Armed demonstration in Petrograd: ‘The storm breaks in fury’

July 1st gave warning of the coming storm. July 16th saw it break in fury. First long files of older peasant soldiers with placards: “Let the 40-year-old men go home and harvest the crops.” Then barrack, slum and factory belching out torrents of men in arms who converged on the Tauride Palace, and, for two nights and a day, roared through its gates. Armored cars, with sirens screaming and red flags flying from the turrets, raced up and down the streets. Motor trucks, crammed with soldiers, bayonets jutting out on every side, dashed by like giant porcupines on a rampage. Stretched full length on the car fenders lay sharpshooters, rifles projecting beyond the lamps, eyes on the watch for provocateurs.

This outpouring was much bigger than the river that ran thru these streets on July first, and more sinister, for it glittered with, steel and hissed with curses—a long grey line of wrath. It was the spontaneous outburst of men against their rulers—ugly, reckless, furious.

Under a black banner marched a band of Anarchists, with Yarchuk the tailor at the head. On him was the stamp of the sweat-shop. Long bending over the needle had left him undersized. Now, in place of a needle, he was wielding a gun—the symbol of his deliverance from slavery to the needle.

Gumberg asked him, “What are your political demands?”

“Our political demands?” hesitated Yarchuk.

“To hell with the capitalists!” interjected a big sailor. “And our other political demands,” he added, “are—to hell with the war and to hell with the whole damn Cabinet.”

Backed up in an alley was a taxi-cab, the nozzles of two machine-guns poking thru the windows. In answer to our query, the driver pointed to a banner reading, “Down with the Capitalist Ministers.”

“We are tired of begging them not to starve and kill the people,” he explained. “When we talk they won’t listen; but wait till these two pups (sobachki) speak!” He patted the guns affectionately. “They will listen then all right.”

“The storm petrels of the Revolution — the sailors — first to raise the red flag in the fleet, always first to hurry to the rescue of the Soviets.”

A mob with nerves at trigger-tension, with such weapons in its hands, and such temper in its soul, did not need much provocation. And provocateurs were everywhere. Agents of the Black Hundred plied their trade of dissension among the crowds, inciting to riot and pogroms. They turned loose two hundred criminals from Kresty to pillage and loot. In the ensuing ruin they hoped to see the Revolution killed and the Czar restored. In some places they did bring on frightful slaughter.

At a tense moment, in the tight-packed concourse of the Tauride, a provocatory shot was fired. From that shot sprang a hundred. From every quarter rifles blazed, comrades firing point blank into comrades. The crowd screamed, crashed up against the pillars, surged back again, and then fell flat upon the ground. When the firing ceased, sixteen could not rise. During this massacre a military band two blocks away was playing the Marseillaise.

Fighting in the streets is panicky business. At night, with bullets spitting from hidden loopholes, from roofs above and cellar-ways below, with the enemy invisible and friends pouring volleys into friends, the crowds stampeded, back and forth, fleeing from a hail of bullets in one street only to plunge into leaden gusts sweeping thru the next.

Three times that night our feet slipped in blood on the pavement. Down the Nevsky was blazed a trail of shattered windows and looted shops. The fighting ranged from little skirmishes, with nests of provocateurs, to the battle on Liteiny, which left twelve horses of the Cossacks, stretched upon the cobbles. [Over these horses stood a big izvoschik (cabman), tears in his eyes. In time of Revolution the killing of 56 and wounding of 650 men might be endured, but the loss of 12 good horses was too much for an izvoschik’s heart to bear.]

Albert Rhys Williams, “The Bolsheviks and the City,” Through the Russian Revolution


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