The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record by N.N. Sukhanov

The Russian Revolution 1917: A Personal Record by N.N. Sukhanov

by Nikolai Nikolaevich Sukhanov

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Author of the only full-length eyewitness account of the 1917 Revolution, Sukhanov was a key figure in the first revolutionary Government. His seven-volume book, first published in 1922, was suppressed under Stalin. This reissue of the abridged version is, as the editor's preface points out, one of the few things written about this most dramatic and momentous event


Author of the only full-length eyewitness account of the 1917 Revolution, Sukhanov was a key figure in the first revolutionary Government. His seven-volume book, first published in 1922, was suppressed under Stalin. This reissue of the abridged version is, as the editor's preface points out, one of the few things written about this most dramatic and momentous event, which actually has the smell of life, and gives us a feeling for the personalities, the emotions, and the play of ideas of the whole revolutionary period."

Originally published in 1984.

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The Russian Revolution 1917

By N. N. Sukhanov, Joel Carmichael


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05406-3



February 21st–24th, 1917

I had been banished from St. Petersburg by May 10, 1914. At that time I was editor of the non-party but Left-wing Sovremennik (Contemporary), which took an internationalist line during the war, to the great dissatisfaction of its 'defensist' Petersburg contributors but the equal satisfaction of its émigré contributors, most of whom had rallied to the banner of Zimmerwald. Though under sentence of banishment, I spent most of my time, up to the revolution itself, living underground in the capital — sometimes on a false passport, sometimes sleeping in a different place every night, sometimes slipping past the night-porter in the shadows as a 'frequent visitor' to my own flat, where my family was living.

From November 1916 on I was on the staff of Maxim Gorky's Letopis (Chronicle), and practically its principal contributor, keeping the entire magazine going under the Damocles' sword of police repression. Moreover, my illegal position did not stop me from working as an economist, under my own name, in a government department, the Ministry of Agriculture, in a section that dealt with the irrigation of Turkestan.

Such were my official position, rank, and titles when the revolution of 1917 overtook me.

* * *

Tuesday, February 21st. I was sitting in my office in the Turkestan section. Behind a partition two typists were gossiping about food difficulties, rows in the shopping queues, unrest among the women, an attempt to smash into some warehouse.

'D'you know,' suddenly declared one of these young ladies, 'if you ask me, it's the beginning of the revolution!'

These girls didn't understand what a revolution was. Nor did I believe them for a second. But in those days, sitting over my irrigation systems and aqueducts, over my articles and pamphlets, my Letopis manuscripts and proofs, I kept thinking and brooding about the inevitable revolution that was whirling down on us at full speed.

In this period of the agony of Tsarism, the attention of Russian, or at any rate of Petersburg 'society', and of political circles in the capital revolved primarily around the State Duma convened on February 14th. By some people — the more conservative Left (Socialist) elements — the workers' street demonstrations under the slogans of 'Bread!' and 'Down with the Autocracy!' were linked to this date. Elements further to the Left, including myself, spoke out at various party meetings against tying up the workers' movement with the Duma. For bourgeois Duma circles had given proof enough, not only of their inability to join the proletariat even against Rasputin, but also of their mortal fear even of utilizing the strength of the proletariat in the struggle for a constitutional régime or for 'carrying on the war to total victory'.

This fear was completely justified. It was possible, of course, to summon up a spirit, but to force it into one's own service — never. And the Progressive Bloc of the Duma, which embodied the attitude of the entire propertied bourgeoisie, was in favour only of sharpening its weapons for use against the proletarian movement. Miliukov, its leader, had declared not long before that he was ready to renounce even his 'total victory', even the Dardanelles, even the service of the gallant Allies, if all these were attainable only at the price of a revolution. And now, in view of the rumours about the forthcoming workers' demonstration, this same Miliukov published his memorable address to the workers, in which every wartime movement of theirs against the Government was declared to have been fomented by the Secret Police and by provocateurs.

Finally, the burning question for the Petersburg politicians was the transfer to the Town Council of the task of provisioning the capital. For the Petersburg liberal and democratic circles this was the catchword of the moment.

Not one party was preparing for the great upheaval. Everyone was dreaming, ruminating, full of foreboding, feeling his way ...

These philistine girls whose tongues and typewriters were rattling away behind the partition didn't know what a revolution was. I believed neither them, nor the inflexible facts, nor my own judgement. Revolution — highly improbable! Revolution! — everyone knew this was only a dream — a dream of generations and of long laborious decades. Without believing the girls, I repeated after them mechanically:

'Yes, the beginning of the revolution.'

* * *

On Wednesday and Thursday — February 22nd and 23rd — the movement in the streets became clearly defined, going beyond the limits of the usual factory meetings. At the same time the feebleness of the authorities was exposed. They were plainly not succeeding — with all the machinery they had been building up for decades — in suppressing the movement at its source. The city was filled with rumours and a feeling of 'disorders'.

As far as scale went, similar disorders had taken place scores of times in our day. And if there was anything distinctive here it was just this irresolution of the authorities, who were obviously neglecting to deal with the movement. But these were 'disorders' — there was still no revolution. A favourable outcome was not only not discernible as yet, but not one of the parties was even steering towards it; they merely strove to exploit the movement for agitational purposes.

On Friday the 24th the movement swept over Petersburg like a great flood. The Nevsky and many squares in the centre were crowded with workers. Fugitive meetings were held in the main streets and were dispersed by Cossacks and mounted police — but without any energy or zeal and after lengthy delays. The Petersburg military commander, General Khabalov, got out a proclamation, which essentially only served to reveal the impotence of the authorities, pointing out that repeated warnings had been without effect and promising to take the sternest measures — in the future. Naturally this had no result, but it was another signof helplessness.

The movement was plainly out of hand. A new situation, distinct from the previous disorders, was apparent to every attentive observer. On Friday I began categorically maintaining that we were dealing with a revolution, as an accomplished fact. However, I was waved aside as an optimist.

It seemed to me the evidence was already sufficient, and my thoughts were already turning in another direction, towards the political problem.

We had to aim at a radical political overturn. That was clear. But what was to be its programme? Who was to be the successor of the Tsarist autocracy? This was the point on which my attention was focused that day.

I won't say this enormous problem presented many difficulties to me at the time. Later I pondered over it much more and felt some doubt as to whether its solution at the time had been correct. During the shilly-shallyings of the Coalition and the smothering of the revolution by the Kerensky–Tereshchenko–Tsereteli policies in August–September 1917, and also after the Bolshevik insurrection, it often seemed to me that the solution of this problem in the February days could have, and for that matter should have, been different. But at the time I decided this problem of 'high policy' almost without any hesitation.

The Government that was to take the place of Tsarism must be exclusively bourgeois. Trepov and Rasputin could and should be replaced only by the bosses of the Progressive Bloc. This was the solution to be aimed at. Otherwise the overturn would fail and the revolution perish.

My starting-point was the complete disintegration of democratic Russia under the autocracy. At that time the democratic movement had control of no strong organization, whether political, trade-union, or municipal. And in its state of disintegration the proletariat, isolated as it was from other classes, could create only fighting organizations which, while representing a real force in the class struggle, were not a genuine element of State power.

This disintegrated democratic movement, moreover, if it were to make an attempt to govern, would have had to accomplish the impossible: the technique of State administration in the given conditions of war and destruction was far beyond the capacity of the democratic movement in isolation. The destruction of the State and its economic organism was already immense. Industry, transport, and supply had been enfeebled by the autocracy. The capital was starving. Not only could the State machine not stand idle for a single moment, but it had to find new energy and increased resources, without loss of time, for a colossal technical task. And if the Government were one which was incapable of setting in motion all the cogs of the State mechanism, the revolution would not hold out.

The entire available state machinery, the army of bureaucrats, the Zemstvos and municipalities, which had had the cooperation of all the forces of the democracy, could obey Miliukov, but not Chkheidze. There was, however, and could be, no other machinery.

But all this was, so to speak, technique. The other aspect of the matter was political. Setting up a democratic Government and by-passing the Progressive Bloc not only meant not utilizing at the critical moment the only state apparatus available, it also meant rallying the whole of propertied Russia against the democratic movement and the revolution. The whole of the bourgeoisie as one man would have thrown all the strength it had in the scales on the side of Tsarism and formed with it a strong and united front — against the revolution. It would have roused up against the revolution the entire middle class and the press at a time when hunger and disorganization were threatening to smash the revolution at any moment and Nicholas II was still at liberty and calling himself Tsar of all the Russias. In these circumstances a Socialist seizure of power would mean the inevitable and immediate failure of the revolution. At that moment, in February, the first revolutionary Government could only be a bourgeois one.

There was also another argument, of narrower scope but to me equally convincing. During the war I was one of the two or three writers who managed to advocate the anti-defensist Zimmerwald position in the legal press. And in particular, during the first days of the war, when patriotic enthusiasm seemed universal and people with a correct estimate of the meaning of the war and Tsarist Russia's place in it were absolutely impossible to find even amongst the Socialists then in Russia (Gorky was an exception), I resolutely spurned all 'patriotic' notions. On the contrary, at that time I was guilty of something else — namely, a simplification of the proletarian class position (later taken at Zimmerwald), debasing it somewhat in the direction of that primitive 'defeatism' that characterized broad strata of Russian society during the Japanese war of 1905. In any case from the beginning of the war and up to the revolution every public action of mine was as far as possible a struggle against the war, a struggle for its liquidation.

And now, at the first thunder-clap of the revolutionary tempest, I was pulled up short before the practical impossibility of creating a purely democratic Government, for the reason — among others — that this would have meant the immediate liquidation of the war by the Russian democracy. For of course I considered it impossible for a democratic Government to continue the war, since the contradiction between participation in an imperialist war and victory for the democratic revolution seemed to me fundamental. But I thought it out of the question to add an immediate radical change in foreign policy, with all its unforeseeable consequences, to all the difficulties of a revolution. Moreover, any peace policy worthy of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' must involve all the colossal tasks of demobilization and the transfer of industry to a peace-time basis, with the consequent large-scale shutting down of factories and mass unemployment at a moment when the national economy was completely disorganized.

It seemed to me absolutely indispensable to lay the problems of foreign policy temporarily on the shoulders of the bourgeoisie, in order to create the possibility of a struggle for the most rapid and painless liquidation of the war under a bourgeois Government that was carrying on the military policy of the autocracy. The creation of the conditions for the liquidation of the war, and not the liquidation itself — that was the fundamental problem of the overturn. And for this a bourgeois, not a democratic, Government was essential.

In general the solution of the problem of power seemed to me self-evident. And during the first revolutionary upsurge, February 24th–25th, my attention was taken up not by the programmatic aspect, so to speak, of this political problem, but by its other, tactical side.

Power must go to the bourgeoisie. But was there any chance that they would take it? What was the position of the propertied elements on this question? Could they and would they march in step with the popular movement? Would they, after calculating all the difficulties of their position, especially in foreign policy, accept power from the hands of the revolution? Or would they prefer to dissociate themselves from the revolution which had already begun and destroy the movement in alliance with the Tsarist faction? Or would they, finally, decide to destroy the movement by their 'neutrality' — by abandoning it to its own devices and to mass impulses that would lead to anarchy?

This again was just one aspect of the matter. The other was: what was the position in this question of the Socialist parties, which ought to assume control of the movement that had now begun? Would all the Socialist groups unite in the solution of the problem of power, or might the unleashed elemental forces be exploited by a few of them for some insanely infantile attempt to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and divide up at once the spoils that were still unwon?

And naturally, having put these questions, one must go further. If the correct solution of the problem of power could be wrecked from either side, was it not possible to take an active part now in the suitable manipulation of social forces, if only by seeking an appropriate compromise?

So on Friday the 24th, as the street movement swept in an ever-broadening flood through Petersburg, and when the revolution had become an objective fact and only its outcome was obscure, I scarcely listened to the uninterrupted accounts of street incidents. All my attention was directed at what was going on in the Socialist centres on the one hand and in the bourgeois circles, especially amongst the Duma fractions, on the other.

I knew a great many people in the most varied strata of the capital, but since there was almost no public opinion in Petersburg at that time and because of my illegal situation and my responsible literary work, I could not consider myself familiar with the moods of the various groups, who had been confronted with completely new problems during these days. I felt myself to be out of contact with the basic channel or channels where events now seemed to be forming. This sensation of isolation and helplessness, a longing to be near some sort of crucible of events, an unsatisfied desire to fling myself into the matrix of the revolution in order to do what I could, were my dominant feelings in those days.


Excerpted from The Russian Revolution 1917 by N. N. Sukhanov, Joel Carmichael. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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