Few cities have ever experienced a single year that could rival 1917 in the Russian capital of Petrograd. A year that began with the czar in power ended with the Bolsheviks in control after months of violent clashes and a pair of uprisings. On the centennial of the start of the Russian Revolution—a seismic historical event that still has lasting repercussions—a new book recounts the tumultuous events of 1917 as witnessed by Americans and other expatriates living in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg).
On a muggy July night in 1917, American journalist Arno Dosch-Fleurot joined the protestors parading along Petrograd’s Nevsky Prospekt when gunshots suddenly rang out. Banners pleading for liberty and freedom crashed to the ground as blood stained the Russian capital’s most fashionable thoroughfare. After diving for cover in a gutter, the New York World correspondent came face-to-face with a Russian officer and asked him what was happening. “The Russians, my countrymen, are idiots,” he replied. “This is a white night of madness.”
There had already been too many nights of madness in 1917 as the Russian Revolution rocked Petrograd (renamed from St. Petersburg at the onset of World War I to sound less German), and Dosch-Fleurot was just one of the many foreigners there to bear witness. The city was home to a large community of foreign diplomats, journalists, businessmen, spies and relief workers, and author Helen Rappaport has mined their diaries and private letters to chronicle how the Russian Revolution unfolded before the eyes of these expatriates in her new book “Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917—A World on the Edge.”
“St. Petersburg was a very Western-looking city with much more contact with Western culture than Moscow,” Rappaport tells HISTORY. In addition to a large British population, the city was home to a sizable American community that included employees of major corporations such International Harvester, the Singer Sewing Machine Company and Westinghouse. The American presence only grew after the start of World War I as entrepreneurs arrived to sell weapons to the imperial government.
As 1917 dawned, Petrograd was a shivering, starving city exhausted by a war that had left more than 7 million Russians dead, wounded or captured. “The whole of the city was beaten down and demoralized by the horrific Russian losses on the Eastern Front,” Rappaport says. An historically frigid winter collided with the red-hot anger to push Petrograd to the edge. Crippling wartime shortages forced women to wait for hours in line for bread, meat and milk as their frostbitten fingers pinched their shawls tighter around their heads.
“The air is thick with talk of catastrophe,” U.S. embassy official Fred Dearing wrote in his diary, while American Leighton Rogers wrote that the city was “like a taut wire.” Everyone in Petrograd seemed to sense the danger—except for Czar Nicholas II. “There were plenty of signs, but Nicholas led such a blinkered life that he didn’t hear that the people wanted political reform, better working conditions and responsible government. The British ambassador was practically on his knees begging the czar to act before the whole abyss opened up before him, but Nicholas refused to listen to the warnings.”
Empty stomachs, rather than political philosophy, launched the onset of the Russian Revolution, and Rappaport says the spark that ignited the political tinderbox came on March 8, 1917, when tens of thousands of protestors marked International Women’s Day by marching through the streets of Petrograd demanding not just the right to vote—but food for their families. In the ensuing days, the protests grew in size and turned violent as the imperial forces tried to keep order. Courts, police stations and other buildings of the czarist regime were torched. Morgues could not keep up with the flow of bodies, which were flung into mass graves.
When the soldiers in the Petrograd garrison switched their support to the demonstrators, four centuries of czarist rule in Russia came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. Crowds toppled imperial monuments and pried the czarist insignia from the city’s bridges and street signs, leaving them shattered in pieces. The expatriates gave chilling accounts of the mobs turning on the authorities, in particular the despised mounted police known as “pharaohs,” whom they beat to death and threw from the rooftops. The official death toll for the February Revolution—so-called because the Julian calendar used in czarist Russia was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West—published in Pravda was 1,382 killed and wounded, but the true number was likely considerably higher.
The Americans did not see any parallels between the Russian uprising and their own revolution, but Rappaport says there were clear echoes of the French Revolution, which was also triggered by women marching on a royal palace to demand food. “The Russians in this grassroots revolution went around singing ‘La Marseillaise’ and talking about ‘liberté, égalité and fraternité. There was a certain amount of romance in the first days because it was so spontaneous.”
Unfortunately, the February Revolution also mimicked the French Revolution by giving way to anarchy, violence and repression. As Alexander Kerensky’s provisional government floundered, Petrograd’s expatriates watched in horror as the air of optimism quickly grew toxic. Their diaries and letters detail the descent into violence as looting and killing became a common occurrence.
Rappaport says the foreigners did not try to alter the course of the Russian Revolution. “They were very much bystanders. They were pretty horrified at the anarchy. Once the revolution snowballs with the shooting, violence and looting, most sensible foreigners stayed home and kept their doors shut.” Those Americans who did venture onto the city streets sewed the Stars and Stripes onto their clothes in order to emphasize that they were impartial foreigners.
The February Revolution had surprised the Bolsheviks as much as anyone, and they were not powerful enough to take control early in 1917, Rappaport says. The return of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin from exile, however, galvanized the radical socialists. By the fall of 1917, the residents of Petrograd were so desperate for relief from the seemingly endless chaos that they cared little about who could bring it.
“People got so sick and tired of the violence, insecurity and lack of firm government as the year wore on that some didn’t care if the Germans took over the city because they might at least put things in order so they could get on with their lives,” Rappaport says. “The average Russian didn’t care who wrested power as long as they brought peace.”
It was the Bolsheviks who ultimately seized power in the October Revolution. Little blood was spilled in the overthrow of the provisional government, but that would not be the case in the years and decades to come.
Some of the Americans who fled Petrograd after the October Revolution left behind everything they had. That included the granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant, Julia Grant, who had become a doyenne of Petrograd society after her marriage to a Russian aristocrat transformed her into Princess Cantacuzene Spiransky. “She pretty much lost her lot,” Rappaport says. “As with many of the expatriates, they lost businesses, homes, furniture—literally everything was taken.”
Rappaport says the first-hand accounts of Americans and other foreigners in Petrograd are valuable because they provide an unvarnished window into the events of 1917. “These were private citizens writing personal diary entries or letters. They didn’t have a particular political agenda. I looked at Russian accounts and had to wade through so much tedious politics. Their response, though, was natural and instinctive.”
“It’s very interesting to see as the year progresses because the vast majority of the foreign community initially welcomed change,” Rappaport says. “They knew the Russian people were very oppressed. They were hopeful, but then there’s this growing sense of horror and disillusion as the year goes on. After October the foreigners are absolutely aghast at the oppression and violence of the Bolshevik regime. Upon leaving, they wondered about what the Russians had done by replacing czarism with something that was even worse.”