations and the entire labor press of Petrograd were immediately suppressed. Hundreds of thousands of "disloyal" citizens were sent to Siberia. Poles, Jews, Finns and other non-Russian nationalities were persecuted. Every form of independent initiative, however patriotic, was severely discountenanced. The government seemed to be bent on killing all the spontaneous life and activity of the country and to carry on the War without it. Yet the War called for sustained, heroic effort by the entire nation. This was perhaps even more necessary in the rear than at the front, for the unprecedented struggle was rather a war of endurance than of swift, decisive strokes.
In those tragic days of the War we revolutionists were branded as Utopians for trying to seize upon the patriotic sentiments and good sense of the people as a means of accomplishing Russia's emancipation, but it was far more naive on the part of our critics to believe that a government of Rasputins, Goremykins and Sukhomlinoffs could carry on the War even for a day without imperiling the country. Yet at the beginning of the War the upper classes as a whole and all the government parties in the Duma believed in the power of the government to carry on the struggle, ceasing all opposition and leaving a free hand for eighteen months to the incompetents and traitors. While the government was committing its blunders and crimes, the upper classes remained blind to every ominous sign of impending catastrophe, repeating automatically the absurd declaration that "during the War the opposition must cease to oppose." The Russia of Rasputin tried to imitate the union sacrée of the parliamentary governments of France and England and she paid dearly for the effort.
Up to the debacle in Galicia, in the spring of 1915, Russia silently permitted herself to be sacrificed by the old regime. But if silence was excusable in the man in the street, who was kept in ignorance by an iron censorship and lulled into a false sense of security by recollections of the victories of 1914, it was criminal in the men at the head of affairs who knew well what was going on.
Later the Duma majority began to assail the old regime and continued this criticism in the case of the Provisional Government, blaming it for the subsequent war disasters. But it showed the most culpable and most frivolous neglect of duty when it took no steps to avert these calamities at a time when it had the power and the prestige to do so. It saw the high command destroying the army, the ministers undermining the economic life of the country, provoking infuriated discontent among the people, stifling the popular patriotic impulse of the first months of the War and freely sowing the seeds of hatred among the subject nationalities of Russia—and yet it did nothing. There were, indeed, a few men who did not permit themselves to be led astray by the union sacrée of France and England. These men tried to warn the people of the approaching calamity. They protested against the criminally irresponsible government and endeavored to bring the pressure of public opinion to bear upon it. In their anxiety they even tried to fight the government immediately upon the outbreak of the War, to save the country from inevitable defeat and anarchy, but in vain, for no one paid any heed to them.
This was how Gutchkoff described the situation before the conference of army delegates, held May 12-14, 1917:
When the War began, I, like many other people, was filled with anxiety and alarm. We felt the catastrophe approaching and we knew that there would be no security for the country unless the high command were changed and the system of supplying the army completely reorganized. The debacle of 1915 justified our anxiety. We demanded the dismissal of the commander-in-chief and his staff and other drastic reforms. But we did not succeed in having anything done. On my visit to the front in August, 1914, after viewing the shattered remnants of our two armies defeated at Soldau and studying the system of organization of supplies, it already then became clear to me that we were hopelessly involved in disaster. Neither the government nor the legislative bodies believed me. They merely called my attention to our victories in the south, in the Carpathians. I, who had been far from being a man of advanced views, became a revolutionist in 1915, for I became firmly convinced that the autocracy was leading us to defeat which would have tragic consequences at home, and that only the end of the old regime could save the country.
At a time when Gutchkoff, a conservative who had resolutely opposed the Revolution of 1905, but a man of practical intelligence who knew how to read the signs of the times, had already become a revolutionist, most of the Octobrist and Cadet leaders, after two years of inaction, were barely beginning to utter vague criticisms, in the hope of influencing Khvostoff, Maklakoff, Goremykin and their like. But already in the autumn of 1914 we "dreamers and Utopians" of the Left were demanding a serious program of political and economic reforms to deal with the problems of the War. We foretold Russia's inevitable shortage of the elementary necessaries of life and pointed out what would be the result of the abolition of the sale of vodka. Like Gutchkoff, whose eyes were opened in 1915, we repeated again and again from the rostrum of the Duma that the old regime would bring Russia to defeat and catastrophe. In January, 1915, I pointed out to the Budget Committee of the Duma that the economic disintegration of the country was inevitable unless measures were taken immediately to deal with the problems of production and distribution, particularly in the rural districts.
The majority of the committee considered my suggestions altogether heretical, although a year later it began to put such measures into effect. In an address before the Duma I declared to the Czar's ministers: "If you have any conscience, if there is any feeling of patriotism left within you, resign!" The majority maintained a disgraceful silence, contemplating calmly the destructive activities of the government. My voice was a voice crying in the wilderness. I was regarded as a defeatist for proclaiming my fear and anxiety for the nation. In 1914 and 1915 it was the fashion to condemn all those as defeatists, pro-Germans, dreamers and doctrinaires who, foreseeing the approaching catastrophe and sensing the abyss opening up before Russia, affirmed that it was vain to think of victory while Rasputin was in power. We were severely reproached for breaking the "political solidarity" of the country and told to stop the insolent persistence of our criticism. But those who could not or would not face the truth and who shirked the duty of fighting against the forces of disintegration were really the men who unconsciously laid the foundations of Russia's inevitable ruin.
At the very beginning of the War, when the Duma was preparing for the historic session of August eighth, Rodzianko sought my opinion, among others, as to what proposals he was to lay before the Czar. I advised him to ask the Czar to grant an immediate political amnesty, to restore Finland's constitution, to proclaim autonomy for Poland, to put a stop to political persecution, to grant civil equality and civil liberties. Of course Rodzianko did not take my advice. I made the same suggestions to the leaders of the Progressive parties, but they curtly upbraided me for my youthful impetuosity and pointed out that even in England the parliamentary opposition had ceased to oppose the government with the outbreak of the War. What naiveté! The British parties rallying around a national, democratic government compared with the Duma majority sorrily submitting to the incompetent and criminal Czarist government! The practical politicians of England who rallied round the government acted from patriotic impulse and made the government pay for their support by conceding what they deemed necessary for the national welfare. Our "practical" politicians not only failed to perceive the nation's peril and fight for essential reforms, but gave the government a free hand in its diabolical policy of national destruction.
All that our wise statesmen accomplished by their naive policy was to cut their own throats. Not only the government officials, from whom such folly was to have been expected, but even the middle classes represented in the Duma, failed to understand that without the voluntary cooperation of all classes of the population no country could carry on a war such as was being waged. For a whole year before the man in the street awoke to the situation, the economic, material and human resources of the nation were being ruthlessly, madly, criminally dissipated.
The Galician defeat, the millions of casualties and the loss of the frontier fortresses opened Russia's eyes. The country shuddered with horror and indignation, and the government, like an assassin caught in the act, was frightened into making certain concessions. It modified slightly its rule of terror and gave the middle classes some scope for independent activity, particularly in the domain of provisioning the army. The second phase of the War began. Independent bodies were permitted to organize the resources of the country. At last the Duma ventured to make itself heard. Various organizations began to function, through which the middle classes set about the task of improving the condition of the army, particularly the supply system, and reorganizing the production and distribution of food throughout the country. The success achieved by the middle classes in this task was due in no small measure to the patriotic support of the working class. Peasants, workmen, cooperative societies and local officials were animated by the same patriotic anxiety and hastened to the support of the country. The population as a whole was at that time remarkably moderate and reasonable, conscious of its duty to the nation.
Had the Duma, in the autumn of 1915, evinced more self-reliance and courage, had it shown better understanding of the people and made common cause with all the responsible democratic and progressive forces, it could have easily driven from power the internal foe, as an essential prerequisite to the defeat of the external enemy.
In 1915 the country was not yet exhausted economically, the army was not yet bled to death and a radical and wholesome change in the government might have had very beneficial results. The nation's state of mind was essentially sound and by no means war-weary. But the impulse of self-sacrifice revealed by the people was permitted to go to waste.
Meanwhile the effects produced on the country by the debacle of 1915 had begun to lose their potency and to fade from the public mind. The government returned to its old ways and most of the population lost interest. Only the privileged class retained a slight measure of independence and relief. However, in the autumn of 1915, the various middle-class organizations, such as the Union of Municipalities and Zemstvos, managed to get into closer contact with the army, helping to reorganize and equip it, establishing friendly relations and gaining authority in all the ranks. An alliance between the army and the civilian population began to develop, and this alliance eighteen months later made the Revolution possible.
The defeats and sufferings of the army in the retreat of 1915 had destroyed the last vestiges of its loyalty to the autocracy and the Romanoff dynasty. The nation's efforts in 1915 checked the military debacles by giving the army a measure of technical and moral support, but the principal source of Russia's peril, the Rasputin regime, still remained, for the entire system and administration of the government had been left untouched. As a crumbling edifice may be propped up for a while by buttressing it with iron girders and patching up the largest cracks, so did the popular movement hold together the disintegrating structure of Imperial Russia.
By the spring of 1916 the condition of the army had so much improved that Brusiloff was able to launch his Galician offensive—which saved Italy—striking against the advice of his superiors, who maintained that the army was too demoralized by the retreat of 1915 to undertake offensive operations. Brusiloff was unable, however, to follow up his initial brilliant successes because of lack of cooperation on the part of the high command and the anarchy and disorganization at General Headquarters. The subsequent development of Brusiloff's campaign wiped out the early victories and brought new trials and tremendous losses. Incidents such as the loss of tens of thousands of lives at Kovel may well account for the spirit of utter hopelessness which swept the army. The process of final disintegration set in in the autumn of 1916. By January of the next year the situation had become really critical.
Those reactionaries who hold that the Revolution undermined the Russian army, that the army, having fought heroically in 1914 and 1915, began in 1917 to flee in panic, distort the facts completely. The fighting qualities of the army diminished inevitably. It became more and more an ill equipped and undisciplined rabble, commanded largely by men who had donned their uniforms after only six or seven weeks of training, and headed by staff officers who were shamefully negligent of their duty. Mutinous and corrupt garrisons in the rear formed a dark background to the tragic picture in the winter of 1916. It was not without cause that Brusiloff afterwards declared: "The experiences of 1916 prepared me for the Revolution." Nor was General Alexeyeff, in October, 1916 (at that time chief-of-staff to the commander-in-chief, Nicholas II), unjustified when, with the approval of Prince Lvoff, he planned to have the Czarina arrested and exiled to the Crimea and to compel the Czar to grant certain reforms.
The situation of the country as a whole was even more desperate than that of the army. Rasputin and his clique had thrown off all restraint. Their governing methods and their attitude and conduct towards the Russian people surpassed all the bounds of audacity and treachery. In the face of the growing food, financial, fuel and transport crisis they renewed, with fiendish ardor, the persecution of the cooperatives, the Union of Municipalities and Zemstvos, the municipal bodies and similar organizations. The censorship operated fast and furiously. Newspapers and organizations, however innocent, were suppressed. All freedom of assembly was forbidden. An endless stream of exiles flowed to Siberia from all parts of Russia. While the ruling clique, drunk with blood, was indulging in an orgy of oppression, Russia was perishing. Despair, terror and hatred permeated the soul of the people as never before. Defeatist and Bolshevist propaganda began to spread in labor circles. Strikes, deliberately fomented by the government, became frequent. A wave of riots swept the army and the hungry mobs. Desertions increased. Separatist movements sprang up in the border provinces. The country was advancing towards a precipice.
From Grand Dukes to peasants, indignation and wild apprehension seized the whole of Russia. Early in November, 1916, Grand Duke Nicholas Michaelovitch wrote to the Czar:
You have repeatedly affirmed your intention of carrying the War to a victorious conclusion. Do you think this is possible in the present condition of the country? Do you know the real state of affairs in the border provinces and in the interior? Believe me, when I urge you to shake yourself from the web in which you are entangled, I do so only because I hope and trust that by so doing you may save your throne and our beloved country from irretrievable disaster.
By "web" the Grand Duke meant Alexandra Feodorovna and the Rasputin clique.
Fearing that the folly of Alice, as Alexandra Feodorovna was called in the imperial family, would bring ruin upon the entire dynasty, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovitch took part in the assassination of Rasputin. During the winter of 1916 the Duma, although by no means as yet revolutionary, began to talk in revolutionary language. In his famous speech Miliukoff openly attacked the Stuermer government and asked point blank: "Is this country actually in the hands of traitors?" Middle-class Russia raised the demand of a government responsible to the Duma. But in this demand, too, the Duma lagged behind. While the country as a whole joined in the demand for radical constitutional reforms, the Progressive Bloc in the Duma (the majority), led by Miliukoff, Shidloffsky and Shulgin, was still clinging to the vague slogan: "A ministry with public confidence."
By December, 1916, a marked difference of opinion had arisen between the Duma and those organizations which most resembled it in political tone and social status, such as the All-Russian Union of Municipalities and Zemstvos.
"In proportion as the country has become aware of the general disintegration," said Efremoff, leader of the Progressive party, on February 27, 1917, "it has lost faith in the government and acquired faith in the Duma. There is now, however, an ever increasing tendency to set the Duma aside and solve the nation's difficulties in a more radical way. The country will shortly give proof of its discontent, and the obstinate shortsightedness of the authorities seems determined to drive it to the conclusion that it is impossible to obtain by parliamentary means a government responsible to the people."
The middle classes were losing faith in the Duma, but the more democratic and radical circles had never looked to it as an infallible guide, though they had tried for months to induce it to join in the struggle for the salvation of the country. In November, 1916, the country's peril had become so evident that all those who had any spark of patriotism had already become revolutionists. In December the whole of Russia was unconsciously adopting revolutionary methods against the government. As I said to the Duma majority: "Like Molière, who did not know when he was talking prose, you reject revolution while you talk and behave like revolutionists." When Stuermer tried to pour oil on the troubled waters by announcing the news to the Duma that the Allies had agreed to give Constantinople to Russia at the conclusion of the War, even the most imperialistically inclined felt uncomfortable at the pompous ministerial declaration which had so little relation to the actual state of the country.
Altogether, the obvious incongruity between Russia's actual situation and the interminable repetition by boasting officials of their tactless phrasemongery about complete victory over Germany and Russia's hereditary mission with regard to Turkey infuriated the exhausted masses.
The New Year of 1917 found Russia in this state of increasing anarchy. A few still cherished gleams of hope that the old government would, at the eleventh hour, bethink itself or, at least, perceive its own deadly peril and make concessions to the demands of the nation. The Crown, or rather the influences behind Alexandra Feodorovna, who had meanwhile openly taken up the reins of government, met this hope with a series of new reactionary measures. Scheglovitoff, hated by the whole of Russia, was named president of the Imperial Council, to which were added also a number of other notorious reactionaries. A new ministry was formed, with Protopopoff as its central figure and Golitzin, who was himself much surprised at the appointment, as premier. Protopopoff was at that time the most hated man in Russia, so that it is not difficult to imagine the effect created by his appointment.
In September, 1916, Protopopoff, a former member and ex-vice-president of the Duma, had availed himself of Rasputin's help to work his way into the Ministry of the Interior. His appointment, many were convinced, was backed by certain financial interests in Rasputin's entourage, with a view to ending the War as quickly as possible, even at the price of a separate peace. It was upon him that Rasputin's mantle descended after the latter's assassination.
So the authorities answered the country's demand for a popular ministry by resorting anew to the instrumentality of the Rasputin clique. Taking the bit between its teeth the government rushed, at full speed, towards a collision with the people. There was no longer any doubt of its preparing for the collision. Strikes were fomented by government agents, and often the strikers came to battle with the police. Secret plans were worked out by Protopopoff, in cooperation with General Kourloff, one of the most detested officials in the police organization, for the "pacification" of Petrograd, plans involving wholesale bloodshed.
The police department was zealously provoking riots among the population. Incredible as it may sound, the military censorship, on orders from the Ministry of the Interior, prohibited the publication in the Petrograd press of the following appeal by the labor section of the War Industrial Committee:
Comrades! Workers of Petrograd! We think it our duty to beg you to resume your work immediately. Labor, conscious of its responsibilities at this moment, must not weaken its forces by such strikes. In the interests of the working class you must return to your factories.
In spite of the fact that there was a great strike in progress in the munition factories, the publication of this appeal was forbidden.
With diabolical persistency the police department, led by Kourloff, set itself to destroying all democratic organizations that stood for national defense and to push the masses into the arms of defeatist-Bolshevist agitators, who were assiduously spreading their propaganda among the aroused workers and soldiers. In January, almost the entire labor group of the Central War Industrial Committee was arrested. This group was the stronghold of national defense in the world of labor and was bitterly assailed by the Bolsheviki and defeatists. At the same time the government began the demobilization of the labor sections of the provincial War Industrial Committees. A conference in Moscow of various independent organizations called to consider the food problem was forbidden, although many cities and towns were on the verge of starvation. Even a commercial and financial conference summoned in Moscow was suppressed. The central body of the cooperative societies, which were supplying the army and the cities with food, was dissolved and its members prosecuted.
In a word, the government set itself to demolishing everything that was likely to avert an uprising, meanwhile laying plans for the suppression of rioting in Petrograd with machine guns. The motto attributed to the Ministry of the Interior—"through anarchy to a separate peace"—was being successfully put into effect.
I must say, however, that Nicholas II had nothing to do with all this. The government was simply preparing to confront him at a given moment with a fait accompli which would oblige him to sign a separate peace. I cannot say whether Alexandra Feodorovna had anything to do with it. Her immediate circle was not above suspicion and German agents were hovering around her and Madame Vyroubova. But whether the Czarina and her lady-in-waiting took part in preparing the country for a separate peace I cannot say, although I did my best to find out when I first took office.
Meanwhile the condition of the army was becoming desperate. By January, 1917, there had been 1,200,000 desertions and the number was still increasing. The army was demobilizing itself. The high command was helpless to stem this tide for home. Special military police detachments were formed to round up the deserters and rewards of from seven to twenty-five copecks a head (according to the rank of the deserter) were offered as encouragement in the man hunt.
The Naval and Military Committee of the Duma was at its wit's end to find a means of preventing the army from melting away. Military discipline began to vanish. Whole units refused to fight or to relieve their comrades in the trenches. Here and there the men in the trenches engaged in and encouraged fraternization with the Germans. The lack of military discipline in the rear was even worse. A memorandum dealing with the tragic condition in the army and the urgent need for certain measures to cope with it, drawn up by a special conference on defense consisting of representatives of the Duma, the Imperial Council and independent organizations, was laid before the Czar at the end of January. Shingarioff, Chairman of the Military and Naval Affairs Committee of the Duma, obtained an audience with the Czar in a naive effort to prevail upon him to take measures to save the country.
The condition of the country as a whole continued to be worse than that of the army. Owing to the coal shortage, the blast furnaces in the south came to a standstill in December and the munition factories in Petrograd began closing down. In February came an acute crisis in the textile industries of Moscow, which used a very large proportion of the coal required by the country. The transportation system was becoming more and more disorganized. Passenger traffic had to be stopped for weeks at a time to enable the most essential military and supply trains to go through to the front. In Vladivostok alone there were 40,000,000 pouds of military supplies and agricultural material which it was quite impossible to transport into Russia. The last war loan had brought almost nothing. In January and February, 1917, 995,000,000 paper rubles were issued as against 662,800,000 for the first half of 1916. The cost of the War exceeded 50,000,000 rubles a day.
At the end of January the Central Committee of the All-Russian Union of Municipalities and Zemstvos presented a memorandum to the Government Food Commission which contained the following observation:
"The towns received only one-fiftieth and one-eighteenth of the supplies allotted to them, respectively, for November and December, 1916. All stores in the towns are exhausted. By February there will be no bread."
And, indeed, there was no more bread in the towns by February. There were hunger riots in all the provinces. On February tenth, what the authorities called a "misunderstanding" due to "food shortage" occurred in Petrograd. The working classes had been provoked by hunger into the riots which were to justify the government in concluding a separate peace.
From this time on it became impossible to stem the inevitable development of events into revolution. The time for a coup d'état, for a quiet revolution from above, had passed. Not without reason did Basil Maklakoff declare on May 17, 1917, before a conference of Duma deputies:
"At a certain moment it became clear to us that it would be impossible to carry the War to a successful conclusion while the old regime was in power, and it became the duty for those who feared the consequences of an upheaval to save the country from revolution from below by revolution from above. That was the duty we failed to fulfill. If our children should come to curse this Revolution they will also curse those who did not know in time how to prevent it."
There had been but one means of saving the country from revolution and consequent anarchy, and that was by liberating it by a swift and energetic stroke from the government which was destroying it, as a center of infection is cut out of a healthy body.
Those who were in closest touch with the masses realized most clearly the danger of an anarchic revolution. That was why the interparty group, to which I belonged, so persistently demanded radical reconstruction of the government and did its best to speed it. Beginning with the autumn of 1916 preparations for a coup d'état were launched in various circles. A number of organizations and even members of the Progressive Bloc in the Duma took part in the conspiracies. The conspirators were in touch with army circles, and some generals, not to mention junior officers, were drawn into the plans. There were a number of plots under way and the plans were discussed by the respective conspiratory groups at secret meetings in Moscow and Petrograd. One plan provided for the arrest of the Empress and her entire circle, followed by a demand for the Czar's abdication in favor of his young son, under the regency of Michael Alexandrovitch.
Some of these plans were ready for execution in the winter of 1916, and those initiated into the conspiracies were looking forward with impatience to their realization. Our interparty group, consisting of representatives of all Left elements in the Duma, was in touch with all active radical forces in the country and through our agents we sought to develop a common program and prevent disagreements which might interfere with the proposed coup d'état. This was made necessary because many revolutionary centers were not familiar with the ends for which other groups were working. Besides helping to facilitate a coup d'état we had to prepare all democratic and socialist parties for the event and to create a center around which to rally the revolutionary democracy as a controlling force against popular excesses. The secret information bureau of the democratic parties provided such a center.
As far as I knew of and participated in the plans for a coup d'état, that was how the situation stood in Petrograd and Moscow. There were, however, additional projects of the same kind at the front and elsewhere. For instance, one group of army officers planned to bomb the Czar's automobile from an aeroplane at a certain spot along the front.
Unfortunately none of the plans for a coup d'état was carried out. The men upon whom the realization of these plans depended were held back by their old traditions of loyalty to the throne and the imperial family. They kept on vacillating and tinkering with the plans, trying to define the powers of the regent, etc., and putting off the decisive moment. But every day's delay endangered the whole enterprise by exposing it more and more to discovery by the police. Several opportune moments had already been permitted to pass.
Finally, the coup d'état was fixed by one group for the beginning of March. But it was too late.
On February twenty-seventh the Duma began what was to be its last session. A great popular demonstration was expected on that day. Police and troops lined the streets leading to the Tauride Palace. There was a strong movement among the workers for marching to the support of the Duma, but the Duma majority, through Miliukoff's open letter to the workers, firmly and even rudely declined this help, asking the workers to take no action. (The government censorship, by the way, tried to stop publication of this letter.) The session began in an atmosphere of great tension. The majority, although realizing that critical events were impending, refused to admit that the time for conciliation with the government had passed, and that the people were about to take matters into their own hands. It still obstinately refused, in its all too moderate declaration of policy, to join in the demand of the whole middle class for a ministry responsible to the Duma.
This declaration was altogether in dissonance with the actual situation and with the opinion of the whole country. Yet the leaders of the majority regarded the original draft of this declaration, as drawn by Shulgin, too radical. Even those progressives who bolted the Progressive Bloc to join the Left believed that a solution consistent with loyalty to the Czar was still possible, although they declared in their pronouncement that the country was "on the eve of demonstrating its discontent." On the same day (February twenty-seventh) Miliukoff declared in the Duma: "Only heroic measures can cure the helplessness that has descended upon the country as the result of the wall which the government has built around itself and which during the last three months has become even more impenetrable." He added: "We have reached a decisive point. On all sides we see patriotic anxiety. Only timely conciliation can bring salvation. The Duma alone cannot remove this anxiety, but we believe that the patriotism of the people will not allow our powers of defense to be weakened at this critical moment."
On the following day I addressed the Duma and for the first time the Duma heard the unvarnished truth. I declared openly that the ruin of the country was due not to ministers who come and go but to the power which appoints them, i.e., the monarch and the dynasty. I called upon the Duma to begin at once, by every available means, a fight to the bitter end against these enemies of the people. I implored the Duma, in the name of the highest duty of citizenship, to take action immediately and to risk everything for the salvation of the country. I concluded by saying:
"If you refuse to listen to my warnings, you will meet facts instead of warnings. Look at the strokes of lightning already flashing across the sky." I declared that I for one would not shrink from violence.
A few days later I said: "In my opinion an open collision with the authorities is bound to come soon."
But very few realized the catastrophe was approaching and most people listened to my warnings with incredulity. I remember that after my first address many people condoled with me, fearing the consequences that would befall me as a result of my attack on the dynasty. Most people thought we were on the verge not of a revolution but of a bitter and hopeless reaction. The police department was still very effective in its operations and every day the papers carried statements "forbidden by the censorship" in the columns allotted to the publication of speeches in the Duma. Even Pourischkevitch, the reactionary deputy, protested against the mutilation and falsification of his speeches by the military censorship. The number of arrests and house searches increased. The police and troops were successfully putting down the growing riots in the capital. On March fifth there was serious rioting in the largest factories in Petrograd, including the Putiloff works. The troops obeyed orders to resist the workers.
On the same day the Czar left for General Headquarters, leaving behind with Prince Golitzin a decree for dissolution of the Duma, signed but undated, "ready for possible contingencies." The fate of the Duma was thus left entirely in the hands of Protopopoff and his clique. On February sixth the rioting assumed new intensity and the attitude of the government was such as to provoke Shingarioff, speaking in the Duma, to denounce the existing regime as "a dictatorship of madness."
The moment of collision approached more quickly than I thought. On March ninth all the newspapers of Petrograd ceased publication simultaneously with a general strike in almost all the factories. Here and there were battles between the throngs and the armed forces of the government. The acute food shortage in the capital finally compelled Prince Golitzin to make concessions. A special conference composed of members of the government (Protopopoff was not permitted to participate) and of representatives of the Duma and Imperial Council resolved to pass a law transferring the control of the food supply to the town councils within twenty-four hours. The Duma passed this law at its morning session, March tenth, which was its last.
There was firing that day all over the capital. A crowd was shot down on the Nevsky Prospekt, quite near the Duma. The troops were still obeying orders. There was also fighting on the Znamensky Square and in other parts of the city. In the evening the Pavlovsk Regiment mutinied, but was immediately suppressed, the ringleaders being taken to the Fortress of SS. Peter and Paul.
During these days conferences were going on in the Duma continuously from morning till night. The majority was still hopelessly trying to find a "loyal" way out of the situation.
On March ninth the whole city was transformed into a military camp. At midday all bridges were barricaded and it became difficult to get into the center of the city from the suburbs. The Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) and the Laborites insisted that the session of the Duma, fixed for March twelfth, be held on the eleventh. We felt that it was essential to have an All-Russian political center in these days. But most parties disagreed with us and we compromised by calling a meeting of the leaders for midday and the Duma session for 2 P.M. on March twelfth. At midnight, on March eleventh, Rodzianko received the Czar's decree of dissolution, which set no date for the reconvocation of the Duma. This last act of the "dictatorship of madness" turned the hunger riots into the Revolution.
"It takes a thunderbolt to make a muzhik cross himself," says an old Russian proverb. The action of the government in dissolving the Duma when confronted by the hungry, maddened throng struck Russia like a thunderbolt and opened her eyes to the abyss towards which the madmen and traitors of Czarism were pushing her. But for the Duma there could have been no revolution. Neither could it have come about without the revolt of the workers and soldiers. At the first meeting of the Cadet party after the Revolution, Miliukoff said: "We must bow to those bodies we have seen lying in red coffins on the Field of Mars."
When we left the Tauride Palace on the evening of March eleventh we did not yet know that the Duma was to be dissolved. The mutiny of the Pavlovsk Regiment on March tenth was not supported by the rest of the garrison. The crowds in the streets seemed to be dispersing and calming down that evening. It looked as if the disturbances were drawing to an end. That is why the crash on March twelfth came as a surprise.
I have given a brief summary of the events which led up to the Revolution. The Revolution did not create the anarchy in Russia, but was in fact the healthy effort of the country to save itself from the approaching disintegration. The criminal folly of the government and the war exhaustion brought Russia to the Revolution.
The Revolution succeeded in abolishing the autocracy, but it could not remove the exhaustion of the country, for one of its main duties was to carry on the War. It had decided to put the utmost strain upon the country's resources. Herein lay the tragedy of the Revolution and of the Russian people. Some day the world will learn to understand in its proper light the via crucis Russia walked in 1916-17 and is, indeed, still walking. I am quite convinced that the Revolution alone kept the Russian army at the front until the autumn of 1917, that it alone made it possible for the United States to come into the War, that the Revolution alone made the defeat of Hohenzollern Germany possible.
The years 1917-27 have shown that centuries of autocracy cannot fail to leave their marks on a country. The body politic was corrupt long before the Revolution. The state, built on the sweat and blood and tears of the people, had long been disintegrated and the soul of the people poisoned by the old regime. Russia ground down by the autocracy was like a slave rotting in a foul dungeon without light or air. By straining every nerve she found strength to break her fetters and prison bars, and to escape from her suffocating captivity to freedom.
But I hear sad and angry voices objecting: "What was the use of breaking out of prison only to collapse upon the threshold?" To these I would reply:
"Wait! Russia has not fallen dead. The fight has only just begun."
[1*] Poud, variant of pood; a Russian weight equal to forty pounds Russian or slightly more than thirty-six pounds avoirdupois.
Last updated on: 2.17.2008