Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge

by Helen Rappaport


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250056641
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 02/07/2017
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 335,036
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

HELEN RAPPAPORT is the New York Times bestselling author of The Romanov Sisters. She studied Russian at Leeds University and is a specialist in Russian and Victorian history. She lives in West Dorset.

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Caught in the Revolution

Petrograd, Russia, 1917 â" A World on the Edge

By Helen Rappaport

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Helen Rappaport
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6045-2


'Women are Beginning to Rebel at Standing in Bread Lines'

In November 1916, Arno Dosch-Fleurot, a seasoned journalist working for a popular US daily – the New York World – had arrived in Petrograd fresh from a gruelling stint covering the Battle of Verdun. A Harvard-trained lawyer, from a prestigious Portland family, he had turned to journalism and had been covering the war since August 1914, when his editor in New York offered what seemed to him the dream ticket: 'Suggest you might like to go to Russia.' But getting there wasn't easy in war-torn Europe; Fleurot had had to cross the Channel to England to pick up a boat from Newcastle to Bergen. This had been followed by a long rail journey through Norway, Sweden and north to the Finnish checkpoint at Torneo, where he had grown frazzled, arguing with customs officials about 'letting [his] typewriter though without paying duty'. As he boarded the train for Petrograd's Finland Station, the customs officer had attempted to defuse his enthusiasm: 'I know how your papers like sensations,' he said, 'but you won't find any in Russia, I am afraid.' Fleurot was expecting his assignment to last twelve weeks or so; in the end he would spend more than two years in Russia.

Although he had wired ahead and booked a room at the Hotel de France, on arrival he found that it was full. They offered him the billiard-table to sleep on. It was, he recalled, very hard, 'and more conducive to reflection than sleep'. He was excited to be in Russia after two years on the Western Front, but this was virgin territory for him and he was full of all the classic preconceptions:

I checked up on my notions about Russia and found I had a sordid one from reading Dostoievsky's Crime and Punishment, a tragic one from seeing Tolstoy's Resurrection, a terrible one from reading George Kennon's Darkest Siberia. I recalled for the first time in years, stories a nurse of Finnish origin used to tell us children about cruel czars poisoned by apples, of boyards who threw serfs to wolves ... I had a jumble of Nihilists with bombs, corrupt functionaries, Red Sundays, cruel Cossacks.

Acknowledging how 'very little' he and his fellow Americans knew or understood about the Russian situation, Fleurot was soon given a briefing on what to expect by Ludovic Naudeau, correspondent for Le Temps, whose despatches from the Russian front had impressed him greatly. Naudeau had taken Fleurot to Contant's swanky restaurant for smoked salmon and caviar, where he warned him that 'Russia hits all writing men the same way':

You fall under a spell. You realize you are in another world, and you feel you must not only understand it: you must get it down on paper ... you will not know enough about Russia to explain anything until you have been here so long you are half-Russian yourself, and then you won't be able to tell anybody anything at all about it ... You will find yourself tempted to compare Russia with other countries. Don't.

Fleurot and Naudeau were by no means the only foreign journalists in Petrograd just before the revolution broke. The reports of Reuters correspondent Guy Beringer, as well as those of Walter Whiffen and Roger Lewis of Associated Press, were being syndicated in the West, and there was an established coterie of other, mainly British reporters in the city: Hamilton Fyfe for the Daily Mail, Harold Williams, a New Zealander writing for the Daily Chronicle, Arthur Ransome of the Daily News and Observer, and Robert Wilton of The Times, all of whom were filing regular reports, though generally without bylines. Fleurot was soon joined by fellow Americans Florence Harper – the first American female journalist in Petrograd – and her sidekick, photographer Donald Thompson, both of whom worked for the illustrated magazine Leslie's Weekly.

The unsinkable Thompson, from Topeka, Kansas, was a scrawny but feisty five feet four inches, familiar for his signature jodhpurs and flat cap, the Colt in his waistband and the camera he carried with him everywhere. He had tried eight times to get to the Western Front as a war photographer – each time being turned back by the military authorities, his film or cameras confiscated. He finally made it, filming at Mons, Verdun and the Somme, among many locations on the front line, and smuggling his film back to London or New York. He had headed to Russia in December 1916 with Harper, having been tipped off that 'they expect trouble here', and with an additional commission to shoot footage for Paramount.

Like many Americans in Russia for the first time, Thompson, Harper and Fleurot, as well as others who followed, had 'come breezing into Petrograd with that all-conquering, all-knowing American optimism'. But 'gradually the weather, the melancholy of the Russians, the seriousness of everything under the sun, would dampen their mood'. To get to Petrograd, Harper and Thompson had taken the alternative route into Russia then available: a boat across the Pacific to Japan and thence to Manchuria, where they picked up the Trans-Siberian railroad. They arrived complete with Thompson's bulky cameras and tripod and Harper's extensive and mostly unsuitable wardrobe, Thompson having noted with amusement that 'Florence Harper, on account of her extra baggage, had to buy six extra railroad tickets'. Arriving in Petrograd at 1.00 a.m. on 13 February 1917, they headed to that beacon for all foreign visitors – the Astoria Hotel – only to be told there were no beds. After much wheedling, Harper was given 'a cubbyhole so small that there wasn't even room for my hand luggage'. Thompson, however, was obliged to spend his first night wandering the freezing-cold streets in a blizzard until he was able to find a cheap third-class hotel.

The difficulties of finding accommodation in the city were now extreme. US special attaché James Houghteling had noted that 'Every hotel is jammed and no house or apartment for rent stays on the market for twenty-four hours. Guests sleep in the private dining rooms and the corridors of the hotels, and one can never get a bath before nine A.M. or after nine P.M. because some unfortunate is bedded down in every bathroom.' Arriving in January, he had noted that his own hotel smelt 'like a third-class boarding house in Chicago'.

Much of the desperate shortage of rooms in the capital was a consequence of Germany having issued a threat in mid-January that its submarines would torpedo even neutral ships on sight; no passenger or cargo boats were running from the main terminals into Russia from Norway and Sweden, leaving many foreign nationals and travellers trapped in Petrograd. 'There are hundreds of people waiting here to get away, and hundreds more in Sweden and Norway,' wrote Scottish nurse Ethel Moir. Arriving in Petrograd in January, she and fellow nurse Lilias Grant had found themselves dumped out of the train from the Romanian front, into a 'great steep bank of snow', after which they had struggled with their kit bags to find droshkies, and had then only secured one night in a hotel, sleeping on the floor. After a fruitless search the following day, they appealed to Rev. Lombard at the English Church, who managed to get them rooms at the colony's British Nursing Home. It had been such a pleasure for them, after the rigours of the field hospitals, to spend the evening with Lombard, revelling in 'a real English fire, comfy armchairs, hot buttered toast'. These were 'such unheard-of luxuries', as too was the experience of sleeping 'in real beds and between sheets' again. But they were anxious about getting home: 'It's easier to get into Russia than to get out of it!' wrote Moir. 'And from what we hear, it will become yet more difficult – there are rumours of a revolution on all sides – one hears it everywhere.'

While waiting to leave the city and get back to the UK, Moir and Grant visited Lady Georgina Buchanan and her daughter Meriel and learned something of the tireless relief work being undertaken in Petrograd by the members of the British colony, particularly with the thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting in their eastern homelands. They were pouring into the Warsaw Station after days crowded into freight cars, and from there were sent to filthy temporary wooden barracks nearby. These were little more than sheds filled with triple or quadruple rows of bunks, housing two to three hundred people each. Other refugees sought shelter in the draughty open hangar that was the station itself – sleeping on the cold stone floors or climbing into empty trucks and freight cars. Some were housed in damp, windowless cellars. Disease was rife, particularly outbreaks of measles and scarlatina; everywhere one looked, the refugees 'lay all day long with expressionless, bulging eyes, half stupefied in the stifling stench of the place.'

The sight of so many pitiful children with insufficient clothing and often no shoes, their bodies and hair crawling with lice, had galvanised a surge of expatriate philanthropic work. Twice a day the lines of refugees formed at the door of the feeding station set up for them, shivering in their rags and waiting for the brass token that entitled them to a piece of black bread and a bowl of English porridge, 'doled out to them by the bustling ladies of the British Colony' and led from the front – as always – by the redoubtable Lady Buchanan. Donations of clothes and shoes for the refugees were sorted at the British embassy by more groups of lady volunteers, whom she had also commandeered; the room used for the purpose, as her daughter Meriel recalled, 'resembled nothing more than an old rag-market'. Not content with her work at the embassy and at the refugee feeding station, Lady Buchanan was also patron of a maternity hospital for Polish refugees in Petrograd, which had been opened by the Millicent Fawcett Medical Unit in Russia, with substantial help from the Tatiana Refugee Committee, named for the Tsar's second daughter, who was its honorary head.

As self-appointed grande dame of the colony's war work, Lady Buchanan had therefore been somewhat put out when her domain was invaded by a rival, in the guise of the small, frail but feisty Lady Muriel Paget. A passionate philanthropist, who had spent nine years running soup kitchens for the poor in deprived parts of London, Lady Muriel was, like the ambassador's wife, from the upper echelons of the aristocracy: a daughter of the Earl of Winchilsea and married to a baronet. Having heard of the appalling casualty rates suffered by the Russian army on the eastern front, Lady Muriel had lobbied a distinguished committee of supporters in the UK, including Alexandra the Queen Mother, for an Anglo-Russian Hospital Unit to be set up in Russia under the auspices of the Red Cross. As its chief organiser, she headed the hospital's team of surgeons, physicians, orderlies and twenty trained and ten volunteer (VAD) nurses; she also had plans for three field hospitals to be established in Russia. Funded by donations from the British public, the hospital had beds for 180 wounded Russian soldiers, or two hundred if the staff pushed the beds closer together. It had been fortunate to secure for its premises Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich's neobaroque palace, loaned for the duration of the war thanks to some persuasion by Sir George Buchanan.

Located at number 41 Nevsky, on the corner of the Anichkov Bridge opposite the Dowager Empress's palace on the Fontanka River, the palace was a handsome, dark-pink stuccoed building with cream pilasters and surrounds, but its suitability as a hospital left much to be desired. Its drainage was primitive and the plumbing non-existent. Running water, baths and lavatories had to be installed as a matter of urgency, while the lofty, gilded concert hall and two interconnecting large reception rooms were turned into hospital wards. An operating theatre, X-ray department, laboratory and sterilising rooms were created in other partitioned rooms. All the palace's lovely parquet floors were covered in linoleum and the tapestries and damask-silk wall hangings, as well as plasterwork cherub carvings, were masked with plywood.

Lady Buchanan's modest British Colony Hospital on Vasilievsky Island, with its forty-two beds for soldiers and eight for officers, was inevitably eclipsed by the grander and better-funded new Anglo-Russian Hospital, which proudly raised the Union flag above its front door. On 18 January 1916 it had been officially opened by the Dowager Empress and the Tsar's two eldest daughters, Olga and Tatiana, with various other grand duchesses and dukes as well as the Buchanans in attendance. Lady Buchanan had posed for the obligatory group photograph swathed in large hat and furs, but did not disguise her resentment: 'I have nothing to do with the Anglo Russian Hospital,' she would complain to her sister-inlaw, 'as Lady Muriel Paget has carefully kept me out of it.' It was just as well, for all Lady Georgina's time was already consumed by her own relief work, which even extended to the mounting of a benefit performance in February of Lady Huntworth's Experiment, by Mrs Waller's Company, a London-based troupe that had been touring Europe – all proceeds going to the purchase of 'warm clothing for the Russian soldiers'.

Lady Georgina was ubiquitous that winter: not just at the embassy workroom and the refugee feeding station, but sorting hospital stores at a Red Cross depot and helping escaped Russian prisoners of war as they arrived back home. 'I have given shirts, socks, tobacco etc to nearly 3000 besides giving them all clothes for their wives and children. They write me such letters of gratitude,' she wrote in a letter home. But by the beginning of 1917 she was complaining of never having 'a moment to sit down, and as for reading a book or any such luxuries one never can indulge in even thinking of the like'. Her hospital was full. No bed was empty for more than a day; 'in fact they telephone every day to ask if we can't possibly take in more ... everything is beginning to run short'. The Anglo-Russian Hospital was also besieged. Since opening, it had been rapidly filled to overflowing with serious cases, many of them with terrible septic wounds. In the main these were the result of gas gangrene, the scourge – so surgeon Geoffrey Jefferson observed – of the Russian front. The smell from the suppurating wounds was terrible, for many of the wounded had taken four or five days to be brought to Petrograd from the front. But it was far too cold to throw open the windows for more than a few minutes at a time to clear the air.

Dorothy Seymour, a VAD who had recently transferred to the Anglo-Russian Hospital from nursing on the Western Front, had found her arrival in Petrograd rather disconcerting. The city was 'very smelly, very large and very unwarlike, much more so than London'. The war may have seemed a long way away, but not, however, the heightened sense of social tension that she encountered: 'politics are thrilling out here but it's difficult to get a grasp of them at all, it's such a glorious muddle,' she wrote to her mother. But they were lucky: 'being Red Cross we are very well fed'; they even had the luxury of having their 'hot water bottles filled at night and hot water in the mornings'. As the daughter of a general and granddaughter of an Admiral of the Fleet, and holding an honorary position at court as a Woman of the Bedchamber to Princess Christian, Dorothy was extremely well connected. But she failed to be impressed by the ambassadress: 'Lady G.B. is very sniffy about who she invites and has a deadly household, so nobody takes much notice of her,' she told her mother. Apparently the snobbish Lady Buchanan 'drew the line at VADs' when inviting people to tea, so Seymour cultivated her own contacts on the Petrograd social circuit, going to the ballet, to the opera to see Chaliapin sing Boris Godunov and dining out almost every night with British naval and military attachés – noting with surprise that in wartime Petrograd 'no man changes for dinner'. She counted herself lucky that her work in the bandaging room at the ARH was 'light'. It was difficult enough coping with learning Russian, but for many of the VADs – missing their English Cross & Blackwell jam and having to share cramped, inadequate quarters or spend hours making up bandages at the Winter Palace hospital, instead of nursing – Petrograd was a challenge.


Excerpted from Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport. Copyright © 2016 Helen Rappaport. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Glossary of Eyewitnesses xiii

Author's Note xxv

Map of Petrograd 1917 xxviii

Prologue: 'The Air is Thick with Talk of Catastrophe' 1

Part 1 The February Revolution

1 'Women are Beginning to Rebel at Standing in Bread Lines' 7

2 'No Place for an Innocent Boy from Kansas' 40

3 'Like a Bank Holiday with Thunder in the Air' 61

4 'A Revolution Carried on by Chance' 82

5 Easy Access to Vodka 'Would Have Precipitated a Reign of Terror' 106

6 'Good to be Alive These Marvelous Days' 122

7 'People Still Blinking m the Light of the Sudden Deliverance' 134

8 The Field of Mars 152

9 Bolsheviki! It Sounds 'Like All that the World Fears' 160

Part 2 The July Days

10 'The Greatest Thing in History since Joan of Arc' 187

11 'What. Would the Colony Say if We Ran Away?' 207

12 'This Pest-Hole of a Capital' 232

Part 3 The October Revolution

13 'For Color and Terror and Grandeur This Makes Mexico Look Pale' 257

14 'We Woke Up to Find the Town in the Hands of the Bolsheviks' 277

15 'Crazy People Killing Each Other Just Like We Swat Flies at Home' 301

Postscript: The Forgotten Voices of Petrograd 324

Acknowledgements 335

Notes 341

Bibliography 385

Index 405

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Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading this it was obvious the material camef rom political and social circles as well as historical documents and made for a full, rich image of a very turbulent and important time which is usually summed up in far too simplistic terms. Love it and will read again because sparks questions and desire to know more details. READ!