BEHIND THE HEADLINES
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
THE CENTRAL COMMITTEE OF THE BOLSHEVIKS PASSED A RESOLUTION THAT “AN ARMED UPRISING IS INEVITABLE AND THE TIME FOR IT IS FULLY RIPE”
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