Dispatches From the Revolution: Russia 1916-18

Dispatches From the Revolution: Russia 1916-18

by Morgan Philips-Price, Tania Rose (Editor)



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745312057
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 07/20/1997
Pages: 196
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 1.25(h) x 9.00(d)

About the Author

George Lambie is a Principal Lecturer in the Department of Public Policy at De Montfort University in Leicester. He is also a Visiting Professor of the University of Havana and joint-Editor of the International Journal of Cuban Studies. His writings on Cuba have won academic awards.

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Russia in 1915-16

When Price left England in December 1914 a press campaign led by The Times was being worked up to convince public opinion that Russia widely perceived to be a repressive autocracy – was going to become a democracy under the influence of France and Britain and would save Western Europe by 'steamrollering' into Germany. Vast numbers of men were indeed deployed against the Austrian Empire in Galicia and against Germany via Poland, and for a few weeks in the autumn of 1914 the Russian armies had seemed invincible. But by the time Price arrived in Russia they had begun to fall back. There had been an almost incredible lack of preparation for the supply of munitions or even such basic necessities of war as boots. In the first ten months of the war Russian casualties amounted to nearly four million men. By the spring of 1915 the armies were everywhere in retreat. Price made several visits to the fronts, was himself caught in the retreat from Lemburg, and watched the burning of the Galician oil fields by the Austrians. Military control over the civil authorities in the rear of the armies was both extensive and ruthless. He saw whole areas being cleared of their civilian populations and Jews being led away in chains. He had been given introductions to a number of key political figures in the capital, including the Foreign Minister, Sazonov, and the head of the Russian Red Cross, Guchkov. He secured interviews with them but then found that the censors would not pass what he had written about them. 'Rather than bury my conscience in Europe I decided to betake myself to Asia,' he wrote, although in all honesty he was not sorry to go. He set out for Tiflis early in June 1915.

Anything he wrote about Russian politics and economics between June 1915 and April 1917 was heavily dependent on what he could find in the Russian press, although he talked to soldiers and civilians wherever he went and his articles are full of reported conversations. The first of the letters published in this collection of his writings is an attempt to summarise the events of the ten preceding months for the benefit of his English correspondents, primarily Hirst and Trevelyan. The letter contains some statements that cannot be corroborated in detail, but the general picture he describes is borne out in any history of the period. Thus among the subjects mentioned in this letter, Price had seen for himself the oppression of the Jews in Poland, but had probably only read about the attempts which had been made to impose Russian Orthodoxy upon the Roman Catholic populations in territory taken from the Austrians. Similarly he had seen for himself the shortage of munitions at the front but could only have read about the dismissal of the War Minister, Sukhomlinov, when the scandal of his mismanagement finally became uncontainable.

In August 1915 the Duma [Russian Parliament] began to demand more formal measures for the co-ordination of the war effort, such as the creation of a Defence Council representing the government departments, trades, industries and voluntary organisations most concerned, as well as the Duma itself. Resolutions in favour of political reform began to be passed. In response to public opinion a number of the most reactionary ministers were dismissed. On 7 September a Progressive Bloc was formed consisting of the deputies of virtually all the parties except those on the extreme Right and the Social Democrats. It began to look as if something like a constitutional monarchy might be in the process of evolution.

Inevitably there was a reaction. The 'plot' to which Price refers was probably a mixture of fact and rumour, but it was true enough that the Tsarina, whose theory of autocracy was even more extreme than that of her husband, began to meddle in government affairs. Five days after the formation of the Progressive Bloc the Duma was prorogued. All the factories in Petrograd went on strike as if to confirm the need to reinstate a more repressive regime. Under the influence of the Tsarina the Tsar took over as Commander-in-Chief from his uncle, the able and liberal-minded Grand Duke Nicholas. From now on he was more often away at the Army Headquarters than in Petrograd, leaving the Tsarina a free hand to pursue her intrigues. She was able to secure, in her turn, the dismissal of ministers of whom she, or the Court favourite, Rasputin, disapproved. It was not true that she was pro-German, but rumours of peace feelers were already circulating in all the belligerent countries in 1915, and Price's generalisations about the pro-German-ness of the Court were probably taken from the Liberal and anti-German press, who were only too willing to believe in the Tsarina's complicity.

The emotional reception of the Tsar at the opening of the following session of the Duma in February 1916 was possibly due to wishful thinking about the prospects of internal reform among members of the Progressive Bloc. But the replacement, on the eve of the opening of the session, of a merely incompetent Prime Minister, Goremykin, by an out-and-out reactionary, Sturmer, demonstrated what was really being proposed. While Price was perhaps a little hazy as to the exact sequence of events in the summer and autumn of 1915, there is no question but that he was conveying an accurate impression of the state of the country. 'It is' wrote Sir Bernard Pares in his Fall of the Russian Monarchy 'from the autumn of 1915 that we must date the serious growth of national discontent.'

Memorandum to C. P. Trevelyan Tiflis, 30 March 1916

All last year the reaction was very strong. The religious persecution in Galicia, the cruel oppression of the Jews, the failure to carry out any reforms long promised in Poland, was finally crowned by the great scandals of last summer when wholesale bribery and corruption was discovered at the War Office. Popular discontent rose like a whirlwind and the War Minister resigned. Then followed a period of quiescence till the autumn ... In September last a reactionary plot was hatched and the Duma was summarily dismissed without any notice as to when it would be summoned again ... Strikes then broke out in Moscow and at the meeting of the United Provincial Councils of Empire which met at Moscow to discuss methods of organising war supplies in the provinces, some extraordinarily plain speaking took place which got into the press.

Then during November came another crisis. Germany proposed to Russia a separate peace on apparently pretty lenient terms. The Court Party round the Emperor, many of whom are Germans, coupled with some of the higher grades of the Bureaucracy, fearing that the rising popular discontent as a result of the mismanagement of the war would force them to give concessions to the people, favoured a peace with Germany in order to strangle this movement. The influence of Germany, they felt, was not so dangerous to Russian autocracy as that of France and England. The intellectuals, lower grade officials, professional classes, merchants and Moscow manufacturers, all of which represent in different forms the Liberal elements of the country, appear to have intervened, and rumour has it that Moscow threatened to rebel and call upon the army to go on fighting if Petersburg gave in. The Government was frightened and the crisis passed. The bourgeois and Liberal elements won their victory, which was for 'war and internal reform' against the Court and higher bureaucrats, who were for 'peace and internal reaction'. ... The Duma was summoned in February amid great excitement. For the first time in Russian history the Emperor came to the Duma and opened it, thus giving it a recognition which it has never had before.

The speeches showed a keen determination to continue the war. The extreme Right or Reactionary Party spoke for war, but not with such fervour as the Progressives ... the intellectuals and bourgeois, merchants and capitalists, who constitute the Cadet and kindred parties. They are the most keen for carrying on the war to the end, and the most bitter haters of everything German in the country ... They dislike Germany's economic hold over Russia and want to see Russia develop independently of outside influence. Some of them even said, in speeches in the Duma, that while they welcome English and French political influence they don't want their economic influence, and want Russia to be economically self-supporting ... These Progressives, or Russian Liberals, while very determined to get all concessions from the Government on internal questions, such as equal rights for small nationalities in the Empire, responsible government etc., are nevertheless on all foreign questions most chauvinist of any party in Russia, and are great believers in war to the last gasp as a means of saving Russia internally. They are the modern representatives of the old Slavophile school: strongly nationalist but more practical and, in internal affairs, liberal. It is safe to say that all the thinking men of Russia are in sympathy with these parties, which now call themselves in the Duma the 'Progressive Bloc'.

But now we come to the Social Democrats who, though a very small party in the Duma and in the country too, are interesting as showing exactly the same sort of split as in the Social Democrats of Germany and England. A part of them, about half, are for war with Germany and so are the Socialist Revolutionaries, because they think that Russia is threatened with German militarism. They seem to be like the English Trade Unionists. The other half, like the ILP in England, have been uncompromisingly against the war from the first and are now. I know their leader but have not seen him for some time. The other day he made a speech in the Duma, which was not reported but which I heard about, calling on the Government to say what the objects of the war were, and declaring most courageously that the masses of Europe were for peace and were only held to war by their rulers. The speech was violently attacked by Miliukov, the leader of the Progressive Bloc, who said that although Russia did not begin the war still she would not end it till she had got Constantinople – a rather naive admission of an appetite for territorial expansion ...

So you see Imperialism and militarism are as deeply rooted in Russia as in Germany, only in Russia it is less effective because it is badly organised. The common people, meanwhile, are getting daily more and more sick of the war. The economic situation is becoming serious. There is little capital in Russia. Loans and Treasury Bonds have a very limited market, so that the war is being financed on paper money, with the inevitable result of currency depreciation and high prices. The cost of living has risen 75 per cent. The wages in industrial centres increase only very slightly and the income of the peasants not at all. The deposits in the banks have been increased by three-and-a-half milliard roubles but this represents profits of contractors and private firms fattening on the war. There is no income tax in Russia so the whole burden is falling on the poor and they are beginning to get pretty restive. I have talked with many common soldiers on my visits to the fronts. The first thing they ask me is 'when is this war going to end? We want to go home – we have had enough'. That has been said to me not ten or a hundred times but I should think a thousand times these last three months. Even the lower grade of the bourgeois and some of the poorer intellectuals speak in this strain for they feel the economic pressure is becoming so serious. The other day Tiflis was without bread and sugar for three days. Disturbances have also taken place in Baku and Moscow, led by women.

Anyhow the war, with all its suffering for Russia, is certainly doing this much. It is forcing the Government to introduce a direct system of taxation and for the first time in the history of the country an income tax is before the Duma. All the large profits of the war contractors and the huge bribes taken by officials will now be unearthed and made to contribute and, last but not least, the vast estates of the Empire and the Imperial family, representing 35 per cent of the land of European Russia, which up to now has been left undeveloped and simply used as instruments for squeezing out revenue for the Imperial Chest will, if the logical result of this new taxation is followed up, have to contribute too. But before this takes place, there will be some pretty tough struggles and the future is one of absorbing interest. The autocracy and privileged classes will not yield their position easily, but the days of the old regime are numbered. Whether the chauvinism of the Progressive Bloc is likely to be better than the reactionary stagnation of the Court Party seems to me doubtful, but it is one of the changes that are obviously inevitable.

Meanwhile the silent masses suffer, and hardly a murmur breaks the sound of the tramp of Siberian peasant youth going off to kill and be killed by Arabian and Turkish shepherds.

Memorandum to C. P. Trevelyan Tiflis, 27 September 1916

Perhaps the most acute and dangerous problem in Russia is the land question and the status of the peasants. On this question it is very difficult to generalise, because the conditions are not the same all over the country. Thus where I have been in the government of Kharkov I found most favourable conditions. Landlords have never been very powerful there and most of the land has for a long time past been in the hands of the peasants, who are the descendants of old Cossack colonists, who received their lands free. In the villages I found here only men over 45, boys under 18 and women. The whole of the male population between these ages are at the war and my impression is that Russia has mobilised the whole of her available manhood ... Of course it must be remembered that a very large percentage of Russia's mobilised manhood is noncombatant, infinitely greater than any Western army, because in the cumbersome machinery of the Russian army there is always much leakage of strength. But the astounding thing is that this does not seem to have made any difference to the productiveness of Russian agriculture. Just the same amount of land is tilled and worked as before the war and agricultural production has decreased in the Empire by only a quite infinitesimal amount. I account for this first of all by the absolute sobriety among the peasants that remain in the villages. Before the war in Siberia, when I was there, I remember observing great drunkenness. The state of affairs is absolutely different now. Then again the price of agricultural produce is very high and the peasants are making money at the expense of the taxpayers and the urban population. Their increased wealth they are partly hiding in coin and partly laying out in agricultural machinery, which helps them to get over the labour difficulty. So what with this and sobriety, one Russian peasant produces from the land very much more each year than he produced before the war. In some governments where the landlords have long been poor, the peasants are steadily buying up the land. This is more the case in the south-western governments. Everywhere the principle of peasant proprietorship is growing and with it a feeling of economic independence which will give rise to a stronger political consciousness. In one house I went into with Professor Sobolev we talked first with the old people, an old man and woman. In discussing the war they ended their remarks by saying 'Glory to God; for our Emperor there will still be victory'. They were still living in the psychology of the reign of Nicholas I or Alexander II. Not so however was the younger generation of this household. They read the papers, knew all about Romania's entry into the war, knew about the naval battle of Jutland, wanted to know when the war would end and what Russia, that is the Russian people (not the Tsar), would gain by this war. They were intensely interested but quite calm and free from any bitterness, although it was clear they were in a state of great expectation.

On the other hand Russian friends of mine both here and in Kharkov, who have been in the central and northern governments, tell me that the disposition of the peasants that are left on the land there is very different and much more bitter. A Russian lady who has been about a good deal among the peasants of the government of Moscow tells me that the peasants there are talking most extraordinarily openly and frankly and with an independence that she has never heard before in her life. What most seems to anger them is the fact that the Government is doing nothing to provide after the war for the maimed and disabled soldiers and they say openly what they will do if Petrograd does not bring itself into line with their wishes. In the more central governments of Orel, Kursk, Kaluga and Riazan the land question appears to be acute. Here the remnants of the old aristocracy are strong and there are great estates of Grand Dukes to whom the possession of land is part of a social privilege. This sort of landlordism has weakened a good deal, of recent years, from natural causes. But it remains in these governments and in times like these entrenches itself all the more strongly behind its privileges. Here the peasants, on emancipation from serfdom, received – in spite of all that Alexander II could do – very small land portions, and since then they have increased in numbers, making their position worse. I hear that Petrograd is alarmed at the feeling in these governments, for there is almost certain to be an attempt by some means or other to increase the peasants' land by dividing up the estates after the war. It is too much to expect, with the present regime in Petrograd, that the problem will be handled with statesmanship. On the other hand I doubt a conflagration. The Government is strong and has a large force of military and civil police, which I have heard variously estimated at from one-and-a-half to two millions. They could probably count on bribing a part of the army, and for the rest the soldiers on demobilisation will be so keen to return to their homes, that they will probably throw over any idea of marching on Petrograd out of sheer exhaustion. Besides, as I point out, this particular form of discontent is not found all over the country and in other parts takes other forms.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements, viii,
Foreword by Eric Hobsbawm, ix,
Introduction, 1,
Notes on Russian Political Parties, 1880-1918, 12,
1. Russia in 1915-16, 16,
2. The Eve of the Revolution, 25,
3. The March Revolution, 28,
4. The Provisional Government, April-August 1917, 35,
5. The Interregnum, August-November 1917, 51,
6. The November Revolution, 87,
7. November 1917-February 1918, 100,
8. After Brest-Litovsk, March-August 1918, 123,
9. The Allied Intervention, August 1918, 138,
Epilogue, 154,
Biographical Notes, 157,
Notes and References, 169,
Bibliography, 177,
Index, 179,

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