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1917: The Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion

W hen they heard a rev­o­lu­tion had taken place in Rus­sia in Novem­ber 1917 most peo­ple re­sponded: “What? Again?” The Rus­sian Em­pire had been in tur­moil since March 1917 when Tsar Ni­cholas II was de­posed. The Tsar had demon­strated his in­com­pe­tence by per­son­ally tak­ing com­mand of the con­duct of the war af­ter which ev­ery­thing that went wrong was blamed on him. Rus­sia had been in the First World War since 1914 and it had dev­as­tated the coun­try eco­nom­i­cally and mil­i­tar­ily.

Af­ter the Tsar abdicated, there was a re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of power among the aris­to­crats and a lib­eral, Prince Lvov, was sup­pos­edly in charge. He was too clearly as­so­ci­ated with the old guard and was un­able to gather sup­port. The far-left Bol­she­viks staged an up­ris­ing in July, but it failed and its leader, Vladimir Lenin, es­caped un­der threat of ar­rest.

The Min­ster of War, Alexan­der Keren­sky, took over as Prime Min­is­ter. He too was fa­tally ham­pered by the same prob­lem that had cursed his two pre­de­ces­sors: he felt it es­sen­tial to con­tinue fight­ing the war that had brought the coun­try to the point of rev­o­lu­tion in the first place.

The Bol­she­viks had a sim­ple and easy to un­der­stand slo­gan: peace, bread, land. They did not care about the out­come of the war, as they be­lieved in­ter­na­tional rev­o­lu­tion was im­mi­nent, and when all coun­tries were com­mu­nist there would be no more war. The war just speeded things up, it was “the lo­co­mo­tive of his­tory” said Leon Trot­sky, one of the Bol­she­vik lead­ers.

Rus­sia was al­ready in re­volt in 1917 with strikes of metal, rail­way and tex­tile

work­ers and min­ers. In two months alone there were some 2,000 cases of peas­ants killing their land­lords and seiz­ing the land.

Com­mu­nist the­ory said rev­o­lu­tions would take place in ar­eas where the in­dus­trial work­ing class was strong, like Ger­many or Great Bri­tain. Rus­sia was felt to be too back­ward and agrar­ian for rev­o­lu­tion, but Lenin be­lieved he saw a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion, and he wanted to seize the day so re­turned from hid­ing. On 23 Oc­to­ber, the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Bol­she­viks passed a res­o­lu­tion that “an armed up­ris­ing is in­evitable and the time for it is fully ripe”.

The ‘sovi­ets’, coun­cils of work­ers and peas­ants or sol­diers, were the al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ment of the Bol­she­viks. The mil­i­tary wing of the Bol­she­viks was the Red Guard who were armed work­ers. These revo­lu­tion­ar­ies were sup­ported by serv­ing sol­diers and sailors who shared their views.

On 6 Novem­ber at Trot­sky’s com­mand the Red Guards seized the bridges around the cap­i­tal, Pet­ro­grad, oc­cu­pied the tele­graph of­fice, the cen­tral news agency and the main rail­way sta­tion; and called on the rad­i­cal sailors of the Baltic Fleet to come to sup­port the rev­o­lu­tion.

The fol­low­ing day Bol­she­vik forces con­sol­i­dated their grip on Pet­ro­grad and gath­ered sup­port. The Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Keren­sky was iso­lated and de­fended only by cadets and a women’s bat­tal­ion. On the evening of Novem­ber 7, revo­lu­tion­ar­ies sur­rounded the Win­ter Palace, the base of the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment, and at the sign of a shot from the cruiser Aurora, they moved in. Mem­bers of the Pro­vi­sional Gov­ern­ment were placed un­der ar­rest.

Lenin felt able to de­clare the suc­cess of the first so­cial­ist rev­o­lu­tion. The new gov­ern­ment or­dered a procla­ma­tion to be read to all serv­ing units of the armed forces to the ef­fect that an im­me­di­ate peace would be sought with the Ger­mans and land would be handed over to the peas­ants, while lo­cal sovi­ets would take com­mand of the coun­try po­lit­i­cally. This brought the armed forces around to the side of the revo­lu­tion­ar­ies.

The rev­o­lu­tion, which hap­pened in Oc­to­ber by the Ju­lian cal­en­dar that Rus­sia used, would later be de­picted hero­ically by pa­tri­otic artists. In fact, it was a coup ac­com­plished al­most with­out blood­shed (six peo­ple were killed). The Bol­she­viks sim­ply had a clearer ob­jec­tive than any of their op­po­nents, and their vi­sion was in line with what the coun­try needed. The long years of ex­ile and strug­gle to be heard was over for the revo­lu­tion­ar­ies; their fer­vour for change had been re­warded.

Your ancestors’ views on the events were in­flu­enced by the news­pa­pers they read which were writ­ten by cor­re­spon­dents who spent their time in restau­rants and min­istry of­fices try­ing to dis­cern the mo­tives of the mighty. Col­umn inches were ex­pended on ex­plain­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of min­is­ters and the royal court, with al­most noth­ing about the streets where the real po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity was tak­ing place. The names of the lead­ers of the rev­o­lu­tion were hardly men­tioned.

The Times in April 1917 was calling Lenin a “fa­mous an­ar­chist” which shows a poor un­der­stand­ing of po­lit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy.

Even af­ter the rev­o­lu­tion Lenin was de­scribed as a pro­pa­gan­dist who had “sys­tem­at­i­cally in­doc­tri­nated the ig­no­rant masses and the de­mor­alised sol­diery”.

The Times writer could not be­lieve that the peo­ple of Rus­sia could them­selves come to the con­clu­sion that they wanted an end to the war and a more equal dis­tri­bu­tion of food and land.

The rev­o­lu­tion had keen rel­e­vance in the UK: the Tsar was King George V’s cousin; if the royal fam­ily could be re­moved from pub­lic life in Rus­sia, per­haps that could hap­pen here. Most of your ancestors viewed that prospect with alarm though some, par­tic­u­larly the young, found the con­cept of rev­o­lu­tion ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

The rev­o­lu­tion added a word to the Eng­lish lan­guage: any trou­ble­maker was now de­scribed as ‘ bol­shy’.

The war at home

Your fe­male ancestors may have been in­volved in the Women’s Land Army, which was set up this year (re­plac­ing the Women’s Na­tional Land Ser­vice Corps). By the end of 1917, there were more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion women work­ing as farm labour­ers, milk­ing cows, pick­ing fruit and tend­ing the land.

Some women went fur­ther to­wards the fight­ing front in the Women’s Army Aux­il­iary Corps, which was founded this year to sup­port the army in roles such as cook­ery, wait­ress­ing and other sup­port du­ties in­clud­ing work­ing as me­chan­ics. They served be­hind the lines in war zones in France, Bel­gium Italy and Greece. The Women’s Royal Naval Ser­vice, also founded in 1917, did a sim­i­lar job for the navy.

Your rel­a­tives who had been miss­ing be­cause they were taken pris­oner may have made a reap­pear­ance this year as Bri­tain and


Ger­many agreed to ex­change in­ternees over the ages of 45. They were civil­ians al­ready present in ei­ther coun­try when war broke out and pris­on­ers of war on land or at sea.

You may come across war bond cer­tifi­cates dat­ing from this time in papers that be­longed to your fore­bears. This Jan­uary, Prime Min­is­ter Lloyd George urged the na­tion to sub­scribe to new war loans to help fi­nance the con­flict which was now cost­ing £5.7 mil­lion a day. The drive used slo­gans like ‘ The Bri­tish sov­er­eign will win’ and ‘Lend your money to your coun­try’. Pa­tri­otic folk were told: “The sol­dier does not grudge of­fer­ing his life to his coun­try. He of­fers it freely, for his life may be the price of vic­tory. But vic­tory can­not be won with­out money as well as men, and your money is needed.” The terms of the bonds were gen­er­ous: a five per cent loan guar­an­teed over 30 years, for ex­am­ple. Hold­ers of ex­ist­ing bonds could con­vert to the new rate.

Food was not in des­per­ately short sup­ply, but fear of short­ages led to panic buy­ing and ra­tioning was on its way by the end of the year. Sugar was ra­tioned first, in De­cem­ber 1917, at 8oz per per­son per week.

For light en­ter­tain­ment, your ancestors might have turned to a vol­ume of short sto­ries by a 36-year-old writer called PG Wode­house, The Man with Two Left Feet. One of the sto­ries, ‘Ex­tri­cat­ing Young Gussie,’ saw the first ap­pear­ance of Ber­tie Wooster and his ac­com­plished manser­vant, Jeeves.

This year too saw the pub­li­ca­tion of Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle’s His Last Bow: Some Later Rem­i­nis­cences of Sher­lock Holmes fea­tur­ing the war ser­vice of the now re­tired great de­tec­tive pit­ted against a Ger­man mas­ter-spy. More in­tel­lec­tual fare was pro­duced in the first book by TS Eliot who was Amer­i­can, but set­tled in the UK. His Prufrock and Other Ob­ser­va­tions, con­tained ‘The Love Song of J Al­fred Prufrock,’ which some con­sid­ered a mas­ter­piece though other crit­ics at the time won­dered if it was po­etry at all. This work of sex­ual frus­tra­tion, de­cay and hope­less­ness, with “rest­less nights in one-night cheap ho­tels” showed that modern lit­er­a­ture was go­ing to be very dif­fer­ent from that of the past.

Sol­diers and work­ers who sup­ported the Bol­she­vik cause helped to cap­ture the Win­ter Palace in Pet­ro­grad A Soviet pro­pa­ganda poster com­mem­o­rat­ing the up­ris­ing

Lenin ad­dresses a crowd in Red Square, Moscow, in Oc­to­ber 1917

Sher­lock Holmes au­thor Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle

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