Kerensky was in a great state of excitement when he met Stankevich arriving with his report from the front. He had just returned from a mutiny of the Council of the Republic where the insurrection of the Bolsheviks had been conclusively exposed – Insurrection! Don’t you know that we have an armed insurrection? – Stankevich laughed: Why the streets are perfectly quiet; surely that isn’t the way a real insurrection ought to look? But anyway we must put an end to these everlasting disturbances – To this Kerensky heartily agreed, he was only waiting for the resolution of the Pre-Parliament.
At nine in the evening the government assembled in the Malachite Chamber of the Winter Palace to work out methods for a “resolute and final liquidation” of the Bolsheviks. Stankevich, returning from the Mariinsky Palace where he had been sent to hurry things up, reported with indignation the passing of the resolution of semi-non-confidence. Even the struggle against insurrection the resolution of the Pre-Parliament proposed to entrust not to the government, but to a special committee of public safety. Kerensky hotly announced that under those circumstances “he would not remain a minute longer at the head of the government.” The Compromise leaders were immediately summoned to the palace by telephone. The possibility of Kerensky’s resignation surprised them no less than their resolution had surprised Kerensky. Avksentiev presented their excuses: they had, you know, regarded the resolution “as purely theoretical and accidental, and had not believed it would lead to practical steps.” Moreover they now themselves saw that the resolution was “perhaps not quite happily worded.” Those people never missed an opportunity to show what they were worth.
This nocturnal conversation of the democratic leaders with the head of the State seems absolutely unbelievable on the background of the developing insurrection. Dan, one of the chief gravediggers of the February régime, demanded that the government immediately, by night, plaster the town with posters announcing that it had proposed immediate peace negotiations to the Allies. Kerensky reported that the government had no need of such counsels. It is quite possible to believe that the government would have preferred a sharp division; but Dan could not offer that. Kerensky, of course, was attempting to throw the responsibility for the insurrection upon his interlocutors. Dan answered that the government was exaggerating events under the influence of its “reactionary staff.” At any rate there was no need of resigning: the disagreeable resolution had been necessary in order to break the mood of the masses. The Bolsheviks will be compelled “not later than tomorrow” to dissolve their headquarters, if the government follows Dan’s suggestion. “At that very moment,” adds Kerensky in describing this conversation with legitimate irony, “the Red Guard was occupying the government buildings one after another.”
This so weighty conference with his Left friends had hardly ended when Kerensky’s friends from the Right appeared in the form of a delegation from the Council of the Cossack Troops. The officers pretended that the conduct of the three Cossack regiments in Petrograd depended upon their wills, and presented Kerensky with conditions diametrically opposite to those of Dan: No concessions to the Soviet; this time the settlement with the Bolsheviks must be carried through to the end, and not handled as in July when the Cossacks suffered in vain. Kerensky, himself desiring nothing better, promised everything they asked and apologised to his interlocutors for the fact that up to now owing to considerations of prudence he had not arrested Trotsky, the president of the Soviet of Deputies. The delegates departed, assuring him that the Cossacks would do their duty. An order was issued from headquarters to the Cossack regiment: “In the name of freedom, honour and the glory of the homeland come to the help of the Central Executive Committee, the Provisional Government, and save Russia from ruin” That bigoted government which had so jealously defended its independence of the Central Executive Committee was compelled to hide humbly behind its back at a moment of danger. Beseeching commands were also sent to the military schools in Petrograd and the environs. The railroads were instructed: “to despatch echelons of troops coming toward Petrograd from the front ahead of all other trains, cutting off passenger traffic if necessary.”
When the government dispersed at two o’clock in the morning, having done all it could, there remained with Kerensky in the palace only his vice-minister, the liberal Moscow merchant, Konovalov. The commander of the district, Polkovnikov, came to them with a proposal to organise with the help of the loyal soldiers an immediate expedition for the seizure of Smolny. Kerensky accepted this admirable plan without hesitation, but from the words of the commander it was absolutely impossible to make out upon just what forces he was counting. Only now did Kerensky realise, according to his own confession, that the reports of Polkovnikov during the last ten or twelve days about his complete preparedness for the struggle with the Bolsheviks were “based on absolutely nothing.” As though Kerensky had no other sources for an appraisal of the political and military situation but the secretarial reports of a mediocre colonel whom he had placed – nobody knows why – at the head of the district. During the aggrieved meditations of the head of the government the commissar of the city government, Rogovsky, brought a series of communications: A number of ships from the Baltic Fleet have entered the Neva in fighting array: some of them have come as far as the Nikolaevsky Bridge and occupied it; detachments of the insurrectionaries are advancing on Dvortsovy Bridge. Rogovsky called Kerensky’s special attention to the circumstances that “the Bolsheviks are carrying out their whole plan in complete order, meeting nowhere the slightest resistance on the part of the government troops.” Just what troops were meant by the word “government” was not quite clear in any case from the man’s report.
Kerensky and Konovalov rushed from the palace to headquarters: “We must not lose another minute,” they cried. The impressive red building was brimful of officers. They had come here not on the business of their troops, but to hide from them. Civilians unknown to anybody were also poking their noses in among this military crowd. A new report from Polkovnikov finally convinced Kerensky that it was impossible to rely upon the commander or his officers. The head of the government decided to gather around his own person “all those loyal to their duty.” Remembering that he was the member of a party – as others remember only on their death beds about the church – Kerensky called up the Social Revolutionaries on the telephone and demanded that they send fighting companies immediately. Before this unexpected appeal to the armed forces of the party could give any results, however – supposing it could do so at all – it would inevitably, as Miliukov says, “repel from Kerensky all the Right Wing elements, who even without that were unfriendly enough.” Kerensky’s isolation, plainly enough exposed already in the Kornilov insurrection, assumed here a more fatal aspect. “The long hours of that night dragged torturingly,” says Kerensky, repeating his autobiographic phrase.
Reinforcements arrived from nowhere. The Cossacks held sittings. Representatives of this regiment said that, generally speaking, they might come out – why not? – but for this it was necessary to have machine-guns, armoured cars, and, above all, infantry. Kerensky, without a thought, promised them armoured cars which were getting ready to abandon him, and infantry of which he had none. In answer he was told that the regiments would soon decide all questions and “begin to saddle their horses.” The fighting forces of the Social Revolutionaries gave no signs of life. Did they indeed still exist? Where in fact was the boundary between the real and the spectral? The officers assembled in headquarters adopted a “more and more challenging” attitude toward the commander-in-chief and head of the government. Kerensky even asserts that there was talk among the officers of arresting him. The headquarters building was, as before, unguarded. Official negotiations were carried on before outsiders in the intervals between excited private conversations. The mood of hopelessness and disintegration soaked through from headquarters into the Winter Palace. The junkers began to get nervous. The armoured car crews became excited. There is no support below, there is no head above. In such circumstances can anything but destruction follow?
At five o’clock in the morning Kerensky summoned to headquarters the general director of the War Ministry, Manikovsky. At the Troitsky Bridge General Manikovsky was stopped by patrols and taken to the barracks of the Pavlovsky regiment, but there after brief explanation he was set free. The general convinced them, we may assume, that his arrest might upset the whole administrative mechanism and entail damage to the soldiers at the front. At about the same time the automobile of Stankevich was stopped near the Winter Palace, but the regimental committee released him also. “These were insurrectionaries,” relates Stankevich, “but they behaved very irresolutely. I telegraphed about it from my house to the Winter Palace, but received tranquillising assurances that this had been a mistake.” The real mistake was the release of Stankevich: In a few hours he will try, as we know, to get the telephone station away from the Bolsheviks.
Kerensky demanded from headquarters in Moghiliev and from the staff of the Northern front at Pskov the immediate despatch of loyal regiments. Dukhonin assured him over the direct wire that all measures had been taken for the despatch of troops to Petrograd, and that certain units ought already to be arriving. But the units were not arriving. The Cossacks were still “saddling their horses.” The situation in the city was getting worse from hour to hour. When Kerensky and Konovalov returned to the palace to rest a little, a courier handed them an urgent communication All the palace telephones were cut off; Dvortsovy bridge under Kerensky’s very windows, was occupied by pickets of sailors. The square in front of the Winter Palace remained deserted as before. “Of the Cossacks neither hide nor hair was to be seen.” Kerensky again rushed over to headquarters, but here, too, he got uncomforting news. The junkers had received from the Bolsheviks a demand that they abandon the palace, and were greatly excited. The armoured cars had broken order inopportunely exposing the “loss” of certain important units. There was still no news of the echelons from the front. The close approaches to the palace and headquarters were absolutely unguarded. If the Bolsheviks had not yet penetrated this far it was only through lack of information. The building, brimmed with officers since evening, had been rapidly vacated. Everyone was saving himself in his own way. A delegation from the junkers appeared: They were ready to do their duty in the future “only if there is hope of the arrival of some sort of reinforcement.” But reinforcements were just exactly what were lacking.
Kerensky hastily summoned his ministers to headquarters. The majority of them had no automobiles. These important instruments of locomotion, which impart a new tempo to modern insurrection, had either been seized by the Bolsheviks or cut off from the ministers by cordons of insurrectionaries. Only Kishkin arrived, and some time later Maliantovich. What should the head of the government do? Go out at once to meet the echelons and bring them forward no matter what the obstacles might be. Nobody could think of anything else.
Kerensky ordered out his “magnificent open touring-car.” But here a new factor entered into the chain of events, demonstrating the indestructible solidarity uniting the governments of the Entente in weal and woe. “In what manner I do not know, but the news of my departure had reached the Allied embassies.” The representatives of Great Britain and the United States had immediately expressed the desire that with the head of the government in making his get-away from the capital, “there should go an automobile carrying the American flag.” Kerensky himself thought the proposal excessive, and was even embarrassed, but accepted it as an expression of the solidarity of the Allies.
The American ambassador, David Francis, gives a different account – not so much like a Christmas story. According to him an automobile containing a Russian officer followed the American automobile to the embassy, and the officer demanded that they turn over the embassy automobile to Kerensky for a journey to the front. Taking counsel together, the officials of the embassy arrived at the conclusion that since the automobile had already been practically “seized” – which was not at all true – there was nothing left but to bow to the force of circumstance. The Russian officer – in spite, they say, of protests from the diplomatic gentlemen – refused to remove the American flag. And no wonder: it was only that colourful bit which made the automobile inviolable. Francis approved the action of the embassy officials, but told them “to say nothing about it to anybody.”
By juxtaposing these two testimonies, which intersect with the line of truth at different angles, a sufficiently clear picture can be made to emerge. It was not the Allies, of course, who imposed the automobile upon Kerensky, but he himself who requested it: but since diplomats are obliged to pay a certain homage to the hypocrisy of non-interference in domestic affairs it was agreed that the automobile had been “seized,” and that the embassy had “protested” against the misuse of the flag. After this delicate matter had been arranged, Kerensky took a seat in his own automobile; the American car followed as a reserve. “It is needless to say,” says Kerensky further, “that the whole street – both the passers-by and the soldiers – immediately recognised me. I saluted as always, a little carelessly and with an easy smile.” Incomparable picture! Carelessly and smiling – thus the February régime passed into the Kingdom of Shades. At the gates of the city everywhere stood pickets and patrols of armed workers. At sight of the madly flying automobile the Red Guards rushed into the highway, but did not venture to shoot. In general, shootings were still being avoided. Maybe, too, the little American flag held them back. The automobile successfully rushed on.
And does this mean that there are no troops in Petrograd prepared to defend the Provisional Government? asked the astonished Maliantovich, who had up to that moment dwelt in the kingdom of the eternal truths of law. I know nothing, Konovalov answered, shrugging his shoulders. It’s pretty bad, he added. And what are these troops that are on their way? insisted Maliantovich. A bicycle battalion, it seems. The minister sighed. There were 200,000 soldiers in Petrograd and in the environs. Things were going badly with the régime, if the head of the government had to fly off with an American flag at his back to meet a bicycle battalion.
The ministers would have sighed deeper if they had known that this third bicycle battalion sent from the front had stopped at Peredolskaia and telegraphed the Petrograd Soviet to know for just what purpose it was being sent. The Military Revolutionary Committee telegraphed the battalion a brotherly greeting and asked them to send their representatives immediately. The authorities sought and did not find the bicycle men, whose delegates arrived that same day in Smolny.
It had been proposed in the preliminary calculations to occupy the Winter Palace on the night of the 25th, at the same time with the other commanding high points of the capital. A special trio had been formed already as early as the 23rd to take the lead in seizing the palace, Podvoisky and Antonov being the central figures. The engineer Sadovsky, a man in military service, was included as a third, but soon fell away, being preoccupied with the affairs of the garrison. He was replaced by Chudnovsky, who had come with Trotsky in May from the concentration camp in Canada, and had spent three months at the front as a soldier. Lashevich also took an important part in the operations – an old Bolshevik who had done enough service in the army to become a non-commissioned officer. Three years later Sadovsky remembered how Podvoisky and Chudnovsky quarrelled furiously in his little room in Smolny over the map of Petrograd and the best form of action against the palace. It was finally decided to surround the region of the palace with an uninterrupted oval, the longer axis of which should be the quay of the Neva. On the riverside the circle should be closed up by the Peter and Paul fortress, the Aurora, and other ships summoned from Kronstadt and the navy. In order to prevent or paralyse the attempts to strike at the rear with Cossacks and junker detachments, it was decided to establish imposing flank defences composed of revolutionary detachments.
The plan as a whole was too heavy and complicated for the problem it aimed to solve. The time allotted for preparation proved inadequate. Small inco-ordinations and omissions came to light at every step, as might be expected. In one place the direction was incorrectly indicated, in another the leader came late, having misread the instructions: in a third they had to wait for a rescuing armoured car. To call out the military units, unite them with the Red Guards, occupy the fighting positions, make sure of communications among them all and with headquarters – all this demanded a good many hours more than had been imagined by the leaders quarrelling over their map of Petrograd.
When the Military Revolutionary Committee announced at about ten o’clock in the morning that the government was overthrown, the extent of this delay was not yet clear even to those in direct command of the operation. Podvoisky had promised the fall of the palace “not later than twelve o’clock.” Up to that time everything had run so smoothly on the military side that nobody had any reason to question the hour. But at noon it turned out that the besieging force was still not filled out, the Kronstadters had not arrived, and that meanwhile the defence of the palace had been reinforced. This loss of time, as almost always happens, made new delays necessary. Under urgent pressure from the Committee the seizure of the palace was now set for three o’clock – and this time “conclusively.” Counting on this new decision, the spokesman of the Military Revolutionary Committee expressed to the afternoon session of the Soviet the hope that the fall of the Winter Palace would be a matter of the next few minutes. But another hour passed and brought no decision. Podvoisky, himself in a state of white heat, asserted over the telephone that by six o’clock the palace would be taken no matter what it cost, His former confidence, however, was lacking. And indeed the hour of six did strike and the denouément had not begun. Beside themselves with the urgings of Smolny, Podvoisky and Antonov now refused to set any hour at all. That caused serious anxiety. Politically it was considered necessary that at the moment of the opening of the Congress the whole capital should be in the hands of the Military Revolutionary Committee: That was to simplify the task of dealing with the opposition at the Congress, placing them before an accomplished fact. Meanwhile the hour appointed for opening the Congress had arrived, had been postponed, and arrived again, and the Winter Palace was still holding out. Thus the siege of the palace, thanks to its delay, became for no less than twelve hours the central problem of the insurrection.
The main staff of the operation remained in Smolny, where Lashevich held the threads in his hands. The field headquarters was in the Peter and Paul fortress, where Blagonravov was the responsible man. There were three subordinate headquarters, one on the Aurora, another in the barracks of the Pavlovsky regiment, another in the barracks of the sailors. In the field of action the leaders were Podvoisky and Antonov – apparently without any clear order of priority.
In the quarters of the general staff a trio was also bending over the map: the commander of the district Colonel Polkovnikov, the chief of his staff General Bagratuni, and General Alexeiev, especially invited in as a high authority. Notwithstanding this so well qualified commanding staff the plans of the defence were incomparably less definite than those of the attack. It is true that the inexperienced marshals of the insurrection did not know how to concentrate their forces rapidly and deal a punctual blow. But the forces were there. The marshals of the defence had cloudy hopes in place of forces: maybe the Cossacks will make up their minds; maybe loyal units will be found in the neighbouring garrison; maybe Kerensky will bring troops from the front. The feelings of Polkovnikov are known from his night telegrams to headquarters: he thought that the game was up. Alexeiev, still less inclined to optimism, soon abandoned the rotten ship.
Delegates from the military schools were brought into headquarters for the purpose of keeping in touch, and an attempt was made to raise their spirits with assurances that troops would soon arrive from Gatchina, Tsarskoe and the front. However they did not much believe in these misty promises, and a depressing rumour began to creep through the schools: “There is a panic in headquarters, nobody is doing anything.” And it was so. Cossack officers coming to headquarters to propose that they seize the armoured cars in the Mikailovsky Riding Academy found Polkovnikov sitting on the window-seat in a condition of complete prostration. Seize the riding academy? “Seize it. I have nobody. I can’t do anything alone.”
While this languid mobilisation of the schools for the defence of the Winter Palace was going on, the ministers assembled at a meeting. The square before the palace and its adjacent streets were still free from insurrectionists. On the corner of Morskaia and Nevsky armed soldiers were holding up passing automobiles and ejecting their passengers. The crowd was making queries: “Are these soldiers of the government or the Military Revolutionary Committee?” The ministers had for this once the full benefit of their own unpopularity: Nobody was interested in them and hardly anybody recognised them on their way. They all assembled except Prokopovich who was accidentally arrested in a cab – and was, by the way, released again during the day.
The old servants still remained in the palace, having seen much and ceased to be surprised, although not yet cured of fright. Strictly trained, dressed in blue with red collars and gold braids, these relics of the old kept up an atmosphere of order and stability in the luxurious building. They alone perhaps on this alarming morning still gave the ministers an illusion of power.
Not before eleven o’clock in the morning, did the government finally decide to place one of its members at the head of the defence. General Iznikovsky had already refused this honour, offered to him by Kerensky at dawn. Another military man in the staff of the government, Admiral Verderevsky, was still less materially inclined. It thus fell to a civilian to captain the defence – the Minister of Public Charities, Kishkin. An order of the senate confirming his appointment was immediately drawn up and signed by all. Those people had plenty of time to occupy themselves with bureaucratic fandangles. Moreover it never occurred to any of them that Kishkin as a member of the Kadet Party was doubly hated by the soldiers both front and rear. Kishkin in turn selected as his assistants Palchinsky and Ruthenberg. An appointee of the capitalists and protector of lock-outs, Palchinsky enjoyed the hatred of the workers. The engineer Ruthenberg was an aide-de-camp of Savinkov, and Savinkov even the all-embracing party of the Social Revolutionaries had expelled as a Kornilovist. Polkovnikov, under suspicion of treason, was discharged. In his place they appointed General Hagratuni who differed from him in nothing.
Although the city telephones of the Winter Palace and headquarters had been cut off, the palace remained in connection with the more important institutions by its own wire – particularly with the War Ministry which had a direct wire to headquarters. Evidently some of the city apparatus also had not been cut out in the hurry of the moment. In a military sense, however, the telephone connections gave nothing to the government, and in a moral sense they damaged rather than improved its situation for it robbed them of their illusions.
From morning on, the leaders of the defence kept demanding local reinforcements while awaiting reinforcements from the front. Certain people in the city tried to help them. A Doctor Feit who took an active part in this, a member of the Central Committee of the Social Revolutionary Party, told some years later at a legal proceeding about the “astonishing lightning-like change in the mood of the military units.” You would learn, he said, from the most reliable sources of the readiness of this or that regiment to come to the defence of the government, but as soon as you called the barracks directly on the telephone, one unit after another would flatly refuse. “The result is known to you,” said the old Narodnik. “Nobody came out and the Winter Palace was captured.” The fact of the matter is that no lightning-like changes in the garrison took place, but the remaining illusions of the governmental parties did crumble to the ground with lightning speed.
The armoured cars upon which they were especially counting in the Winter Palace and headquarters, were divided into two groups: Bolsheviks and pacifists. None of them was in favour of the government. On the way to the Winter Palace a half-company of engineering junkers ran into two armoured cars which they awaited with a feeling of hope and fear: Are they friends or enemies? It turned out that they were neutral, and had come into the street with the purpose of preventing conflicts between the two sides. Out of the six armoured cars in the Winter Palace only one remained to guard the palace property; the other five departed. In proportion as the insurrection succeeded the number of Bolshevik armoured cars increased, and the neutral army melted away. Such is the fate of pacifism in any serious struggle.
Noon is approaching. The vast square before the Winter Palace is vacant as before. The government has nobody to fill it with. The troops of the Committee do not occupy it, because they are absorbed in carrying out their too complicated plan. Military units, workers’ detachments, armoured cars, are still assembling for this wide encirclement. The palace district begins to look like a plague spot which is being encircled far away to avoid direct contact with the infection.
The court of the palace opening on the square is piled up with logs of wood like the court of Smolny. Black three-inch field guns are set up to left and right. Rifles are stacked up in several different places. The small guard of the palace clings close to the building. In the court and the first story, two schools of ensigns from Oranienbaum and Peterhoff are quartered – not the whole school by any means – and a squad from the Constantinovsky Artillery School with six cannon.
During the afternoon a battalion of junkers from the engineering school arrived, having lost half a company on the road. The picture presented when they arrived could in no wise have increased the fighting spirit of the junkers which, according to Stankevich, was inadequate even before. Inside the palace they found a lack of provisions. Even of this nobody had thought in time. A truckload of bread had been seized, it turned out, by patrols of the Committee. Some of the junkers did sentry duty; the rest lay around inactive, uncertain and hungry. No leadership whatever made itself felt. In the square before the palace, and on the quay on the other side, little groups of apparently peaceful passers-by began to appear, and they would snatch the rifles from the junker sentries, threatening them with revolvers.
“Agitators” also began to appear among the junkers. Had they gotten in from the outside? No, these were still evidently internal trouble-makers. They succeeded in starting a ferment among the Oranienbaum and Peterhoff students. The committees of the school called a conference in the White Hall, and demanded that representatives of the government come in and make an explanation. All the ministers came in, with Konovalov at their head. The argument lasted a whole hour. Konovalov was heckled and stopped talking. The Minister of Agriculture, Maslov, made a speech as an old revolutionist. Kishkin explained to the junkers that the government had decided to stand firm as long as possible. According to Stankevich one of the junkers was about to express his readiness to die for the government, but “the obvious coolness of the rest of his comrades held him back.” The speech of the other ministers produced actual irritation among the junkers, who interrupted, shouted and even, it seems, whistled. The blue-bloods explained the conduct of the majority of the junkers by their low social origin: “They were all from the plough, half-illiterate, ignorant beasts, cattle ...”
The meeting in the besieged palace ended nevertheless in conciliation. The junkers, after they had been promised active leadership and correct information about what was happening, agreed to stay. The chief at the engineering school, appointed commander of the defence, ran his pencil over the plan of the palace, writing in the names of the units. The forces on hand were distributed in fighting positions. The majority of the junkers were stationed on the first floor where they could train their guns on Winter Palace Square through the windows. But they were forbidden to fire first. A battalion of the engineering school was brought out into the courtyard to cover the artillery. Squads were appointed for barricade work. A communication squad was armed with four men from each unit. The artillery squad was directed to defend the gate in case of a breach. Fortifications of firewood were laid up in the court and before the gates, Something like order was established. The sentries felt more confident.
A civil war in its first steps before real armies have been formed and before they are tempered, is a war of naked nerves. As soon as little activity developed on the side of the junkers, – their clearing of the square with gun fire from behind the barricades – the forces and equipment of the defence were enormously overestimated in the attacking camp. In spite of the dissatisfaction of the Red Guard and the soldiers, the leaders now decided to postpone the assault until they had concentrated their reserves; they were chiefly awaiting the arrival of the sailors from Kronstadt.
The delay of a few hours thus created brought some small reinforcements to the besieged. After Kerensky’s promise of infantry to the Cossack delegation the Council of the Cossack Troops had gone into session, the regimental committees had gone into session, and the general assembly of the regiments had gone into session. Decision: Two squadrons and the machine-gun crew of the Uralsky regiment, brought in from the front in July to crush the Bolsheviks, should immediately enter the Winter Palace, the rest not until the promise was actually fulfilled that is, not until after the arrival of infantry reinforcements. But even with the two squadrons this was not accomplished without argument. The Cossack youth objected. The “old men” even had to lock the young ones up in the stable, where they could not hinder them from equipping themselves for the march. Only at twilight, when they were no longer expected, did these bearded Uraltsi appear in the palace. They were met like saviours. They themselves, however, looked sulky. They were not accustomed to fight about palaces. Yes, and it was not quite clear which side was right.
Some time later there arrived unexpectedly forty of the Knights of St. George under command of a staff captain on a cork leg. Patriotic cripples acting as the last reserves of democracy ... But even so they felt better. Soon came also a shock company of the Women’s Battalion. What encouraged them most of all was that these reinforcements had made their way through without fighting. The cordon of the besieging forces could not, or did not dare, deny them access to the palace. Quite obviously, therefore, the enemy was weak. “Glory be to God the thing is beginning to pull itself together,” said the officers, comforting themselves and the junkers. The new arrivals received their military allotments, replacing those who were tired. However, the Uraltsi glanced with no great approval upon those “wenches” with rifles. Where is the real infantry?
The besiegers were obviously losing time. The Kronstadters were late – not, to be sure, through their own fault. They had been summoned too late. After a tense night of preparation they had begun to embark at dawn. The destroyer Amur and the cruiser Yastreb had made straight for Petrograd. The old armoured cruiser Tzaria Svobodi, after landing marines at Oranienbaum, where it was proposed to disarm the junkers, was to anchor at the entrance to the Morskoy Canal, in order, in case of need, to bombard the Baltic railroad. Five thousand sailors and soldiers disembarked early in the morning from the Island of Kotlin in order to embark on the social revolution. In the officers’ cabin a solemn silence reigns: These officers are being taken along to fight for a cause which they hate. The commissar of the detachment, the Bolshevik, Flerovsky, announced to them: “We do not count upon your sympathy, but we demand that you be at your posts ... We will spare you any unnecessary unpleasantness.” He received the brief naval answer: “Aye, aye, sir!” All took their places. The commander ascended the bridge.
Upon arriving in the Neva a triumphal hurrah: the sailors are greeting their own. A band strikes up on the Aurora, anchored in midstream. Antonov addresses the new arrivals with a brief greeting: “There is the Winter Palace We must take it.” In the Kronstadt detachment the most resolute and bold choose themselves out automatically. These sailors in black blouses with rifles and cartridge belts will go all the way. The disembarkation on Konnogvardeisky Boulevard takes but a few moments. Only a military watch remains on the ship.
The forces are now more than adequate on the Nevsky. There are strong outposts on the bridge of the Ekaterininsky Canal and on the bridge of the Moika armoured automobiles and Zenith guns aimed at the Winter Palace. On this side of the Moika the workers have set up machine-guns behind screens.
An armoured car is on duty on Morskaia. The Neva and its crossings are in the bands of the attackers. Chudnovsky and Ensign Dashkevich are ordered to send troops from the Guard regiments to hold Mars Field. Blagonravov from the fortress, after crossing the bridge, is to get into contact with the troops on Mars Field. The sailors just arrived are to keep in contact with the fortress and the crew of the Aurora. After artillery fire the storm is to begin.
At the same time five ships of war arrive from the Baltic battle fleet: a cruiser, two destroyers, and two smaller vessels. “However sure we may have been of winning with the forces on hand,” writes Flerovsky, “this gift from the navy raised everybody’s spirits.” Admiral Verderovsky, looking from the windows of the Malachite Hall, could probably see an imposing mutinous flotilla, dominating not only the palace and the surrounding district but also the principal approaches to Petrograd.
About four o’clock in the afternoon Konovalov summoned to the palace by telephone the political leaders standing close to the government. The besieged ministers had need at least of moral support. Of all those invited only Nabokov appeared. The rest preferred to express their sympathy by telephone. Minister Tretiakov complained against Kerensky and against fate: The head of the ministry has fled leaving his colleagues without defence. But perhaps reinforcements will come? Perhaps. However, why aren’t they here? Nabokov expressed his sympathy, glancing stealthily at his watch, and hastened to take his farewell. He got out just in time. Shortly after six the Winter Palace was at last solidly surrounded by the troops of the Military Revolutionary Committee. There was no longer any passage either for reinforcements or for individuals.
From the direction of Konnogvardeisky Boulevard, the Admiralty Quay, Morskaia Street, Nevsky Prospect, Mars Field, Milliony Street and Dvortsovy Quay, the oval of the besiegers thickened and contracted. Imposing cordons extended from the iron fences of the Winter Palace garden, still in the hands of the besieged, from the arch between Palace Square and Morskaia Street, from the canal by the Hermitage, from the corners of the Admiralty, and the Nevsky near by the palace. Peter and Paul fortress frowned threateningly from the other side of the river. The Aurora looked in from the Neva with her six-inch guns. Destroyers steamed back and forth patrolling the river. The insurrection looked at that moment like a military manoeuvre in the grand style.
On Palace Square, cleared by the junkers three hours before, armoured automobiles now appeared and occupied the entrances and exits. The old patriotic names were still visible on the armour under the new designations painted hastily in red. Under the protection of these steel monsters the attackers felt more and more confident on the square. One of the armoured cars approached the main entrance of the palace, disarmed the junkers guarding it, and withdrew unhindered.
In spite of the complete blockade now at last established, the besieged still kept in touch with the outside world by telephone. To be sure, as early as five o’clock a company of the Keksgolmsky regiment had already occupied the War Ministry, through which the Winter Palace had kept in touch with headquarters. But even after that an officer still remained apparently for some hours at the apparatus of the South-western front, located in an attic chamber of the ministry where the captors never thought of looking. However, as before, this contact was of no help. The answers from the Northern front had become more and more evasive. The reinforcements had not turned up. The mysterious bicycle battalion never arrived. Kerensky himself seemed to have disappeared like a diver. The city friends confined themselves to briefer and briefer expressions of sympathy. The ministers were sick at heart. There was nothing to talk about, nothing to hope for. The ministers disagreed with each other and with themselves. Some sat still in a kind of stupor, others automatically paced up and down the floor. Those inclined to generalisation looked back into the past, seeking a culprit. He was not hard to find: the democracy! It was the democracy which had sent them into the government, laid a mighty burden on them, and at the moment of danger left them without support. For this once the Kadets were fully at one with the socialists. Yes, the democracy was to blame! To be sure, in forming the Coalition both groups had turned their back to an institution as near to them as the Democratic Conference. Independence of the democracy had indeed been the chief idea of the Coalition. But never mind: what does a democracy exist for, if not to rescue a bourgeois government when it gets into trouble? The Minister of Agriculture Maslov, a Right Social Revolutionary, made a note which he himself described as a dying utterance. He solemnly promised to die with a curse to the democracy upon his lips. His colleagues hastened to communicate this fateful intention to the Duma by telephone. His death, to be sure, remained only a project, but there was no lack of curses right on hand.
Up above near the chambers of the commandant there was a dining-room where the court servants served the officer gentlemen a “divine dinner and wine.” One could forget unpleasantness for a time. The officers figured out seniorities, made envious comparisons, and cursed the new power for its slow promotions. They gave it to Kerensky especially: yesterday at the Pre-Parliament he was vowing to die at his post, and today he beats it out of town dressed up as a sister of mercy. Certain of the officers demonstrated, to the members of the government the folly of any further resistance. The energetic Palchinsky declared such officers Bolsheviks, and tried even to arrest them.
The junkers wanted to know what was going to happen next, and demanded from the government explanations which it was not in a position to give. During this new conference between the junkers and the ministers, Kishkin arrived from staff headquarters, bringing an ultimatum signed by Antonov and delivered from the Peter and Paul fortress to the Quartermaster-General, Poradelov, by a bicycle man: Surrender and disarm the garrison of the Winter Palace; otherwise fire will be opened from the guns of the fortress and the ships of war; twenty minutes for reflection. This period had seemed small. Poradelov had managed to extract another ten minutes. The military members of the government, Manikovsky and Verderevsky, approached the matter simply: Since it is impossible to fight, they said, we must think of surrendering – that is, accept the ultimatum. But the civilian ministers remained obstinate. In the end they decided to make no answer to the ultimatum, and to appeal to the city duma as the only legal body existing in the capital. This appeal to the duma was the last attempt to wake up the drowsy conscience of the democracy.
Poradelov, considering it necessary to end the resistance, asked for his discharge: he lacked “confidence in the correctness of the course chosen by the Provisional Government.” The hesitations of the officer were put an end to before his resignation could be accepted. In about half an hour a detachment of Red Guards, sailors and soldiers, commanded by an ensign of the Pavlovsky regiment, occupied the staff headquarters without resistance, and arrested the faint-hearted Quartermaster-General. This seizure of the headquarters might have been carried out some time before since the building was completely undefended from within. But until the arrival of armoured cars on the Square the besiegers feared a sortie of junkers from the palace which might cut them off.
After the loss of headquarters the Winter Palace felt still more orphaned. From the Malachite Room, whose windows opened on the Neva, and seemed, as it were, to invite a few shells from the Aurora, the ministers removed themselves to one of the innumerable apartments of the palace with windows on the court. The lights were put out. Only a lonely lamp burned on the table, its light shut off from the windows by newspapers.
What will happen to the palace if the Aurora opens fire? asked the ministers of their naval colleague. It will be a pile of ruins, exclaimed the admiral readily, and not without a feeling of pride in his naval artillery. Verderevsky preferred a surrender, and was not unwilling to frighten these civilians out of their untimely bravery. But the Aurora did not shoot. The fortress also remained silent. Maybe the Bolsheviks after all will not dare carry out their threat?
General Bagratuni, appointed in place of the insufficiently steadfast Polkovnikov, considered this the appropriate moment to announce that he refused any longer to occupy the post of commander of the district. At Kishkin’s order the general was demoted “as unworthy,” and was requested immediately to leave the palace. On emerging from the gates the former commander fell into the hands of the sailors, who took him to the barracks of the Baltic crew. It might have gone badly with the general, but that Podvoisky, making the rounds of his front before the final attack, took the unhappy warrior under his wing.
From the adjacent streets and quays many noticed how the palace which had just been glimmering with hundreds of electric lights was suddenly drowned in darkness. Among these observers were friends of the government. One of the colleagues of Kerensky, Redemeister, has written: “The darkness in which the palace was drowned presented an alarming enigma.” The friends did not take any measures toward solving this enigma. We must confess, however, that the possibilities were not great.
Hiding behind their piles of firewood the junkers followed tensely the cordon forming on Palace Square, meeting every movement of the enemy with rifle and machine-gun fire. They were answered in kind. Towards night the firing became hotter. The first casualties occurred. The victims, however, were only a few individuals. On the square, on the quays, on Milliony, the besiegers accommodated themselves to the situation, hid behind projections, concealed themselves in hollows, clung along the walls. Among the reserves the soldiers and Red Guards warmed themselves around camp fires which they had kindled at nightfall, abusing the leaders for going so slow.
In the palace the junkers were taking up positions in the corridors, on the stairway, at the entrances, and in the court. The outside sentries clung along the fence and walls. The building would hold thousands, but it held hundreds. The vast quarters behind the sphere of defence seemed dead. Most of the servants had scattered, or were hiding. Many of the officers took refuge in the buffet, where they compelled those servants who had not yet made their getaway to set out continual batteries of wines. This drunken debauch of the officers in the agonising palace could not remain a secret to the junkers, Cossacks, cripples and women soldiers. The denouément was preparing not only from without but from within.
An officer of the artillery squad suddenly reported to the commandent of the defence: The junkers have left their weapons in the entrance and are going home, in obedience to orders received from the commandant of the Constantinovsky school. That was a treacherous blow! The commandant tried to object: nobody but he could give orders here. The junkers understood this, but nevertheless preferred to obey the commandant of the school, who in his turn was acting under pressure from the commissar of the Military Revolutionary Committee. A majority of the artillery men, with four of the six guns, abandoned the palace. Held upon the Nevsky by a soldier patrol, they attempted to resist, but a patrol of the Pavlovsky regiment, arriving just in time with an armoured car, disarmed them and sent them to its barracks with two of the guns. The other two were set up on the Nevsky and the bridge over the Moika and aimed at the Winter Palace.
The two squadrons of the Uraltsi were waiting in vain for the arrival of their comrades. Savinkov, who was closely associated with the Council of the Cossack Troops, and had even been sent by it as a delegate to the Pre-Parliament, attempted with the co-operation of General Alexeiev to get the Cossacks in motion. But the chiefs of the Cossack Council, as Miliukov justly observes “could as little control the Cossack regiment as the staff could the troops of the garrison.” Having considered the question from all sides, the Cossack regiment finally announced that they would not come out without infantry, and offered their services to the Military Revolutionary Committee for the purpose of guarding the government property. At the same time the Uraltsy regiment decided to send delegates to the Winter Palace to call its two squadrons back to the barracks. This suggestion fell in admirably with the new quite well-defined mood of the Uralsky’s “old men.” There was nobody but strangers around: junkers – among them a number of Jews – invalid officers – yes, and then these female shock troops. With angry and frowning faces the Cossacks gathered up their saddle-bags. No further arguments could move them. Who remained to defend Kerensky? “Yids and wenches ... But the Russian people has stayed over there with Lenin.” It turned out that the Cossacks were in touch with the besiegers, and they got free passes through an exit till then unknown to the defenders, It was about nine o’clock in the evening when the Uraltsi left the palace. Only their machine-guns they agreed to leave for the defence of a hopeless cause.
By this same entrance too, coming from the direction of Milliony Street, Bolsheviks had before this got into the palace for the purpose of demoralising the enemy. Oftener and oftener mysterious figures began to appear in the corridors beside the junkers. It is useless to resist. The insurrectionists have captured the city and the railroad stations; there are no reinforcements; in the palace they “only keep on lying through inertia ...” What are we to do next? asked the junkers. The government refused to issue any direct commands. The ministers themselves would stand by their old decision; the rest could do as they pleased. That meant free egress from the palace for those who wanted it. The government had neither will nor idea left; the ministers passively awaited their fate. Miliantovich subsequently related: “We wandered through the gigantic mousetrap, meeting occasionally, either all together or in small groups, for brief conversations – condemned people, lonely, abandoned by all ... Around us vacancy, within us vacancy, and in this grew up the soulless courage of placid indifference.”
Antonov-Ovseënko had agreed with Blagonravov that after the encirclement of the palace was completed, a red lantern should be raised on the flagpole of the fortress. At this signal the Aurora would fire a blank volley in order to frighten the palace. In case the besieged were stubborn the fortress should begin to bombard the palace with real shells from the light guns. If the palace did not surrender even then, the Aurora would open a real fire from its six-inch guns. The object of this gradation was to reduce to a minimum the victims and the damage, supposing they could not be altogether avoided. But the too complicated solution of a simple problem threatened to lead to an opposite result. The difficulty of carrying this plan out is too obvious. They are to begin with a red lantern: It turns Out that they have none on hand. They lose time hunting for it, and finally find it. However, it is not so simple to tie a lantern to a flagpole in such a way that it will be visible in all directions. Efforts are renewed and twice renewed with a dubious result, and meanwhile the precious time is slipping away.
The chief difficulty developed, however, in connection with the artillery. According to a report made by Blagonravov the bombardment of the capital had been possible on a moment’s notice ever since noon. In reality it was quite otherwise. Since there was no permanent artillery in the fortress, except for that rusty-muzzled cannon which announces the noon hour, it was necessary to lift field guns up to the fortress walls. That part of the programme had actually been carried out by noon. But a difficulty arose about finding gunners. It had been known in advance that the artillery company – one of those which had not come out on the side of the Bolsheviks in July – was hardly to be relied on. Only the day before it had meekly guarded a bridge under orders from headquarters. A blow in the back was not to be expected from it, but the company had no intention of going through fire for the soviets. When the time came for action the ensign reported: The guns are rusty; there is no oil in the compressors; it is impossible to shoot. Very likely the guns really were not in shape, but that was not the essence of it. The artillerists were simply dodging the responsibility, and leading the inexperienced commissars by the nose. Antonov dashes up on a cutter in a state of fury. Who is sabotaging the plan? Blagonravov tells him about the lantern, about the oil, about the ensign. They both start to go up to the cannon. Night, darkness, puddles in the court from the recent rains. From the other side of the river comes hot rifle fire and the rattle of machine-guns: In the darkness Blagonravov loses the road. Splashing through the puddles, burning with impatience, stumbling and falling in the mud, Antonov blunders after the commissar through the dark court. “Beside one of the weakly glimmering lanterns,” relates Blagonravov Antonov suddenly stopped and peered inquiringly at me over his spectacles, almost touching my face. I read in his eyes a hidden alarm.” Antonov had for a second suspected treachery where there was only carelessness.
The position of the guns was finally found. The artillery men were stubborn: Rust ... Compressors ... Oil. Antonov gave orders to bring gunners from the naval polygon and also to fire a signal from the antique cannon which announced the noon hour. But the artillery men were suspiciously long monkeying with the signal cannon. They obviously felt that the commanders too, when not far-off at the telephone but right beside them, had no firm will to resort to heavy artillery. Even under the very clumsiness of this plan for artillery fire the same thought is to be felt lurking: Maybe we can get along without it.
Somebody is rushing through the darkness of the court. As he comes near he stumbles and falls in the mud, swears a little but not angrily, and then joyfully and in a choking voice cries out: “The palace has surrendered and our men are there.” Rapturous embraces. How lucky there was a delay! “Just what we thought “The compressors are immediately forgotten. But why haven’t they stopped shooting on the other side of the river? Maybe some individual groups of junkers are stubborn about surrendering. Maybe there is a misunderstanding? The misunderstanding turned out to be good news: not the Winter Palace was captured, but only the general staff. The siege of the palace continued.
By secret agreement with a group of junkers of the Oranienbaum school the irrepressible Chudnovsky gets into the palace for negotiations: this opponent of the insurrection never misses a chance to dash into the firing line. Palchinsky arrests the daredevil, but under pressure from the Oranienbaum students is compelled to release both Chudnovsky and a number of the junkers. They take away with them a few of the Cavaliers of St. George. The unexpected appearance of these junkers on the square throws the cordons into confusion. But there is no end of joyful shouting, when the besiegers know that these are surrendering troops. However only a small minority surrenders. The remainder continue to fire from behind their cover. The shooting of the attackers has increased. The bright electric light in the court makes a good mark of the junkers. With difficulty they succeed in putting out the light. Some unseen hand again switches on the light. The junkers shoot at the light, and then find the electrician and make him switch off the current.
The Women’s Battalion suddenly announce their intention to make a sortie. According to their information the clerks in General Headquarters have gone over to Lenin, and after disarming some of the officers have arrested General Alexeiev – the sole man who can save Russia. He must be rescued at any cost. The commandant is powerless to restrain them from this hysterical undertaking. At the moment of their sortie the lights again suddenly flare up in the high electric lanterns on each side of the gate. Seeking an electrician the officer jumps furiously upon the palace servants: in these former lackeys of the czar he sees agents of revolution. He puts still less trust in the court electrician: “I would have sent you to the next world long ago if I hadn’t needed you.” In spite of revolver threats, the electrician is powerless to help. His switch-board is disconnected. Sailors have occupied the electric station and are controlling the light. The women soldiers do not stand up under fire and the greater part of them surrender. The commandant of the defence sends a corporal to report to the government that the sortie of the women’s battalion has “led to their destruction,” and that the palace is swarming with agitators. The failure of the sortie causes a lull lasting approximately from ten to eleven. The besiegers are busied with the preparation of artillery fire.
The unexpected lull awakens some hopes in the besieged. The ministers again try to encourage their partisans in the city and throughout the country: “The government in full attendance, with the exception of Prokopovich, is at its post. The situation is considered favourable ... The Palace is under fire, but only rifle fire and without results. It is clear that the enemy is weak.” In reality the enemy is all-powerful but cannot make up his mind to use his power. The government sends out through the country communications about the ultimatum, about the Aurora, about how it, the government, can only transfer the power to the Constituent Assembly, and how the first assault on the Winter Palace has been repulsed. “Let the army and the people answer ” But just how they are to answer the ministers do not suggest.
Lashevich meantime has sent two sailor gunners to the fortress. To be sure, they are none too experienced, but they are at least Bolsheviks, and quite ready to shoot from rusty guns without oil in the compressors. That is all that is demanded of them. A noise of artillery is more important at the moment than a well-aimed blow. Antonov gives the order to begin. The gradations indicated in advance are completely followed out. “After a signal shot from the fortress,” relates Flerovsky, “the Aurora thundered out. The boom and flash of blank fire are much bigger than from a loaded gun. The curious onlookers jumped back from the granite parapet of the quay, fell down and crawled away ...” Chudnovsky promptly raises the question: How about proposing to the besieged to surrender. Antonov as promptly agrees with him. Again an interruption. Some group of women and junkers are surrendering. Chudnovsky wants to leave them their arms, but Antonov revolts in time against this too beautiful magnanimity. Laying the rifles on the sidewalk the prisoners go out under convoy along Milliony Street.
The palace still holds out. It is time to have an end. The order is given. Firing begins – not frequent and still less effectual. Out of thirty-five shots fired in the course of an hour and a half or two hours, only two hit the mark, and they only injure the plaster. The other shells go high, fortunately not doing any damage in the city. Is lack of skill the real cause? They were shooting across the Neva with a direct aim at a target as impressive as the Winter Palace: that does not demand a great deal of artistry. Would it not be truer to assume that even Lashevich’s artillerymen intentionally aimed high in the hope that things would be settled without destruction and death? It is very difficult now to hunt out any trace of the motive which guided the two nameless sailors. They themselves have spoken no word. Have they dissolved in the immeasurable Russian land, or, like so many of the October fighters, did they lay down their heads in the civil wars of the coming months and years?
Shortly after the first shots, Palchinsky brought the ministers a fragment of shell. Admiral Verderevsky recognised the shell as his own – from a naval gun, from the Aurora. But they were shooting blank from the cruiser. It had been thus agreed, was thus testified by Flerovsky, and thus reported to the Congress of Soviets later by a sailor. Was the admiral mistaken? Was the sailor mistaken? Who can ascertain the truth about a cannon shot fired in the thick of night from a mutinous ship at a czar’s palace where the last government of the possessing classes is going out like an oilless lamp.
The garrison of the palace was greatly reduced in number. If at the moment of the arrival of the Uraltsi, the cripples and the women’s battalion, it rose to a thousand and a half, or perhaps even two thousand, it was now reduced to a thousand, and perhaps’ considerably less. Nothing can save the day now but a miracle, And suddenly into the despairing atmosphere of the Winter Palace there bursts – not, to be sure, a miracle, but the news of its approach. Palchinsky announces: They have just telephoned from the City Duma that the citizens are getting ready to march from there for the rescue of the government. “Tell everybody,” he gives orders to Sinegub, “that the people are coming.” The officer runs up and down stairs and through the corridors with the joyful news. On the way he stumbles upon some drunken officers fighting each other with rapiers – shedding no blood, however. The junkers lift up their heads. Passing from mouth to mouth the news becomes more colourful and impressive. The public men, the merchantry, the people, with the clergy at their head, are marching this way to free the beleaguered palace. The people with the clergy! “That will be strikingly beautiful!” A last remnant of energy flares up: “Hurrah! Long live Russia!” The Oranienbaum junkers, who by that time had quite decided to leave, changed their minds and stayed.
But the people with the clergy come very slowly. The number of agitators in the palace is growing. In a minute the Aurora will open fire. There is a whispering in the corridors. And this whisper passes from lip to lip. Suddenly two explosions. Sailors have got into the palace and either thrown or dropped from the gallery two hand grenades, lightly wounding two junkers. The sailors are arrested and the wounded bound up by Kishkin, a physician by profession.
The inner resolution of the workers and sailors is great, but it has not yet become bitter. Lest they call it down on their heads, the besieged, being the incomparably weaker side, dare not deal severely with these agents of the enemy who have penetrated the palace. There are no executions. Uninvited guests now begin to appear no longer one by one, but in groups. The palace is getting more and more like a sieve. When the junkers fall upon these intruders, the latter permit themselves to be disarmed. “What cowardly scoundrels!” says Palchinsky scornfully. No, these men were not cowardly. It required a high courage to make one’s way into that palace crowded with officers and junkers. In the labyrinth of an unknown building, in dark corridors, among innumerable doors leading nobody knew where, and threatening nobody knew what, the daredevils had nothing to do but surrender. The number of captives grows. New groups break in. It is no longer quite clear who is surrendering to whom, who is disarming whom. The artillery continues to boom.
With the exception of the district immediately adjoining the Winter Palace, the life of the streets did not cease until late at night. The theatres and moving-picture houses were open. To the respectable and educated strata of the capital it was of no consequence apparently that their government was under fire. Redemeister on the Troitsky Bridge saw quietly approaching pedestrians whom the sailors stopped. “There was nothing unusual to be seen.” From acquaintances coming from the direction of the People’s House Redemeister learned, to the tune of a cannonade, that Chaliapin had been incomparable in Don Carlos. The ministers continued to tramp the floors of their mousetrap.
“It is clear that the attackers are weak”; maybe if we hold out an extra hour reinforcements will still arrive. Late at night Kishkin summoned Assistant-Minister of Finance Khrushchev, also a Kadet, to the telephone, and asked him to tell the leaders of the party that the government needed at least a little bit of help in order to hold out until the morning hours, when Kerensky ought finally to arrive with the troops. “What kind of a party is this,” shouts Kishkin indignantly, “that can’t send us three hundred armed men!” And he is right. What kind of a party is it? These Kadets who had assembled tens of thousands of votes at the elections in Petrograd, could not put out three hundred fighters at the moment of mortal danger to the bourgeois régime. If the ministers had only thought to hunt up in the palace library the books of the materialist Hobbes, they could have read in his dialogues about civil war that there is no use expecting or demanding courage from store-keepers who have gotten rich, “since they see nothing but their own momentary advantage ... and completely lose their heads at the mere thought of the possibility of being robbed.” But after all Hobbes was hardly to be found in the czar’s library. The ministers, too, were hardly up to the philosophy of history. Kishkin’s telephone call was the last ring from the Winter Palace.
Smolny was categorically demanding an end. We must not drag out the siege till morning, keep the city in a tension, rasp the nerves of the Congress, put a question-mark against the whole victory. Lenin sends angry notes. Call follows call from the Military revolutionary Committee. Podvoisky talks back. It is possible to throw the masses against the palace. Plenty are eager to go. But how many victims will there be, and what will be left of the ministers and the junkers? However, the necessity of carrying the thing though is too imperious. Nothing remains but to make the naval artillery speak. A sailor from Peter and Paul takes a slip of paper to the Aurora. Open fire on the palace immediately. Now, it seems, all will be clear. The gunners on the Aurora are ready for business, but the leaders still lack resolution. There is a new attempt at evasion. “We decided to wait just another quarter of an hour,” writes Flerovsky, “sensing by instinct the possibility of a change of circumstances.” By “instinct” here it is necessary to understand a stubborn hope that the thing would be settled by mere demonstrative methods. And this time instinct” did not deceive. Towards the end of that quarter of an hour a new courier arrived straight from the Winter Palace. The palace is taken!
The palace did not surrender but was taken by storm – this, however, at a moment when the power of resistance of the besieged had already completely evaporated. Hundreds of enemies broke into the corridor – not by the secret entrance this time but through the defended door – and they were taken by the demoralised defenders for the Duma deputation. Even so they were successfully disarmed. A considerable group of junkers got away in the confusion. The rest – at least a number of them – still continued to stand guard. But the barrier of bayonets and rifle-fire between the attackers and defenders is finally broken down.
That part of the palace adjoining the Hermitage already filled with the enemy. The junkers make an attempt to come at them from the rear. In the corridors phantasmagoric meetings and clashes take place. All are armed to the teeth. Lifted hands hold revolvers. Hand-grenades hang from belts. But nobody shoots and nobody throws a grenade. For they and their enemy are so mixed together that they cannot drag themselves apart. Never mind: the fate of the palace is already decided.
Workers, sailors, soldiers are pushing up from outside in chains and groups, flinging the junkers from the barricades, bursting through the court, stumbling into the junkers on the staircase, crowding them back, toppling them over, driving them upstairs. Another wave comes on behind. The square pours into the court. The court pours into the palace, and floods up and down stairways and through corridors. On the befouled parquets, among mattresses and chunks of bread, people, rifles, hand-grenades are wallowing. The conquerors find out that Kerensky is not there, and a momentary pang of disappointment interrupts their furious joy. Antonov and Chudnovsky are now in the palace. Where is the government? That is the door – there where the junkers stand frozen in the last pose of resistance, The head sentry rushes to the ministers with a question: Are we commanded to resist to the end? No, no, the ministers do not command that. After all, the palace is taken. There is no need of bloodshed. We must yield to force. The ministers desire to surrender with dignity, and sit at the table in imitation of a session of the government. The commandant has already surrendered the palace, negotiating for the lives of the junkers, against which in any case nobody had made the slightest attempt. As to the fate of the government, Antonov refuses to enter into any negotiations whatever.
The junkers at the last guarded doors were disarmed. The victors burst into the room of the ministers. “In front of the crowd and trying to hold back the onpressing ranks strode a rather small, unimpressive man. His clothes were in disorder, a wide-brimmed hat askew on his head, eyeglasses balanced uncertainly on his nose, but his little eyes gleamed with the joy of victory and spite against the conquered.” In these annihilating strokes the conquered have described Antonov. It is not hard to believe that his clothes and his hat were in disorder: It is sufficient to remember the nocturnal journey through the puddles of the Peter and Paul fortress. The joy of victory might also doubtless have been read in his eyes; but hardly any spite against the conquered in those eyes – I announce to you, members of the Provisional Government, that you are under arrest – exclaimed Antonov in the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee. The clock then pointed to 2.10 in the morning of October 26. – The members of the Provisional Government submit to force and surrender in order to avoid bloodshed – answered Konovalov. The most important part of the ritual was thus observed.
Antonov summoned twenty-five armed men, choosing them from the first detachments to break into the palace, and turned over to them the defence of the ministry. After drawing up a minute of the proceeding, the arrestees were led out into the square. In the crowd, which had made its sacrifice of dead and wounded, there was in truth a flare up of spite against the conquered. “Death to them! Shoot them!” Individual soldiers tried to strike the ministers. The Red Guards quieted the intemperate ones: Do not stain the proletarian victory! Armed workers surrounded the prisoners and their convoy in a solid ring. “Forward!” They had not far to go – through Milliony and across the Troitsky Bridge. But the excitement of the crowd made that short journey long and full of danger. Minister Nikitin wrote later very truly that but for the energetic intercession of Antonov the consequences might have been “very serious.” To conclude their misadventure, the procession while on the bridge was fired on by accident and the arrestees and their convoy had to lie down on the pavement. But here too, nobody was injured. Somebody was evidently shooting in the air as a warning.
In the narrow quarters of the garrison club of the fortress, lighted with a smoky kerosene lamp because the electricity had refused to function that day, forty or fifty men are crowded. Antonov, in the presence of the commissar of the fortress, calls the roll of the ministers. There are eighteen of them, including the highest assistants. The last formalities are concluded; the prisoners are distributed in the rooms of the historic Trubetskoy Bastion. None of the defenders had been arrested: the officers and junkers were paroled on their word of honour that they would not take any action against the soviet power. Only a few of them kept their word.
Immediately after the capture of the Winter Palace rumours went round in bourgeois circles about the execution of junkers, the raping of the women’s battalion, the looting of the riches of the palace. All these fables had long ago been refuted when Miliukov wrote this in his History: “Those of the Women’s Battalion who had not died under fire were seized the Bolsheviks, subjected during that evening and night to the frightful attentions of the soldiers, to violence and execution.” As a matter of fact there were no shootings and, the mood of both sides being what it was at that period, there could not have been any shootings. Still less thinkable were acts of violence, especially within the palace where alongside of various accidental elements from the streets, hundreds of revolutionary workers came in with rifles in their hands.
Attempts at looting were actually made, but it was just these attempts which revealed the discipline of the victors. John Reed, who did not miss one of the dramatic episodes of the revolution, and who entered the palace on the heels of the first cordons, tells how in the basement stores a group of soldiers were prying drawers open with the butts of their guns and dragging out carpets, linen, china, glassware. It is possible that regular robbers were working in the disguise of soldiers, as they did invariably during the last years of the war, concealing their identity in trenchcoats and papakhi. The looting had just begun when somebody shouted: “Comrades, keep your hands off, that is the property of the people.” A soldier sat down at a table by the entrance with pen and paper: two Red Guards with revolvers stood behind him. Everyone going out was searched, and every object stolen was taken back and listed. In this way they recovered little statues, bottles of ink, daggers, cakes of soap, ostrich feathers. The junkers were also subjected to a careful search, and their pockets turned out to be full of stolen bric-a-brac. The junkers were abused and threatened by the soldiers, but that was as far as it went. Meanwhile a palace guard was formed with the sailor Prikhodko at the head. Sentries were posted everywhere. The palace was cleared of outsiders. In a few hours Chudnovsky was appointed commandant of the Winter Palace.
But what had become of the people, advancing with the clergy at their head to liberate the palace? It is necessary to tell about this heroic attempt, the news of which had for a moment so touched the hearts of the junkers. The city duma was the centre of the anti-Bolshevik forces; its building on the Nevsky was boiling like a cauldron. Parties, factions, sub-factions, groups, remnants and mere influential individuals were there discussing this criminal adventure pf the Bolsheviks. From time to time they would call up the ministry languishing in the palace, and tell them that under the weight of universal condemnation the insurrection must inevitably expire. Hours were devoted to dissertations on the moral isolation of the Bolsheviks. Meanwhile the artillery began to speak. The minister Prokopovich, arrested in the morning but soon released, complained to the duma with a weeping voice that he had been deprived of the possibility of sharing the fate of his comrades. He aroused warm sympathy, but the expression of this sympathy used up time.
From the general confusion of ideas and speeches a practical plan is at last produced, and wins stormy applause from the whole meeting. The duma must march in a body to the Winter Palace in order to die there, if necessary, with the government.
The Social Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and Co-operators are all alike seized with a willingness either to save the ministers or fall by their sides. The Kadets, not generally inclined to risky undertakings, this time decide to lay down their heads with the rest. Some provincials accidentally turning up in the hall, the duma journalists, and one man from the general public, request permission in more or less eloquent language to share the fate of the duma. The permission is granted.
The Bolshevik faction tries to offer a prosaic piece of advice: Why wander through the streets in the dark seeking death? Better call up the ministers and persuade them to surrender before blood is shed. But the democrats are indignant: These agents of insurrection want to tear from our hands not only the power, but our right to a heroic death. Meanwhile the members decided, in the interest of history, to take a vote by roll call. After all, one cannot die too late – even though the death be glorious. Sixty-two members of the duma ratify the decision yes, they are actually going to die under the ruins of the Winter Palace. To this the fourteen Bolsheviks answer that it is better to conquer with Smolny than to die in the Winter Palace, and immediately set off for the meeting of the Soviet Congress. Only three Menshevik-Internationalists decide to remain within the walls of the duma: They have nowhere to go and nothing to die for.
The members of the duma are just on the point of setting out on their last journey when the telephone rings and news comes that the whole of the Executive Committee of the Peasants’ Deputies is coming to join them. Unending applause. Now the picture is complete and clear: The representatives of one hundred million peasants, together with the representatives of all classes of the city population are going to die at the hands of an insignificant gang of thugs. There is no lack of speeches and applause.
After the arrival of the Peasants’ Deputies the column finally set out along the Nevsky. At the head of the column march the burgomaster, Schreider, and the minister Prokopovich. Among the marchers John Reed noticed the Social Revolutionary, Avksentiev, president of the Peasant Executive Committee, and the Menshevik leaders, Khinchuk and Abramovich, the first of whom was considered Right, the second Left. Prokopovich and Schreider each carried a lantern: it had been so agreed by telephone with the ministers, in order that the junkers should not take friends for enemies. Prokopovich carried besides this an umbrella, as did many others. The clergy were not present. The clergy had been created out of misty fragments of the history of the fatherland by the none too opulent imagination of the junkers. But the people also were absent. Their absence determined the character of the whole scheme. Three or four hundred “representatives” and not one man of those whom they represented! “It was a dark night,” remembers the Social Revolutionary, Zenzinov, “and the lights on the Nevsky were not burning. We marched in a regular procession and only our singing of the Marseillaise was to be heard. Cannon shots resounded in the distance: that was the Bolsheviks continuing to bombard the Winter Palace.”
At the Ekaterininsky Canal a patrol of armed sailors was stretched out across the Nevsky, blocking the way for this column of the democracy. “We are going forward,” declared the condemned, “What can you do to us?” The sailors answered frankly that they would use force: “Go home and leave us alone.” Someone of the marchers suggested that they die right there on the spot. But in the decision adopted by a roll call vote in the duma this variant had not been foreseen. The minister Prokopovich clambered up on some sort of elevation and “waving his umbrella” – rains are frequent in the autumn in Petrograd – urged the demonstrators not to lead into temptation those dark and deceived people who might actually resort to arms. “Let us return to the duma and talk over methods of saving the country and the revolution.”
This was truly a wise proposal. To be sure, the original plan would then remain unfulfilled. But what can you do with armed ruffians who will not permit the leaders of the democracy to die a heroic death? “They stood around for a while, got chilly and decided to go back,” writes Stankevich mournfully. He too was a marcher in this procession. Without the Marseillaise now – on the contrary in a glum silence – the procession moved back along the Nevsky to the duma building. There at last it would surely find “methods of saving the country and the revolution.”
With the capture of the Winter Palace the Military Revolutionary Committee came into full possession of the capital. But just as the nails and hair continue to grow on a corpse, so the overthrown government continued to show signs of life through its official press. The Herald of the Provisional Government, which on the 24th had announced the retirement of the Privy Councillors with their uniform and pince-nez, had suddenly disappeared on the 25th – an event which, to be sure, nobody noticed. But on the 26th it appeared again as if nothing had happened. On the first page it carried a rubric: “In consequence of the shutting off of the electric current the issue of October 25 did not appear.” In all other respects except only the electric current, the governmental life was going on in due order, and the Herald of a government now located in the Trubetskoy Bastion announced the appointment of a dozen new senators. In its column of “administrative information” a circular of the Minister of the Interior, Nikitin, advised the commissars of the provinces “not to be influenced by false rumours of events in Petrograd where all is tranquil.” The minister was not after all so far wrong. The days of the revolution went by peacefully enough, but for the cannonading, whose effect was only acoustic. But just the same the historian will make no mistake if he says that on October 25th not only was the electric current shut off in the government printing plant, but an important page was turned in the history of mankind.
Last updated on: 25 December 2014