Victor Serge 1937

Twenty Years Ago

Source: La Wallonie, March 6-7, 1937;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2013.

The days between March 7-11, corresponding to February 23-27 on the old Russian calendar, should inspire worthwhile thoughts in many people. Twenty years ago during those days the most authoritarian empire in Europe suddenly collapsed, like a worm-eaten building. On March 5, as was his custom, His Majesty the Emperor Nicholas II peacefully received the grand dignitaries. The dynasty had three centuries behind it, and anyone who would have predicted that there'd be nothing left of it at the end of the following week would have been taken for a madman. Obviously the working class was grumbling in the lower depths, those lowlifes stirred up by the Marxists, right? But tried recipes were known for keeping them in check. General Khabalov, governor of Petrograd, foreseeing problems at the end of winter (what perspicacity!) had just established a detailed plan of repression. Among themselves the generals and foreign ambassadors envisaged “enormous changes” which would have substituted one camarilla for another in the government. Nicholas II was confident, the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, more confident still. Didn’t they have the support of Providence, good prisons, an incomparable police force, and gibbets in sufficient number? Pretty solid, all of that. A signal to the dispensers of secret funds and the press of the two worlds spoke in touching terms of the civilizing tsar, adored by his people, of invincible Russian might, of the Slavic soul that blah blah blah… “The revolutionaries, sir? Everyone knows they are Ludenforff’s agents and half mad. Anyway, for fifty years their predictions haven’t come true.” This was how M. Homais expressed himself at the Café de la Paix, and he perhaps proudly added: “I, sir, have invested my savings in Russian loans and I advise you to do the same.”

Barely one year before the collapse the Tsarina wrote to her august spouse: “Don’t allow yourself to bend; no responsible ministry, etc.; nothing that they want. This war must be your war and the peace your peace, to your honor and that of the fatherland, but in no event that of the Duma. Those people don’t have the right to say a thing.”

The Duma was the shadow of a parliament; “those people” were bourgeois liberals who timidly called for a parliamentary regime.

The events began in the working class neighborhoods of the capital on February 23 old style (March 7 new style) with a spontaneous strike in which the workers, tired of queuing up for bread, took the initiative. No revolutionary party prepared or willed anything. The movement spread, overtaking both the militants and the authorities. (The most qualified of the militants were overseas, in prison, or deported.) The Tsarina didn’t lose her head, you can be sure! She had seen her share of troubles in a quarter of a century. She wrote on February 24 (March 8) to Nicholas II: “I hope that this Kerensky of the Duma will be hung because of his abominable speeches. Martial law is indispensable and will serve as an example. Everyone wants to see you demonstrate firmness.”

The Tsar left his Headquarters in order to be closer to the capital, but his special train wandered over deserted tracks without arriving anywhere. Railway workers made bizarre signs at him: Tracks closed! Danger! General Ivanov, named dictator so as to establish order in accordance with the good old methods, arrived with a few troops forty kilometers outside of Petrograd and asked the governor of the city for precise information concerning the situation. Governor Khabalov answered him: “The whole city… all the stations... all the artillery is in the hands of the revolutionaries. The ministers have been arrested. I have no police force at my disposal.”

In fact, the situation was clear.

In five days of spontaneous street demonstrations absolutism fell. It was the garrison’s passing over to the people that settled the question. And yet, the soldiers made their decision without any preliminary propaganda, just as spontaneously as the workers who had started the strike. The regime was condemned in people’s minds, in the same way that a man apparently enjoying perfect health dies of a cardiac embolism. The tsar abdicated first in favor of his son, and then of his brother, who in turn abdicated in favor of the Constituent Assembly. Words and acts no longer of any importance. From fear of a greater ill the generals quickly recognized the provisional government of Prince Lvov, established by the liberal deputies of the Duma with the consent of the Soviet ,i.e., the council of delegates of the factories and regiments, the sole real power during those days. Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich puts on a red armband and drives the carriage of the guard to the Tauride Palace where the new power is being improvised. The telegrams of the tsarina are now returned to her with this brief administrative note: “Address of the recipient unknown.” The historian remarks that “the telegraph employees never again found the Tsar of the Russias.”

The totalitarian regimes of today appear solid. They have beautiful decorative facades, splendid uniforms, infinite resources, countless admirers. The Russian autocracy had had all of this for centuries on the first days of March 1917. A week later it all belonged to a past dead and gone forever. Because, in fact, it had the masses against it. A good subject for contemplation, indeed.