Witnessing a Revolution

1 June 2017
Witnessing a Revolution - Featured image

Expats living through the Russian Revolution deliver fascinating and colourful eyewitness accounts in a new book reviewed by Dr Bella d’Abrera.

When American journalist Arno Dosch-Fleurot arrived in Petrograd (formerly St Petersburg) in November 1916, he spent his first night attempting to sleep on a billiard table. Despite wiring the Hotel de France ahead, he was informed upon arrival that the hotel was completely full. The table, as the journalist wryly observed, was very hard ‘and more conducive to reflection than sleep’. Fellow journalist Florence Harper and her sidekick photographer David Thompson spent equally uncomfortable first nights when they arrived three months later, just before the Russian Revolution which took place 100 years ago this year. Harper was offered a ‘cubby hole’ while Thompson found himself traipsing about in a blizzard in search of a bed.

Fleurot, Harper and Thompson’s travails were largely because at the beginning of 1917, Germany threatened to torpedo any ships leaving or entering Petrograd harbour. This effectively stranded thousands of foreigners in Petrograd during the anarchic, tumultuous and bloody revolution, which saw Tsar Nicholas deposed, the interim socialist government toppled and the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, installed in their place.

The fascinating and compelling eyewitness accounts of those foreigners living in Petrograd during the revolution have been compiled by Helen Rappaport in Caught in the Revolution. Rappaport tells the story of the Russian Revolution through the letters, diaries, despatches and various communiqués written by an array of journalists, novelists, nurses, ambassadors and the occasional spy who lived through the revolution. The expats not only watched the momentous events unfold around them. They recorded them for posterity.


At the start of 1917, Petrograd was a beleaguered city. There was not only a chronic shortage of beds, but also food supplies, which had shrunk to one third of what was needed to sustain the city’s hungry population. Flour, meat and sugar were being deliberately stockpiled by speculators. The price of milk and potatoes had quadrupled since the outbreak of World War I, while fish, butter, meat and bread were five times the price. Tsar Nicholas had absented himself from the city.

The people of Petrograd were starving, angry and disillusioned. It was abundantly clear to most of Rappaport’s cast of foreigners that trouble was brewing. By mid-February in 1917, people were taking to the frozen streets, and for eight days the city was home to a series of mass demonstrations and horrific violence. This was the first part of the revolution.

Some of Rappaport’s eyewitnesses, such as the intrepid Canadian Florence Harper and American David Thompson, spent every waking hour amongst the action ‘being pushed down the Nevksy [main street], willy nilly, running, sliding in the snow and … hugging sides of building so as not to get trampled’. One terrifying afternoon, the pair were caught in the middle of machine gun fire, flinging themselves to the ground amongst the dead and dying, where they lay for an hour in the snow, freezing yet too frightened to move. About 1300 men, women and children died during the violence.

At the end of the month, a weary and depressed Tsar Nicholas abdicated and the Russian Provincial Government was installed. Many of the foreigners were surprised at both the speed and ease of the whole thing. A Canadian nurse wrote that ‘the Czar of all Russias has been dethroned as easily as a recalcitrant schoolboy is made to stay in after school’ while Thompson commented that Nicholas would still have been the Tsar had he ‘stood up in the back of his automobile with his hat off and talked, as Teddy Roosevelt would have done.’

But the private feelings of most foreigners after the collapse of the Imperial government were in contrast to the public elation of Petrograd’s residents, who celebrated their new found freedom in the streets. Many non-Russians felt a sense of foreboding and apprehension, including Meriel Buchanan, long-time resident of Petrograd and daughter of the unflappable British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan. She was no stranger to Petrograd or the Russian way and feared the prospect of anarchy, noting with concern that the new government was struggling to keep law and order. The change of regime was not a brave new world, she commented, but one of ‘dilapidation, of demoralisation and decay’.

In April, Vladimir Lenin arrived in Petrograd with diplomatic immunity in a special ‘sealed’ train, uttering the words ‘hail to the civil war’ as soon as he stepped onto the platform and installed himself in a mansion opposite the Buchanan family’s British embassy residence, from where he plotted the downfall of the government. Like most of the foreigners, the Buchanan’s had scant comprehension about Lenin’s ideas, but they did have sense that he was a dangerous individual, labelling him variously as an ‘anarchist’ or an ‘ultra-socialist’ in their various missives.


From the moment Lenin arrived in the city, he agitated to undermine and overthrow the Provisional Government. As Fleurot observed, Lenin ‘provided violence with a doctrine’. In October, the second part of the revolution took place, when the Red Guard stormed and captured the Winter Palace, and in a terrible foreshadowing of the Red Terror of 1918, the Bolsheviks announced that they would soon start ‘suppressing’ the bourgeoisie. This sent a shiver down the spine of many of the foreigners in Rappaport’s book. Most of them left Petrograd at the first opportunity. ‘We will never forget that we were all there,’ wrote a French diplomat as his train pulled out of Petrograd for the last time. And thanks to Rappaport’s excellent book, 100 years on, neither will we.

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