A moment to remember the February 1917 revolution. Looking at the artwork in the proliferation of satirical journals that sprang up in 1905-6, it feels like the energy for revolution was actually at that time. But it was in 1917, when the country was already torn apart by war, that the population was ready for a revolution which was then followed by three more years of civil war and more pogroms against the Jews. It is probably difficult or impossible for some years to get the kind of meticulous records that existed before the revolution and many people would have fallen into the cracks of history.
To mark this moment I will try and put together some of the posters, illustrations and photographs from 1905 and 1917, and look at the memoirs of two young girls who lived through the revolution, one from the impoverished branch of an aristocratic family, and the other the daughter of Jewish revolutionaries. Both girls ended up leaving Russia shortly after the Civil War and ending up in England.
Freedom 4 December 1905
Burning books 1906
The Bee back cover 1906
Russian Symphony Isaak Brodsky 1906
A chronology of the February revolution http://www.vokrugsveta.ru/vs/article/3004/ :
18 February: The strike at the Putilov factory in St. Petersburg
23 February: the beginning of anti-war demonstrations
24-25 February: the general strike under the slogan “Down with autocracy!”
26 Feb: battles between soldiers, divided between support for the revolution or the tzar
27 February: The beginning of the armed uprising, a massive shift of soldiers to the side of the rebels. Establishment of the State Duma of the Interim Committee under the chairmanship of the president of the Duma, Rodzianko
1 March: the establishment of the new government in Moscow
2 March: the abdication of Nicholas II from the throne in favor of Prince Michael, who handed over power to the Provisional Government. Formation of the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov, who was replaced in July by socialist Kerensky
28 February 1917
February Revolution 1917 Ivan Vladimirov
Edith Almedingen wrote her memoir about her childhood in early 1900s Russia, Tomorrow will come, in 1941, never having believed that anyone would be interested in her mundane life in St Petersburg simply trying to survive on the periphery of the great political events between 1905 and 1920. Her mother had been brought up in England in a Russian aristocratic family with an English mother, and her father was a well-known professor of chemistry, from a wealthy family, but her father left the family when she was a baby and her mother scraped by teaching English. Shortly after the 1905 revolution, when Edith was six, her brother drowned falling through cracked ice in the river. Her father, who she had never known, died when she was 12, and an older brother died in the First World War. She had been living in extreme poverty with her mother after the 1909 crash and then had a few years at an aristocratic girls’ boarding school where her father had modernised the curriculum and taught science. The beauty of this book is in her descriptions of the sights, smells and feelings of hunger, cold and horror that she experienced as a teenager after the revolution as the infrastructure of the city failed and there was no longer any running water in the city, food to eat, or fuel for heating. People dressed in rags, spent most of the day queueing for bread, and went from one illness to another. Her mother died of starvation and illness in 1919.
She tells a story about the brightly coloured painted signs with pictures used by shopkeepers in Russia as most people were illiterate. In 1919 the shops were mostly empty and closed but the signs remained mocking people, especially one with a “luscious purple ham, reinforced by twin coils of fat crimson sausages”. She continues:
But that morning I saw a cluster of people in front of the deserted shop, and, coming nearer, I saw a frail, grey-haired man, his thin hands coming out of the sleeves of a very shabby overcoat. Those hands clawed at the gaily painted sign. An old lady, a torn black lace scarf over her grey hair, was trying to wrench him away. Yet, though obviously feeble, he resisted her efforts, and there was something of a nightmare about those thin, blue-veined hands clinging to the painted wood. I heard a tremulous voice: ‘No, my dear, I simply must have another slice of that ham. I wish you would be a little more patient. See if I don’t cut it off neatly. If we were to leave it here, somebody else would get it, and nobody could be as hungry as you and I are’, and the thin hands went on clawing away, until blood began trickling from under the nails, and the painted wood showed white where the knuckle of the ham had been scratched. (124)
Eventually, she meets a nurse she had known early in the war when she had translated for an English charity who shares her room with her and encourages her to apply to the university. In 1922, as she was finishing her degree, precious passports for foreign travel first began to be issued. She had recently managed to arrange a convalescence in the Crimea for possible TB, but then remembered the first letter in five years she had received from her mother’s sister in Italy a few months before hoping they would meet again. Possibly they would allow her to convalesce in Italy. A couple of months later she had her passport and left Russia forever.
The other memoir, Daughter of revolution: a Russian girlhood remembered, by Vera Broido (1998), was written from the perspective of a child who was only 10 when the revolution began. She had been living in Siberia with her mother, Eva Broido, who had been exiled for her revolutionary activities, but they hurried back first to Moscow and then Saint Petersburg. Vera also translated her mother’s memoir Memoirs of a revolutionary which is a much more political and factual book. This is a far less bleak book than Edith’s, partly because Vera was still a child, although often having the responsibilities of an adult, still had family alive, and, most importantly, had a family with strong connections and deep friendships with other revolutionaries who were quick to help each other. Although eventually, as Mensheviks, they were on the losing side against the Bolsheviks. Also, although they were still hungry and freezing cold, Vera and her mother had been given the apartment of a wealthy banker, who was hiding, to look after, while Edith had nowhere to live after her mother died, losing their two rooms, moving from one sordid shared room to another.
Vera emphasises the ordinary side of life at that time, both for exiles in Siberia, where her mother ran the hospital pharmacy and they knew many other interesting professional exiles, and after the revolution in Saint Petersburg, where, although there was little to eat, the arts were flourishing and they went to the theatre, concerts and the opera. She also went to school for the first time, although, by 1919, when the Civil War reached Petrograd, school simply meant sitting by a stove and getting a bowl of gruel . Vera’s mother also became ill but they were able to escape in 1920 to Berlin, where Vera crammed most of her education into one year and passed the examinations for German universities. In 1927, her mother returned to Russia with false papers for a short visit to make contact with Mensheviks who had remained in Russia, but she stayed longer and was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually shot in 1941. Vera studied art in Paris and then returned to Germany, remaining until 1933, when her whole family moved to England, where her brother was working as an engineer. Unlike Edith, Vera always had some family around her, and often old friends from Russia and their exile in Siberia.
Be on guard!
Like all stories of war, in both these memoirs survival depended on luck – a chance meeting, a moment of kindness, or an official turning a blind eye. At a time when she had no job and no place to stay, Edith met the nurse she had known earlier after being knocked down by a carriage and breaking her ankle. After Vera and her mother crossed the border into Polish territory, they used their last money on the train to Warsaw hoping they would find her father there. Instead they found he had moved on to Vienna and they were left penniless, wandering the cold, slushy streets with their boarded-up shops until her mother noticed a diamond earring on the ground. After more wandering they saw a small light inside one shuttered jewellers and found a Jewish jeweller there who was dubious about receiving what would appear to be a stolen diamond. However, he listened to their story and said he would put the diamond aside until a later date, but, first things first, he would get them a first-class compartment and meal on the train to Vienna. Without these chance moments of kindness the stories might have been very different.