Red Letter
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Ten Days that Shook the World: Chapter 4 (The Fall of the Provisional Government; part 1 of 3)
by John Reed
1919
Estimated Reading Time: 12 min


WEDNESDAY, November 7th, I rose very late. The noon cannon boomed from Peter-Paul as I went down the Nevsky. It was a raw, chill day. In front of the State Bank some soldiers with fixed bayonets were standing at the closed gates.

“What side do you belong to?” I asked. “The Government?”

“No more Government,” one answered with a grin, “Slava Bogu! Glory to God!” That was all I could get out of him….

The street-cars were running on the Nevsky, men, women and small boys hanging on every projection. Shops were open, and there seemed even less uneasiness among the street crowds than there had been the day before. A whole crop of new appeals against insurrection had blossomed out on the walls during the night – to the peasants, to the soldiers at the front, to the workmen of Petrograd. One read:

FROM THE PETROGRAD MUNICIPAL DUMA:

The Municipal Duma informs the citizens that in the extraordinary meeting of November 6th the Duma formed a Committee of Public Safety, composed of members of the Central and Ward Dumas, and representatives of the following revolutionary democratic organizations: The Tsay-ee-kah, the All-Russian Executive Committee of Peasant Deputies, the Army organisations, the Tsentroflot, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (!), the Council of Trade Unions, and others.

Members of the Committee of Public Safety will be on duty in the building of the Municipal Duma. Telephones No. 15-40, 223-77, 138-36.

November 7th, 1917.

Though I didn’t realize it then, this was the Duma’s declaration of war against the Bolsheviki.

I bought a copy of Rabotchi Put, the only newspaper which seemed on sale, and a little later paid a soldier fifty kopeks for a second-hand copy of Dien. The Bolshevik paper, printed on large-sized sheets in the conquered office of the Russkaya Volia, had huge headlines: “ALL POWER – TO THE SOVIETS OF WORKERS, SOLDIERS AND PEASANTS! PEACE! BREAD! LAND!” The leading article was signed “Zinoviev,” – Lenin’s companion in hiding. It began:

Every soldier, every worker, every real Socialist, every honest democrat realises that there are only two alternatives to the present situation.

Either – the power will remain in the hands of the bourgeois-landlord crew, and this will mean every kind of repression for the workers, soldiers and peasants, continuation of the war, inevitable hunger and death….

Or – the power will be transferred to the hands of the revolutionary workers, soldiers and peasants; and in that case it will mean a complete abolition of landlord tyranny, immediate check of the capitalists, immediate proposal of a just peace. Then the land is assured to the peasants, then control of industry is assured to the workers, then bread is assured to the hungry, then the end of this nonsensical war!…

All footnotes at the bottom of the reading

Dien contained fragmentary news of the agitated night. Bolsheviki capture of the Telephone Exchange, the Baltic station, the Telegraph Agency; the Peterhof yunkers unable to reach Petrograd; the Cossacks undecided; arrest of some of the Ministers; shooting of Chief of the City Militia Meyer; arrests, counter-arrests, skirmishes between clashing patrols of soldiers, yunkers and Red Guards. 1

On the corner of the Morskaya I ran into Captain Gomberg, Menshevik oboronetz, secretary of the Military Section of his party. When I asked him if the insurrection had really happened he shrugged his shoulders in a tired manner and replied, “Tchort znayet! The devil knows! Well, perhaps the Bolsheviki can seize the power, but they won’t be able to hold it more than three days. They haven’t the men to run a government. Perhaps it’s a good thing to let them try – that will furnish them….”

The Military Hotel at the corner of St. Isaac’s Square was picketed by armed sailors. In the lobby were many of the smart young officers, walking up and down or muttering together; the sailors wouldn’t let them leave….

Suddenly came the sharp crack of a rifle outside, followed by a scattered burst of firing. I ran out. Something unusual was going on around the Marinsky Palace, where the Council of the Russian Republic met. Diagonally across the wide square was drawn a line of soldiers, rifles ready, staring at the hotel roof.

Provacatzia! Shot at us!” snapped one, while another went running toward the door.

At the western corner of the Palace lay a big armoured car with a red flag flying from it, newly lettered in red paint: “S.R.S.D.” (Soviet Rabotchikh Soldatskikh Deputatov); all the guns trained toward St. Isaac’s. A barricade had been heaped up across the mouth of Novaya Ulitza – boxes, barrels, an old bed-spring, a wagon. A pile of lumber barred the end of the Moika quay. Short logs from a neighbouring wood-pile were being built up along the front of the building to form breastworks….

“Is there going to be any fighting?” I asked.

“Soon, soon,” answered a soldier, nervously. “Go away, comrade, you’ll get hurt. They will come from that direction,” pointing toward the Admiralty.

“Who will?”

“That I couldn’t tell you, brother,” he answered, and spat.

Before the door of the Palace was a crowd of soldiers and sailors. A sailor was telling of the end of the Council of the Russian Republic. “We walked in there,” he said, “and filled all the doors with comrades. I went up to the counter-revolutionist Kornilovitz who sat in the president’s chair. ‘No more Council,’ I says. ‘Run along home now!’”

There was laughter. By waving assorted papers I managed to get around to the door of the press gallery. There an enormous smiling sailor stopped me, and when I showed my pass, just said, “If you were Saint Michael himself, comrade, you couldn’t pass here!” Through the glass of the door I made out the distorted face and gesticulating arms of a French correspondent, locked in….

Around in front stood a little, grey-moustached man in the uniform of a general, the centre of a knot of soldiers. He was very red in the face.

“I am General Alexeyev,” he cried. “As your superior officer and as a member of the Council of the Republic I demand to be allowed to pass!” The guard scratched his head, looking uneasily out of the corner of his eye; he beckoned to an approaching officer, who grew very agitated when he saw who it was and saluted before he realised what he was doing.

Vashe Vuisokoprevoskhoditelstvo – your High Excellency —” he stammered, in the manner of the old ré#233;gime, “Access to the Palace is strictly forbidden – I have no right —”

An automobile came by, and I saw Gotz sitting inside, laughing apparently with great amusement. A few minutes later another, with armed soldiers on the front seat, full of arrested members of the Provisional Government. Peters, Lettish member of the Military Revolutionary Committee, came hurrying across the Square.

“I thought you bagged all those gentlemen last night,” said I, pointing to them.

“Oh,” he answered, with the expression of a disappointed small boy. “The damn fools let most of them go again before we made up our minds….”

Down the Voskressensky Prospect a great mass of sailors were drawn up, and behind them came marching soldiers, as far as the eye could reach.

We went toward the Winter Palace by way of the Admiralteisky. All the entrances to the Palace Square were closed by sentries, and a cordon of troops stretched clear across the western end, besieged by an uneasy throng of citizens. Except for far-away soldiers who seemed to be carrying wood out of the Palace courtyard and piling it in front of the main gateway, everything was quiet.

We couldn’t make out whether the sentries were pro-Government or pro-Soviet. Our papers from Smolny had no effect, however, so we approached another part of the line with an important air and showed our American passports, saying “Official business!” and shouldered through. At the door of the Palace the same old shveitzari, in their brass-buttoned blue uniforms with the red-and-gold collars, politely took our coats and hats, and we went up-stairs. In the dark, gloomy corridor, stripped of its tapestries, a few old attendants were lounging about, and in front of Kerensky’s door a young officer paced up and down, gnawing his moustache. We asked if we could interview the Minister-president. He bowed and clicked his heels.

“No, I am sorry,” he replied in French. “Alexander Feodorvitch is extremely occupied just now….” He looked at us for a moment. “In fact, he is not here….”

“Where is he?”

“He has gone to the Front.2 And do you know, there wasn’t enough gasoline for his automobile. We had to send to the English Hospital and borrow some.”

“Are the Ministers here?”

“They are meeting in some room – I don’t know where.’

“Are the Bolsheviki coming?”

“Of course. Certainly, they are coming. I expect a telephone call every minute to say that they are coming. But we are ready. We have yunkers in the front of the Palace. Through that door there.”

“Can we go in there?”

“No. Certainly not. It is not permitted.” Abruptly he shook hands all around and walked away. We turned to the forbidden door, set in a temporary partition dividing the hall and locked on the outside. On the other side were voices, and somebody laughing. Except for that the vast spaces of the old Palace were silent as the grave. An old shveitzar ran up. “No, barin, you must not go in there.”

“Why is the door locked?”

“To keep the soldiers in,” he answered. After a few minutes he said something about having a glass of tea and went back up the hall. We unlocked the door.

Just inside a couple of soldiers stood on guard, but they said nothing. At the end of the corridor was a large, ornate room with gilded cornices and enormous crystal lustres, and beyond it several smaller ones, wainscoted with dark wood. On both sides of the parquetted floor lay rows of dirty mattresses and blankets, upon which occasional soldiers were stretched out; everywhere was a litter of cigarette-butts, bits of bread, cloth, and empty bottles with expensive French labels. More and more soldiers, with the red shoulder-straps of the yunker-schools, moved about in a stale atmosphere of tobacco-smoke and unwashed humanity. One had a bottle of white Burgundy, evidently filched from the cellars of the Palace. They looked at us with astonishment as we marched past, through room after room, until at last we came out into a series of great state-salons, fronting their long and dirty windows on the Square. The walls were covered with huge canvases in massive gilt frames – historical battle-scenes…. “12 October 1812” and “6 November 1812” and “16/28 August 1813.” – One had a gash across the upper right hand corner.

The place was all a huge barrack, and evidently had been for weeks, from the look of the floor and walls. Machine guns were mounted on window-sills, rifles stacked between the mattresses.

As we were looking at the pictures an alcoholic breath assailed me from the region of my left ear, and a voice said in thick but fluent French, “I see, by the way you admire the paintings, that you are foreigners.” He was a short, puffy man with a baldish head as he removed his cap.

“Americans? Enchanted. I am Stabs-Capitan Vladimir Artzibashev, absolutely at your service.” It did not seem to occur to him that there was anything unusual in four strangers, one a woman, wandering through the defences of an army awaiting attack. He began to complain of the state of Russia.

“Not only these Bolsheviki,” he said, “but the fine traditions of the Russian army are broken down. Look around you. These are all students in the officers’ training schools. But are they gentlemen? Kerensky opened the officers’ schools to the ranks, to any soldier who could pass an examination. Naturally there are many, many who are contaminated by the Revolution….”

Without consequence he changed the subject. “I am very anxious to go away from Russia. I have made up my mind to join the American army. Will you please go to your Consul and make arrangements? I will give you my address.” In spite of our protestations he wrote it on a piece of paper, and seemed to feel better at once. I have it still – “Oranien-baumskaya Shkola Praporshtchikov 2nd, Staraya Peterhof.”

“We had a review this morning early,” he went on, as he guided us through the rooms and explained everything. “The Women’s Battalion decided to remain loyal to the Government.”

“Are the women soldiers in the Palace?”

“Yes, they are in the back rooms, where they won’t be hurt if any trouble comes.” He sighed. “It is a great responsibility,” said he.

For a while we stood at the window, looking down on the Square before the Palace, where three companies of long-coated yunkers were drawn up under arms, being harangued by a tall, energetic-looking officer I recognised as Stankievitch, chief Military Commissar of the Provisional Government. After a few minutes two of the companies shouldered arms with a clash, barked three sharp shouts, and went swinging off across the Square, disappearing through the Red Arch into the quiet city.

“They are going to capture the Telephone Exchange,” said some one. Three cadets stood by us, and we fell into conversation. They said they had entered the schools from the ranks, and gave their names – Robert Olev, Alexei Vasilienko and Erni Sachs, an Esthonian. But now they didn’t want to be officers any more, because officers were very unpopular. They didn’t seem to know what to do, as a matter of fact, and it was plain that they were not happy.

But soon they began to boast. “If the Bolsheviki come we shall show them how to fight. They do not dare to fight, they are cowards. But if we should be overpowered, well, every man keeps one bullet for himself….”

At this point there was a burst of rifle-fire not far off. Out on the Square all the people began to run, falling flat on their faces, and the izvoshtchiki, standing on the corners, galloped in every direction. Inside all was uproar, soldiers running here and there, grabbing up guns, rifle-belts and shouting, “Here they come! Here they come!” – But in a few minutes it quieted down again. The izvoshtchiki came back, the people lying down stood up. Through the Red Arch appeared the yunkers, marching a little out of step, one of them supported by two comrades.

It was getting late when we left the Palace. The sentries in the Square had all disappeared. The great semi-circle of Government buildings seemed deserted. We went into the Hotel France for dinner, and right in the middle of soup the waiter, very pale in the face, came up and insisted that we move to the main dining-room at the back of the house, because they were going to put out the lights in the café#233;. “There will be much shooting,” he said.

When we came out on the Morskaya again it was quite dark, except for one flickering street-light on the corner of the Nevsky. Under this stood a big armored automobile, with racing engine and oil-smoke pouring out of it. A small boy had climbed up the side of the thing and was looking down the barrel of a machine gun. Soldiers and sailors stood around, evidently waiting for something. We walked back up to the Red Arch, where a knot of soldiers was gathered staring at the brightly-lighted Winter Palace and talking in loud tones.

“No, comrades,” one was saying. “How can we shoot at them? The Women’s Battalion is in there – they will say we have fired on Russian women.”

As we reached the Nevsky again another armoured car came around the corner, and a man poked his head out of the turret-top.

“Come on!” he yelled. “Let’s go on through and attack!”

The driver of the other car came over, and shouted so as to be heard above the roaring engine. “The Committee says to wait. They have got artillery behind the wood-piles in there….”

Here the street-cars had stopped running, few people passed, and there were no lights; but a few blocks away we could see the trams, the crowds, the lighted shop-windows and the electric signs of the moving-picture shows – life going on as usual. We had tickets to the Ballet at the Marinsky Theatre – all theatres were open – but it was too exciting out of doors….

In the darkness we stumbled over lumber-piles barricading the Police Bridge, and before the Stroganov Palace made out some soldiers wheeling into position a three-inch field-gun. Men in various uniforms were coming and going in an aimless way, and doing a great deal of talking….

Up the Nevsky the whole city seemed to be out promenading. On every corner immense crowds were massed around a core of hot discussion. Pickets of a dozen soldiers with fixed bayonets lounged at the street-crossings, red-faced old men in rich fur coats shook their fists at them, smartly-dressed women screamed epithets; the soldiers argued feebly, with embarrassed grins…. Armoured cars went up and down the street, named after the first Tsars – Oleg, Rurik, Svietoslav – and daubed with huge red letters, “R. S. D. R. P.” (Rossiskaya Partia)1. At the Mikhailovsky a man appeared with an armful of newspapers, and was immediately stormed by frantic people, offering a rouble, five roubles, ten roubles, tearing at each other like animals. It was Rabotchi i Soldat, announcing the victory of the Proletarian Revolution, the liberation of the Bolsheviki still in prison, calling upon the Army front and rear for support – a feverish little sheet of four pages, running to enormous type, containing no news….

On the corner of the Sadovaya about two thousand citizens had gathered, staring up at the roof of a tall building, where a tiny red spark glowed and waned.

“See!” said a tall peasant, pointing to it. “It is a provocator. Presently he will fire on the people….” Apparently no one thought of going to investigate.

1. Events Of November 7th: From 4 A.M. until dawn Kerensky remained at the Petrograd Staff Headquarters, sending orders to the Cossacks and to the yunkers in the Officers’ Schools in and around Petrograd – all of whom answered that they were unable to move.

Colonel Polkovnikov, Commandant of the City, hurried between the Staff and the Winter Palace, evidently without any plan. Kerensky gave an order to open the bridges; three hours passed without any action, and then an officer and five men went out on their own initiative, and putting to flight a picket of Red Guards, opened the Nicolai Bridge. Immediately after they left, however, some sailors closed it again.

Kerensky ordered the print-shop of Rabotchi Put to be occupied. The officer detailed to the work was promised a squad of soldiers; two hours later he was promised some yunkers; then the order was forgotten.

An attempt was made to recapture the Post Office and the Telegraph Agency; a few shots were fired, and the Government troops announced that they would no longer oppose the Soviets.

To a delegation of yunkers Kerensky said, “As chief of the Provisional Government and as Supreme Commander I know nothing, I cannot advise you; but as a veteran revolutionist, I appeal to you, young revolutionists, to remain at your posts and defend the conquests of the Revolution.”

Orders of Kishkin, November 7th:

“By decree of the Provisional Government…. I am invested with extraordinary powers for the reestablishment of order in Petrograd, in complete command of all civil and military authorities….”

“In accordance with the powers conferred upon me by the Provisional Government, I herewith relieve from his functions as Commandant of the Petrograd Military District Colonel George Polkovnikov….”

Appeal to the Population signed by Vice-Premier Konovalov, November 7th:

“Citizens! Save the fatherland, the republic and your freedom. Maniacs have raised a revolt against the only governmental power chosen by the people, the Provisional Government….

“The members of the Provisional Government fulfil their duty, remain at their post, and continue to work for the good of the fatherland, the reestablishment of order, and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, future sovereign of Russia and of all the Russian peoples….

“Citizens, you must support the Provisional Government. You must strengthen its authority. You must oppose these maniacs, with whom are joined all enemies of liberty and order, and the followers of the Tsarist ré#233;gime, in order to wreck the Constituent Assembly, destroy the conquests of the Revolution, and the future of our dear fatherland….

“Citizens! Organise around the Provisional Government for the defence of its temporary authority, in the name of order and the happiness of all peoples….”

Proclamation of the Provisional Government.

“The Petrograd Soviet…. has declared the Provisional Government overthrown, and has demanded that the Governmental power be turned over to it, under threat of bombarding the Winter Palace with the cannon of Peter-Paul Fortress, and of the cruiser Avrora, anchored in the Neva.

“The Government can surrender its authority only to the Consituent Assembly; for that reason it has decided not to submit, and to demand aid from the population and the Army. A telegram has been sent to the Stavka; and an answer received says that a strong detachment of troops is being sent….

“Let the Army and the People reject the irresponsible attempts of the Bolsheviki to create a revolt in the rear….”

About 9 A.M. Kerensky left for the Front….

Toward evening two soldiers on bicycles presented themselves at the Staff Headquarters, as delegates of the garrison of Peter-Paul Fortress. Entering the meeting-room of the Staff, where Kishkin, Rutenburg, Paltchinski, General Bagratouni, Colonel Paradielov and Count Tolstoy were gathered, they demanded the immediate surrender of the Staff; threatening, in case of refusal, to bombard headquarters… After two panicky conferences the Staff retreated to the Winter Palace, and the headquarters were occupied by Red Guards…

Late in the afternoon several Bolshevik armoured cars cruised around the Palace Square, and Soviet soldiers tried unsuccessfully to parley with the yunkers

Firing on the Palace began about 7 o’clock in the evening….

At 10 P.M. began an artillery bombardment from three sides, in which most of the shells were blanks, only three small shrapnels striking the facade of the Palace…



2. Kerensky In Flight: Leaving Petrograd in the morning of November 7th, Kerensky arrived by automobile at Gatchina, where he demanded a special train. Toward evening he was in Ostrov, Province of Pskov. The next morning, extraordinary session of the local Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, with participation of Cossack delegates – there being 6,000 Cossacks at Ostrov.

Kerensky spoke to the assembly, appealing for aid against the Bolsheviki, and addressed himself almost exclusively to the Cossacks. The soldier delegates protested.

“Why did you come here?” shouted voices. Kerensky answered, “To ask the Cossacks’ assistance in crushing the Bolshevik insurrection!” At this there were violent protestations, which increased when he continued, “I broke the Kornilov attempt, and I will break the Bolsheviki!” The noise became so great that he had to leave the platform…

The soldier deputies and the Ussuri Cossacks decided to arrest Kerensky, but the Don Cossacks prevented them, and got him away by train… A Military Revolutionary Committee, set up during the day, tried to inform the garrison of Pskov; but the telephone and telegraph lines were cut…

Kerensky did not arrive at Pskov. Revolutionary soldiers had cut the railway line, to prevent troops being sent against the capital. On the night of November 8th he arrived by automobile at Luga, where he was well received by the Death Battalions stationed there.

Next day he took train for the South-West Front, and visited the Army Committee at headquarters. The Fifth Army, however, was wild with enthusiasm over the news of the Bolshevik success, and the Army Committee was unable to promise Kerensky any support.

From there he went to the Stavka, at Moghilev, where he ordered ten regiments from different parts of the Front to move against Petrograd. The soldiers almost unanimously refused; and those regiments which did start halted on the way. About five thousand Cossacks finally followed him…

 
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