February 23, 2017



This article appeared in the Calendar section of Russian Life, Jan/Feb 2017 issue. All year, this section is being used to show what people in various societal groups (politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, etc.) were saying and doing contemporaneously with events. 

NicholasJanuary 1. Sunday. It’s been a grey day, warm and quiet. At 10:30 the girls and I went to mass. After breakfast I took a walk along the park’s edge. Alexei got up and also spent some time in the fresh air. Around 3 o’clock Misha arrived, and we went to the Grand Palace to receive ministers, retinues, unit commanders, and diplomats. By 5:10, we were done. After tea I did some work and answered telegrams. In the evening I read out loud.

It is hard to believe that this diary entry was made by the ruler of a country at war that within two months would be convulsed by revolution, or that everyone mentioned – Nicholas himself, his daughters, his son Alexei, and his younger brother Misha (Grand Duke Michael) – would perish in a year and a half, caught up in a whirlwind beyond their control. Nicholas was, of course, already receiving reports of restlessness among the troops, of their reluctance to fight. He knew perfectly well that strikes, which had largely subsided when the war first started, were once again breaking out all across Russia. Furthermore, he was surely still grieving over the murder of his close confidant, Grigory Rasputin, just a few weeks earlier. But in his diary, written almost as if he were a schoolboy instructed to compose a simple record of each day’s events (without a lot of opinionating or soul searching), life appears calm and orderly. Even in February, by which time store windows were being smashed in Petrograd, he wrote:

February 23. Thursday. I awoke at 9:30 here in Smolensk. It was cold, clear, and windy. I spent whatever free time I had reading a French book about Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Arrived in Mogilyov at 3. Was met by General Alexeyev and his staff. Spent an hour with him. The house feels empty without Alexei. I had dinner with all the foreigners and some Russians. The evening was spent writing and drinking tea with the others.

Somehow, this utterly prosaic entry fills me with sadness and pity. The tsar, who is visiting General Headquarters at the front, has not even been told of the strikes and demonstrations that roiled Petrograd that day, evidently because these events were not considered important. I can just see the calm, punctilious, and polite Nicholas reading a book about the great Julius Caesar and missing his son as he drinks tea with his entourage. The only news worth recording is that the weather is “cold, clear, and windy.” There’s a lull at the front, all is calm.

In a matter of days, the monarchy will fall and he will abdicate.

Meanwhile, another participant in the fateful events of 1917, Vladimir Lenin, was also failing to hear the roar of time or sense the forces that were about to topple the Russian monarchy. Since the outbreak of the war in 1914, he had been living in neutral Switzerland, plagued by melancholy and frustrated by the Swiss’s stubborn resistance to revolutionary change.

On January 22 (January 9 according to Russia’s Julian calendar and the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when unarmed demonstrators were gunned down as they marched to deliver a petition to Nicholas in 1905) he gave a speech to young Swiss factory workers. What kind of an audience was this? What were the aspirations of young workers in Switzerland? By then, Lenin no longer harbored illusions that the Swiss would rise up in revolution, but he still could not pass up this propaganda opportunity. He harangued the gathering on the events that had taken place in St. Petersburg twelve years ago to the day. Did young Swiss factory workers know or care about Russia’s problems? In any event, they listened with characteristic Swiss politeness as Lenin tried to explain the situation to them, concluding with the following prediction:

LeninWe mustn’t be fooled by the grave-like quiet that prevails in Europe. Europe is on the verge of revolution. Everywhere, the monstrous horrors of the imperialist war and the torments of high prices are spawning a revolutionary mood, and the ruling classes – the bourgeoisie and their stewards, the governments – are going further and further down a blind alley from which no escape whatsoever will be found without great upheaval.


We old men may not live to see the decisive battles of the impending revolution. But it seems to me that I can confidently express the hope that the young people doing such fine work within the socialist movement in Switzerland and across the world will have the good fortune to not just struggle, but to triumph in the impending proletariat revolution.

A grave-like quiet? Lenin did not yet know that the anniversary of Bloody Sunday had brought strikes to many Petrograd factories. And how interesting that Lenin himself did not think he would live to see the “decisive battles of the impending revolution.”

But he had to do something. Lenin was not capable of sitting on his hands, even when there was really nothing for him to do. He was stuck with the task of rallying the not very rally-able Swiss. As the final days of the Romanov dynasty ticked away and more and more factories went on strike, Lenin was working on a plan to conduct political agitation among Swiss leftists, the same Swiss leftists he had been unsuccessfully trying to agitate for several years now. Life was calm and comfortable in Switzerland. The country had preserved its neutrality, and nobody was being sent to rot in the trenches. What use did the Swiss have for world revolution?

Still, Lenin needed an outlet for his energy and the only one available to him was agitating this placid people and devising a plan of action for Swiss revolutionaries. He described his plan it in a letter to his lover, Inessa Armand:

I would like to share with you my thoughts about the following plan. My outline of the tasks facing Swiss leftists is being circulated in both German and French. On this point, I have a plan: to found a small publishing house and produce leaflets, pamphlets, and small brochures to elaborate on these tasks.

Approximately six weeks remained before Lenin would arrive in Petrograd and begin fighting for power.

Alexander Kerensky, the energetic and popular lawyer who would later wind up heading the Provisional Government, had a different view of the situation. Kerensky had already spent many years defending political prisoners and had been an on-again-off-again member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. He was firmly committed to revolution and the stirring speeches he delivered as a member of the State Duma were extremely popular. As time went on, he was making increasingly strong statements:

KerenskyYou, gentlemen, talk about “revolution” as if it were some sort of anti-government actions, actions that destroy the state, while all of world history shows that revolution has been a way to save a state, sometimes the only means of doing so.

The empress is purported to have said:

Kerensky should be hung.

Kerensky was not hung, although at one point in 1916 this outspoken Duma member was banned from speaking out on the floor of that institution. Before long, however, he again found himself at the podium, accusing members of the autocracy of violating the law:

There’s only one way to fight violators of the law – to physically remove them.

When the outraged Duma chairman asked him to clarify his meaning, Kerensky fearlessly stated that he was referring to actions like Brutus’s assassination of Julius Caesar – the murder of a tyrant.

We can only imagine the envy Vladimir Lenin must have felt toward Kerensky, whose stage was the State Duma, which meant the entire country, and beyond, since his speeches were published in newspapers across the world.

A few months remained before Kerensky’s meteoric rise to the head of the Provisional Government – and less than a year to his downfall.

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