Sukhanov on the July Days

Nikolai Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution. 1955


My recollections of that day [July 3] begin again at about 6 or 7 in the evening. At 7 o’clock a meeting of the Workers’ Section of the Soviet began in the White Hall. The overwhelming majority was Bolshevik. Was this meeting connected with the movement that had begun, and what, in general, was the Bolshevik Party’s relation to it? I don’t know for certain. According to all the data, the Bolshevik Central Committee did not organize a demonstration for July 3rd-unlike what had happened on June 9. I know that the temper of the masses was considered somewhat “worse,” a little softer, less well-defined, than three weeks before. It was somewhat dejected by the fiasco of the 9th and by the official Soviet demonstration of the 18th. An uprising, of course, was considered inevitable, for the capital was seething and the general situation was unendurable. The Bolsheviks were getting ready for it-technically and politically. But it was clear that they had not scheduled it for July 3rd. And the Bolsheviks in the Soviet, after meeting during the day, agreed to go to the factories and barracks to agitate against the demonstration.

From various outskirts of the city, beginning with the Vyborg Side, masses of workers and soldiers were moving towards the center. The workers had left their benches in thousands and tens of thousands. The soldiers were coming out armed. Both had banners bearing the slogans that had predominated on the 18th: “Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers!” “All Power to the Soviets!”

It was reported that some workers’ detachments and two regiments, the First Machine-Gunners and the Grenadiers, were approaching the Tauride Palace. An enormous agitation began in the hall. The aisles and the seats for the public, empty up to then, as at ordinary sessions, suddenly filled up with people. Kamenev suddenly leaped up on to the speaker’s platform. And this indecisive Right Bolshevik was the first to give official sanction to the uprising.

“We never called for a demonstration,” he cried out, “but the popular masses themselves have come out into the streets, to show their will. And once the masses have come out our place is with them. Our task now is to give the movement an organized character. The Workers’ Section must here and now elect a special body, a Commission of twenty-five people to control the movement. The others should go to their own districts and join their detachments.” There was no doubt that Kamenev’s resolution would be accepted. Whether on his own initiative or according to instructions received, Kamenev was far from trying to isolate the Bolsheviks as the instigators of the uprising; as always, he acted conciliatorily. But I cannot find in my memory the slightest trace of any activities during the July Days of the newly-elected “Commission.” …

Meanwhile the movement was already pouring through the city. The tempest was unleashed. Everywhere in the factories the same thing as had been reported by the Promet worker on the ‘phone was going on: workers’ and soldiers’ delegations would turn up, refer to “all the others,” and demand in someone’s name that they “come out.” Only a minority, of course, demonstrated, but everywhere work was abandoned. Trains ceased to leave from the Finland Station. In the barracks short mass-meetings took place, and then from all sides enormous detachments of armed soldiers made their way towards the center-some of them to the Tauride Palace. Some started shooting into the air: the rifles went off by themselves. From early evening, lorries and cars began to rush about the city. In them were civilians and soldiers with rifles at the trail and with frightened-fierce faces. Where they came hurtling from and why-no one knew.

The city fairly quickly took on the look of the last days of February. Since then four months of revolution and liberty had passed. The garrison of the capital, and even more the proletariat, were now strongly organized. But the movement appeared to have no more “consciousness,” discipline, or order. Elemental forces raged. One of the insurgent regiments, led by a Bolshevik lieutenant, was moving along the Nevskii, from the Sadovoi towards the Liteinyi. It was an imposing armed force. It was probably enough to hold the city-unless it came up against a similar armed force. The head of the regiment had started to turn into the Liteinyi, when some shots were heard from Znamenskii Square. The commander of the column, who was riding in a car, turned around and saw the heels of the soldiers, running off in all directions. A few seconds later the car was left alone in the middle of a jeering crowd on the Nevskii Prospect. There were no casualties … I was told all this by the commander himself-now a well-known Bolshevik military leader. Something similar was going on at this time at various points of the capital.

The insurgent army didn’t know where it should go, or why. It had nothing but a “mood.” This wasn’t enough. The soldiers led by the Bolsheviks, in spite of the complete absence of any real resistance, showed themselves to be really worthless fighting material. But not only Bolsheviks led the soldiers’ groups that “came out” on July 3rd: unquestionably there were also some completely obscure elements present.

The “over-forties” also came out: that day their representatives had again seen Kerenskii and again pleaded to be allowed to go home to work on the land. But Kerenskii refused: after all, the offensive against the insolent enemy still continued, for the glory of the gallant Allies. So the “over-forties” gladly joined the “uprising” and in enormous numbers for some reason moved on to the Tauride Palace …

The Kronstadters were unquestionably the chief trump of Lenin’s party and the decisive factor in his eyes. Having decided the night before [i.e., on July 3] to summon the masses to a “peaceful demonstration,” the Bolsheviks were of course taking steps to mobilize Kronstadt. During the hours of nocturnal wavering, when the movement began to die down, Kronstadt became the sole trump of those members of the Bolshevik Central Committee who sponsored the uprising … Then they countermanded the insurrection. But they had evidently not taken the appropriate steps with respect to Kronstadt-or else one Bolshevik hand didn’t know what the other was doing. I don’t know exactly what the facts were.

But in any case this is what happened: at around 10 o’clock in the morning there came up to the Nicholas Embankment, where there was a tremendous concentration of people, upwards of forty different ships with Kronstadt sailors, soldiers, and workers. According to Lunacharskii some 20,000 of these “peaceful people” had landed. They were armed and their bands came with them. Landing at the Nicholas Embankment, the Kronstadters formed columns and made their way to Kshesinskaia’s house, the Bolshevik headquarters. They evidently had no precise strategic plan, and only quite a vague idea of where to go or just what to do. They were simply in a mood definitely hostile to the Provisional Government and the Soviet majority. But the Kronstadters were led by Roshal and Raskolnikov-and led to Lenin.

Once again the chances of a new revolution had risen extraordinarily high. Lenin must have very much regretted that the summons to the Petersburg proletariat and garrison had been cancelled as a result of his overnight vacillations. At this point it would have been quite possible to lead the movement as far as he liked. And it was also quite possible to bring about the desired overturn, that is, at least to liquidate the Capitalist Ministers, and the Socialist Ministers and their Mamelukes into the bargain.

In any case Lenin must have begun wavering again. And when the Kronstadters surrounded Kshesinskaia’s house, expecting to receive instructions, Lenin made an extremely ambiguous speech from the balcony. He didn’t demand any concrete action from the impressive force standing in front of him; he didn’t even call on his audience to continue the street demonstrations-even though that audience had just proved its readiness for battle by the troublesome journey from Kronstadt to Petersburg. Lenin merely agitated strongly against the Provisional Government and against the Social-traitors of the Soviet, and called for the defense of the revolution and for loyalty to the Bolsheviks.

According to Lunacharskii, he, Lunacharskii, had been passing Kshesinskaia’s house at exactly that time. During the ovation given Lenin by the Kronstadters, Lenin called him over and suggested that he speak to the crowd. Lunacharskii, always ablaze with eloquence, didn’t wait to be urged and gave a speech on roughly the same lines as Lenin’s. Then he led the Kronstadters towards the center of the city, in the direction of the Tauride Palace. On the way this army was joined by the workers of the Trubochnyi and Baltic Factories. They were in a truculent mood. In the columns, headed by bands and surrounded by the curious, there was some extremely strong language directed at the Capitalist Ministers and the Compromisers of the Central Executive Committee. It was clear that Kronstadt had come out as one man to save the revolution, bringing ammunition and equipment; only the old and the young had been left at home.

But just where they were going or what for, they didn’t really know. Lunacharskii had said he had “brought” the Kronstadters. But in my opinion they had got stuck somewhere on the Nevskii or near the Champ de Mars. I don’t think Lunacharskii brought them to the Tauride Palace; as far as I remember they only appeared there around 5 o’clock in the afternoon.

The movement was also pouring out again apart from the Kronstadters. From the early morning the working-class districts were stirring. Around 11 o’clock a unit of the Volhynia Regiment “came out,” followed by half the 18oth, the whole First Machine-Gun Regiment and others. Around noon firing began at various points of the city-not skirmishes or fights, but firing: partly into the air, partly at people. There was shooting on the Suvorov Prospect, Vasilievskii Island, the Kamennoostrovskii, and especially on the Nevskii–near the Sadovoi and the Liteinyi. As a rule it began with a chance shot; panic would follow; rifles began to go off at random. There were dead and wounded everywhere …

There was absolutely no sign of any plan in the movement of the “insurrectionists.” But there could be no question of systematically localizing or liquidating the movement. The Soviet and Government authorities dispatched loyal detachments of military cadets, Semenov Guards, and Cossacks. They paraded and encountered the enemy. But no one dreamed of a serious battle. At the first shot both sides panicked and scattered helter-skelter. Passers-by of course got the great bulk of the bullets. When two columns met each other neither participants nor spectators could distinguish where either side was. Perhaps only the Kronstadters had a distinctive look. As for the rest it was all muddle, spontaneous and irresistible. But the question is, were the first shots that started the panic and fighting accidental or not?

Small, isolated pogroms began. Because of shots from houses, or with them as a pretext, mass-searches were conducted by soldiers and sailors. The searches were a pretext for looting. Many shops suffered, mainly wine and food shops and tobacconists. Various groups began to arrest people on the streets at random.

Around 4 o’clock, according to rumor, the number of people wounded or killed already amounted to hundreds. Dead horses lay here and there …

Around 7 o’clock, … suddenly like an arrow the news sped through the meeting: the men from the Putilov Factory had come, 30,000 of them, bearing themselves extremely aggressively; some of them had burst into the Palace looking for Tseretelli, who at that moment was not in the hall. They were said to have hunted all over the Palace for him without finding him. The hall was full of excitement, hubbub and frenzied yelling. Just then a crowd of about forty workers, many of them armed, burst in tempestuously. The deputies leaped from their seats. Some failed to show adequate courage and self-control.

One of the workers, a classical sans-culotte, in a cap and a short blue blouse without a belt, with a rifle in his hand, leaped up on to the speakers’ platform. He was quivering with excitement and rage, stridently shouting out incoherent words and shaking his rifle:

“Comrades! How long must we workers put up with treachery? You’re all here debating and making deals with the bourgeoisie and the landlords … You’re busy betraying the working class. Well, just understand that the working class won’t put up with it! There are 30,000 of us all told here from Putilov. We’re going to have our way. All power to the Soviets! We have a firm grip on our rifles! Your Kerenskiis and Tseretellis are not going to fool us!”

Chkheidze, in front of whose nose the rifle was dancing about, showed complete self-control. In answer to the hysterics of the sans-culotte, pouring out his hungry proletarian soul, the chairman tranquilly leaned down from his height and pushed into the worker’s quivering hand a manifesto, printed the evening before:

“Here, please take this, Comrade, read it. It says here what you and your Putilov comrades should do. Please read it and don’t interrupt our business. Everything necessary is said there.”

The manifesto said that all those who had gone out into the street should go back home, otherwise they would be traitors to the revolution. The ruling Soviet clique and Chkheidze could think of nothing else to propose to the rank-and-file at a moment of extreme tension.

The baffled sans-culotte, not knowing what else to do, took the appeal and then without much difficulty was got off the platform. His comrades too were quickly “persuaded” to leave the hall. Order was restored and the incident liquidated … But to this day I can still see that sans-culotte on the platform of the White Hall, shaking his rifle in self-oblivion in the faces of the hostile “leaders of the democracy,” trying in torment to express the will, the longings, and the fury of the authentic proletarian lower depths, who scented treachery but were powerless to fight against it. This was one of the finest scenes of the revolution. And with Chkheidze’s gesture one of the most dramatic.

Source: N. N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 444-446.

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