Ten Days That Shook the World

John Reed

This electrifying eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, written by an American journalist in St Petersburg as the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, is an unsurpassed record of history in the making.

‘It flashed upon me suddenly: they were going to shoot me!’

The Coming Storm

In September General Kornilov marched on Petrograd to make himself military dictator of Russia. Behind him was suddenly revealed the mailed fist of the bourgeoisie, boldly attempting to crush the Revolution. Some of the Socialist Ministers were implicated; even Kerensky was under suspicion. Savinkov, summoned to explain to the Central Committee of his party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, refused and was expelled. Kornilov was arrested by the Soldiers’ Committees. Generals were dismissed, Ministers suspended from their functions, and the Cabinet fell.

Kerensky tried to form a new Government, including the Cadets, party of the bourgeoisie. His party, the Socialist Revolutionaries, ordered him to exclude the Cadets. Kerensky declined to obey, and threatened to resign from the Cabinet if the Socialists insisted. However, popular feeling ran so high that for the moment he did not dare oppose it, and a temporary Directorate of Five of the old Ministers, with Kerensky at the head, assumed the power until the question should be settled.

The Kornilov affair drew together all the Socialist groups – ‘moderates’ as well as revolutionists – in a passionate impulse of self-defence. There must be no more Kornilovs. A new Government must be created, responsible to the elements supporting the Revolution. So the Tsay-ee-kah invited the popular organizations to send delegates to a Democratic Conference, which should meet at Petrograd in September.

In the Tsay-ee-kah three factions immediately appeared. The Bolsheviki demanded that the All-Russian Congress of Soviets be summoned, and that they take over the power. The ‘centre’ Socialist Revolutionaries, led by Chernov, joined with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, led by Kamkov and Spiridonova, the Mensheviki Internationalists under Martov, and the ‘centre’ Mensheviki, represented by Bogdanov and Skobeliev, in demanding a purely Socialist Government. Tseretelly, Dan, and Lieber, at the head of the right-wing Mensheviki, and the Right Socialist Revolutionaries under Avksentiev and Gotz, insisted that the propertied classes must be represented in the new Government.

Almost immediately the Bolsheviki won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and the Soviets of Moscow, Kiev, Odessa, and other cities followed suit.

Alarmed, the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries in control of the Tsay-ee-kah decided that after all they feared the danger of Kornilov less than the danger of Lenin. They revised the plan of representation in the Democratic Conference, admitting more delegates from the Cooperative Societies and other conservative bodies. Even this packed assembly at first voted for a Coalition Government without the Cadets. Only Kerensky’s open threat of resignation, and the alarming cries of the ‘moderate’ Socialists that ‘the Republic is in danger’ persuaded the Conference, by a small majority, to declare in favour of the principle of coalition with the bourgeoisie, and to sanction the establishment of a sort of consultative Parliament, without any legislative power, called the Provisional Council of the Russian Republic. In the new Ministry the propertied class practically controlled, and in the Council of the Russian Republic they occupied, a disproportionate number of seats.

The fact is that the Tsay-ee-kah no longer represented the rank and file of the Soviets, and had illegally refused to call another All-Russian Congress of Soviets, due in September. It had no intention of calling this Congress or of allowing it to be called. Its official organ, Izvestia (News), began to hint that the function of the Soviets was nearly at an end, and that they might soon be dissolved . . . At this time, too, the new Government announced as part of its policy the liquidation of ‘irresponsible organizations’ – i.e., the Soviets.

The Bolsheviki responded by summoning the All-Russian Soviets to meet at Petrograd on 2 November and take over the Government of Russia. At the same time they withdrew from the Council of the Russian Republic, stating that they would not participate in a ‘Government of Treason to the People’.

The withdrawal of the Bolsheviki, however, did not bring tranquillity to the ill-fated Council. The propertied classes, now in a position of power, became arrogant. The Cadets declared that the Government had no legal right to declare Russia a republic. They demanded stern measures in the Army and Navy to destroy the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Committees, and denounced the Soviets. On the other side of the chamber the Mensheviki Internationalists and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries advocated immediate peace, land to the peasants, and workers’ control of industry – practically the Bolshevik programme.

I heard Martov’s speech in answer to the Cadets. Stooped over the desk of the tribune like the mortally sick man he was, and speaking in a voice so hoarse it could hardly be heard, he shook his finger towards the right benches:

‘You call us defeatists, but the real defeatists are those who wait for a more propitious moment to conclude peace, insist upon postponing peace until later, until nothing is left of the Russian army, until Russia becomes the subject of bargaining between the different imperialist groups . . . You are trying to impose upon the Russian people a policy dictated by the interests of the bourgeoisie. The question of peace should be raised without delay . . . You will see then that not in vain has been the work of those whom you call German agents, of those Zimmerwaldistswho in all the lands have prepared the awakening of the conscience of the democratic masses . . .’

Between these two groups the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries wavered, irresistibly forced to the left by the pressure of the rising dissatisfaction of the masses. Deep hostility divided the chamber into irreconcilable groups.

This was the situation when the long-awaited announcement of the Allied Conference in Paris brought up the burning question of foreign policy . . .

Theoretically all Socialist parties in Russia were in favour of the earliest possible peace on democratic terms. As long ago as May 1917 the Petrograd Soviet, then under control of the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries, had proclaimed the famous Russian peace-conditions. They had demanded that the Allies hold a conference to discuss war aims. This conference had been promised for August; then postponed until September; then until October; and now it was fixed for 10 November.

The Provisional Government suggested two representatives – General Alexeyev, reactionary military man, and Tereshchenko, Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Soviets chose Skobeliev to speak for them and drew up a manifesto, the famous nakaz – instructions. The Provisional Government objected to Skobeliev and his nakaz; the Allied ambassadors protested and finally Bonar Law in the British House of Commons, in answer to a question, responded coldly, ‘As far as I know the Paris Conference will not discuss the aims of the war at all, but only the methods of conducting it . . .’

At this the conservative Russian press was jubilant, and the Bolsheviki cried, ‘See where the compromising tactics of the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries have led them!’

Along a thousand miles of front the millions of men in Russia’s armies stirred like the sea rising, pouring into the capital their hundreds upon hundreds of delegations, crying, ‘Peace! Peace!’

I went across the river to the Cirque Moderne, to one of the great popular meetings which occurred all over the city, more numerous night after night. The bare, gloomy amphitheatre, lit by five tiny lights hanging from a thin wire, was packed from the ring up the steep sweep of grimy benches to the very roof – soldiers, sailors, workmen, women, all listening as if their lives depended upon it. A soldier was speaking – from the Five Hundred and Forty-Eighth Division, wherever and whatever that was:

‘Comrades,’ he cried, and there was real anguish in his drawn face and despairing gestures. ‘The people at the top are always calling upon us to sacrifice more, sacrifice more, while those who have everything are left unmolested.

‘We are at war with Germany. Would we invite German generals to serve on our Staff? Well we’re at war with the capitalists too, and yet we invite them into our Government . . .

‘The soldier says, “Show me what I am fighting for. Is it Constantinople, or is it free Russia? Is it the democracy, or is it the capitalist plunderers? If you can prove to me that I am defending the Revolution then I’ll go out and fight without capital punishment to force me.”

‘When the land belongs to the peasants, and the factories to the workers, and the power to the Soviets, then we’ll know we have something to fight for, and we’ll fight for it!’

In the barracks, the factories, on the street corners, endless soldier speakers, all clamouring for an end to the war, declaring that if the Government did not make an energetic effort to get peace, the army would leave the trenches and go home.

The spokesman for the Eighth Army:

‘We are weak, we have only a few men left in each company. They must give us food and boots and reinforcements, or soon there will be left only empty trenches. Peace or supplies . . . either let the Government end the war or support the Army . . .’

For the Forty-Sixth Siberian Artillery:

‘The officers will not work with our Committees, they betray us to the enemy, they apply the death penalty to our agitators, and the counter-revolutionary Government supports them. We thought that the Revolution would bring peace. But now the Government forbids us even to talk of such things, and at the same time doesn’t give us enough food to live on, or enough ammunition to fight with . . .’

From Europe came rumours of peace at the expense of Russia . . .

News of the treatment of Russian troops in France added to the discontent. The First Brigade had tried to replace its officers with Soldiers’ Committees, like their comrades at home, and had refused an order to go to Salonika, demanding to be sent to Russia. They had been surrounded and starved, and then fired on by artillery, and many killed . . .

On 29 October I went to the white marble and crimson hall of the Marinsky Palace, where the Council of the Republic sat, to hear Tereshchenko’s declaration of the Government’s foreign policy, awaited with such terrible anxiety by all the peace-thirsty and exhausted land.

A tall, impeccably dressed young man with a smooth face and high cheek-bones, suavely reading his careful non-committal speech. Nothing . . . Only the same platitudes about crushing German militarism with the help of the Allies – about the ‘State interests’ of Russia, about the ‘embarrassment’ caused by Skobeliev’s nakaz. He ended with the keynote:

‘Russia is a great power. Russia will remain a great power, whatever happens. We must all defend her, we must show that we are defenders of a great ideal, and children of a great power.’

Nobody was satisfied. The reactionaries wanted a ‘strong’ imperialist policy; the democratic parties wanted an assurance that the Government would press for peace . . . I reproduce an editorial in Rabochi i Soldat (Worker and Soldier), organ of the Bolshevik Petrograd Soviet:

The Government’s Answer to the Trenches

The most taciturn of our Ministers, Mr Tereshchenko, has actually told the trenches the following:

1. We are closely united with our Allies. (Not with the peoples, but with the Governments.)

2. There is no use for the democracy to discuss the possibility or impossibility of a winter campaign. That will be decided by the Governments of our Allies.

3. The 1 July offensive was beneficial and a very happy affair. (He did not mention the consequences.)

4. It is not true that our Allies do not care about us. The Minister had in his possession very important declarations. (Declarations? What about deeds? What about the behaviour of the British fleet? The parleying of the British king with exiled counter-revolutionary General Gurko? The Minister did not mention all this.)

5. The nakaz to Skobeliev is bad; the Allies don’t like it and the Russian diplomats don’t like it. In the Allied Conference we must all ‘speak one language’.

And is that all? That is all. What is the way out? The solution is, faith in the Allies and in Tereshchenko. When will peace come? When the Allies permit.

That is how the Government replied to the trenches about peace!

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