July Days: Lenin appeals for optimism, firmness & self-restraint

From that moment the direct leadership of the movement passed conclusively into the hands of the Petrograd committee of the party, whose chief force as an agitator was Volodarsky. The task of mobilizing the garrison was assigned to the Military Organization. The direction of this organization ever since March had been in the hands of two old Bolsheviks to whom the organization was to owe much in its further development. Podvoisky was a sharply outlined and unique figure in the ranks of Bolshevism, with traits of the Russian revolutionary of the old type – from the theological seminaries – a man of great although undisciplined energy, with a creative imagination which, it must be confessed, often went to the length of fantasy. The word “Podvoiskyism” subsequently acquired on the lips of Lenin a friendly-ironical and admonitory flavor. But the weaker sides of this ebullient nature were to show themselves chiefly after the conquest of power, when an abundance of opportunities and means gave too many stimuli to the extravagant energy of Podvoisky and his passion for decorative undertakings. In the conditions of the revolutionary struggle for power, his optimistic decisiveness of character, his self-abnegation, his tirelessness, made him an irreplaceable leader of the awakening soldiers. Nevsky, a university instructor in the past, of more prosaic mould than Podvoisky, but no less devoted to the party, in no sense an organizer, and only by an unlucky accident made soviet Minister of Communications a year later, attached the soldiers to him by his simplicity, sociability, and attentive kindness. Around these leaders stood a group of close assistants, soldiers and young officers, some of whom in the future were to play no small rôle. On the night of July 4th the Military Organization suddenly came forward to the center of the stage. Under Podvoisky, who easily mastered the functions of command, an impromptu general staff was formed. Brief appeals and instructions were issued to all the troops of the garrison. In order to protect the demonstration from attack, armored cars were to be placed at the bridges leading from the suburbs to the capital and at the central crossings of the chief streets. The machine-gunners had already, during that night, established their own sentries at the Peter and Paul fortress. The garrisons of Oranienbaum, Peterhoff, Krasnoe Selo and other points near the capital, were informed of tomorrow’s demonstration by telephone and special messenger. The general political leadership, of course, remained in the hands of the Central Committee of the party.

The machine-gunners returned to their barracks at dawn, tired and, in spite of the July weather, shivering. A night rain had soaked the Putilov men also to the skin. The demonstrators did not assemble until eleven o’clock in the morning. The military sections got there still later. Today the 1st Machine Gun regiment was on the street to the last man. But it will no longer play the rôle of initiator as it did yesterday. The factories have moved into the front rank. Moreover, those plants have been drawn into the movement which yesterday stood aside. Where the leaders wavered or resisted, younger workers had compelled the member-on-duty of the factory committee to blow the whistle as a signal to stop work. In the Baltic factory, where Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries dominated, about four out of five thousand workers came out. In the Skorokhod shoe factory, long considered a stronghold of the Social Revolutionaries, the mood had so sharply changed that an old deputy from that factory, a Social Revolutionary, did not dare show his face for several days. All the factories struck and held meetings. They elected leaders for the demonstration and delegates to present their demands to the Executive Committee. Again hundreds of thousands moved in radii toward the Tauride Palace, and again tens of thousands turned aside on their way there to the Palace of Kshesinskaia. Today’s movement was more impressive and organized than yesterday’s: the guiding hand of the party was evident. But the feeling too was hotter today. The soldiers and workers were out for a solution of the crisis. The government was in despair, for on this second day of the demonstration its impotence was even more obvious than on the first. The Executive Committee was waiting for loyal troops, and getting reports from all sides that hostile troops were moving on the capital. From Kronstadt, from New Peterhoff, from Krasnoe Selo, from the Krasnaia Gorka fort, from all the nearby centers, by land and sea, soldiers and sailors were marching in with music, with weapons, and, worst of all, with Bolshevik standards. A number of regiments were bringing their officers with them, just as in the February days, pretending to be acting under their command.

“The sitting of the government was not over,” relates Miliukov, “when news came from the staff that there was shooting on the Nevsky. It was decided to transfer the sitting to staff-headquarters. Here were Prince Lvov, Tseretelli, Minister of Justice Pereverzev, and two assistants from the Ministry of War. There was one moment when the situation of the government seemed hopeless. The Preobrazhentsi, the Semenovtsi, and the Izmailovtsi, who had not joined the Bolsheviks, announced to the government that they would remain ‘neutral.’ On Palace Square, for the defense of headquarters, there were to be found only war-invalids and a few hundred Cossacks.” General Polovtsev published on the morning of July 4th an announcement that he was going to cleanse Petrograd of armed hordes. The inhabitants were strictly advised to lock their doors and not go into the streets except in case of absolute necessity. This threatening order fell flat. The commander of all the troops of the district was able to bring out against the demonstrators only petty detachments of Cossacks and junkers. In the course of the day they caused some meaningless shootings and some bloody clashes. An ensign of the First Don regiment guarding the Winter Palace reported subsequently to a commission of inquiry: “We were ordered to disarm small groups of people who passed by, no matter who they were, and also armed automobiles. To carry out this order, we would run out of the palace on foot from time to time and disarm people …” The ingenuous tale of the Cossack ensign correctly portrays the correlation of forces, and gives a picture of the struggle. The “mutinous” troops came out of the barracks in companies and battalions, taking possession of the streets and squares. The government troops acted from ambush, or made raids in small detachments – that is, they functioned exactly as insurrectionary bands are supposed to. This exchange of rôles is explained by the fact that almost the whole armed force of the government was hostile to it – or at the best, neutral. The government was living by the authorization of the Executive Committee; the power of the Executive Committee derived in turn from the hopes of the masses that it might at last come to its senses and take the power.

The demonstration attained its highest point with the appearance on the Petrograd arena of the Kronstadt sailors. Delegates from the machine-gunners had been working the day before in the garrison of the naval fortress. A meeting had assembled in Yakorny Square, unexpectedly to the local organization, on the initiative of some anarchists from Petrograd. The Orators had appealed to the sailors to come to the help of Petrograd. Roshal, a medical student, one of the young heroes of Kronstadt and a favorite on Yakorny Square, had tried to make a speech counseling moderation. Thousands of voices cut him off. Roshal, accustomed to a different welcome, had been compelled to leave the tribune. Not until night did it become known that in Petrograd the Bolsheviks were calling the masses into the streets. That settled the matter. The Left Social Revolutionaries – and in Kronstadt there could be no right ones – announced that they intended to take part in the demonstration. These people belonged to the same party with Kerensky, who at that very moment was at the front collecting troops to put down the demonstration. The mood at that night’s session of the Kronstadt organization was such that even the timid commissar of the Provisional Government, Parchevsky, voted for the march on Petrograd. A plan was drawn up; transports were mobilized. For the necessities of this political siege, two and a half tons of arms and ammunition were given out from the stores. Crowded on tugs and passenger steamers, about 10,000 armed sailors, soldiers and workers came into the narrows of the Neva at twelve o’clock noon. Disembarking on both sides of the river, they formed a procession with bands playing and with rifles slung over their shoulders. Behind the detachments of sailors and soldiers came columns of workers from the Petrograd and Vassilievsky Island districts, interspersed with companies of the Red Guard flanked by armored cars and with innumerable standards and banners rising above them.

Lenin giving a speech from the balcony of the Kshesinskaya Palace
Lenin speaks to protesters from the balcony of Ksheinskaia Palace, the Bolshevik headquarters during the July Days.

The Palace of Kshesinskaia was but two steps away. A little lank man, black as tar, Sverdlov – one of the basic organizers of the party elected to the Central Committee in the April conference – was standing on the balcony and in a businesslike manner, as always, shouting down instructions in his powerful bass voice: “Head of the procession, advance – close up ranks – rear ranks come closer.” The demonstrators were greeted from the balcony by Lunacharsky, a man always easily infected by the moods of those around him, imposing in appearance and voice, eloquent in a declamatory way – none too reliable, but often irreplaceable. He was stormily applauded from below. But most of all the demonstrators wanted to hear Lenin himself. He had been summoned that morning, by the way, from his temporary Finland refuge. And the sailors so insisted on having their will, that in spite of ill health Lenin could not beg off. An irresistible wave of ecstasy, a genuine Kronstadt wave, greeted the leader’s appearance on the balcony. Impatiently – and as always with some embarrassment – awaiting the end of the greeting, Lenin began speaking before the voices died down. His speech, which the hostile press for weeks after growled over and tore to pieces in every possible manner, consisted of a few simple phrases: a greeting to the demonstrators; an expression of confidence that the slogan, “All Power to the Soviets,” would conquer in the end, an appeal for firmness and self-restraint. With renewed shouts the procession marched away to the music of the band.

Between this holiday introduction and the next stage of the proceedings, when blood began to flow, a curious episode intruded. The leaders of the Kronstadt Left Social Revolutionaries noticed only after they arrived on Mars Field a colossal standard of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks which had appeared at the head of the procession after the stop at the Palace of Kshesinskaia. Burning with party rivalry, they demanded its removal. The Bolsheviks refused. The Social Revolutionaries then announced that they would withdraw entirely. However, none of the sailors or soldiers followed the leaders. The whole policy of the Left Social Revolutionaries consisted of such capricious waverings, now comic and now tragic.

At the corner of the Nevsky and Liteiny, the rear guard of the demonstration was suddenly fired on, and several people were wounded. A more cruel fire occurred on the corner of the Liteiny and Panteleimonov Street. The leader of the Kronstadt men, Raskolnikov, tells how “like a sharp pain to the demonstrators was their uncertainty where the enemy was, from what side he was shooting.” The soldiers seized their rifles. Disorderly firing began in all directions. Several were killed and wounded. Only with great difficulty was order restored in the ranks. The procession again moved forward with music, but not a trace was left of its holiday spirit. “There seemed to be a hidden enemy everywhere; Rifles no longer rested peacefully on the left shoulder, but were held ready for action.”

There were no few bloody encounters on that day in different parts of the town. A certain number of them were doubtless due to misunderstanding, confusion, stray shots, panic. Such tragic accidents are one of the inevitable overhead expenses of a revolution – itself one of the overhead expenses of historic progress. But an element of bloody provocation was also indubitable in the July events. It was manifest in those very days, and was subsequently confirmed. Says Podvoisky: “When the demonstrating soldiers began to pass through the Nevsky and the surrounding sections, inhabited for the most part by the bourgeoisie, ominous indications of a clash began to appear: strange shots were fired, nobody knew whence or by whom … The columns were seized at first with confusion, and then the least steady and self-restrained began to open an irregular fire.” In the official Izvestia, the Menshevik, Kantorovich, described the firing upon one of the workers’ columns in the following words: “A crowd of sixty thousand workers from many factories was marching along Sadovaia Street. As they were passing by a church, a bell tolled in the steeple and as though at a signal both rifle and machine gun fire was opened from the roofs of the houses. When the crowd of workers dashed to the other side of the street, shots came also from the roofs opposite.” In those attics and roofs, where in February Protopopov’s “Pharaohs” had posted themselves with machine guns, members of the officers’ organizations were now at work. They were attempting – and not without success – by firing on the demonstrators to spread panic and produce clashes between the different military units participating. When the houses from which shots came were searched, machine gun nests were found, and sometimes also the gunners.

The chief instigators of the bloodshed, however, were the government troops – powerless to put down the movement, but adequate for purposes of provocation. At about eight o’clock in the evening, when the demonstration was in full swing, two Cossack squadrons with flying artillery rode up as a guard for the Tauride Palace. On the way they stubbornly refused to enter into conversation with the demonstrators – in itself a bad sign. These Cossacks seized armored automobiles wherever they could and disarmed individual small groups. Cossack weapons on streets occupied by workers and soldiers seemed an intolerable challenge. Everything pointed to a clash. Near the Liteiny Bridge the Cossacks drew near to a compact mass of the enemy, who had here, on the road to the Tauride, succeeded in throwing up some sort of barrier. There was a moment of ominous silence broken by shots from neighboring houses. Then the fight began. “The Cossacks used up cartridges by the box,” writes the worker, Metelev. “The workers and soldiers, scattering to shelter, or simply lying down on the sidewalk under fire, replied in the same fashion.” The soldiers’ fire compelled the Cossacks to retreat. Having fought their way through to the quay along the Neva, they fired three volleys from cannon – the cannon shots are also remarked upon by Izvestia – but under the long-range rifle fire they retired in the direction of the Tauride Palace. Running into another workers’ column the Cossacks received a decisive blow. Abandoning their cannon, horses, rifles, they sought shelter in the entrances of bourgeois houses, or dispersed altogether.

That encounter on Liteiny, an actual small battle, was the biggest military episode of the July days, and stories about it are to be found in the recollections of many demonstrators. Bursin, a worker of the Ericcson factory which came out with the machinegunners, tells how upon meeting them “the Cossacks immediately opened fire with their rifles.” “Many workers were left lying dead, and it was here that I was struck by a bullet, which passed through one leg and stopped in the other … As a memento of the July days I have my crutch and my useless leg.” In the encounter on the Liteiny seven Cossacks were killed, and nineteen wounded or knocked out by shell explosions. Among the demonstrators six were killed, and about twenty wounded. Here and there lay the dead bodies of horses.

We have an interesting testimony from the opposing camp. That same ensign, Averin, who in the morning had made guerrilla attacks on the regular troops of the mutineers, writes as follows: “At eight o’clock in the evening we received an order from General Polovtsev to go out in two companies with two field-guns to the Tauride Palace … We got as far as the Liteiny Bridge, upon which I saw armed workers, soldiers and sailors … With my advance detachment I approached them and asked them to surrender their weapons, but my request was not granted, and the whole gang turned and ran across the bridge to the Vyborg side. I had not yet started after them, when a small-sized soldier without shoulder straps turned round and fired at me, but missed. That shot served as a signal, and an irregular rifle fire was opened on us from all sides. The crowd sent up a shout: ‘The Cossacks are shooting us.’ And that was the fact: the Cossacks slid from their horses and began to shoot. They even attempted to open fire with cannon, but the soldiers let go such a hurricane of rifle fire that the Cossacks were compelled to retreat and scatter through the town.” It is not at all impossible that some soldier shot at the ensign; a Cossack officer could better expect a bullet than a greeting from that July crowd. But it is easier to believe the abundant testimony to the fact that the first shots came not from the streets, but from ambush. A rank-and-file Cossack from the same squadron as the ensign has testified with conviction that the Cossacks were shot at from the direction of the District Court, and afterward from other houses in Samursky Alley and on the Liteiny. In the official organ of the Soviet, it was related that the Cossacks, before arriving at the Liteiny Bridge, were fired on with machine guns from a stone house. The worker, Metelev, asserts that when the soldiers searched that house they found in the apartment of a general who lived there a store of fire-arms, including two machine guns with cartridges. There is nothing unlikely in that. By hook or crook quantities of all kinds of weapons had been accumulated in the hands of the commanding staff during the war period. And the temptation to sprinkle that “rabble” with a hail of lead from above must have been great. To be sure, shots did fall among the Cossacks, but there was a conviction among the July crowds that counter-revolutionists were consciously shooting at the government troops in order to incite them to ruthless action. Officers who only yesterday possessed unlimited powers, recognize no limits to trickery and cruelty when the civil war comes. Petrograd was swarming with secret and semi-secret officer organizations enjoying lofty protection and generous support. In a confidential report made by the Menshevik, Lieber, almost a month before the July Days, it was asserted that the officer-conspirators were in touch with Buchanan. Yes, and how could the diplomats of the Entente help trying to promote the speedy establishment of a strong power in Russia?

In all excesses the Liberals and Compromisers would see the hand of “Anarcho-Bolsheviks” and German agents. The workers and soldiers, on the other hand, confidently laid the responsibility for the July clashes and victims upon patriotic provocateurs. Which side was right? The judgment of the masses is of course not infallible. But it is a crude mistake to imagine that the mass is blind and credulous. Where it is touched to the quick, it gathers facts and conjectures with a thousand eyes and ears, tests rumors by its own experience, selects some and rejects others. Where versions touching a mass movement are contradictory, those appropriated by the mass itself are nearest to the truth. It is for this reason that international sycophants of the type of Hippolyte Taine, who in studying great popular movements ignore the voices of the street, and spend their time carefully collecting and sifting the empty gossip produced in drawing-rooms by moods of isolation and fear, are so useless to science.

The demonstrators again besieged the Tauride Palace and demanded their answer. At the moment the Kronstadt men arrived, some group or other brought Chernov out to them. Sensing the mood of the crowd, the word-loving minister pronounced upon this one occasion a very brief speech. Sliding over the crisis in the problem of power, he referred scornfully to the Kadets who had withdrawn from the government. “Good riddance!” he cried. Shouts interrupted him: “Then why didn’t you say so before?” Miliukov even relates how “a husky worker, shaking his fist in the face of the minister, shouted furiously: ‘Take the power, you son-of-a-bitch, when they give it to you.’ Even though nothing more than an anecdote, this expresses with crude accuracy the essence of the July situation. Chernov’s answers have no interest; in any case, they did not win him the hearts of the Kronstadters … In just two or three minutes someone ran into the hall where the Executive Committee was sitting, and yelled that the sailors had arrested Chernov and were going to end him. With indescribable excitement the Executive Committee delegated several of its prominent members, exclusively internationalists and Bolsheviks, to rescue the minister. Chernov testified subsequently before a government commission that as he was descending from the tribune he noticed in the entrance behind the columns a hostile movement of several people. “They surrounded me and would not let me through to the door … A suspicious-looking person in command of the sailors who were holding me back, kept pointing to an automobile standing near … At that moment Trotsky, emerging from the Tauride Palace, came up and mounting on the front of the automobile in which I found myself, made a short speech.” Proposing that Chernov be released, Trotsky asked all those opposed to raise their hands. “Not one hand was raised. The group which had conducted me to the automobile then stepped aside with a disgruntled look. Trotsky, as I remember, said: ‘Citizen Chernov, nobody is hindering you from going back.’ … The general picture of this whole episode leaves no doubt in my mind that there was here a planned attempt of dark elements, acting over the heads of the general mass of the workers and soldiers, to call me out and arrest me.”

A week before his own arrest Trotsky stated at a joint session of the Executive Committees, “These facts are going into history and we will try to establish them as they were … I saw that a bunch of thugs was standing around the entrance. I said to Lunacharsky and Riazanov that those were okhranniki and they were trying to break into the Tauride Palace (Lunacharsky from his seat: ‘That’s correct.’) … I would know them, I said, in a crowd of ten thousand.” In his testimony of July 24th, Trotsky, already in solitary confinement in Kresty Prison, wrote: “I was first minded to ride out of the crowd in the automobile along with Chernov and those who wanted to arrest him, in order to avoid conflict and panic in the crowd. But Midshipman Raskolnikov, running up in extreme excitement, called to me: ‘That is impossible … If you ride away with Chernov, they will say tomorrow that the Kronstadters arrested him. Chernov must be freed immediately.’ As soon as the trumpeter had summoned the crowd to silence, and given me a chance to make a short speech, which ended with the question: ‘Those here in favor of violence, raise their hands,’ Chernov found it possible to go back immediately into the palace without hindrance.” The testimony of these two witnesses, who were at the same time the chief participants in the adventure, exhausts the factual side of it. But that did not in the least hinder the press hostile to the Bolsheviks from presenting the Chernov incident, together with the “attempt” at an arrest of Kerensky, as the most convincing of proofs that an armed insurrection had been organized by the Bolsheviks. There was no lack of allusion also, especially in oral agitation, to the fact that Trotsky had directed the arrest of Chernov. That version even arrived at the Tauride Palace. Chernov himself, who described the circumstances of his half-hour arrest with sufficient accuracy in a secret document addressed to a Commission of Inquiry, nevertheless refrained from making any public statement, in order not to hinder his party from creating indignation against the Bolsheviks. Moreover Chernov was a member of the government which put Trotsky in prison. The Compromisers, to be sure, might have remarked that a gang of dark conspirators would never have ventured upon so insolent a plot as to arrest a minister in the middle of a crowd in broad daylight, had they not hoped that the hostility of the mass to the “victim” would be a sufficient protection. Such indeed to a certain degree it was. Nobody around the automobile made of his own accord the slightest attempt to liberate Chernov. If to supplement this, somebody had somewhere arrested Kerensky, of course neither the workers nor soldiers would have grieved about that either. In this sense the moral sympathy of the masses for actual and imaginary attempts against the socialist ministers did exist and give support to the accusations against the Kronstadters. But the Compromisers were hindered from drawing this candid conclusion by their worry about the relics of their democratic prestige. While fencing themselves off with hostility from the demonstrators, they continued nevertheless to be heads of the system of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets in the besieged Tauride Palace.

At eight o’clock in the evening, General Polovtsev revived the hopes of the Executive Committee by telephone: two Cossack squadrons with flying artillery are on the way to the Tauride Palace. At last! But this time, too, their expectations were disappointed. Telephone calls in all directions only deepened their panic: the Cossacks had disappeared as though by evaporation, and their horses, saddles and flying artillery with them. Miliukov writes that towards evening there appeared “the first results of the governmental appeal to the troops.” Thus, he adds, the 176th regiment was said to be hastening to the Tauride Palace. This remark, which sounds so accurate, is curiously characteristic of those qui pro quo’s which inevitably arise in the first period of a civil war when the two camps are still only beginning to divide. A regiment did actually arrive at the Tauride Palace in campaign array: knapsacks and folded coats on their backs, canteens and kettles at their belts. The soldiers had got wet through on the way and were tired; they had come from Krasnoe Selo. It was, too, the 176th regiment. But they had no intention whatever of rescuing the government. Affiliated with the Mezhrayontsi, this regiment had come out under the leadership of two soldier Bolsheviks, Levinson and Medvediev, to win the power for the soviets. It was immediately reported to the leaders of the Executive Committee, sitting so-to-speak on pins and needles, that a regiment in campaign array had arrived from a distance with its officers, and was settling down to a well-earned rest beneath the windows of the palace. Dan, dressed in the uniform of a military physician, went to the commander with the request that he supply sentries for the defense of the palace. The sentries were soon actually supplied. Dan, we may imagine, communicated this fact with satisfaction to the præsidium, and from that source it arrived in the newspapers. Sukhanov in his Notes makes fun of the submissiveness with which a Bolshevik regiment fulfilled the directions of a Menshevik leader – a further proof, he thinks, of the “absurdity” of the July demonstration. In reality the matter was both simpler and more complex. Having received the request for sentries, the commander of the regiment turned to an assistant commandant on duty in the palace, the young lieutenant, Prigorovsky. By good or bad luck Prigorovsky was a Bolshevik, a member of the Mezhrayontsy organization, and he immediately turned for advice to Trotsky, who was occupying a point of observation with a small group of Bolsheviks in one of the side rooms of the palace. It goes without saying that Prigorovsky was advised to post the sentries immediately: far better to have friends than enemies at the entrances and exits of the palace! Thus it happened that the 76th regiment, having come out for a demonstration against the government, defended the government against demonstrators. If it had really been a question of insurrection, Lieutenant Prigorovsky with four soldiers at his back could easily have arrested the whole Executive Committee. But nobody thought of arresting anybody. The soldiers of the Bolshevik regiment conscientiously fulfilled their duty as sentries.

After the Cossack squadrons, who were the sole obstacle on the road to the Tauride Palace, had been swept away, it seemed to many demonstrators that victory was assured. In reality the chief obstacle was sitting in the very palace itself. At the joint session of the Executive Committees, which had begun at six o’clock in the evening, there were present 90 representatives from 54 shops and factories. The five orators, who were given the floor by agreement, began by protesting against the denunciation of the demonstrators as counter-revolutionists in the manifestoes of the Executive Committee. “You see what is written on our standards,” said one. “Such are the decisions adopted by the workers … We demand the resignation of the ten minister-capitalists. We have confidence in the Soviet, but not in those in whom the Soviet has confidence … We demand that the land be seized immediately, that control of industry be established immediately. We demand a struggle against the famine which threatens us …” Another added: “This is not a meeting, but a fully organized manifestation. We demand the transfer of the land to the peasants. We demand an annulment of the orders directed against the revolutionary army … At this time when the Kadets have refused to work with you, we ask you with whom further you want to dicker. We demand that the power pass to the soviets.” The propaganda slogans of the manifestation of June 18th had now become an armed ultimatum of the masses. But the Compromisers were still bound with too heavy chains to the chariot of the possessing classes. Power to the soviets? But that means first of all a bold policy of peace, a break with the Allies, a break with our own bourgeoisie, complete isolation, and in the course of a few weeks, ruin. No! A responsible democracy will not enter on the path of adventurism! “The present circumstances,” said Tseretelli, “make it impossible in the Petrograd atmosphere to carry out any new decisions whatever.” It remains, therefore, “to recognize the government with the staff it has left … to call an extraordinary session of the soviets in two weeks … in a place where it may be able to work without interference, best of all in Moscow.”

But the course of the meeting was continually interrupted. The Putilovtsi were knocking at the door of the palace: they came up only towards evening, tired, irritated, in extreme excitement. “Tseretelli – we want Tseretelli!” This mass, thirty thousand strong, sends its representatives into the palace, somebody shouting after them that if Tseretelli won’t come out of his own accord they must bring him out. It is a long way from threat to action, but nevertheless the thing is taking a rough turn, and the Bolsheviks hasten to interfere. Zinoviev subsequently reported: “Our comrades proposed that I should go out to the Putilov men … a sea of heads such as I never saw before. Tens of thousands of men were solidly packed together. The cries of ‘Tseretelli’ continued … I began: ‘In place of Tseretelli, it is I who have come out to you.’ Laughter. That changed the mood. I was able to make quite a long speech … And in conclusion I appealed to that audience to disperse peacefully at once, keeping perfect order, and under no circumstances permitting anyone to provoke them to any aggressive action. The assembled workers applauded stormily, formed in ranks, and began to disperse.” This episode offers the best possible illustration of the keen discontent of the masses, their lack of any plan of attack, and the actual rôle of the Bolshevik party in the July events.

During the moments when Zinoviev was exchanging views with the Putilovtsi outdoors, a large group of their delegates, some of them with rifles, burst stormily into the hall where the Executive Committees were in session. The members of the Committees jumped up from their seats. “Some of them did not reveal a sufficient courage and self-restraint,” says Sukhanov, who has left a vivid description of this dramatic moment. One of the workers, “a classic sansculotte in cap and short blue blouse without belt, with a rifle in his hand,” jumped up on the speaker’s tribune, trembling with excitement and wrath: “ ’Comrades! How long are we workers going to stand for this treachery? You are making bargains with the bourgeoisie and the landlords … Here we are, thirty thousand Putilovtsi … We are going to have our will!’ Cheidze, before whose nose the rifle was dancing, showed great presence of mind. Calmly leaning down from his elevation, he thrust into the quivering hand of the worker a printed manifesto: ‘Here, comrade, take this, please, and I ask you to read it. It says here what the Putilov comrades should do …’” In the manifesto it said nothing at all except that the demonstrators ought to go home, as otherwise they would be traitors to the revolution. And what else, indeed, was there left for the Mensheviks to say?

In the agitation under the walls of the Tauride Palace – as everywhere in the agitational whirlwind of that period – a great place was occupied by Zinoviev, an orator of extraordinary power. His high tenor voice would surprise you at first, but afterward win you with its unique music. Zinoviev was a born agitator. He knew how to infect himself with the mood of the masses, excite himself with their emotions, and find for their thoughts and feelings a somewhat prolix, perhaps, but very gripping expression. Enemies used to call Zinoviev the greatest demagogue among the Bolsheviks. This was their usual way of paying tribute to his strongest trait – his ability to penetrate the heart of the demos and play upon its strings. It is impossible to deny, however, that being merely an agitator, and neither a theoretician nor a revolutionary strategist, Zinoviev, when he was not restrained by an external discipline, easily slid down the path of demagoguism – speaking not in the philistine, but in the scientific sense of that word. That is, he showed an inclination to sacrifice enduring interests to the success of the moment. Zinoviev’s agitatorial quick scent made him an extraordinarily valuable counselor whenever it was a question of estimating political conjunctures – but nothing deeper than that. At meetings of the party he was able to conquer, convince, bewitch, whenever he came with a prepared political idea, tested in mass meetings and, so-to-speak, saturated with the hopes and hates of the workers and soldiers. On the other hand, Zinoviev was able in a hostile meeting – even in the Executive Committee of those days – to give to the most extreme and explosive thoughts an enveloping and insinuating form, making his way into the minds of those who had met him with a preconceived distrust. In order to achieve these invaluable results, he had to have something more than a consciousness that he was right; he had to have a tranquilizing certainty that he was to be relieved of the political responsibility by a reliable and strong hand. Lenin gave him this certainty. Armed with a prepared strategic formula containing the very essence of a question, Zinoviev would adroitly and astutely supplement it with fresh exclamations, protests, demands, just now caught up by him on the street, in the factory or the barrack. In those moments he was an ideal mechanism of transmission between Lenin and the masses – sometimes between the masses and Lenin. Zinoviev always followed his teacher except in a very few cases. But the hour of disagreement was just that hour when the fate of the party, of the class, of the country, was to be decided. The agitator of the revolution lacked revolutionary character. When it was a question of conquering minds and hearts Zinoviev remained a tireless fighter, but he suddenly lost his fighting confidence when he came face to face with the necessity of action. Here he drew back from the masses – from Lenin too – responded only to voices of indecision, caught up every doubt, saw nothing but obstacles. And then his insinuating, almost feminine voice, losing its conviction, would expose his inner weakness. Under the walls of the Tauride Palace in the July days, Zinoviev was extraordinarily active, ingenious and strong. He raised the excitement of the masses to its highest note – not in order to summon them to decisive action, but, on the contrary, in order to restrain them. This corresponded to the moment and to the policy of the party. Zinoviev was wholly in his element.

The battle on the Liteiny produced a sharp break in the development of the demonstration. Nobody was now watching the procession from window or balcony. The more well-to-do part of the public, besieging the railroad stations, were leaving town. The struggle in the streets turned into a scattered skirmishing without definite aim. During the night there were hand-to-hand fights between demonstrators and patriots, unsystematic disarmings, transfers of rifles from one hand to another. Groups of soldiers from the dispersed regiments functioned helter-skelter. “Shady elements and provocateurs, attaching themselves to the soldiers, incited them to anarchistic activities,” adds Podvoisky. On a hunt for those who had shot from the roofs, groups of sailors and soldiers carried out searches in the cellars. Here and there, under the pretext of a search, plunderings would occur. On the other side deeds of a pogrom character were perpetrated. Merchants furiously attacked the workers in those parts of the town where they felt strong, and ruthlessly beat them up. Says Afanassiev, a worker from the New Lessner factory: “With cries of ‘Beat the Yids and Bolsheviks! Drown them!’ the crowd attacked us and gave it to us good.” One of the victims died in the hospital. Afanassiev himself was dragged by sailors, bruised and bloody, from the Ekaterininsky Canal.

Skirmishes, victims, fruitlessness of the struggle, and indefiniteness of practical aim – that describes the movement. The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution: to call on the workers and soldiers to end the demonstration. This time that appeal, which was immediately brought to the attention of the Executive Committee, met hardly any opposition at all in the lower ranks. The masses ebbed back into the suburbs, and they cherished no intention of renewing the struggle on the following day. They felt that the problem of “Power to the Soviets” was considerably more complicated than had appeared.

The siege of the Tauride Palace was conclusively raised. The nearby streets stood empty. But the vigil of the Executive Committees continued, with intermissions, with long-drawn-out speeches, meaningless and fruitless. Only afterwards did it become clear that the Compromisers were waiting for something. In neighboring rooms the delegates of the factories and regiments were still languishing. “It was already long after midnight,” relates Metelev, “and we were still waiting for a ‘decision’. Irritated with weariness and hunger, we were wandering through the Alexandrovsky hall … At four o’clock in the morning On the 5th of July our waiting came to an end … Through the open doors of the chief entrance to the palace burst in a noisy crowd of officers and soldiers.” The whole building was filled with the brassy sounds of the Marseillaise. The trampling of feet and the thunder of the band at that hour before the dawn, caused an extraordinary excitement in the session hall. The deputies leapt from their seats. A new danger? But Dan was in the tribune. ”Comrades,” he shouted, “don’t get excited. There is no danger. Those are regiments loyal to the revolution that have arrived.” Yes, the reliable troops had arrived at last. They occupied the corridors, viciously fell upon the few workers still remaining in the palace, grabbed the weapons of those having them, arrested them and led them away. Lieutenant Kuchin, a well-known Menshevik, ascended the tribune in field uniform. The chairman, Dan, received him with open arms to the triumphal notes of the band. Choking with delight, and scorching the Lefts with their triumphant glances, the Compromisers seized each other by the hand, opened their mouths wide, and poured out their enthusiasm in the notes of the Marseillaise. “A classic picture of the beginning of a counter-revolution,” angrily muttered Martov, who knew how to see and understand many things. The political meaning of this scene – recorded by Sukhanov – will become still more clear if you remember that Martov belonged to the same party with Dan for whom it represented the highest triumph of the revolution.

Only now, as they observed the joy of the majority bubbling like a fountain, did the Left Wing of the Soviet begin to understand in a downright way how isolated was this highest organ of the official democracy when the genuine democracy came into the streets. For thirty-six hours these people had been alternately disappearing behind the scenes, running to a telephone booth to get in touch with headquarters or with Kerensky at the front, to demand troops, to appeal, to urge, to beseech, to dispatch agitators and ever more agitators, and again to come back and wait. The danger was past, but the fear retained its momentum. The tramping steps of the “loyal” at five o’clock in the morning therefore sounded to their ears like a symphony of liberation. At last from the tribune came frank speeches about the lucky putting down of an armed revolt, and about the necessity of settling with the Bolsheviks this time for good. That detachment which entered the Tauride Palace had not come from the front, however, as many in the heat of the moment thought. It had been hand-picked from the Petrograd garrison – chiefly from the three most backward guard battalions, the Preobrazhensky, the Semenovsky and the Izmailovsky. On the 3rd of June these regiments had declared themselves neutral, and vain efforts had been made to capture them with the authority of the government and the Executive Committee. The soldiers sat gloomily in their barracks waiting. Only in the afternoon of July 4th did the authorities at last discover an effective means of influencing them. They showed the Preobrazhentsi documents demonstrating as plain as 2 + 2 = 4 that Lenin was a German spy. That moved them. The news flew round the regiments. Officers, members of the regimental committee, agitators of the Executive Committee, were active everywhere. The mood of the neutral battalions changed. By dawn, when there was no longer any need of them, it became possible to assemble them and lead them through the deserted streets to the empty Tauride Palace. The Marseillaise was played that night by the band of the Izmailovsky regiment – the same reactionary regiment to which on December 3, 1905 had been intrusted the task of arresting the first Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, in session with Trotsky in the chair. The blind director of the historic drama achieves striking theatrical effects at every step without striving after them; he simply gives a loose rein to the logic of events.

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


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