July Days: Workers’ anger boils over amidst war & economic crisis

In 1915, the war cost Russia 10 billion rubles; in 1916, 19 billion; during the first half of 1917, 10½ billion; by the beginning of 1918, the national debt would have amounted to 60 billion – would have almost equaled, that is, the entire wealth of the country, estimated at 70 billion. The Central Executive Committee was preparing an appeal for a war loan, under the sugary name of “Liberty Loan,” while the government was arriving at the not very complicated conclusion that without an immense new foreign loan, it not only could not pay for its foreign orders, but could not even handle its domestic obligations. The liability side of the trade balance was continually on the rise. The Entente was evidently getting ready to leave the ruble wholly to its fate. On the very day when the appeal for a Liberty Loan filled the first page of the Soviet Izvestia, the government Vyestnik announced a sharp drop in the value of the ruble. The printing presses could no longer keep up with the tempo of inflation. For the old respectable bank notes, about which there still clung a glamour of their former buying power, they were getting ready to substitute those red bottle-labels which came to be known as “kerenkies.” Both the bourgeois and the worker, each in his own way, embodied in that name a slight note of disgust.

In words the government had adopted a program of state regulation of industry, and had even established towards the end of June some lumbering institutions for this purpose. But the word and deed of the February régime, like the spirit and flesh of the pious Christian, were in a continual state of conflict. These appropriately hand-picked regulative institutions were more concerned to protect the capitalist from the caprices of a shaky and tottering state power, than to curb the interests of private persons. The administrative and technical personnel of industry was becoming stratified; the upper layers, frightened by the leveling tendencies of the workers, were going over decisively to the side of the capitalist. The workers had acquired an attitude of disgust toward the war orders by which the disintegrating factories had been guaranteed for a year or two in advance. But the capitalists also were losing their taste for a production which promised more trouble than profits. The deliberate closing-down of the factories from above was now becoming systematic. Metal production was cut down 40 per cent; the textile industry, 20 per cent. The supply of all the necessities of life was inadequate. Prices were rising at a pace with inflation and the decline of industry. The workers were aspiring towards a control of that administrative – commercial mechanism which in concealment from them decides their destinies. The Minister of Labor, Skobelev, was preaching to the workers in wordy manifestoes the inadvisability of their interference in the administration of the factories. On June 24, Izvestia told about a new proposal for the closing of a series of plants. Similar news was arriving from the provinces. Railroad transport was stricken even more heavily than industry. Half of the locomotives were in need of capital repairs; the greater part of the rolling stock was at the front; fuel was lacking. The Ministry of Communications was in a continual state of struggle with the railroad workers and clerks. The supply of foodstuffs was steadily on the decrease. In Petrograd, the flour reserve was adequate for ten or fifteen days; in other centers, for little longer. With the semi-paralysis of rolling stock and the impending threat of a railroad strike, this meant a continual danger of famine. The future contained no glimmer of hope. This was not what the workers had expected from the revolution.

Things were still worse, if that is possible, in the sphere of politics. Indecisiveness is the worst possible condition in the life of governments, nations, classes – as also of individuals. A revolution is the most ruthless of all methods of solving historic problems. To introduce evasiveness into a revolution is the most destructive policy imaginable. The party of revolution dare not waver – no more than a surgeon dare who has plunged a knife into a sick body. However, that double régime – or régime of duplicity – which issued from the February overturn was indecisiveness organized. Everything was going against the government. Its qualified friends were becoming opponents; its opponents, enemies; its enemies were taking arms. The counterrevolution was mobilizing quite in the open-inspired by the central committee of the Kadet party, the political staff of all those who had something to lose. The Head Committee of the League of Officers at General Headquarters in Moghiliev, representing about a hundred thousand discontented commanders, and the Council of the Union of Cossack troops in Petrograd, were the two military levers of the counter-revolution. The State Duma, in spite of the decision of the June congress of the soviets, had resolved to continue its “private conferences.” Its Provisional Committee supplied a legal covering for the counter-revolutionary work, which was broadly financed by the banks and by the embassies of the Entente. The Compromisers were threatened with dangers both right and left. Glancing uneasily in these two directions, the government secretly resolved to make a disbursement for the organization of a public intelligence service – that is, a secret political police. At about this same time, in the middle of June, the government designated September 17 as the date for elections to the Constituent Assembly. The liberal press, in spite of the participation of Kadets in the ministry, waged a stubborn campaign against this officially designated date – in which nobody believed and which nobody seriously defended. The very image of the Constituent Assembly, so bright in the first days of March, had dissolved and grown dim. Everything was going against the government, even its own thin-blooded good intentions. Only on the 30th of June did it muster the courage to dismiss those aristocratic guardians over the villages, the zemsky nachalniks, whose very name had been hateful to the whole country ever since the day of their establishment by Alexander III. And this enforced and belated partial reform only stamped the Provisional Government with a brand of contemptible cowardice. The nobility were by this time recovering from their fright. The landed proprietors were uniting and bringing pressure to bear. Toward the end of June, the Provisional Committee of the Duma addressed to the government a demand that decisive measures be taken to protect the landlords from peasants incited by the “criminal element.” On the first of July there met in Moscow an All-Russian Congress of Landed Proprietors, containing an overwhelming majority of nobles. The government wriggled and tried to hypnotize with words, now the muzhiks, now the landlords.

Worst of all, however, was the situation at the front. The offensive against the enemy, which had also become Kerensky’s decisive play in a domestic struggle, was dying in convulsions. The soldiers did not want to fight. The diplomats of Prince Lvov were afraid to look the diplomats of the Entente in the eyes. They needed a loan to the point of desperation. In order to make a show of firmness, the condemned and impotent government waged an offensive against Finland, carrying it through, as it did all of its very dirtiest work, by the hands of the socialists. At the same time a conflict had arisen with the Ukraine and was moving towards an open break.

Those days were far away when Albert Thomas sang hymns to the luminous revolution and to Kerensky. At the beginning of July the French ambassador, Paléologue, who smelled too strongly of the aromas of the Rasputin salons, was replaced by the “radical” Noulens. The journalist, Claude Anet, gave the new ambassador an introductory lecture on Petrograd. Opposite the French embassy – he told him – across the Neva, spreads the Vyborg district. “This is a district of big factories which belongs wholly to the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky reign there as masters.” In that same district are located the barracks of the Machine Gun regiment, numbering about 10,000 men and over 1,000 machine guns. Neither the Social Revolutionaries nor the Mensheviks have access to the barracks of that regiment. The remaining regiments are either Bolshevik or neutral. “If Lenin and Trotsky want to take Petrograd, what will stop them?” Noulens listened with astonishment. “How can the government tolerate such a situation?” “But what can it do?” answered the journalist. “You must understand that the government has no power but a moral one, and even that seems to me very weak …”

Finding no channel, the aroused energy of the masses spent itself in self-dependent activities, guerrilla manifestations, sporadic seizures. The workers, soldiers and peasants were trying to solve in a partial way those problems which the power created by them had refused to solve. More than anything else, indecisiveness in their leaders exhausts the nerves of the masses. Fruitless waiting impels them to more and more insistent knockings at that door which will not open to them, or to actual outbreaks of despair. Already in the days of the congress of soviets, when the provincials could hardly withhold the hands of their leaders stretched out against Petrograd, the workers and soldiers had plenty of opportunity to find out what was the feeling and attitude toward them of the soviet leaders. Tseretelli, following Kerensky, had become not only an alien, but a hated figure to the majority of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. On the fringes of the revolution there was a growing influence of the anarchists, whose chief rôle so far had been played in the self-constituted revolutionary committee in the summer home of Durnovo. But even the more disciplined layers of the workers – even broad circles of the party – were beginning to lose patience or at least listen to those who had lost it. The manifestation of June 18 had revealed to everybody that the government was without support. “Why don’t they get busy up there?” the soldiers and workers would ask, having in mind not only the compromise leaders but also the governing bodies of the Bolsheviks.

Under inflation prices the struggle for wages was exciting the workers and getting on their nerves. During June this question became especially sharp in the giant Putilov factory, where 36,000 men worked. On June 21 a strike of skilled workers broke out in certain parts of the factory. The fruitlessness of these scattered outbreaks was only too clear to the party. On the next day a meeting of representatives of the principal workers’ organizations, led by the Bolsheviks, and of 70 factories, announced that “the cause of the Putilov workers is the cause of the whole Petrograd proletariat,” but appealed to the Putilov men to “restrain their legitimate indignation.” The strike was postponed. But the following 12 days brought no change. The factory masses were seething, seeking an outlet. Every plant had its conflict, and all these conflicts tended upward toward the government. A report of the trade union of the Locomotive Brigade to the Minister of Communications reads: “For the last time we announce: patience has its limit; we simply cannot live in such conditions …” That was a complaint not only against want and hunger, but against duplicity, characterlessness, false dealing. The report protests with especial rage against the “endless exhorting of us to the duties of a citizen and to self-restraint in starvation.”

The March transfer of power by the Executive Committee to the Provisional Government had been made on the condition that the revolutionary troops should not be removed from the capital. But those days were far in the past. Thc garrison had moved to the left, the ruling soviet circles to the right. The struggle with the garrison had never disappeared from the order of the day. Although no whole units were transferred from the capital, nevertheless the more revolutionary – under the pretext of strategic necessities – were systematically weakened by a pumping-out of replacement companies. Rumors from the front of the disbandment of more and more units for disobedience, for refusal to carry out military orders, were continually arriving at the capital. Two Siberian divisions – and were not the Siberian sharpshooters long considered the finest? – had to be disbanded by military force. In a case of mass disobedience in the Fifth Army only – that nearest the capital – 87 officers and 12,725 soldiers were arraigned. The Petrograd garrison – accumulator of discontent from the front, the village, the workers’ districts, and the barracks – was in a continual ferment. Bearded men in their forties were demanding with hysterical insistence that they be sent home for work in the fields. The regiments distributed through the Vyborg district – the 1st Machine Gun, the 1st Grenadier, the Moscow, the 180th Infantry, and others – were continually washed by the hot springs of the proletarian suburb. Thousands of workers were passing the barracks, among them no small number of the tireless agitators of Bolshevism. Under those dirty and dilapidated walls impromptu meetings were being held almost continuously. On the 22nd of June, before the patriotic manifestations called out by the offensive had died out, an automobile of the Executive Committee incautiously drove through the Sampsonevsky Prospect, carrying the placard: “Forward for Kerensky!” The Moscow regiment stopped the agitators, tore up the placard, and turned over the patriotic automobile to the Machine Gun regiment.

In general the soldiers were more impatient than the workers – both because they were directly threatened with a transfer to the front, and because it was much harder for them to understand considerations of political strategy. Moreover, each one had his rifle; and ever since February the soldier had been inclined to overestimate the independent power of a rifle. An old worker-Bolshevik, Lizdin, told later how the soldiers of the 180th Reserve regiment said to him: “What are they doing there, fast asleep in Kshesinskaia’s Palace? Come on, let’s kick out Kerensky!” At meetings of the regiments, resolutions would be adopted continually, proclaiming the necessity of taking final action against the government. Delegations from individual factories would come to a regiment with the query: Will the soldiers go into the streets? The machine-gunners sent representatives to the other units of the garrison with an appeal to rise against the prolongation of the war. The more impatient of these delegates added: The Pavlov and Moscow regiments and forty thousand Putilov men are coming out “tomorrow.” Official admonitions from the Executive Committee had no effect. The danger was growing every minute that Petrograd, lacking the support of the front and the provinces, would be broken down bit by bit. On the 21st of June, Lenin appealed in Pravda to the Petrograd workers and soldiers to wait until events should bring over the heavy reserves to the side of Petrograd. “We understand your bitterness, we understand the excitement of the Petersburg workers, but we say to them: Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient.” On the next day a private conference of leading Bolsheviks – standing, apparently, “to the left” of Lenin – came to the conclusion that in spite of the mood of the soldier and worker masses, they must not give battle: “Better wait until the ruling parties have disgraced themselves completely with their offensive, and then the game is ours.” Thus reports the district organizer, Latsis, one of the most impatient in those days. The Central Committee was oftener and oftener compelled to send agitators to the troops and the factories to restrain them from untimely action. With an embarrassed shake of the head, the Vyborg Bolsheviks would complain to their friends: “We have to play the part of the fire hose.” Appeals to come into the street did not cease, however, for a single day. Some of them were obviously provocative in character. The Military Organization of the Bolsheviks felt compelled to address the soldiers and workers with an appeal: “Do not trust any summons to go into the street in the name of the Military Organization. The Military Organization is not summoning you to action.” And then, even more insistently: “Demand of any agitator or orator who summons you to come out in the name of the Military Organization credentials signed by the president and secretary.”

On the famous Yakorny Square in Kronstadt, where the anarchists were more and more confidently lifting their voices, one ultimatum was drawn up after another. On the 23rd of June, delegates from Yakorny Square, acting over the head of the Kronstadt soviet, demanded from the Ministry of Justice the liberation of a group of Petrograd anarchists, threatening, in case their demand was not granted, that the sailors would march on the prison. Upon the following day, representatives from Oranienbaum informed the Ministry of Justice that their garrison was as much disturbed about the arrests in the summer home of Durnovo as Kronstadt, and that they were “already cleaning the machine guns.” The bourgeois press caught these threats on the wing, and shook them under the very noses of their compromisist allies. On June 26, delegates from the Grenadier Guard regiment came from the front to their reserve battalion with the announcement: “The regiment is against the Provisional Government and demands the transfer of power to the soviets, it declines the offensive begun by Kerensky, and expresses an apprehension lest the Executive Committee has gone over along with the minister-socialists to the side of the Bourjui.” The organ of the Executive Committee published a reproachful account of this visit.

Not only Kronstadt was boiling like a kettle, but also the whole Baltic fleet with its principal base in Helsingfors. The head boss of the Bolsheviks in the fleet was undoubtedly Antonov-Ovseenko, who years ago as a young officer had taken part in the Sebastopol insurrection of 1905. A Menshevik during the reaction years, an emigrant-internationalist during the war, a colleague of Trotsky on Nashe Slovo, in Paris, he joined the Bolsheviks after his return from abroad. Politically shaky, but personally courageous – impulsive and disorderly, but capable of initiative and improvisation – Antonov-Ovseenko, although still little known in those days, was to play by no means the smallest rôle in the future events of the revolution. “We in the Helsingfors committee of the Party,” he relates in his memoirs, “understood the necessity of restraint and serious preparation. We had directions to that effect, moreover, from the Central Committee. But we saw the utter inevitability of an explosion, and were looking with alarm towards Petersburg.” And in Petersburg the elements of an explosion were piling up day by day. The 2nd Machine Gun regiment, which was less advanced than the first, adopted a resolution demanding the transfer of power to the Soviet. The 3rd Infantry regiment refused to send out fourteen replacement companies. Meetings in the barracks were acquiring a more and more stormy character. A meeting of the Grenadier regiment on July 1st was signalized by the arrest of the president of the committee, and by the obstructive heckling of the Menshevik orators: Down with the offensive! Down with Kerensky! At the focus of the garrison stood the machine gun men. It was they who opened the sluices for the July flood.

We have already met with the name of the 1st Machine Gun regiment in the events of the first month of the revolution. Arriving shortly after the overturn, having marched from Oranienbaum to Petrograd upon its own initiative “for the defense of the revolution,” this regiment immediately ran into the opposition of the Executive Committee, which adopted a resolution: to send the regiment back with thanks to Oranienbaum. The machine-gunners flatly refused to leave the capital: “Counter-revolutionists might attack the Soviet and restore the old régime.” The Executive Committee surrendered, and several thousand machine-gunners remained in Petrograd along with their machine guns. They took up their quarters in the House of the People, and wondered what their further destiny was to be. They had among them, however, a good many Petrograd workers, and therefore by no accident the Bolshevik Committee took upon itself the care of these machine-gunners. Through its intercession they were assured provisions from Peter and Paul fortress. A friendship began. It soon became indestructible. On the 21st of June, the machine-gunners introduced at a mass meeting a resolution: “In the future detachments shall be sent to the front only when the war has a revolutionary character.” On the 2nd of July, the regiment called a farewell meeting in the House of the People for the “last” replacement company to depart for the front. The speakers were Lunacharsky and Trotsky. The authorities tried subsequently to attribute unusual significance to this accidental fact. Responses were made in the name of the regiment by the soldier, Zhilin, and the old Bolshevik non-commissioned officer, Lashevich. The mood was exalted. They denounced Kerensky and swore fealty to the revolution – but nobody made any practical proposal for the immediate future. However, during those last days the city persisted in expecting something to happen. The “July Days” were casting their shadow before them. “Everywhere,” Sukhanov remembers, “in all corners, in the Soviet, in the Mariinsky Palace, in people’s apartments, on the public squares and boulevards, in the barracks, in the factories, they were talking about some sort of manifestation to be expected, if not today, tomorrow … Nobody knew exactly who was going to manifest what, or where, but the city felt itself to be upon the verge of some sort of explosion.” And the explosion did actually come. The stimulus was given from above – from the ruling circles.

On the same day when Trotsky and Lunacharsky were speaking to the machine gun men about the bankruptcy of the coalition, four Kadet ministers exploded the coalition by withdrawing from the government. They chose as pretext an agreement which their compromisist colleagues had concluded with the Ukraine, an agreement unacceptable to their imperial ambitions. The real cause of this demonstrative break lay in the fact that the Compromisers had been dilatory about bridling the masses. The moment chosen was suggested by the collapse of the offensive – not yet officially acknowledged, but no longer a matter of doubt to the well-informed. These Liberals considered it expedient to leave their left allies face to face with defeat, and with the Bolsheviks. The rumor of the resignation of the Kadets immediately spread through the capital, and generalized all the existing conflicts politically in one slogan – or rather, one cry to heaven: “Let us have an end of this coalition rigmarôle!” The soldiers and workers considered that all other questions – that of wages, of the price of bread, and of whether it is necessary to die at the front for nobody knows what – depended upon the question who was to rule the country in the future, the bourgeoisie or their own Soviet. In these expectations there was a certain element of illusion – in so far, at least, as the masses hoped with a change of power to achieve an immediate solution of all sore problems. But in the last analysis they were right: the question of power determined the direction of the revolution as a whole, and that means that it decided the fate of everyone in particular. To imagine that the Kadets may not have foreseen the effect of this act of open sabotage of the Soviet would be decidedly to underestimate Miliukov. The leader of liberalism was obviously trying to drag the Compromisers into a difficult situation from which they could make a way out only with bayonets. In those days Miliukov firmly believed that the situation could be saved with a bold bloodletting.

L.D. Trotsky, “The July Days: Preparation and Beginning,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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