July Days: Arrests, repression target revolutionary workers & sailors

When the streets had been cleansed of the masses, the young government of the revolution stretched out its gouty limbs. Workers’ representatives were arrested, weapons were seized, one district of the town was cut off from another. At about six o’clock in the morning an automobile stopped in front of the editorial office of Pravda.  It was loaded with junkers and soldiers with a machine gun which was immediately set up at the window. After the departure of these uninvited guests the office was a picture of destruction: desk drawers smashed open, the floor heaped with torn-up manuscripts, the telephones ripped loose. The sentries and employees of the office had been beaten up and arrested. A still more violent attack was made on the printing plant for whose purchase the workers had been collecting money during the last three months. The rotary presses were destroyed, monotypes ruined, linotype machines smashed to pieces. The Bolsheviks were wrong, it seems, when they accused the Kerensky government of lacking energy!

“Generally speaking, the streets had now become normal,” writes Sukhanov. “There were almost no crowds or street meetings; almost all the stores were Open.” In the morning the summons of the Bolsheviks to stop the demonstration – the last product of the destroyed printing plant – was distributed. Cossacks and junkers were arresting sailors, soldiers and workers on the streets, and sending them to jail or to the guardhouses. In the stores and on the sidewalks the talk was of German money. They arrested everybody who made a peep in defense of the Bolsheviks. “It was no longer possible to declare Lenin an honest man – they would take you to the police station.” Sukhanov as always appears as an attentive observer of what is happening on the streets of the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, the burghers. But things looked different in the workers’ districts. The factories and shops were still closed. The mood was vigilant. Rumors went round that troops had arrived from the front. The streets of the Vyborg section were filled with groups discussing what to do in case of attack. “The Red Guards and the factory youth in general,” says Metelev, “were getting ready to penetrate the Peter and Paul fortress and support the detachment besieged there, concealing hand grenades in their pockets, in their shoes, under their coats. They crossed the river in row-boats and partly by the bridges.” The typesetter, Smirnov, from the Kolomensky district, remembers: “I saw a tugboat with naval cadets coming down the Neva from Duderhoff and Oranienbaum. Toward two o’clock the situation cleared up in the bad sense … I saw how the sailors one by one were returning to Kronstadt along the back streets … The story was being spread that all Bolsheviks were German spies. A vile hue and cry was raised …” The historian, Miliukov, sums it all up with satisfaction: “The mood and personnel of the public on the streets had completely changed. By evening Petrograd was entirely tranquil.”

So long as the troops from the front had not arrived, Petrograd headquarters, with the political co-operation of the Compromisers, continued to disguise its intentions. In the afternoon some members of the Executive Committee, with Lieber at their head, came to the Palace of Kshesinskaia for a conference with the Bolshevik leaders. That visit alone testified to a very peaceable feeling. According to the agreement then arrived at, the Bolsheviks were to induce the sailors to return to Kronstadt, to withdraw the machine gun company from Peter and Paul fortress, and to remove the patrols and armored cars from their positions. The government, on its part, promised not to permit any pogroms or repressions against the Bolsheviks, and to liberate all arrested persons except those who had engaged in criminal activities.

But the agreement did not last long. As the rumors spread about German money and the approach of troops from the front, more and more detachments and small groups were discovered in the garrison mindful of their loyalty to the government and to Kerensky. They sent delegates to the Tauride Palace or to the district staff. Finally echelons from the front actually began to arrive. The mood in compromise spheres grew fiercer and fiercer from hour to hour. The troops from the front had arrived all ready to snatch the capital with bloody hands from the agents of the Kaiser. Now that it was clear the troops were not needed, it became necessary to justify sending for them. To avoid falling under suspicion themselves, the Compromisers tried with all their might to show the commanders that Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries belong to the same camp with them, and that Bolsheviks are a common enemy. When Kamenev tried to remind the members of the præsidium of the Executive Committee about the agreement arrived at a few hours before, Lieber answered in the tone of an iron-hearted statesman: “The correlation of forces has now changed.” Lieber had learned from the popular speeches of Lassalle that cannon is an important part of a constitution. A delegation of Kronstadters headed by Raskolnikov was several times summoned before the military commission of the Executive Committee, where the demands, increasing from hour to hour, at last resolved themselves into an ultimatum from Lieber: that they should agree at once to the disarming of the Kronstadt men. “Departing from the session of the military commission,” related Raskolnikov, “we renewed our conferences with Trotsky and Kamenev. Lyev Davidovich (Trotsky) advised us immediately and secretly to send the Kronstadters home. A decision was adopted to send comrades around the barracks to warn the Kronstadters that they were going to be forcibly disarmed.” A majority of the Kronstadters got away in time. Only a few detachments remained in the house of Kshesinskaia and the Peter and Paul fortress.

With the knowledge and consent of the minister-socialists, Prince Lvov had already on July 4 given General Polovtsev a written order to “arrest the Bolsheviks occupying the house of Kshesinskaia, clear out the house, and occupy it with troops.” At this time, after the destruction of the editorial office and printing plant, the question of the fate of the central headquarters of the Bolsheviks became a very vital one. It was necessary to put the residence in a state of defense. The Military Organization appointed Raskolnikov commander of the building. He took his duties in a broad way – in a Kronstadt way – sent requisitions for cannon and even ordered a small warship to enter the mouth of the Neva. Raskolnikov subsequently explained this step in the following manner: “These military preparations were of course made on my part not merely with a view to self-defense, since there was a smell in the air not only of powder but of pogroms … I also thought – and not, I believe, without foundation – that one good warship in the mouth of the Neva would be enough to considerably shake the resolution of the Provisional Government.” All this is rather indefinite and none too serious. We may rather assume that at five o’clock in the afternoon of July 5th the leaders of the Military Organization, including Raskolnikov, had not yet estimated the extent of the changes in the situation, and hence at that moment, when the armed demonstration was compelled to beat a hasty retreat in order not to turn into an armed insurrection imposed by the enemy, some of the military leaders made certain accidental and not well thought-out steps forward. The young Kronstadt leaders did in this first action overreach themselves. But can you make a revolution without the help of people who overreach themselves? Indeed, does not a certain percentage of light-mindedness enter as a constituent part into all great human deeds? This time it came to nothing more than instructions, and these moreover were soon annulled by Raskolnikov himself. During this time more and more alarming news was pouring into the place. One man had seen in the windows of a house on the opposite shore of the Neva machine guns aimed at the Palace of Kshesinskaia; another had observed a column of armored automobiles traveling in the same direction; a third brought news of the approach of a detachment of Cossacks. Two members of the Military Organization were sent to the commander of the district to negotiate. Polovtsev assured the emissaries that the raid on Pravda had been made without his knowledge, and that no repressions were in preparation against the Military Organization. In reality he was only awaiting sufficient reinforcements from the front.

During this time, while Kronstadt was retreating, the Baltic Fleet as a whole was still only getting ready to advance. The principal part of the fleet was in the Finland waters, with a total of about 70,000 sailors. An army corps was also located in Finland, and ten thousand Russian workers were in the port factories of Helsingfors. That was a good-sized fist of the revolution. The pressure of the sailors and soldiers was so irresistible that even the Helsingfors committee of the Social Revolutionaries had come out against the Coalition, and in consequence all the soviet bodies of the fleet and army in Finland had unanimously demanded that the Executive Committee take the power. In support of their demand the Baltic men were ready at any moment to move into the mouth of the Neva. They were restrained, however, by the fear of weakening the naval line of defense, and making it easy for the German fleet to attack Kronstadt and Petrograd.

But here something completely unexpected occurred. The Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet – the so-called Centrobalt – called on the 4th of July an extraordinary session of the ship committees at which the president, Dybenko, read two secret orders just received by the fleet commander and signed by the assistant minister of the navy Dudarev. The first obliged the Admiral Verderevsky to send four destroyers to Petrograd to prevent by force the landing of sailors from the side of Kronstadt; the second demanded of the commander of the fleet that he should not on any pretext permit the departure of ships from Helsingfors to Kronstadt, not hesitating to sink disobedient ships with submarines. Finding himself between two fires, and worried most of all about his own head, the admiral anticipated events by turning over the telegram to the Centrobalt with the announcement that he would not carry out the orders even if countersigned by the Centrobalt. The reading of the telegram startled the sailors. To be sure, they had been ready on any pretext to abuse Kerensky and the Compromisers in no kind-hearted terms. But up to now this had been in their eyes an intra-soviet struggle. A majority in the Executive Committee belonged to the same parties as the majority in the Regional Committee of Finland which had just come out for a soviet government. It seemed clear enough that neither Mensheviks nor Social Revolutionaries could possibly approve the sinking of ships which had come out for the power of the Executive Committee. How could an old naval officer like Dudarev get mixed up in a family quarrel of the soviets, turning it into a naval battle? Only yesterday the big battleships had been officially regarded as the bulwark of the revolution – and this in contrast to the backward destroyers and submarines, which had hardly been touched by revolutionary propaganda. Could it be that the government now seriously intended to sink the battleships with the help of the submarines?

These facts simply could not find their way into the stubborn skulls of the sailors. That order which justifiably seemed to them to belong to the realm of nightmare was nevertheless a legitimate July harvest of the March sowing. Already in April the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had begun to appeal to the provinces against Petrograd, to the soldiers against the workers, to the cavalry against the machine-gunners. They had given the troops representative privileges in the soviets above the factories; they had favored the small and scattered enterprises as against the giants of the metal industry. Themselves representing the past, they had sought support in backwardness of all kinds. With the ground slipping under their feet, they were now inciting the rear guard against the advance guard. Politics has its own logic, especially in times of revolution. Pressed from all sides, the Compromisers had found themselves obliged to direct Admiral Verderevsky to sink the more advanced battleships. Unfortunately for the Compromisers, the backward ones upon whom they were relying were more and more striving to catch up to those in advance. The submarine command was no less indignant at Dudarev’s orders than the commanders of the battleships.

The men at the head of Centrobalt were not at all of the Hamlet type. They lost no time in passing a resolution, together with the members of the ship committees, to send immediately to Petrograd the squadron destroyer Orpheus, designated for the sinking of the Kronstadters, in the first place to get information as to what was happening there, and in the second “to arrest the Assistant-Minister of the Navy, Dudarev.” However unexpected this decision may seem, it nevertheless clearly reveals to what an extent the Baltic sailors were still inclined to regard the Compromisers as a private opponent in contrast to any old Dudarev whom they considered a public enemy. The Orpheus entered the mouth of the Neva twenty-four hours after the ten thousand armed Kronstadters had moored their vessels there. But “the correlation of forces had changed.” For a whole day the crew was not permitted to disembark. Only in the evening a delegation consisting of sixty-seven sailors from the Centrobalt and the ship’s crews was admitted to the joint session of the Executive Committees, then engaged in casting up the first balance of the July Days. The victors were luxuriating in their new victory. The spokesman, Voitinsky, was complacently describing the hours of weakness and humiliation, in order the more sharply to depict the triumph which followed. “The first unit which came to our help,” he said, “was the armored cars. We firmly intended in case of violence from the side of the armed gang to open fire … Seeing the extent of the danger threatening the revolution we issued an order to certain units (on the front) to entrain and come to the capital …” A majority of that high assembly were breathing out hatred for the Bolsheviks, and especially for the sailors. It was in this atmosphere that the Baltic delegates arrived armed with an order for the arrest of Dudarev. With a wild yelp, a pounding of fists on tables, and a stamping of feet, the victors greeted the reading of the resolution of the Baltic fleet. Arrest Dudarev? Why, this gallant captain of the first rank was only fulfilling his sacred duty to the revolution, which they, the sailors, the rebels, the counter-revolutionists, were stabbing in the back! In a special resolution the joint session solemnly declared its solidarity with Dudarev. The sailors looked at the orators and at each other with startled eyes. Only at this moment did they begin to understand what had been taking place before their eyes. The next day the whole delegation was arrested, and completed its political education in jail! Immediately after that, the president of the Centrobalt, the non-commissioned naval officer Dybenko, who had followed them up, was arrested, and after him also Admiral Verderevsky who had been summoned to the capital to explain matters.

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


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