July Days: The masses rise, capitalist gov’t responds with massacre

On the morning of July 3 [July 16 on the modern calendar], several thousand machine-gunners, after breaking up a meeting of the company and regimental committees of their regiment, elected a chairman of their own and demanded immediate consideration of the question of an armed manifestation. The meeting was a storm from the first moment. The problem of the front intercrossed with the crisis in the government. The chairman of the meeting, a Bolshevik, Golovin, tried to apply the brakes, proposing that they have a preliminary talk with other units and with the Military Organization. But every suggestion of delay set the soldiers on edge. There appeared at this meeting the anarchist, Bleichman, a small but colorful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses – sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence – his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out on all sides. Bleichman was greeted at such meetings with a certain amount of semi-ironical sympathy. The workers, it is true, treated him somewhat coolly, a little impatiently – specially the metalworkers. But the soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar. By the end of June, Bleichman was swimming in all these impromptu meetings like a fish in a river. His opinion he had always with him: It is necessary to come out with arms in our hands. Organization? “The street will organize us.” The task? “To overthrow the Provisional Government just as it overthrew the tzar although no party was then demanding it.” These speeches perfectly met the feelings of the machine-gunners at that moment – and not theirs alone. Many of the Bolsheviks did not conceal their satisfaction when the lower ranks pressed forward against their official admonition. The progressive workers remembered that in February their leaders had been ready to beat a retreat just on the eve of the victory; that in March the eight hour day had been won by action from below; that in April Miliukov had been thrown out by regiments who went into the street on their own initiative. A recollection of these facts augmented the tense and impatient mood of the masses.

The Military Organization of the Bolsheviks, being promptly informed that a meeting of the machine-gunners was at the boiling point, sent over one agitator after another. Soon came Nevsky himself, the leader of the Military Organization, a man respected by the soldiers. They seemed to listen to him. But the mood of that endless meeting changed with its ingredients. “It was an immense surprise to us,” relates Podvoisky, another leader of the Military Organization, “when at seven o’clock in the evening a horseman galloped up to inform us that … the machine-gunners had again resolved to come out.” In place of the old regimental committee they had elected a provisional revolutionary committee consisting of two men from each company under the presidency of ensign Semashko. Specially appointed delegates were already making the rounds of the shops and regiments with an appeal for support. The machine-gunners had not forgotten, either, to send their men to Kronstadt. In this way, one step below the official organizations, and partly under their protection, new temporary relations were established between the more restive regiments and the factories. The masses had no intention of breaking with the Soviet; on the contrary, they wanted the Soviet to seize the power. Still less did the masses intend to break with the Bolshevik party. But they did feel that the party was irresolute. They wanted to get their shoulder under it – shake a fist at the Executive Committee, give the Bolsheviks a little shove. Thus impromptu systems of representation were created, new knots were tied, new centers of activity formed – not permanently, but for the given situation. Changes in circumstance and mood were taking place so fast and sharply, that even such extremely flexible organizations as the soviets inevitably lagged behind, and the masses were compelled at every new turn to create auxiliary organs for the demands of the moment. In the course of these improvisations accidental and not always reliable elements would often spring into prominence. The anarchists poured oil on the fire. But so did some of the new and impatient Bolsheviks. Provocateurs also undoubtedly mixed in – perhaps also German agents, but surest of all the agents of the 100 per cent Russian secret police. How can one analyze the complicated web of a mass movement into its separate threads? The general character of the event emerges at least with complete clarity. Petrograd was feeling its strength, was straining at the leash, not glancing round at either the provinces or the front, and even the Bolshevik party was no longer able to hold it back. Only experience could teach them.

In calling the factories and regiments into the street, the delegates of the machine-gunners did not forget to add that the manifestation was to be armed. Yes, and how could it be otherwise? You wouldn’t present yourself unarmed to the blows of an enemy? Moreover – and this perhaps was the chief thing – we must show our force, and a soldier without weapons is not a force. Upon this point all the regiments and all the factories were of one mind: if we do go out, we must go with plenty of lead. The machine-gunners lost no time: having started a big job, they intended to push it through as fast as possible. The report of a Court of Inquiry subsequently characterized the activities of ensign Semashko, one of the principal leaders of the regiment in these words: “He demanded automobiles from the factories, armed them with machine guns, sent them to the Tauride Palace and other points, designating the route, personally led out his regiment from the barracks into the town, rode out to the reserve battalion of the Moscow regiment to persuade it to come out, in which he was successful, promised the soldiers of the Machine Gun regiment support from the regiments of the Military Organization, kept in continual touch with this organization, quartered in the house of Kshesinskaia, and with the leader of the Bolsheviks, Lenin, dispatched sentries for the protection of the Military Organization …” The reference to Lenin here is inserted only to fill out the picture. Lenin was not in Petrograd either on that day or the days preceding. Since the 29th of June he had been ill in a bungalow in Finland. But for the rest, the compressed language of the military court official conveys not at all badly the feverish preparations of the machine-gunners. In the yard of the barracks a no less feverish work was going on. They were giving out rifles to the soldiers who did not possess them, giving bombs to some, installing three machine guns with operators on each motor truck supplied by the factories. The regiment was to go into the street in full military array.

And just about the same thing was going on in the factories. Delegates would arrive from the machine-gunners, or from a neighboring factory, and summon the workers into the street. It would seem as though they had been waiting for the delegates. Work would stop instantly. A worker of the Renaud Factory tells this story: “After dinner a number of machine gun men came running with the request that we give them some motor trucks. In spite of the protest of our group (the Bolsheviks), we had to give up the cars … They promptly loaded the trucks with ’Maxims’ (machine guns) and drove down the Nevsky. At this point we could no longer restrain our workers … They all, just as they were, in overalls, rushed straight outdoors from the benches …” The protests of the factory Bolsheviks were not always, we may assume, very insistent. The longest struggle took place at the Putilov Factory. At about two in the afternoon a rumour went round that a delegation had come from the machine gun unit, and was calling a meeting. About ten thousand men assembled. To shouts of encouragement, the machine-gunners told how they had received an order to go to the front on the 4th of July, but they had decided “to go not to the German front, against the German proletariat, but against their own capitalist ministers.” Feeling ran high. “Come on, let’s get moving!” cried the workers. The secretary of the factory committee, a Bolshevik, objected, suggesting that they ask instructions from the party. Protests from all sides: “Down with it! Again you want to postpone things. We can’t live that way any longer. Towards six o’clock came representatives from the Executive Committee, but they succeeded still less with the workers. The meeting continued, the everlasting nervous obstinate meeting of innumerable masses seeking a way out and unwilling to be told that there is none. It was proposed that they send a delegation to the Executive Committee-still another delay, but, as before, the meeting did not disperse. About this time a group of workers and soldiers brought news that the Vyborg Side was already on its way to the Tauride Palace. To hold them back longer was impossible. They decided to go. A Putilov worker, Efimov, ran to the district committee of the party to ask: “What shall we do?” The answer he got was: “We will not join the manifestation, but we can’t leave the workers to their fate. We must go along with them.” At that moment appeared a member of the committee, Chudin, with the word that the workers were going out in all the districts, and that it was up to the party men to “maintain order.” In this way the Bolsheviks were caught up by the movement and dragged into it, looking around the while for some justification for an action which flatly contravened the official decision of the party.

19170704_Riot_on_Nevsky_prosp_Petrograd
Protesters scatter as troops loyal to the Provisional Government open fire on the Nevsky Prospect during the July Days.

By seven o’clock the industrial life of the capital was at a complete standstill. Factory after factory came out, lined up and armed its detachment of the Red Guard. “Amid an innumerable mass of workers,” relates the Vyborg Worker, Metelev, “hundreds of young Red Guards were working away loading their rifles. Others were piling cartridges into the cartridge-chambers, tightening up their belts, tying on their knapsacks or cartridge boxes, adjusting their bayonets. And the workers without arms were helping the Red Guards get ready …” Sampsonevsky Prospect, the chief artery of the Vyborg Side, was packed full of people. To the right and left of it stood solid columns of workers. In the middle of the Prospect marched the Machine Gun regiment, the spinal column of the procession. At the head of each company went an automobile truck with its Maxims. After the Machine Gun regiment came the workers. Covering the manifestation as a rear guard, came detachments of the Moscow regiment. Over every detachment streamed a banner: “All Power to the Soviets!” The funeral procession in March and the First of May demonstration were probably more numerous, but the July procession was incomparably more eager, more threatening, and – more homogeneous in its composition. “Under the red banners marched only workers and soldiers,” writes one of the participants. “The cockades of the officials, the shiny buttons of students, the hats of ‘lady sympathizers’ were not to be seen. All that belonged to four months ago, to February. In today’s movement there was none of that. Today only the common slaves of capital were marching.” As before, automobiles flew through the streets in all directions full of armed workers and soldiers – delegates, agitators, reconnoiterers, telephone men, and detachments for calling out workers and regiments. They all held their bayonets advanced. The bristling motor trucks completed a picture of the February days, electrifying some, terrorizing others. The Kadet Nabokov writes: “The same insane, dumb, beastlike faces which we all remember from the February days” – that is, the days of that very revolution which the liberals had officially pronounced glorious and bloodless. By nine o’clock seven regiments were already moving toward the Tauride Palace. They were joined on the way by columns from the factories and by new military detachments. The movement of the Machine Gun regiment developed a colossal power of contagion. The “July days” had begun.

Meetings were held on the march. Shots rang out. According to a worker, Korotkov, “they dragged out of a cellar on the Liteiny a machine gun and an officer whom they killed on the spot.” All conceivable rumours ran ahead of the demonstration. Fears rayed out from it on all sides like beams of light. What imaginable thing was not reported over the telephones from the frightened central districts? It was said that about eight o’clock in the evening an armed automobile dashed up to the Warsaw station seeking Kerensky who had left that very day for the front, intending to arrest him, but that the train had gone and the arrest did not occur. That episode was subsequently repeated more than once as proving a conspiracy. Just who was in the automobile and who discovered its mysterious intentions, has nevertheless remained unknown. On that evening automobiles with armed men were careering in all directions – doubtless, therefore, in the vicinity of the Warsaw station. Strong words were to be heard about Kerensky in many places. This evidently served as a basis for the myth – if it was not indeed simply manufactured out of whole cloth.

Izvestia sketched the following outline of the events of July 3rd: “At five o’clock in the afternoon there came out, armed, the First Machine Gun, a part of the Moscow, a part of the Grenadier, and a part of the Pavlovsky regiments. They were joined by crowds of workers … By eight o’clock in the evening, separate parts of regiments began to pour towards the Palace of Kshesinskaia, armed to the teeth and with red banners and placards demanding the transfer of power to the soviets. Speeches were made from the balcony … At ten-thirty a meeting was held on the square in front of the Tauride Palace … The troops elected a deputation to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee which presented in their name the following demands: Removal of the ten bourgeois ministers, all power to the soviets, cessation of the offensive, confiscation of the printing plants of the bourgeois press, the land to be state property, state control of production.” Aside from certain prunings – “parts of regiments” instead of regiments, “crowds of workers” instead of entire factories – you may say that the official report of Tseretelli and Dan does not distort the general picture of what happened. In particular it correctly notes the two focal points of the demonstration: the private residence of Kshesinskaia and the Tauride Palace. Both spiritually and physically the movement revolved around those two antagonistic centers: It came to the house of Kshesinskaia for instructions, leadership, inspirational speeches; to the Tauride Palace it came to present demands and even to threaten a little with its power.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, two delegates from the machine-gunners came to an all-city conference of the Bolsheviks, sitting that day in the house of Kshesinskaia, with the information that their regiment had decided to come out. Nobody had expected this, and nobody wanted it. Tomsky declared: “The regiments which have come out have acted in an uncomradely manner, not having invited the Central Committee of our party to consider the question of a manifestation. The Central Committee proposes to the conference: in the first place, to issue an appeal in order to hold back the masses; in the second, to prepare an address to the Executive Committee urging them to take the power in their hands. It is impossible to talk of a manifestation at this moment unless we want a new revolution.” Tomsky, an old worker-Bolshevik who had certified his loyalty to the party with years at hard labor – famous subsequently as leader of the trade unions – was in general more inclined by character to restrain the masses from action than summon them to it. But on this occasion he was merely carrying out the thought of Lenin: “It is impossible to talk of a manifestation at this moment unless we want a new revolution.” Even the attempt at a peaceful demonstration on June 10th had been denounced by the Compromisers as a conspiracy. An overwhelming majority of the conference was at one with Tomsky. We must at all costs postpone the final conflict. The offensive at the front is holding the whole country at high tension. Its failure is inevitable – as also the determination of the government to throw all the responsibility for the defeat upon the Bolsheviks. We must give the Compromisers time to ruin themselves completely. Volodarsky answered the machine-gunners in the name of the conference to the effect that the regiment must submit to the decisions of the party. The machine-gunners departed with a protest. At four o’clock the Central Committee confirmed the decision of the conference. Its members dispersed to the districts and factories to restrain the masses from going out. Appeals to the same effect were sent to Pravda to be printed on the front page the following morning. Stalin was appointed to bring the decision to the attention of the joint session of the Executive Committees. There remains, therefore, no doubt whatever as to the intention of the Bolsheviks. Their Central Committee addressed an appeal to the workers and soldiers: “Unknown persons … are summoning you into the streets under arms,” and that proves that the summons does not come from any one of the soviet parties … Thus the central committees – both of the party and the Soviet – proposed, but the masses disposed.

At eight o’clock in the evening, the Machine Gun regiment, and soon after it the Moscow regiment, came up to the palace of Kshesinskaia. Popular Bolsheviks – Nevsky, Lashevich, Podvoisky – speaking from the balcony, tried to send the regiments home. They were answered from below: Doloi! Doloi! Such cries the Bolshevik balcony had never yet heard from the soldiers; it was an alarming sign. Behind the regiments the factories began to march up: “All Power to the Soviets!” “Down with the ten minister capitalists!” Those had been the banners of June 18th, but now they were hedged with bayonets. The demonstration had become a mighty fact. What was to be done? Could the Bolsheviks possibly stand aside? The members of the Petrograd committee, together with the delegates to the conference and representatives from the regiments and factories, passed a resolution: to reconsider the question, to end all fruitless attempts to restrain the masses and guide the developing movement in such a way that the governmental crisis may be decided in the interests of the people; with this goal, to appeal to the soldiers and workers to go peacefully to the Tauride Palace, elect delegates, and through them present their demands to the Executive Committee. The members of the Central Committee who were present sanctioned this change of tactics. This new decision, announced from the balcony, was met with welcoming shouts and with singing of the Marseillaise. The movement had been legalized by the party. The machine-gunners could heave a sigh of relief. A part of the regiment immediately went to the Peter and Paul fortress to influence its garrison, and in case of necessity protect from its blows the Palace of Kshesinskaia, which was separated from the fortress only by the narrow Kronverksky canal.

The principal ranks of the demonstration moved out into the Nevsky, the artery of the bourgeoisie, bureaucracy and officers, as though into a foreign country. From the sidewalks, windows, balconies, thousands of eyes looked out with no good wishes. regiment pressed upon factory, factory upon regiment. Fresh masses arrived continually. All the banners, in gold letters on red, cried out with one voice: “All Power to the Soviets!” The procession brimmed the Nevsky and poured like a river at the flood to the Tauride Palace. The placards “Down with the war!” provoke the bitterest hostility from the officers – among them many war-invalids. Waving their arms and straining their voices, students, college girls, officials, endeavor to persuade the soldiers that German agents behind them are aiming to let Wilhelm’s troops into Petrograd to strangle freedom. To these orators their own conclusions seem irrefutable. “They are deceived by spies,” say the officials, pointing at the workers, and the workers’ answer is a surly growl. “Led astray by fanatics!” say the more indulgent. “Ignorant elements,” others agree. But the workers have their own way of measuring things. They did not learn from German spies those ideas which have brought them into the streets today. The demonstrators impolitely push aside their importunate tutors, and move forward. This drives the patriots of the Nevsky out of their heads. Shock groups, led for the most part by war-cripples and Cavaliers of St. George, fall upon individual sections of the demonstration, trying to snatch away the banners. Clashes occur here and there. The atmosphere grows hot. Shots ring out. One, and then another. From a window? From the Anichkin Palace? The pavement answers with a volley in the air, aimed nowhere. In a short time the whole street is in confusion. At about midnight – relates a worker from the “Vulcan” Factory – as the Grenadier regiment was passing through the Nevsky in the vicinity of the Public Library, somebody opened fire on them from somewhere, and the shooting continued several minutes. A panic followed. The workers began to scatter into the side streets. The soldiers lay down under fire – they had learned that in the war school. That midnight scene on the Nevsky, with Grenadier Guards lying down on the pavement, was a fantastic spectacle. Neither Pushkin nor Gogol, singers of the Nevsky, ever imagined it thus. Moreover, there was reality in this fantasia: dead and wounded men stayed there on the pavement.

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

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