The taking of the Winter Palace

November 8, 2017 is continuing its series 1917: The View from the Streets with excerpts from a firsthand account of the revolution by socialist journalist Albert Rhys Williams, written for the New York Evening Post and published as a book in 1921. Along with the more famous Ten Days That Shook the World by fellow journalist John Reed, Williams' Through the Russian Revolution provides a riveting picture of the struggle to create a new society as Russian workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants began seizing control over their lives.

In the excerpt below from chapter eight, Williams describes the conquest of Petrograd's Winter Palace with the fall of the Provisional Government--and the discipline of the revolution that won out over the instinct to loot necessities from among its treasures. SW's series on 1917 is edited by John Riddell and co-published at his website.

THE Russian poet, Tyutchev, writes:

Blessed is he who visited this world
In moments of its fateful deeds:
The highest Gods invited him to come,
A guest, with them to sit at feast
And be a witness of their mighty spectacle.

Twice blessed were five Americans: Louise Bryant, John Reed, Bessie Beatty, Alexander Gumberg and myself. We were spectators of the great drama enacted in the halls of Smolny: we also saw the other big event of the night of November 7th--the taking of the Winter Palace.

We had been sitting in Smolny, gripped by the pleas of the speakers, when out of the night that other voice crashed into the lighted hall--the cannon of the cruiser Aurora, firing at the Winter Palace. Steady, insistent, came the ominous beat of the cannon, breaking the spell of the speakers upon us. We could not resist its call and hurried away.

Outside, a big motor-truck with engines throbbing was starting for the city. We climbed aboard and tore thru the night, a plunging comet, flying a tail of white posters in our wake. From alleys and doorways dim figures darted out to snatch them up and read:

Moments after the capture of the Winter Palace in Petrograd
Moments after the capture of the Winter Palace in Petrograd (Pyotr Novitsky | Wikimedia Commons)

To the Citizens of Russia:

The Provisional Government is deposed. The state power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.

The aims for which the people were fighting--immediate proposal of a democratic peace, abolition of landlord property rights in the land, labor control over production, creation of a Soviet Government--these aims have been achieved.

Long live the revolution of workmen, soldiers and peasants!

Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies
October 25, 1917

This announcement is a trifle previous. The ministers of the Provisional Government, minus Kerensky, still sit at council in the Winter Palace. That is why the guns of the Aurora are in action. They are thundering into the ears of the ministers the summons to surrender. True, only blank shells are firing now, but they set the air shivering, shaking the building and the nerves of the ministers within.

What else to read

Read other leaflets, statements and documents from the Russian Revolution in this series titled "1917: The View from the Streets" edited by John Riddell.

Bolshevik leaflet
To the revolutionary students of Russia

Mezhraionka leaflet
The day of the people's wrath is near

Menshevik leaflet
Only a provisional government can bring freedom and peace

Bolshevik leaflet
For a provisional revolutionary government

Mezhraionka leaflet
A day to prepare for conquering the enemy

Mezhraionka leaflet
For a general strike against autocracy

Mezhraionka leaflet
Soldiers, take power into your own hands!

Polish socialist workers' appeal
The only guarantee of Polish independence

Petrograd Soviet appeal
Joining together to achieve peace

Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
Calling for peace...and renewed offensives

Bolshevik and Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
A Bolshevik appeal finds an echo in the streets

Bolshevik and Petrograd Soviet Executive appeals
Responses to the July Days uprising

Bolshevik leaflets
The Bolsheviks retreat in order to advance

Albert Rhys Williams
On the left sat the Bolsheviks

Albert Rhys Williams
The soldiers in revolt

Albert Rhys Williams
Comrades of the sea

Albert Rhys Williams
The mighty cry of "All power to the Soviets"

Albert Rhys Williams
Making a new date in history

Albert Rhys Williams
The taking of the Winter Palace

Albert Rhys Williams
The red convicts of Cherm

As we come into the Palace Square the booming of the guns dies away. The rifles no longer crackle thru the dark. The Red Guards are crawling out to carry off their dead and dying. Out of the night a voice cries, "The Yunkers surrender." But mindful of their losses, the besieging sailors and soldiers cling to cover.

The Mob Enters the Palace

New throngs gather on the Nevsky. Forming a column, they pour thru the Red Arch and creep forward, silent. Near the barricade they emerge into the light blazing from within the Palace. They scale the rampart of logs, and storm thru the iron gateway into the open doors of the east wing--the mob swarming in behind them.

From cold and darkness, these proletarians come suddenly into warmth and light. From huts and barracks they pass into glittering salons and gilded chambers. This is indeed Revolution--the builders entering into the Palace they built.

And such a building! Ornate with statues of gold and bronze, and carpeted with Oriental rugs, its rooms hung with tapestries and paintings, and flooded with a million lights from the twinkling crystal chandeliers, its cellars crammed with rare wines and liquors of ancient vintage. Riches beyond their dreams are within their grasp. Why not grasp them?

A terrible lust lays hold of the mob--the lust that ravishing beauty incites in the long starved and long denied--the lust of loot. Even we, as spectators, are not immune to it. It burns up the last vestige of restraint and leaves one passion flaming in the veins--the passion to sack and pillage. Their eyes fall upon this treasure-trove, and their hands follow.

Along the walls of the vaulted chamber we enter there runs a row of huge packing-cases. With the butts of their rifles, the soldiers batter open the boxes, spilling out streams of curtains, linen, clocks, vases and plates.

Scorning such petty booty, the throngs swirl past to richer hunting-grounds. The vanguard presses forward thru gorgeous chambers opening into ever more gorgeous ones, lined with cabinets and wardrobes. They fall upon them with shouts of expectant joy. Then cries of anger and chagrin. They find mirrors shattered, panels kicked in, drawers rifled--everywhere the trail of vandals who have gone before. The Yunkers have taken the cream of the plunder.

So much is gone! So much intenser, then, the struggle for what remains. Who shall gainsay them the right to this Palace and its contents? All of it came out of their sweat and the sweat of their fathers. It is theirs by right of creation. It is theirs, too, by right of conquest. By the smoking guns in their hands and the courage in their hearts they have taken it. But how long can they keep it? For a century it was the Tsar's. Yesterday it was Kerensky's. Today it is theirs. Tomorrow it shall be--whose? No one can tell. This day the Revolution gives. Next day the Counter-Revolution may snatch away. Now while the prize is theirs shall they not make the most of it? Here where courtiers wantoned for a century shall they not revel for a night? Their outraged past, the feverish present, the uncertain future--everything urges them to grasp what they can now.

Pandemonium breaks loose in the Palace. It rolls and echoes with myriad sounds. Tearing of cloth and wood, clatter of glass from splintered windows, clumping of heavy boots upon the parquet floor, the crashing of a thousand voices against the ceiling. Voices jubilant, then jangling over division of the spoils. Voices hoarse, high-pitched, muttering, cursing.

Then another voice breaks into this babel--the clear, compelling voice of the Revolution. It speaks thru the tongues of its ardent votaries, the Petrograd workingmen. There is just a handful of them, weazened and undersized, but into the ranks of these big peasant soldiers they plunge, crying out: "Take nothing. The Revolution forbids it. No looting. This is the property of the people."

Children piping against a cyclone, dwarfs attacking an army of giants. So seem these protesters, trying to stem with words the onslaught of soldiers flushed with conquest, pillage-bent. The mob goes on pillaging. Why should it heed the protest of a handful of workmen?

The Restraining Hand of Revolution

But these workmen will be heeded. Back of their words they feel the will of the Revolution. It makes them fearless and aggressive. They turn upon the big soldiers with fury, hurl epithets into their faces, wrest the booty out of their hands. In a short time they have them on the defensive.

A big peasant making off with a heavy woolen blanket is waylaid by a little workingman. He grabs hold of the blanket, tugs away at one end of it, scolding the big fellow like a child.

"Let go the blanket," growls the peasant, his face convulsed with rage. "It's mine."

"No, no," the workingman cries, "it's not yours. It belongs to all the people. Nothing goes out of the Palace tonight."

"Well, this blanket goes out tonight. It's cold in the barracks!"

"I'm sorry you're cold, tovarish. Better for you to suffer cold than the Revolution to suffer disgrace by your looting."

"Devil take you," exclaims the peasant. "What did we make the Revolution for, anyhow? Wasn't it to give clothes and food to the people?"

"Yes, tovarish, the Revolution will give everything you need in due time, but not tonight. If anything goes out of here we will be called hooligans and robbers--not true Socialists. Our enemies will say that we came here not for revolution, but for loot. So we must take nothing. For this is the property of the people. Let us guard it for the honor of the Revolution."

"Socialism! The Revolution! Property of the People!" With this formula the peasant saw his blanket taken away from him. Always these abstract ideas adorned with capital letters taking things away from him. Once it was done with "Tsardom, The Glory of God." Now it was being done with "Socialism, Revolution, Property of the People."

Still there was something in this last concept that the peasant could grasp. It was in line with his communal training. As it took hold of his brain his hold on the blanket relaxed, and with a last tragic look at his precious treasure he shambled away. Later I saw him expounding to another soldier. He was talking about the "Property of the People."

Relentlessly the workingmen press home their advantage, using every tactic, pleading, explaining, threatening. In an alcove is a Bolshevik workingman, furiously shaking one hand at three soldiers, the other hand on his revolver.

"I hold you responsible, if you touch that desk," he cries.

"Hold us responsible!" jeer the soldiers. "Who are you? You broke into the Palace just as we did. We are responsible to no one but ourselves."

"You are responsible to the Revolution," retorts the workingman sternly. So deadly earnest is he that these men feel in him the authority of the Revolution. They hear and obey.

The Revolution loosed the daring and ardor in these masses. It used them to storm the Palace. Now it leashes them in. Out of bedlam it brings forth a controlling power--quieting, imposing order, posting sentries.

"All out! Clear the Palace!" sounds thru the corridors, and the throng begins to flow toward the doors. At each exit stands a self-appointed Committee of Search and Inspection. They lay hold of each man as he comes along, exploring his pockets, shirt and even his boots, gathering in a varied line of souvenirs; statuettes, candles, clothes-hangers, damask, vases. The owners plead like children for their trophies, but the committee is adamant repeating constantly, "Nothing goes out of the Palace tonight."

And nothing does go out that night on the persons of the Red Guards, tho prowlers and vandals later on make off with many valuables.

The commissars now turn to the Provisional Government and their defenders. They are rounded up and escorted to the exit. First, come the ministers, seized in session around the green baize table in the Hall of State. They file down in silence. From the crowd inside not a word or a jeer. But from the mob outside rises a blast of denunciation when a sailor calls for an automobile. "Make them walk, they have ridden long enough," the mob yells, making a lunge at the frightened ministers. The Red Sailors, with fixed bayonets, close around their captives and lead them out across the bridges of the Neva. Towering above all the convoy is Tereschenko, the Ukrainian capitalist, bound now from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Prison of Peter-Paul, reversing the journey of the Bolshevik, Trotsky, from the Prison of Peter-Paul to the office of Foreign Affairs.

The Yunkers were led out to cries of "Provocateurs! Traitors! Murderers!"--a sorry crestfallen lot. That morning each Yunker had vowed to us that he would fight until just one bullet was left. This last one, he would put thru his own brain rather than surrender to the Bolsheviks. Now he was giving up his arms to these Bolsheviks, solemnly promising never to take weapons against them again (Unhappy fellows! They were to break their promise.)

Last of the captives to leave the Palace were the members of the Women's Battalion. Most of them were of proletarian birth. "Shame! Shame!" cried the Red Guards, "Working-women fighting against workingmen." To drive home the indignation they felt, some grabbed the girls by the arms, shaking and scolding them.

This was about the sum total of the casualties among the soldier girls, tho later one of them committed suicide. Next day the hostile press spread tales of gruesome atrocities against the Women's Battalion, alongside of stories of sack and pillage of the Palace by the Red Guards.

Yet nothing is more alien to the essential nature of the working-class than destructiveness. Were it not so, history might have a different story to tell of the morning of November eighth. It might have to record that the magnificent edifice of the Tsars was left a heap of crumbling stones and smoking embers by the vengeance of a long-suffering people.

For a century it had stood there upon the Neva, a cold and heartless thing. The people had looked to it for light, and it had brought forth darkness. They had cried to it for compassion, and it had answered with the lash, the knout, the burning of villages, exile in Siberia. One winter morning in 1905 thousands of them had come here, defenseless, petitioning the Little Father for redress of wrongs. The Palace had answered with rifle and cannon, reddening the snow with their blood. To the masses the building was a monument of cruelty and oppression. Had they razed it to the ground, it would have been but one more instance of the wrath of an outraged people, removing from their eyes forever the hated symbol of their suffering.

Instead they proceeded to remove the historic landmark from all likelihood of damage.

Kerensky had done the opposite. He had recklessly put the Winter Palace in the arena of conflict by making it the center of his cabinet and his own sleeping quarters. But the representatives of these storming masses who had captured the Palace, declared that it was not theirs nor the Soviets', but the heritage of all. By Soviet decree it was made the Museum of the People. The custody of it was formally placed in the hands of a committee of artists.

A New Attitude Towards Property

So events gave the lie to another dire prophecy. Kerensky, Dan and other of the intelligentsia had shrieked against the Revolution, predicting a hideous orgy of crime and plunder, the loosing of the basest passions of the mob. Once the hungry and embittered masses got in motion, they said, like a maddened herd they would go trampling down, wrecking, and destroying everything. "Even Gorky was prophesying the end of the world" (Trotsky).

And now the Revolution has come. There are, indeed, isolated acts of vandalism; rich-clad bourgeois still return home minus their great fur coats; mobs work havoc before the Revolution can rein them in.

But there is one outstanding fact. The first fruits of the Revolution are law and order. Never was Petrograd safer than after passing into the hands of the masses. Unprecedented quiet reigns in the streets. Hold-ups and robberies drop almost to zero. Robbers and thugs quail before the iron hand of the proletariat.

It is not merely negative restraint--order rising out of fear. The Revolution begets a singular respect for the rights of property. In the shattered windows of the shops, within hands' reach of passing men in desperate need, are foodstuffs and clothing. They remain untouched. There is something pathetic in the sight of hungry men having food within their grasp and not grasping it, something awesome in the constraint engendered by the Revolution. It exerts its subtle influence everywhere. Into the far-off villages it reaches. No longer are the peasants burning the great estates. Yet it is the upper classes who assert that in them lies true respect of the sanctity of property. A curious claim at the end of the World War for which the governing classes are responsible. By their fiat, cities were given to the torch, the face of the land covered with ashes, the bottom of the sea strewn with ships, the structure of civilization shot to pieces, and even now still more terrible instruments of destruction are being prepared.

What basis is there for true respect of property in the bourgeoisie? Actually they produce little or nothing. To the privileged, property is something that comes by cleverness, by chance inheritance, by stroke of fortune. With them it is largely a matter of titles, deeds and papers.

But to the working classes, property is a thing of tears and blood. It is an exhausting act of creation. They know its cost in aching muscles and breaking backs.

With shoulders back and breast astrain,
And bathed in sweat that falls like rain,
Thru midday heat with gasping song,
He drags the heavy barge along.

So goes the song of the Volga boatmen.

What men have brought forth in pain and labor they cannot wantonly annihilate, any more than a mother can destroy her child. They, out of whose thews and muscles the thing has issued, will best guard and cherish it. Knowing its cost, they feel its sacredness. Even before works of art the rude, untaught masses stand with reverence. Only vaguely do they glimpse their meaning. But they see in them the incarnation of effort. And all labor is holy.

The Social Revolution is in truth the apotheosis of the rights of property. It invests it with a new sanctity. By transferring property into the hands of the producers it gives the keeping of wealth into the hands of its natural and zealous guardians--the makers of it. The creators are the best conservators.

Source: From chapter eight of Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution. (Boni and Liveright, 1921), pages 105-118.

A note on Russian dates: The Julian calendar used by Russia in 1917 ran 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar that is in general use today.

Further Reading

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