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Louise Bryant in 1917. Source: Wikimedia

Louise Bryant in 1917. Source: Wikimedia

The Revolution 1917 event is this Saturday 25th February at Rich Mix London. Louise Bryant, an American radical and journalist, wrote a stirring account of what she witnessed in revolutionary Petrograd. This is an excerpt from her book 'Six Red Months in Russia'

It was four o'clock and not for many hours would it be light--Petrograd is very far north to a New Yorker. By December when things had reached such a desperate state that we seldom had artificial light at all, because there was no coal to run the power plants, we seemed to live in perpetual darkness. I have often purchased, in the deserted churches, holy candles which were designated to be burned before the shrines of saints but which were carried home surreptitiously in order to see to write. But in October the lights were still running. When the porter pressed the button I blinked painfully under the dazzling blaze of sparkling old-fashioned crystal candelabra.

Out on the streets I wandered aimlessly noting the contents of the little shops now pitifully empty. It is curious the things that remain in a starving and besieged city. There was only food enough to last three days, there were no warm clothes at all and I passed window after window full of flowers, corsets, dog-collars and false hair!

This absurd combination can be accounted for without much scientific investigation. The corsets were of the most expensive, out-of-date, wasp-waist variety and the women who wear them have largely disappeared from the capital.

The reason for the false hair and dog collars was equally plain. About a third of the women of the towns wear their hair short and there is no market for the tons of beautiful hair in the shops, marked down to a few rubles. An enterprising dealer in such goods could make a fortune by exporting the gold, brown and auburn tresses of the shorn and emancipated female population of Russia and selling them in America, France or some other backward country where women still cling to hairpins.

As for the dog collars, just imagine any one being a dog-fancier or even a fondler of dogs to the extent of purchasing a gold-rimmed or a diamond-studded collar while a Revolutionary Tribunal is sitting just around the corner. Whatever class lines there were among dogs fell with the Tsar.

And the masses of flowers. Horticulture had reached a high state of development before the revolution. This was especially true of exotic flowers because of the extravagant tastes of the upper classes. With the change in government the demand for these luxuries abruptly ceased; but there were still the hot-houses, there were still the old gardeners. It is impossible to break off old established things in the twinkling of an eye. Habits of trade are as hard to break as any other habits of life. So the shops continued to be filled with flowers.

These strange left-overs of another time cropped up everywhere making sharp contrasts. There were the men, for instance, who stood outside of the palaces and the big hotels, peacock feathers in their round Chinese-looking caps and wearing green, gold or scarlet sashes. Their duty had been to assist people who alighted from carriages, but now grand personages never arrived, and still they stood there, their sashes bedraggled and faded, their feathers ragged and forlorn.

And in contrast were the waiters bustling about in the restaurants inside of the very buildings where the svetzars stood before the doors like courtiers without a court. They ran their restaurants co-operatively and at every table was a curt little notice.

"Just because a man must make his living by being a waiter do not insult him by offering him a tip."

Petrograd is impressive, vast and solid. New York's high buildings have a sort of tall flimsiness about them that is not sinister; Petrograd looks as if it were built by a giant who had no regard for human life. The rugged strength of Peter the Great is in all the broad streets, the mighty open spaces, the great canals curving through the city, the rows and rows of palaces and the immense facades of government buildings. Even such exquisite bits of architecture as the graceful gold spires of the old Admiralty building and the round blue-green domes of the Turquoise Mosque, cannot break that heaviness. Built by the cruel wilfulness of an autocrat, over the bodies of thousands of slaves, against the unanimous will of all grades of society, this huge artificial city, by a peculiar irony has become the heart of world revolution; has become Red Petrograd!

There were wonderful tales about the defeat of Korniloff and what they described as a "new kind of fighting." Everyone was anxious to tell his version of how the scouts went out and met the army of the counter-revolutionists and fraternised with them and overcame them "with talk" so that they refused to fight and turned against their leaders. There was little variation, in short, the story was this:

The scouts came upon the hostile army encamped for the night and went among them saying: "Why have you come to destroy the revolution?" The hostile army indignantly denied the charge, claiming that they had been sent to "save" the revolution. So the scouts continued to argue. "Do not believe the lies your leaders tell you. We are both fighting for the same thing. Come to Petrograd with us and sit in our councils, learn the truth, and you will abandon this Korniloffi who is attempting to betray you."

Accordingly delegates were sent to Petrograd. When they reported to their regiments the two armies joined as brothers.

In Petrograd one of the things that strike coldness to one's heart are the long lines of scantily clad people standing in the bitter cold waiting to buy bread, milk, sugar or tobacco. From four o'clock in the morning they begin to stand there, while it is still black night. Often after standing in line for hours the supplies run out. Most of the time only one-fourth pound of bread for two days was allowed; and the soggy black peasant's bread is the staff of life in Russia--it is not a "trimming" like our American bread. Cabbage is also a staple diet.

Petrograd with food for three days was not tragic or sad. Russians accept hardships uncomplainingly. When I first went there I was inclined to put it down to servility, but now I believe it to be because they have unconquerable spirit. Weeks at a stretch the street cars would not run. People walked great distances without a murmur and the life of the city went on as usual. It would have upset New York completely, especially if it happened as it did in Petrograd that while the street cars were stopped, lights and water also were turned off and it was almost impossible to get fuel to keep warm.

There is practically no "fashion" in Russia. Men and women wear what they please. At one table would be sitting a soldier with his fur hat pulled over one ear, across from him a Red Guard in rag-tags, next a Cossack in a gold and black uniform, earrings in his ears, silver chains around his neck, or a man from the Wild Division, recruited from one of the most savage tribes of the Caucasus, wearing his sombre, flowing cape....

And the girls that frequented these places were by no means all prostitutes, although they talked to everybody. Prostitution as an institution has not been recognised since the first revolution. The degrading "Yellow Tickets" were destroyed and many of the women became nurses and went to the front or sought other legal employment. Russian women are peculiar in regard to dress. If they are interested in revolution, they almost invariably refuse to think of dress at all and go about looking noticeably shabby--if they are not interested they care exceedingly for clothes and manage to array themselves in the most fantastic "inspirations."

I shall always remember Karsavina, the most beautiful dancer in the world, in those meagre days, dancing to a packed house. It was a marvellous audience; an audience in rags; an audience that had gone without bread to buy the cheap little tickets. I think Karsavina must have wondered what it would be like to dance before that tired, undernourished crowd instead of her once glittering and exclusive little band of nobles.

When she came on it was as hushed as death. And how she danced and how they followed her! Russians know dancing as the Italians know their operas; every little beautiful trick they appreciate to the utmost. "Bravo! Bravo!" roared ten-thousand throats. And when she had finished they could not let her go--again and again and again she had to come back until she was wilted like a tired butterfly. Twenty, thirty times she returned, bowing, smiling, pirouetting, until we lost count. ... Then the people filed out into the damp winter night, pulling their thin cloaks about them.

In Petrograd were flags--all red. Even the statue of Catherine the Greet in the little square before the Alexandrinsky Theatre did not escape. There stood Catherine with all her favourite courtiers sitting at her feet and on Catherine's sceptre waved a red flag! These little visible signs of the revolution were everywhere. Great blotches marked the places where imperial insignia had been torn from the buildings. Mild mannered guards patrolled the principal corners, trying not to offend anybody. And over it all stalked King Hunger while a chill autumn rain soaked into the half-fed shivering throngs that hurried along, lifting their faces and beholding a vision of world democracy.

Notes

i General Kornilov was appointed Commander in Chief of the army by the Provisional Government in July 1917. He launched a coup attempt in August, and was defeated by an uprising of the working classes of Petrograd.

Event: Revolution - Russia 1917: One Hundred Years on

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25 Feb, Rich Mix London

With Tariq Ali, Paul Le Blanc, Lindsey German, Lucia Pradella and many more.

Book now

Timetable

10:00 am - 11.15 am

Storming heaven: the achievements of 1917

Paul Le Blanc, August Nimtz, Lindsey German
11.30 am - 12.45 pm

Democracy and the Revolution

August Nimtz, Judy Cox
1.45 pm - 3:00 pm

War, nationalism and revolution

Maria Nikolakaki, Chris Bambery, Alastair Stephens
3.15 pm - 4.30 pm

Lenin and Leninism

Tariq Ali, Paul le Blanc, and Kate Connelly
4.45 om - 6:00 pm

Revolution in the 21 Century

John Rees, Stathis Kouvelakis, Tamas Krausz, Lucia Pradella

Speakers:

August Nimtz is Professor in the Political Science department at University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Minneapolis. He is a leading thinker and writer on socialist strategy, race in the United States and politics in Africa as well as an internationally recognised expert on Marx.

Lucia Pradella is an activist and writer who has written two acclaimed books on Marx's Capital.

Paul Le Blanc is a world renowned writer on revolutionary history and the Russian revolution in particular. Currently Professor of History at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, since the 1960s he has been active in struggles for human rights and economic justice.

Lindsey German is a socialist activist and writer. As convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Tariq Ali is a socialist writer and broadcaster. A lifelong leader in anti-imperialist and socialist campaigns, he has been at the forefront of protests against war from Vietnam to the Middle East. His new book on Lenin is out in March.

Maria Nikolakaki is a Greek intellectual and activist. She is a founding member of the Cooperative Institute for Transnational Studies.

Tamasz Kraus is a well know radical intellectual in Hungary and on of the editiors of Marxist journal Eszmélet, he published the award winning Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography in 2015.

Judy Cox is a lifelong socialist writer and speaker. Now a teacher in East London, Judy was on the editorial board of International Socialism and has written amongst other things on Marx’s theory of alienation, Rosa Luxemburg’s economic theory, William Blake and Robin Hood.

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