Six Red Months in Russia

by Louise Bryant



OCTOBER 29th was crowded with events. After the ludicrous disbanding of the Council of the Russian Republic at 2 o'clock in the afternoon by the Cronstadt sailors, with two other Americans, John Reed and Albert Rhys Williams, I started for the Winter Palace to find out what was happening to Kerensky.

Junker guards were everywhere. They let us pass after solemnly examining our American passports. Once past the guards we were at liberty to roam all over the palace and so we went directly to Kerensky's office. In the ante-room we found one of his smart-looking aides who greeted us in an agitated manner. Babushka, he told us, had gone two days before and Kerensky had also fled after an embarrassing experience which might have caused his capture. At the last moment he found that he did not have enough gasoline for his automobile, and couriers had to be sent into the Bolshevik lines. ... Everybody in the palace was tremendously excited; they were expecting an attack at any minute and no one knew just what to do. There was very little ammunition and it was only a matter of hours before they would have to give up. The Winter Palace was cut off from all outside help and the ministers of the Provisional Government were inside.

When we left Kerensky's office we walked straight to the front of the palace. Here were hundreds of Junkers all armed and ready. Straw beds were on the floor and a, few were sleeping, huddled up on their blankets. They were all young and friendly and said they had no objection to our being in the battle; in fact, the idea rather amused them.

For three hours we were there. I shall never forget those poor, uncomfortable, unhappy boys. They had been reared and trained in officers schools, and now they found themselves without a court, without a Tsar, without all the traditions they believed in. The Miliukov government was bad enough, the Provisional government was worse and now this terrible proletarian dictatorship. ... It was too much; they couldn't stand it.

A little group of us sat down on a window ledge. One of them said he wanted to go to France "where people lived decently." Another enquired the best method to get into the American army. One of them was not over eighteen. He told me that in case they were not able to hold the palace, he was "keeping one bullet for himself." All the others declared that they were doing the same.

Some one suggested that we exchange keepsakes. We brought out our little stores. I recall a silver Caucasian dagger, a short sword presented by the Tsar and a ring with this inscription: "God, King and Lady." When conversation lagged they took us away to show us the "Gold Room" of which they were very proud. They said that it was one of the finest rooms in all Europe. All the talk was sprinkled with French phrases just to prove they were really cultured. Russia had moved several centuries beyond these precious young men....

Once while we were quietly chatting, a shot rang out and in a moment there was the wildest confusion; Junkers hurried in every direction. Through the front windows we could see people running and falling flat on their faces. We waited for five minutes, but no troops appeared and no further firing occurred. While the Junkers were still standing with their guns in their hands, a solitary figure emerged, a little man, dressed in ordinary citizen's clothes, carrying a huge camera. He proceeded across the Square until he reached the point where he would be a good target for both sides and there, with great deliberation, he began to adjust his tripod and take pictures of the women soldiers who were busy turning the winter supply of wood for the Palace into a flimsy barricade before the main entrance. There were about two hundred of them and about fifteen hundred Junkers in the whole place. There was absolutely no food and a very small supply of ammunition.

At five-thirty we decided to go to Smolny to be present at the opening of the much-talked-of meeting of the All-Russian Soviets.

As we crossed under the Red Arch we met a group of Bolshevik soldiers who were discussing the best means of taking the Palace. "The bad part is," said one, "that the Women's Battalion is on guard there and they will say we shot Russian women... ."

At Smolny a hot battle of words was being waged between the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionists on one side and the Left Socialist Revolutionists, Bolsheviki and Menshevik Internationalists on the other. The former were claiming that all important matters must be put off until after the Constituent Assembly. But the majority of the gathering would not listen to them. Finally, an inspired speaker declared that the cruiser Aurora was at that very moment shelling the Winter Palace, and if the whole uprising was not stopped at once, the delegates from the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionist Parties, together with certain members of the City Duma, would march unarmed through the firing lines and die with the Provisional Government.

This came as a complete surprise to many of the delegates who were to be sacrificed, but nevertheless a number of them impulsively followed the speaker; others sat uneasily in their seats looking as if they felt this was carrying party principles altogether too far. The affair, dramatic as it was, did not have much effect on the general assembly; five minutes after the delegates left the hall they proceeded with their regular business. The soldiers seemed to think it was a particularly good joke and kept slapping each other on the back and guffawing.

Of course we followed the bolting delegates.

All the street cars had stopped and it was two miles to the Winter Palace. A huge motor truck was just leaving Smolny. We hailed it and climbed on board. We found we had for companions several sailors and soldiers and a man from the Wild Division, wearing his picturesque, long black cape. They warned us gaily that we'd probably all get killed, and they told me to take off a yellow hatband, as there might be sniping.

Their mission was to distribute leaflets all over town, and especially along the Nevsky Prospect. The leaflets were piled high over the floor of the truck together with guns and ammunition. As we rattled along through the wide, dim-lit streets, they scattered the leaflets to eager crowds. People scrambled over the cobbles fighting for copies. We could only make out the headlines in the half-light:

"Citizens! The Provisional Government is deposed. State Power has passed into the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies."

Before I left Smolny I had secured a pass from the new famous Military Revolutionary Committee. My pass read:

"No. 1

"Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies gives Tavarishe Louise Bryant free passage through the city.

"Signed by the Chairman and Secretary of the Military Revolutionary Committee, and stamped by the Military Division."

Where the Ekaterina Canal crosses the Nevsky, guards informed the driver that we could go no further. So we jumped down and found ourselves witnesses to as fantastic a political performance as ever took place in history.

Huddled together in the middle of the Nevsky were the delegates of the Socialist Revolutionist and Menshevik Parties. Unto themselves they had since gathered various wives and friends and those members of the city Duma who were not Bolsheviki, Left Socialist Revolutionists or Menshevik Internationalists--so that their number was something over two hundred. It was then two o'clock in the morning. ...

For a time, I confess, we were all pretty much impressed by these would-be martyrs; any body of unarmed people protesting against armed force is bound to be impressive. In a little while, however, we couldn't help wondering why they didn't go ahead and die as long as they had made up their minds to it; and especially since the Winter Palace and the Provisional Government might be captured at any moment.

When we began to talk to the martyrs we were surprised to find that they were very particular about the manner in which they were to die--and not only that but they were trying to persuade the sailor guards that they had been given permission to pass by the Military Revolutionary Committee. If our respect for their bravery weakened, our interest in the uniqueness of their political tricks grew a good deal; it was clear that the last thing the delegates wanted to do was to die, although they kept shouting that they did at the top of their voices. "Let us pass! Let us sacrifice ourselves!" they cried like bad children.

Only twenty husky sailors barred the way. And to all arguments they continued stubborn and unmoved. "Go home and take poison," they advised the clamouring statesmen, "but don't expect to die here. We have orders not to allow it."

"What will you do if we suddenly push forward?" asked one of the delegates.

"We may give you a good spanking," answered the sailors, "but we will not kill one of you--not by a damn sight!"

This seemed to settle the business. Prokopovitch, Minister of Supplies, walked to the head of the company and announced in a trembling voice: "Comrades: Let us return, let us refuse to be killed by switchmen!" Just exactly what he meant by that was too much for my simple American brain, but the martyrs seemed to understand perfectly, for off they marched in the direction from which they had come and took up headquarters in the city Duma.

When we showed our passes, it was like magic, the sailors smiled and let us go forward without a word. At the Red Arch, soldiers informed us that the Winter Palace had just surrendered. We ran across the Square after the Bolshevik troops, a few bullets whistled by, but it was impossible to tell from which direction they came. Every window was lit up as if for a fete and we could see people moving about inside. Only a small entrance was open and we poured through the narrow door.

Inside the Junkers were being disarmed and given their liberty. They had to file past the door through which we had come. When those we had been with in the afternoon recognised us they waved friendly greetings. They looked relieved that it was all over, they had forgotten about the "one bullet" they were keeping for themselves....

The Ministers of the Provisional Government were betrayed by the employees in the palace, and they were quickly hauled out of all sorts of secret back rooms and passages. They were sent to Peter and Paul fortress. We sat on a long bench by the door and watched them going out. Tereschenko impressed me more than the others. He looked so ridiculous and out of place; he was so well groomed and so outraged.

The Woman's Regiment, amounting to about two hundred, were also disarmed and told to go home and put on female attire.

Every one leaving the palace was searched, no matter on what side he was. There were priceless treasures all about and it was a great temptation to pick up souvenirs. I have always been glad that I was present that night because so many stories have come out about the looting. It was so natural that there should have been looting and so commendable that there was none.

A young Bolshevik lieutenant stood by the only unlocked door, and in front of him was a great table. Two soldiers did the searching. The Lieutenant delivered a sort of sermon while this was going on. I wrote down part of his speech:

"Comrades, this is the people's palace. This is our palace. Do not steal from the people. ... Do not disgrace the people. ..."

It was amusing to see what those great, simple soldiers had taken--the broken handle of a Chinese sword, & wax candle, a coat-hanger, a blanket, a worn sofa-cushion. ... They laid them out all together, their faces red with shame. And not one thing was of the least value!

About five o'clock the same morning we left the Winter Palace and called at the City Duma. Here we found the indignant and no longer self-sacrificing politicians furiously forming what they ingeniously chose to call the "Committee for Saving the Country and the Revolution."

Soon after it fell into their hands, the Soviet government turned the Winter Palace into a People's Museum.