‘Deep reconnaissance of July transformed into a one-sided battle’

The faith of the masses in the Provisional government was hopelessly undermined. At this second stage of the revolution, Petrograd was again too far in the van. In the July days, this vanguard came to an open clash with Kerensky’s government. It was not yet an uprising, but only a reconnaissance that went deep. But it had already become obvious in the July encounter that Kerensky had no “democratic” army behind him; that the forces supporting him against us were those of a counter-revolution.

During the session in the Taurid Palace on July 3 [July 16 on the modern calendar], I learned of the demonstration of the machine-gun regiment and its appeal to other troops and to factory-workers. The news came as a surprise to me. The demonstration had been spontaneous, at the initiative of the masses, but next day it went farther, now with the participation of our party. The Taurid Palace was overrun by the people. They had only one slogan: “Power to the Soviets.”

In front of the palace, a suspicious-booking group of men who had kept aloof from the crowd seized the minister of agriculture, Chernov, and put him in an automobile. The crowd watched indifferently; at any rate, their sympathy was not with him. The news of Chernov’s seizure and of the danger that threatened him reached the palace. The Populists decided to use machine-gun armored cars to rescue their leader. The decline of their popularity was making them nervous; they wanted to show a firm hand. I decided to try to go with Chernov in the automobile away from the crowd, in order that I might release him afterward. But a Bolshevik, Raskolnikov, a lieutenant in the Baltic navy, who had brought the Kronstadt sailors to the demonstration, excitedly insisted on releasing Chernov at once, to prevent people from saying that he had been arrested by the Kronstadt men. I decided to try to carry out Raskolnikov’s wish. I will let him speak for himself.

“It is difficult to say how long the turbulence of the masses would have continued,” the impulsive lieutenant says in his memoirs, “but for the intervention of Comrade Trotsky. He jumped on the front of the automobile, and with an energetic wave of his hand, like a man who was tired of waiting, gave the signal for silence. Instantly, everything calmed down, and there was dead quiet. In a loud, clear and ringing voice, Lev Davydovich made a short speech, ending with ‘those in favor of violence to Chernov raise their hands!’ Nobody even opened his mouth,” continues Raskolnikov; “no one uttered a word of protest. ‘Citizen Chernov, you are free,’ Trotsky said, as he turned around solemnly to the minister of agriculture and with a wave of his hand, invited him to leave the automobile. Chernov was half-dead and half-alive. I helped him to get out of the automobile, and with an exhausted, expressionless look and a hesitating, unsteady walk, he went up the steps and disappeared into the vestibule of the palace. Satisfied with his victory, Lev Davydovich walked away with him.”

If one discounts the unnecessarily pathetic tone, the scene is described correctly. It did not keep the hostile press from asserting that I had Chernov seized to have him lynched. Chernov shyly kept silent; how could a “People’s” minister confess his indebtedness not to his own popularity, but to the intervention of a Bolshevik for the safety of his head?

Delegation after delegation demanded, in the name of the demonstrants, that the Executive Committee take the power. Chiedze, Tzereteli, Dan, and Gotz were sitting in the presidium like statues. They did not answer the delegations, and looked blankly off into space or exchanged perturbed and cryptic glances. Bolsheviks spoke one after another in support of the delegations of workers and soldiers. The members of the presidium were silent. They were waiting – but for what? Hours passed in this way. Then, in the middle of the night, the halls of the palace resounded suddenly with the triumphant blare of trumpets. The members of the presidium came to life as if they had been touched by an electric current. Some one solemnly reported that the Volyn regiment had arrived from the front to put itself of the disposal of the Central Executive Committee. In all of the Petrograd garrison, the “democracy” had not had a single unit that it could rely on. And so it had had to wait until an armed force could come from the front.

Now the whole setting changed immediately. The delegations were driven out; Bolsheviks were not allowed to speak. The leaders of the democracy were wreaking on us their vengeance for the fear that the masses had made them suffer. Speeches from the platform of the Executive Committee told of an armed mutiny suppressed by the loyal troops of the revolution. The Bolsheviks were declared a counter-revolutionary party. The arrival of that one Volyn regiment had done all this. Three and a half months later, the same regiment co-operated wholeheartedly in the overthrow of Kerensky’s government.

revolution-1917-petrograd-46
Soldiers of the 1st Machine-Gun Regiment disarmed for participation in the July demonstrations,  July 6 [18], 1917. Photo by YV Steinberg
On the morning of the fifth I met Lenin. The offensive by the masses had been beaten off. “Now they will shoot us down, one by one,” said Lenin. “This is the right time for them.” But he overestimated the opponent – not his venom, but his courage and ability to act. They did not shoot us down one by one, although they were not far from it. Bolsheviks were being beaten down in the streets and killed. Military students sacked the Kseshinskaya palace and the printing-works of the Pravda. The whole street in front of the works was littered with manuscripts, and among those destroyed was my pamphlet To the Slanderers. The deep reconnaissance of July had been transformed into a one-sided battle. The enemy were easily victorious, because we did not fight. The party was paying dearly for it. Lenin and Zinoviev were in hiding. General arrests, followed by beatings, were the order of the day. Cossacks and military students confiscated the money of those arrested, on the ground that it was “German money.” Many of our sympathizers and half-friends turned their backs on us. In the Taurid Palace, we were proclaimed counter-revolutionists and were actually put outside the law.

The situation in the ruling circles of the party was bad. Lenin was away; Kamenev’s wing was raising its head. Many – and these included Stalin – simply let events take their own course, so that they might show their wisdom the day after. The Bolshevik faction in the Central Executive Committee felt orphaned in the Taurid Palace. It sent a delegation to ask me if I would speak to them about the situation, although I was not yet a member of the party; my formal joining had been delayed until the party congress, soon to meet. I agreed readily, of course. My talk with the Bolshevik faction established moral bonds of the sort that are forged only under the enemy’s heaviest blows. I said then that after this crisis we were to expect a rapid up swing; that the masses would become twice as strongly attached to us when they had verified the truth of our declaration by facts; that it was necessary to keep a strict watch on every revolutionary, for at such moments men are weighed on scales that do not err. Even now I recall with pleasure the warmth and gratitude that the members showed me when I left them. “Lenin is away,” Muralov said, “and of the others, only Trotsky has kept his head.” …

My unbroken fighting friendship as well as my political friendship with Muralov began then. I must say at least a few words about the man. Muralov is an old Bolshevik who went through the revolution of 1905 in Moscow. In Serpukhov, in 1906, he was caught in the pogrom of the Black Hundred – carried out, as usual, under the protection of the police. Muralov is a magnificent giant, as fearless as he is kind. With a few others, he found himself in a ring of enemies who had surrounded the building of the Zemstvo administration. Muralov came out of the building with a revolver in his hand and walked evenly toward the crowd. It moved back a little. But the shock company of the Black Hundred blocked his path, and the cabmen began to howl taunts at him. “Clear a way,” ordered the giant without slackening his advance, as he raised the hand holding the revolver. Several men pounced on him. He shot one of them down and wounded another. The crowd drew back again. With the same even step, cutting his way through the crowd like an ice-breaker, Muralov walked on and on toward Moscow.

His subsequent trial lasted for two years, and, in spite of the frenzy of the reaction that swept over the country, he was acquitted. An agricultural expert by training, a soldier in an aut mobile detachment during the imperialist war, a leader of the October fighting in Moscow, Muralov became the first commander of the Moscow military region after the victory. He was a fearless marshal of the revolutionary war, always steady, simple, and unaffected. In his campaigning he was a tireless living example; he gave agricultural advice, mowed grain, and in his free moments gave medical treatment to both men and cows. In the most difficult situations he radiated calm, warmth, and confidence. After the close of the war, Muralov and I always tried to spend our free days together. We were united too by our love of hunting. We scoured North and South for bears and wolves, or for pheasants and bustards. At present, Muralov is hunting in Siberia as an exiled oppositionist.

In the July days of 1917, Muralov held his head up, as usual, and encouraged many others. In those days, we all needed a lot of self-control to stride along the corridors and halls of the Taurid Palace without bowing our heads, as we ran the gauntlet of furious glances, venomous whispers, grinding of teeth, and a demonstrative elbowing that seemed to say: “Look! Look!” There is no fury greater than that of a vain and pampered “revolutionary” philistine when he begins to perceive that the revolution which has suddenly lifted him to the top is about to threaten his temporary splendor.

The route to the canteen of the Executive Committee was a little Golgotha in those days. Tea was dispensed there, and sandwiches of black bread and cheese or red caviar; the latter was plentiful in the Smolny and later in the Kremlin. For dinner, the fare was a vegetable soup with a chunk of meat. The canteen was in charge of a soldier named Grafov. When the baiting of the Bolsheviks was at its worst, when Lenin was declared a German spy and had to hide in a hut, I noticed that Grafov would slip me a hotter glass of tea, or a sandwich better than the rest, trying meanwhile not to look at me. He obviously sympathized with the Bolsheviks but had to keep it from his superiors. I began to look about me more attentively. Grafov was not the only one: the whole lower staff of the Smolny – porters, messengers, watchmen – were unmistakably with the Bolsheviks. Then I felt that our cause was half won. But so far, only half.

The press was conducting an exceptionally venomous and dishonest campaign against the Bolsheviks, a campaign surpassed in this respect only by Stalin’s campaign against the opposition a few years later. In July, Lunacharsky made a few equivocal statements which the press naturally interpreted as a renunciation of Bolshevism. Some papers attributed similar statements to me. On July 10 [July 23], I addressed a letter to the Provisional government in which I stated my complete agreement with Lenin and which I ended as follows: “You can have no grounds for exempting me from the action of the decree by virtue of which Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev are subject to arrest; you can have no grounds for doubting that I am as irreconcilably opposed to the general policy of the Provisional government as my above-mentioned comrades.” Messrs. the ministers drew the due conclusion from this letter, and arrested me as a German agent.

L.D. Trotsky, “From July to October,” My Life

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