By Patricia H Kushlis
Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World On Edge provides a different vantage point of the Communist Revolution that engulfed this huge country and changed the course of the world after October 1917 from other accounts that I’ve previously read.
Her story is based on eye-witness observations by more than 80 foreigners living and working in then Petrograd - as chronicled in their letters home, personal journals, foreign office dispatches, newspaper reports and columns the months prior to and during the “Ten Days that Shook the World.” This former capital city on the Gulf of Finland had, of course, begun as St. Petersburg, the name was briefly changed to Petrograd then Leningrad which it remained until 1991 when it was rechristened St. Petersburg as the Communist regime sputtered out after 70 years.
What distinguishes Rappaport’s account from others?
Because Rappaport chose to tell the story as seen through the eyes of the city’s expatriate residents, she provides a particularly unique vantage point – well connected people living in the city at the time but themselves not of it who witnessed and chronicled the chaos brought about by among other things endless strikes and blockades to the government’s efforts to deliver food from the countryside to city residents. These accounts of the daily life in the then capital city were written as events happened in mostly unpublished diaries and letters home. (photo right: Winter Palace-Hermitage Museum, April 1990 by PHKushlis)
Her principal sources included the British, US and French Ambassadors and their families or households, political and military mission staff assigned to their respective Embassies, the staff of the Petrograd branch of US National City Bank of New York and other western businesses, various charity and medical missions like the Red Cross as well as correspondents and photographers – some who came and stayed, others who breezed in at the last moment with an agenda to promote the revolution in sympathetic terms - like Louise Bryant and John Reed who went on to write the best seller “The Ten Days That Shook the World.” Rappaport begins the book with a useful forward, or Glossary of Eye Witnesses identifying each by name in alphabetical order.
Her work highlights the importance of the two Russian revolutions – one closely following the other: the first in February 1917 which resulted in the Czar’s abdication, his replacement by a weak provisional government dominated by many Socialists and Communists led by Alexander Kerensky and a bloody massacre of untold thousands on the Field of Mars in front of the Winter Palace. The picture Rappaport paints is of a largely absent Czar far more engaged in military campaigns against the Germans than in protecting his throne and family dynasty or tending the well-being of his suffering population in the capital city as the war ground on.
By 1917, Petrograd (the name was changed in 1914 from St Petersburg and then to Leningrad in 1924) was a rapidly industrializing city spearheaded by and supported with – as usual in Russia – strong government support. Yet, as Rappaport writes, these factory workers and Baltic fleet sailors had become the country’s Achilles Heel, radicalized as a result of their harsh conditions and political naivety who had become ripe for use as storm troops by the Communists to overthrow the Czar and then six months later the Provisional Government.
Trotsky, not Lenin was the Communist Party’s public face
Rappaport’s book describes how Minister of Foreign Affairs Leon Trotsky was the real orator, public face and spokesperson for the Communist Party, not Lenin. The far less charismatic Lenin, who the Germans had transported into Russia from exile in Switzerland, spent his time once in Petrograd in a converted palace running the printing presses and the party propaganda apparatus rather than venturing out in front to address the crowds.
When the Bolshevik coup finally happened, as Rappaport describes, it was “not the heroic showdown of Soviet historiography, but more an exhausted capitulation of Kerensky’s moribund and virtually defenseless government.” By mid-October, “the Bolsheviks had gained the upper hand in Petrograd with about 50,000 party members and control of the Petrograd Soviet. They were well armed, and the soldiers and sailors who had gone over to them were increasingly belligerent.” In contrast in Moscow, the fight for the Kremlin had taken ten days with fierce fighting on the streets and over 1,000 dead and atrocities against the defending cadets far worse.
The forgotten election of 1917
Soon after the Communist coup, Lenin held a popular election for a new Constituent Assembly in November 1917 under the misapprehension that his party would win. The election took place over two weeks. When the Bolsheviks garnered only 23.5% of the total vote to the Social Democratic Party’s 41% and the smaller parties refused to support him, Lenin abolished the Assembly after its first day. A 24% approval by an electorate does not exactly provide the underpinning for takeover of a government and the institution of a single party authoritarian state but that’s what happened. At the ballot box, Lenin’s popular support was in Moscow, Petrograd and among the soldiers on the Western Front and sailors in the Baltic Fleet but not in the country’s vast rural areas. Then, only as the German troops approached within 100 miles of Petrograd, did Lenin move Russia’s capital to Moscow.
Seventy years on the road to nowhere
In reality, the October 1917 revolt was the third revolution for Russia between 1906 and 1917 each one becoming more radical in nature. With no experience in democratic governance and a popular longing for a “good Czar” to look over Russia, it’s not surprising the country had turned towards authoritarianism once again in times of trouble – just as happened in 1999 – with Yeltsin’s selection of Vladimir Putin as his successor less than ten years after the country’s 4th revolution in August 1991.
This, then, is the ages old dilemma that Russia has yet to resolve – the desire for a strong leader to hold the vast territory together – but simultaneously praying that the strong leader stays as far away as possible from “us.” There’s a lot to be learned from the historical record of this complex and troubled country that remains relevant today. Rappaport’s contribution is to help us place it in a different light.
Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution, Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – a World on Edge, St Martin’s Press, New York, February 2017, pp 334.