‘On the third day the troops arrive. A wave of reaction runs through the city’

On the third day the troops arrive. Bicycle battalions, the reserve regiments, and then long grim lines of horsemen, the sun glancing on the tips of their lances. They are the Cossacks, ancient foes of the revolutionists, bringing dread to the workers and joy to the bourgeoisie. The avenues are filled now with well-dressed throngs cheering the Cossacks, crying “Shoot the rabble.” “String up the Bolsheviks.”

A wave of reaction runs thru the city. Insurgent regiments are disarmed. The death penalty is restored. The Bolshevik papers are suppressed. Forged documents attesting the Bolsheviks as German agents are handed to the press. Alexandrov, the Czar’s prosecutor, hales them before the bar, indicted for high treason under section 108 of the Penal Code. Leaders like Trotsky and Kollontai are thrown into prison. Lenin and Zinoviev are driven into hiding. In all quarters sudden seizures, assaults and murder of workingmen.

In the early morning of July 18th I am suddenly wakened by piercing cries from the Nevsky. With the clattering of horses’ hoofs are mingled shouts, desperate pleas for mercy, curses—one terrible blood-curdling scream. Then, the thud of a falling body, the groans of a man dying, and silence. An officer coming in explains that some workingmen had been caught pasting up Bolshevik posters along the Nevsky. A squad of Cossacks had ridden them down, lashing out with whips and sabres, cleaving one man open, and leaving him dead on the pavement.

At this new turn of events the bourgeoisie are elated. Ill-based elation! They do not know that the screams of this murdered workman will penetrate the furthermost corners of Russia, rousing his comrades to wrath and arms. This July day they cheer the Volynsk regiment, as with band playing it enters the city to suppress this uprising, whose purpose is to offer all power to the Soviets. Ill-starred cheers! They do not know that on a coming November night they will see this regiment in the forefront of the rising that triumphantly delivers all power to the Soviets.

The troops are called in to conquer Petrograd; but in the end Petrograd conquers them. The infection of this Bolshevik stronghold is irresistible. It is a huge blast furnace of the Revolution, burning away all dross and indifference. No matter how cold and sluggish they may enter the city, out of it they go fired by the spirit of the Revolution.

The city rose in tears and blood, in hunger and cold, in the forced labor of myriads of the starved and beaten. Their bones lie buried deep in the mud below. But their outraged spirits seem to live again in the Petrograd workingmen of today—spirits powerful and avenging. The serfs of Peter built the city; presently their descendants will be coming into their own.

It does not appear thus in midsummer 1917. The black shadow of reaction hovers over them. But the Bolsheviks bide their time. History, they feel, is on their side. Their ideas are working out in the villages, in the fleet and at the front.

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


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