July Days: Bolshevik headquarters besieged

On the morning of July 6th [July 19 on the modern calendar] the workers went back to work. Only the troops summoned from the front were now demonstrating in the streets. Agents of the Intelligence Service were examining passports and making arrests right and left. A young worker, Voinov, who was distributing the Pravda Leaflet, published in place of the destroyed Bolshevik paper, was killed in the streets by a gang – perhaps composed of these same intelligence men. The Black Hundred elements were acquiring a taste for the putting down of revolts. Plundering, violence, and in some places shooting continued in different parts of the city. In the course of the day echelon after echelon arrived from the front – the Cavalier Division, the Don Cossack regiment, the Uhlan division, the Izborsky, the Malorossisky, the Dragoon regiment, and others. “The Cossack divisions, arriving in great numbers,” writes Gorky’s paper, “were in a very aggressive mood.” Machine-gunfire was opened on the newly arrived Izborsky regiment in two parts of the city. In both cases the machine guns were found in an attic; those guilty were not discovered. In other places, too, the arriving troops were shot at. The deliberate madness of this shooting deeply disturbed the workers. It was clear that experienced provocateurs were greeting the soldiers with lead with a view to anti-Bolshevik inoculation. The workers were eager to explain this to the arriving soldiers, but they were denied access to them. For the first time since the February days the junker or the officer stood between the worker and soldier.

The Compromisers joyfully welcomed the arriving regiments. At a meeting of representatives of the troops, in the presence of a great number of officers and junkers, our friend Voitinsky unctuously explained: “Now along Milliony Street troops and armored cars are traveling towards Palace Square to place themselves at the disposal of General Polovtsev, and this is our real strength upon which we rely.” To act as a political covering, four socialist assistants were appointed to the commander of the district: Avksentiev and Gotz from the Executive Committee, Skobelev and Chernov from the Provisional Government. But that did not save the commander. Kerensky subsequently boasted to the White Guards that on returning from the front in the July Days, he had discharged General Polovtsev for “irresolution.”

Now at last it was possible to solve the so long postponed problem: to clean up that wasp’s nest of Bolsheviks in the house of Kshesinskaia. In social life in general, and particularly in a time of revolution, secondary facts which act upon the imagination sometimes acquire through their symbolic meaning an enormous significance. Thus a disproportionately large place in the struggle against the Bolsheviks was occupied by the question of the “seizure” by Lenin of the Palace of Kshesinskaia, a court ballerina famous not so much for her art as for her relations with the male representatives of the Romanov dynasty. Her private palace was the fruit of these relations – the foundation of which was laid down, it seems, by Nicholas II when still heir to the throne. Before the war, people gossiped with a tinge of envious respectfulness about this den of luxury, spurs, and diamonds located opposite the Winter Palace. But in wartime they more frequently remarked: “Stolen goods.” The soldiers expressed themselves even more accurately. Arriving at a critical age, the ballerina took up a career in patriotism. The outspoken Rodzianko has this to say on that subject: “The high commander-in-chief (the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich) remarked that he was aware of the participation and influence in artillery matters of the ballerina, Kshesinskaia, through whom various firms had received orders.” It is no wonder if after the revolution the abandoned Palace of Kshesinskaia failed to awaken benevolent feelings among the people. In those times when the revolution was making an insatiable demand for quarters, the government never dared lay its hands on a single private residence. To requisition the peasants’ horses for the war – that is one thing; to requisition vacant palaces for the revolution – that is quite another. But the masses of the people saw it otherwise.

Kshesinskaia Mansion, headquarters of the Bolsheviks until the July 1917 protests were repressed.  Today it is a museum.

On a search for suitable quarters, a reserve armored-car division had run into the residence of Kshesinskaia in the first days of March, and occupied it: the ballerina had an excellent garage. The division gladly turned over the upper story of the building to the Petrograd committee of the Bolsheviks. The friendship of the Bolsheviks with this armored-car division supplemented their friendship with the machine-gunners. The occupation of the palace, which occurred a few weeks before the arrival of Lenin, passed almost unnoticed at first. The indignation against the usurpers grew with the growth of the influence of the Bolsheviks. The wild stories in the newspapers about how Lenin was occupying the boudoir of the ballerina, and how all the decorations of the palace had been shattered to pieces and torn up, were mere lies. Lenin lived in the modest apartment of his sister. The ballerina’s furnishings were put away by the commandant of the building and kept under seal. Sukhanov, who visited the palace at the time of Lenin’s arrival, has left an interesting description of the quarters. ’The chambers of the famous ballerina had a rather strange and inappropriate look; the exquisite ceilings and walls did not harmonize at all with the unpretentious furnishings, the primitive tables, chairs, and benches set casually about according to the demands of business. In general there was very little furniture. Kshesinskaia’s movable property had been put away somewhere …” Discreetly avoiding the question of the armored-car division, the press represented Lenin as guilty of an armed seizure of the house from the hands of a defenseless devotee of art. This theme was developed in leading editorials and feuilletons. Tattered workers and soldiers among those velvets and silks and beautiful rugs! All the drawing-rooms of the capital shuddered with moral indignation. As once the Girondists held the Jacobins responsible for the September murders, the disappearance of mattresses in the barracks, and the campaign for an agrarian law, so now the Kadets and democrats accused the Bolsheviks of undermining the pillars of human morality and hawking and spitting on the polished floors of the Palace of Kshesinskaia. The dynastic ballerina became a symbol of culture trampled under the hoofs of barbarism. This apotheosis gave wings to the lady herself, and she complained to the court. The court decided that the Bolsheviks should be removed from the premises. But that was not quite so easy to do. “The armored cars on duty in the courtyard looked sufficiently imposing,” remembers Zalezhsky, then a member of the Petrograd committee. Moreover the Machine Gun regiment, and other units too, were ready in case of need to back up the armored cars. On May 25, the bureau of the Executive Committee, upon a complaint from the ballerina’s lawyer, recognized that “the interests of the revolution demand submission to the decisions of the court.” Beyond this platonic aphorism, however, the Compromisers did not venture – [?] to the extreme distress of the ballerina, who was not by nature inclined to Platonism.

The Central Committee, the Petrograd committee, and the Military Organization, continued to work in the palace side by side. “A continuous mass of people crowded into the house of Kshesinskaia,” says Raskolnikov. “Some would come on business to this or that secretariat, others to the literature department, others to the editorial offices of the soldiers’ Pravda, others to some meeting or other. Meetings took place very often, sometimes continually – either in the spacious wide hall below, or in the room upstairs with a long table which had evidently been the dining-room of the ballerina.” From the palace balcony, above which waved the impressive banner of the Central Committee, orators carried on a continuous mass meeting, not only by day but by night. Often out of the darkness some military detachment would approach the building, or some crowd of workers with a demand for an orator. Accidental groups of citizens would also stop before the balcony, their curiosity aroused by some uproar in the newspapers. During the critical days hostile manifestations would draw near to the building for a time, demanding the arrest of Lenin and the driving out of the Bolsheviks. Under the streams of people flowing past the palace one felt the seething depths of the revolution. The house of Kshesinskaia reached its apogee in the July days. “The chief headquarters of the movement,” says Miliukov, “was not the Tauride Palace, but Lenin’s citadel, the house of Kshesinskaia with its classic balcony.” The putting down of the demonstration led fatally to the break-up of this staff headquarters of the Bolsheviks.

At three o’clock in the morning there advanced against the house of Kshesinskaia and the Peter and Paul fortress – separated from each other by a strip of water – the reserve battalion of the Petrograd regiment, a machine gun detachment, a company of Semenovtsi, a company of Preobrazhentsi, the training squad of the Volynsky regiment, two cannon, and a detachment of eight armored cars. At seven o’clock in the morning an assistant of the commander of the district, the Social Revolutionary Kuzmin, demanded that the house be vacated. Not wishing to surrender their weapons, the Kronstadters, of whom there remained only a hundred and twenty in the palace, dashed across to the Peter and Paul fortress. When the government troops occupied the house, they found nobody there but a few employees. There then remained the problem of the Peter and Paul fortress. Young Red Guards, as we remember, had gone over from the Vyborg district in order in case of need to help the sailors. “On the fortress walls,” one of them relates, “stood a number of cannon, evidently set up by the sailors in case anything should happen … It began to look like bloody doings.” But diplomatic negotiations settled the problem peacefully. At the direction of the Central Committee, Stalin proposed to the compromise leaders to adopt joint measures for the bloodless termination of the action of the Kronstadt men. In company with the Menshevik, Bogdanov, he had no difficulty in persuading the sailors to accept Lieber’s ultimatum of the day before. When the government armored cars approached the fortress, a deputation came out of its gates announcing that the garrison would submit to the Executive Committee. The weapons given up by the sailors and soldiers were carried away in trucks. The disarmed sailors were sent to the barges for return to Kronstadt. The surrender of the fortress may be considered the concluding episode of the July movement. A bicycle brigade from the front occupied the house of Kshesinskaia and the Peter and Paul fortress. This brigade in its turn, will go over on the eve of the October revolution, to the Bolsheviks.

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


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