The Russian Revolution as seen by Americans

On a damp night in July 1917, American journalist Arno Dosch-Fleurot joined protesters marching along Petrograd’s Nevsky Prospekt when shots suddenly rang out. Banners pleading for freedom and liberty crashed to the ground as blood stained the Russian capital’s hottest thoroughfare. After diving to hide in a gutter, the New York World correspondent came face to face with a Russian officer and asked him what was going on. “Russians, my compatriots, are idiots,” he replied. “It’s a sleepless night of madness.”

Workers on strike on the first day of the revolution. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

There had already been too many wild nights in 1917 as the Russian Revolution rocked Petrograd (renamed St. Petersburg at the start of World War I to sound less German), and Dosch-Fleurot was just one of many strangers to bear witness. The city was home to a large community of foreign diplomats, journalists, businessmen, spies and aid workers, and author Helen Rappaport dug up their diaries and private letters to tell how the Russian Revolution unfolded. unfolded before the eyes of these expatriates in it. new book “Caught in Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge.”

“St. Petersburg was a very Western city with a lot more contact with Western culture than Moscow,” Rappaport tells HISTORY. In addition to a large British population, the city was home to a large American community that included employees of large companies such as International Harvester, the Singer Sewing Machine Company, and Westinghouse.The American presence only increased after the start of World War I when contractors arrived to sell arms to the Imperial government.

US diplomat Fred Dearing.

American diplomat Fred Dearing, based in Petrograd in 1917.

At the dawn of 1917, Petrograd was a trembling and hungry city, exhausted by a war that had left more than 7 million Russians dead, wounded or captured. “The whole town was dejected and demoralized by the horrific Russian losses on the Eastern Front,” Rappaport explained. A historically freezing winter collided with burning anger to push Petrograd to the brink. Crippling wartime shortages forced women to queue for hours for bread, meat and milk as their frozen fingers tightened their shawl around their heads.

“The air is heavy with talk of disaster,” US Embassy official Fred Dearing wrote in his diary, while American Leighton Rogers wrote that the city was “like a tight thread”. Everyone in Petrograd seemed to sense the danger except Tsar Nicholas II. “There were many signs, but Nicholas led such a blind life that he didn’t hear that the people wanted political reform, better working conditions and responsible government. The British Ambassador was practically on his knees, begging the Tsar to act before the whole abyss opened before him, but Nicholas refused to listen to the warnings.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.  (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. (Credit: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Empty stomachs, rather than political philosophy, launched the start of the Russian Revolution, and Rappaport says the spark that ignited the political powder keg came on March 8, 1917, when tens of thousands of protesters marked the Day International Women’s Day marching through the streets of Petrograd. demanding not only the right to vote, but food for their families. In the days that followed, protests grew in size and turned violent as Imperial forces attempted to maintain order. Courts, police stations and other buildings of the Tsarist regime were set on fire. Morgues could not keep up with the flow of bodies, which were dumped in mass graves.

When soldiers from the Petrograd garrison shifted their support to the protesters, four centuries of Tsarist rule in Russia came to an end with the abdication of Nicholas II. Crowds toppled imperial monuments and ripped tsarist regalia from bridges and street signs around the city, leaving them shattered to pieces. Expats gave chilling tales of mobs turning against the authorities, especially the despised mounted police known as “pharaohs”, whom they beat to death and threw from rooftops. The official toll of the February Revolution – supposedly because the Julian calendar used in Tsarist Russia was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West – published in Pravda was 1,382 killed and wounded, but the number actual was probably considerably higher.

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Workers and soldiers march through the streets of Petrograd after the first Russian revolution in February 1917. (Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

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Americans saw no parallels between the Russian uprising and their own revolution, but Rappaport says there were clear echoes of the French Revolution, which was also sparked by women marching on a royal palace demanding peace. food. “The Russians in this popular revolution walked around singing ‘La Marseillaise’ and talking about ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’. There was a certain romance in the early days because it was so spontaneous.

Unfortunately, the February Revolution also imitated the French Revolution by giving way to anarchy, violence and repression. As Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government floundered, Petrograd expats watched in horror as the air of optimism quickly turned toxic. Their diaries and letters detail the descent into violence as looting and killings became commonplace.

Revolutionary barricades in Petrograd after the revolution. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Revolutionary barricades in Petrograd after the revolution. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Rappaport says the foreigners did not try to alter the course of the Russian Revolution. “They were really spectators. They were quite horrified by the anarchy. Once the revolution snowballed into shooting, violence and looting, most sensible foreigners stayed home and kept their doors locked. Americans who ventured into the streets of the city sewed the Stars and Stripes onto their clothes to emphasize that they were impartial foreigners.

The February Revolution had surprised the Bolsheviks as much as anyone, and they weren’t strong enough to take control by early 1917, Rappaport says. The return from exile of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, however, galvanized the radical socialists. In the fall of 1917, the people of Petrograd were so desperate for relief from the seemingly endless chaos that they cared little who might bring it.

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Poster of Lenin leading the Russian people. (Credit: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

“People were so fed up with the violence, insecurity and lack of firm government over the year that some didn’t care if the Germans took control of the city, because they could at least put things in order so they could go on with their lives,” Rappaport says. “The average Russian didn’t care who was grabbing power as long as he was bringing peace.”

It was the Bolsheviks who finally took power in the October Revolution. Little blood was shed in the overthrow of the interim government, but that will not be the case in the years and decades to come.

Julia Dent Grant, later Princess Cantacuzene Spiransky, granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant.

Julia Dent Grant, later Princess Cantacuzene Spiransky, granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant.

Some of the Americans who fled Petrograd after the October Revolution left everything they had behind. This included President Ulysses S. Grant’s granddaughter, Julia Grant, who had become a doyen of Petrograd society after her marriage to a Russian aristocrat transformed her into Princess Cantacuzene Spiransky. “She pretty much lost her lot,” Rappaport says. “Like many expats, they lost businesses, homes, furniture – literally everything was taken.”

Rappaport says the first-hand accounts of Americans and other foreigners in Petrograd are valuable because they provide an unvarnished window into the events of 1917. “They were private citizens who wrote personal diary entries or letters . They had no particular political agenda. I looked at Russian accounts and had to go through so many tedious policies. Their response, however, was natural and instinctive.

“It’s very interesting to see as the year progresses, as the vast majority of the overseas community initially welcomed the change,” says Rappaport. “They knew that the Russian people were very oppressed. They were hopeful, but there is this growing sense of horror and disillusionment as the year progresses. After October, foreigners are absolutely appalled by the oppression and violence of the Bolshevik regime. As they left, they wondered what the Russians had done by replacing tsarism with something even worse.