A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the people stormed the Winter Palace, and a new Russia was born

The revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power changed the course of the war. US journalist John Reed witnessed its defining moments

Like a black river, filling all the street, without song or cheer we poured through the Red Arch, where the man just ahead of me said in a low voice: “Look out, comrades! Don’t trust them. They will fire, surely!” In the open we began to run, stooping low and bunching together, and jammed up suddenly behind the pedestal of the Alexander Column…

After a few minutes huddling there, some hundreds of men, the army seemed reassured and without any orders suddenly began again to flow forward. By this time, in the light that streamed out of all the Winter Palace windows, I could see that the first two or three hundred men were Red Guards, with only a few scattered soldiers. Over the barricade of firewood we clambered, and leaping down inside gave a triumphant shout as we stumbled on a heap of rifles thrown down by the Yunkers [graduates of the city’s military academy who had formed the garrison of the Winter Palace] who had stood there. On both sides of the main gateway the doors stood wide open, light streamed out, and from the huge pile came not the slightest sound.

Carried along by the eager wave of men we were swept into the right-hand entrance, opening into a great bare vaulted room, the cellar of the East Wing, from which issued a maze of corridors and staircases. A number of huge packing cases stood about, and upon these the Red Guards and soldiers fell furiously, battering them open with the butts of their rifles, and pulling out carpets, curtains, linen, porcelain plates, glassware… One man went strutting around with a bronze clock perched on his shoulder; another found a plume of ostrich feathers, which he stuck in his hat. The looting was just beginning when somebody cried: “Comrades! Don’t touch anything! Don’t take anything! This is the property of the People!”

We crossed back over to the left entrance, in the West Wing. There order was also being established. “Clear the Palace!” bawled a Red Guard, sticking his head through an inner door. “Come, comrades, let’s show that we’re not thieves and bandits. Everybody out of the Palace except the commissars, until we get sentries posted.”

Two Red Guards, a soldier and an officer, stood with revolvers in their hands. Another soldier sat at a table behind them, with pen and paper. Shouts of “All out! All out!” were heard far and near within, and the army began to pour through the door, jostling, expostulating, arguing. As each man appeared he was seized by the self-appointed committee, who went through his pockets and looked under his coat. Everything that was plainly not his property was taken away, the man at the table noted it on his paper, and it was carried into a little room. The most amazing assortment of objects were thus confiscated; statuettes, bottles of ink, bed-spreads worked with the Imperial monogram, candles, a small oil-painting, desk blotters, gold-handled swords, cakes of soap, clothes of every description, blankets. One Red Guard carried three rifles, two of which he had taken away from Yunkers; another had four portfolios bulging with written documents. The culprits either sullenly surrendered or pleaded like children. All talking at once the committee explained that stealing was not worthy of the people’s champions; often those who had been caught turned around and began to help go through the rest of the comrades.

Yunkers came out, in bunches of three or four. The committee seized upon them with an excess of zeal, accompanying the search with remarks like, “Ah, Provocateurs! Kornilovists! Counter-revolutionists! Murderers of the People!” But there was no violence done, although the Yunkers were terrified. They too had their pockets full of small plunder. It was carefully noted down by the scribe, and piled in the little room… 

The Yunkers were disarmed. “Now, will you take up arms against the People any more?” demanded clamouring voices.

“No,” answered the Yunkers one by one. Whereupon they were allowed to go free.

We asked if we might go inside. The committee was doubtful, but the big Red Guard answered firmly that it was forbidden. “Who are you anyway?” he asked. “How do I know that you are not all Kerenskys?” (There were five of us, two women.)

“Pazhal’st’, tovarishchi! Way, Comrades!” A soldier and a Red Guard appeared in the door, waving the crowd aside, and other guards with fixed bayonets. After them followed single-file half-a-dozen men in civilian dress – the members of the Provisional Government. First came Kishkin, his face drawn and pale, then Rutenberg, looking sullenly at the floor; Terestchenko was next, glancing sharply around; he stared at us with cold fixity… They passed in silence; the victorious insurrectionists crowded to see, but there were only a few angry mutterings. It was only later that we learnt how the people in the street wanted to lynch them, and shots were fired – but the sailors brought them safely to Peter-Paul [the Peter and Paul fortress, which the Bolsheviks had seized]…

In the meanwhile unrebuked we walked into the Palace. There was still a great deal of coming and going; of exploring new-found apartments in the vast edifice; of searching for hidden garrisons of Yunkers which did not exist. We went upstairs and wandered through room after room. This part of the Palace had been entered also by other detachments from the side of the Neva. The paintings, statues, tapestries and rugs of the great state apartments were unharmed; in the offices, however, every desk and cabinet had been ransacked, the papers scattered over the floor, and in the living rooms beds had been stripped of their coverings and ward-robes wrenched open. The most highly prized loot was clothing, which the working people needed. In a room where furniture was stored we came upon two soldiers ripping the elaborate Spanish leather upholstery from chairs. They explained it was to make boots with…

The old Palace servants in their blue and red and gold uniforms stood nervously about, from force of habit repeating, “You can’t go in there, barin! It is forbidden.” We penetrated at length to the gold and malachite chamber with crimson brocade hangings where the ministers had been in session all that day and night, and where the shveitzari had betrayed them to the Red Guards. The long table covered with green baize was just as they had left it, under arrest. Before each empty seat was pen and ink and paper; the papers were scribbled over with beginnings of plans of action, rough drafts of proclamations and manifestos. Most of these were scratched out, as their futility became evident, and the rest of the sheet covered with absent-minded geometrical designs, as the writers sat despondently listening while minister after minister proposed chimerical schemes…

Interested as we were, for a considerable time we didn’t notice a change in the attitude of the soldiers and Red Guards around us. As we strolled from room to room a small group followed us, until by the time we reached the great picture-gallery where we had spent the afternoon with the  Yunkers, about 100 men surged in after us. One giant of a soldier stood in our path, his face dark with sullen suspicion.

“Who are you?” he growled. “What are you doing here?” The others massed slowly around, staring and beginning to mutter. “Provocatori!” I heard somebody say. “Looters!” I produced our passes from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The soldier took them gingerly, turned them upside down and looked at them without comprehension. Evidently he could not read. He handed them back and spat on the floor. “Bumagi! Papers!” said he with contempt. The mass slowly began to close in, like wild cattle around a cowpuncher on foot. Over their heads I caught sight of an officer, looking helpless, and shouted to him. He made for us, shouldering his way through.

“I’m the Commissar,” he said to me. “Who are you? What is it?” The others held back, waiting. I produced the papers.

“You are foreigners?” he rapidly asked in French. “It is very dangerous…” Then he turned to the mob, holding up our documents. “Comrades!” he cried. “These people are foreign comrades – from America. They have come here to be able to tell their countrymen about the bravery and the revolutionary discipline of the proletarian army!”

“How do you know that?” replied the big soldier. “I tell you they are provocateurs! They say they came here to observe the revolutionary discipline of the proletarian army, but they have been wandering freely through the Palace, and how do we know they haven’t got their pockets full of loot?” “Pravilno!” snarled the others, pressing forward.

“Comrades! Comrades!” appealed the officer, sweat standing out on his forehead. “I am Commissar of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Do you trust me? Well, I tell you that these passes are signed with the same names that are signed to my pass!”

He led us down through the Palace and out through a door to the Neva quay, before which stood the usual committee going through pockets… “You have narrowly escaped,” he muttered, wiping his face.

Extracted from ‘Ten Days That Shook the World’, by John Reed (first published by Boni & Liveright, 1919)

Tomorrow: the British enter Jerusalem

The '100 Moments' already published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

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