The soldiers in revolt

August 30, 2017 is continuing its ongoing 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 every aspect of their daily lives.

In the excerpt below from chapter four, Williams writes about conditions in the countryside where those left behind mourned the victims of the Tsar's war, while soldiers began to organize to disobey their orders and pull down their old masters. SW's series on 1917 is edited by John Riddell and co-published at his website.

The Man on Horseback

In the summer of 1917 1 travelled far and wide thru Russia. From all sides rose the lamentation of a stricken people. I heard it in the textile mills of Ivanovo, the Fair grounds of Nijni and the market-squares of Kiev. It came to me from the holds of steamers on the Volga and at night from rafts and barges drifting down the Dnieper. The burden of the people's sorrow was the war, "The cursed war!"

Everywhere I saw the blight and wreckage of war. In the Ukraine I drove out over those rolling lands which made Gogol exclaim: "You steppes! O God! How lovely you are!" We stopped at a little village folded in the hills and about three hundred women, forty old men and boys and a score of crippled soldiers gathered round our zemstvo wagon. When I stood up to address them I asked: "How many ever heard of Washington?" One lad raised his hand. "How many have heard of Lincoln?" Three hands. "Kerensky?" About ninety. "Lenin?" Ninety again. "Tolstoi?" One hundred and fifty hands.

They enjoyed this, laughing together at the foreigner and his funny accent. Then a foolish blunder. I asked, "Who of you have lost someone in the war?" Nearly every hand went up, and a wail swept thru that laughing throng, like a winter wind moaning in the trees. Two old peasants fell against the wagon wheels sobbing, and shaking my platform. A lad ran out of the crowd, crying: "My brother---they killed my brother!" And the women, drawing their platoks to their eyes, or clasped in each other's arms, wept and wept, until I wondered where all the tears could come from. Who would have dreamed that behind those placid faces lay so much grief?

Russian peasants in 1917
Russian peasants in 1917

This was but one of the thousands of Russian villages which the war had stripped of every able-bodied man. It was one of countless villages to which the wounded came crawling back, crippled, eyeless, or armless. Millions never returned at all. They lay in that great grave, 1,500 miles long stretching from the Black Sea to the Baltic--the Russian front against the Germans. There, peasants with only clubs in their hands, driven up against the machine guns of the Germans, were mowed down en masse.

There were plenty of guns in Archangel. They had even been loaded on cars, and started for the front. But merchants who wanted those cars for their wares, slipped a few thousand rubles to the officials; so, ten miles out of Archangel, the munitions were dumped and the cars shunted back to be reloaded with champagnes, automobiles, and Parisian dresses.

Life was gay and dazzling in Petrograd and the big cities---big profits in this war business---but it was cold and bloody business for 12,000,000 soldiers driven into the trenches by order of the Czar.

And now under Kerensky there were still 12,000,000 under arms. They were conscripts, dragged from ploughs and workshops to have guns thrust in their hands. The ruling-class used every device to keep those weapons in the soldiers' hands. It waved the flag and screamed "Victory and glory." It organized Women's Battalions of Death crying "Shame on you men to let girls do your fighting." It placed machine-guns in the rear of rebelling regiments declaring certain death to those who retreated. But all to no avail.

The Soldiers in Revolt

In thousands the soldiers were throwing down their guns and streaming from the front. Like plagues of locusts they came, clogging railways, highways and waterways. They swarmed down on trains, packing roofs and platforms, clinging to car-steps like clusters of grapes, sometimes evicting passengers from their berths. A Y.M.C.A. man swears he saw this sign: "Tovarish Soldiers: Please do not throw passengers out of the window after the train is in motion." Perhaps an exaggeration. But they did throw our suitcases out of the window.

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

It happened on a trip I made to Moscow with Alex Gumberg. Our compartment was crowded, and the Russians, having almost hermetically sealed door and window against the night air, went blissfully to sleep. The place, soon steaming like a Turkish bath, became unbearable. To let in a breath of air, I slid the door open, then joined the sleepers. In the morning I woke to a harsh surprise. Our suitcases were gone.

"Some tovarish robbers in uniform threw them out of the window and then jumped off the train," explained the old conductor. His consolation for our grief was that they had likewise stolen the baggage of an officer in the next compartment. We grieved not so much for the loss of our clothes as for the invaluable passports, notebooks and letters of introduction our bags contained.

Two weeks later we got another surprise---a summons from the station-master in Moscow. There was one of our suitcases forwarded to us by the robbers. It contained none of our clothes but all our documents and the officers' papers---not a single one was missing.

After all, considering the plight of the hordes of deserting soldiers that swept across the land, one wonders not at the number of thefts and excesses they committed but at the fewness of them. And if the tales of awful conditions in the trenches were true, the wonder is not that so many soldiers deserted but that so many still remained at the front.

I wanted to see conditions for myself. Many times I tried to get a pass to the front. At last in September I succeeded. With John Reed and Boris Reinstein, I started for the Riga Sector.

With us was a Russian priest, a big bearded fellow, gentle and amiable, but with a terrible thirst for tea and conversation. On the door of our compartment the guard slapped up a sign that said: "American Mission." Under this aegis we slept and ate as the train crept thru the autumn drizzle and the priest talked endlessly on about his soldiers.

"In the old text of the church prayers," he said, "God is called Czar of Heaven and the Virgin, Czarina. We've had to leave that out. The people won't have God insulted, they say. The priest prays for peace to all nations. Whereupon the soldiers cry out, 'Add "without annexations and indemnities"'. Then we pray for travellers, for the sick and the suffering. And the soldiers cry 'Pray also for the deserters'. The Revolution has made havoc with the Faith, yet the masses of soldiers are religious. Much can still be done in the name of the cross.

"But the Imperialists tried to do too much with it. 'On with the war!' they cried. 'On with the war, until we plant the cross glittering over the dome of Saint Sophia's in Constantinople.' And the soldiers replied: 'Yes! But before we plant the cross on Saint Sophia's, thousands of crosses will be planted on our graves. We don't want Constantinople. We want to go home. We don't want other people to take our land away from us. Neither will we fight to take other people's land away from them.'"

But even if they had the will to fight, what could they fight with? At Wenden, the old city of the Teutonic Knights, we were set down in the midst of an army in ruins. Out of a gray sky the rain poured down, turning roads into rivers, and the soldiers' hearts into lead. Out of the trenches gaunt skeletons rose up to stare at us. We saw famine-stricken men falling on fields of turnips to devour them raw. We saw men walking barefoot in the stubbled fields, summer uniforms arriving at the beginning of winter, horses dropping dead in mud up to their bellies. Above the lines brazenly hovered the armored planes of the enemy watching every move. There were no aircraft guns, no food, no clothes. And to crown all, no faith in their superiors.

Because their officers and government would or could do nothing for them the soldiers were doing things for themselves. On all sides, even in trenches and gun-positions, new Soviets were springing up. Here in Wenden there were three---(Is-ko-sol, Isko-lat, Is-ko-strel).

We were guests of the last, the Soviet of Lettish Sharp-Shooters, the most literate, the most valiant, the most revolutionary of all. For protection against the German planes, they convened in a tree-screened valley, ten thousand brown uniforms blending with the autumn tinted leaves. Even with the threat above them, every mention of Kerensky's name drew gales of laughter, every mention of peace thunders of applause.

"We are not cowards or traitors," declared the spokesmen. "But we refuse to fight until we know what we are fighting for. We are told this is a war for democracy. We do not believe it. We believe the Allies are land-grabbers like the Germans. Let them show that they are not. Let them declare their peace terms. Let them publish the secret-treaties. Let the Provisional Government show it is not hand in glove with the Imperialists. Then we will lay down our lives in battle to the last man."

This was the root of the debacle of the great Russian armies. Not primarily that they had nothing to fight with but that they felt they had nothing to fight for.

Backed by the workingmen the soldiers were determined that the war should stop.

Fate of the Man on Horseback

THE BOURGEOISIE backed by the Allies and the General Staff were equally determined that the war should go on. Continuing the war would give three things to the bourgeoisie: (1) It would continue to give them enormous profits out of army contracts. (2) In case of victory it would give them, as their share in the loot, the Straits and Constantinople. (3) It would give them a chance of staving off the ever more insistent demands of the masses for land and factories.

They were following the wisdom of Catherine the Great who said: "The way to save our empire from the encroachment of the people is to engage in war and thus substitute national passions for social aspirations." Now the social aspirations of the Russian masses were endangering the bourgeois empires of land and capital. But if the war could go on, the day of reckoning with the masses would be postponed. The energies absorbed in carrying on the war could not be used in carrying on the Revolution. "On with the war to a victorious end!" became the rallying cry of the bourgeoisie.

But the Kerensky government no longer could control the soldiers. They no longer responded to the eloquence of this romantic man of words. The bourgeoisie set out to find a Man of the Sword...."Russia must have a strong man who will tolerate no revolutionary nonsense, but who will rule with an iron hand," they said. "Let us have a Dictator."

For their Man on Horseback they picked the Cossack General, Kornilov. At the conference in Moscow he had won the hearts of the bourgeoisie by calling for a policy of blood and iron. On his own initiative he had introduced capital punishment in the army. With machine guns he had destroyed battalions of refractory soldiers and placed their stiffened corpses in rows along the fences. He declared that only drastic medicine of this kind could cure the ills of Russia.

On September 9, Kornilov issued a proclamation declaring: "Our great country is dying. Under pressure of the Bolshevik majority in the Soviet, the Kerensky government is acting in complete accord with the plans of the German General Staff. Let all who believe in God and the temples pray to the Lord to manifest the miracle of saving our native land."

He drew 70,000 picked troops from the front. Many of them were Mohammedans---his Turkoman bodyguard, his Tartar horsemen and Circassian mountaineers. On the hilts of their swords the officers swore that when Petrograd was taken, the atheist Socialists would be forced to finish building the great mosque or be shot. With airplanes, British armored cars and the bloodthirsty Savage Division, he advanced on Petrograd in the name of God and Allah.

But he did not take it.

In the name of the Soviets and the Revolution the masses rose as one man to the defense of the capital. Kornilov was declared a traitor and an outlaw. Arsenals were opened and guns put in the hands of the workingmen. Red Guards patrolled the streets, trenches were dug, barricades hastily erected. Moslem Socialists rode into the Savage Division and in the name of Marx and Mohammed exhorted the mountaineers not to advance against the Revolution.

Their pleas and arguments prevailed. The forces of Kornilov melted away and the "Dictator" was captured without firing a single shot. The bourgeoisie were depressed as the White Hope of the Counter-Revolution went down so easily before the blows of the Revolution.

The proletarians were correspondingly elated. They saw the strength and unity of their forces.

They felt anew the solidarity binding together all sections of the toiling masses. Trench and factory acclaimed one another. Soldiers and workingmen paid special tribute to the sailors for the big part they played in this affair.

Source: From chapter four of Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution. (Boni and Liveright, 1921), pages 65-74.

Further Reading

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