The Russian Revolution

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The Russian Revolution

Telegrams from the American Consulate in Moscow and Petrograd to the U.S. Secretary of State, March 20, 1917

Reprinted from the Hanover Historical Texts Project, available online at and Scanned and edited by David Traill

"I have had to defend the American eagle on the top of the building, as it was believed to be a German eagle and the crowd intended to tear it down until I explained in Russian the difference between the American and German eagle."

From the American Consulate in Petrograd to the U.S. Secretary of State

Every combatant country suffered during World War I. To cope with the numerous deaths and massive destruction of World War I, governments had to balance the needs on the homefront with the demands of the battlefront. Governments created new agencies to feed and supply their military and their masses. Because Germany was already heavily industrialized and the German government enjoyed very direct control over civil life, Germany was the quickest to make the transition to a wartime economy. The German government established a War Raw Materials Division of the Ministry of War, under the charge of prominent businessman Walther Rathenau. Rathenau quickly organized and coordinated the efforts of German companies to produce all the materials necessary to supply German forces. Britain and France had far fewer factories and little heavy industry, and thus they were less prepared to produce the guns, shells, and heavy machinery vital to the war effort. Their governments also exercised less direct control over the people, making the coordination of production less efficient than in Germany. The Allied countries, however, had free access to the seas and were able to

import many of their war materials from overseas, especially from the United States.

Russia, however, had great difficulty converting to a wartime economy. Hundreds of miles of Russia's border were exposed to attacks by the German army, and Russia had entered the war with far fewer munitions than it required. As a result, the Russians suffered astonishing defeats against the better-equipped German forces. Russia was also geographically isolated from its French allies, so it couldn't rely on quick or easy access to aid. Russia therefore had to rely solely on its own industrial and agricultural production. The Russians were able to build more munitions and grow more food, but the country's inadequate transportation system left piles of supplies waiting at distribution points, far from where they were needed. Workers suffered terrible working conditions in jobs they were forced to perform for their country. To make matters worse, as food supplies grew scarce, people had to wait for hours in long lines for bread and coal. Many Russians faced starvation. These difficulties triggered nationwide strikes and protests by March 1917.

The protests for more food began in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) and quickly spread. To control the massive protests and strikes in the major cities of Petrograd and Moscow, the government ordered its loyal mounted troops, the Cossacks, to break up the protests, but neither the Cossacks nor members of the army were willing to repress the people any longer. In fact, many men from the army "switched sides," joining with the people in their protest against the government. The soldiers had demands of their own: They too wanted food, but they also wanted an end to the war. Telegrams sent during the early uprisings capture the confusion of the time and detail the hardships that led to revolution in Russia.

Things to remember while reading the telegrams from the American Consulate:

  • When reading about the Russian Revolution you will often need to check the style of calendar the author is using. At the time of the revolution, Russia used the Julian calendar; this "Old Style" calendar was twelve days behind the Western, or Georgian, calendar that is used today. Therefore, the "February Revolution" actually began in March of the Western calendar. All dates, unless otherwise noted, are according to the Western calendar in this book.
  • Many separate events escalated the tensions that eventually caused the revolution. On International Women's Day, (February 23, 1917, of the Julian "Old Style" calendar, March 8, 1917, of the Western, or Georgian, calendar), a large crowd of women protested about the food shortages. The next day 200,000 workers went on strike in Petrograd. Loyal military troops shot into crowds of strikers and killed more than 300 protestors two days later.
  • Even though thousands of workers were pleading for food and striking, the Russian government refused to make any concessions to the protestors.
  • The loyalty of the army was the only thing that could save the monarchy of Russia or win the revolution for the masses. When the soldiers in Petrograd barracks learned that soldiers had opened fire on the protestors, more than 100 grabbed guns and rushed to protect the protestors from the cruelty of their peers. The next day, more than 25,000 soldiers mutinied (rebelled against authority) and joined the revolution, handing out guns to the masses.
  • The armed soldiers helped the masses capture important government buildings, railway stations, and telegraph exchanges.

Excerpt from a Telegram from the American Consulate in Moscow to the U.S. Secretary of State


No. 1019 American Consulate General, Moscow, Russia, March 20th, 1917.

Subject. The political and economical situation in Moscow.

The Honorable The Secretary of State, Washington, D. C.


For the information, and as of interest to the Department in following the great revolution now in progress in Russia, there are enclosed herewith the originals and translations of the Moscow papers giving a full description of the matter. This same information has been sent the Embassy together with full accounts of the situation.

It will be observed that the papers are allowed only to publish news favoring the revolutionary party.

There is further enclosed a memorandum on the situation prepared by Mr. David B. Macgowan, the Vice Consul at this post. It is of interest as showing the other phase of the situation.

At the present writing the street cars are all running, and life has assumed its normal course. There is an undercurrent of unrest, however, and the shortage of food supplies tends to augment the discontent. Long bread lines stretching for blocks may be seen on every street awaiting often to be told that there is none left. The daily allowance is one funt or nine tenths of a pound. To obtain this one must stand in the bread lines for two or three hours, and often longer. The supply of flour is short and the revolution of the past few days has diminished even this. It is known that the Jews have cornered large quantities and are holding it for higher prices.

Prices of all articles of necessity are rapidly rising. It is difficult to give a table showing same as the figures given out are purely fictitious, each shop charging what they can get. Flour, for instance cannot be bought at all. There is none for sale in the city. Meat is practically unobtainable, and then only three days in the week. Milk, eggs, flour, bread, and meat will soon be sold onlyby card.

The city is thronged with refugees and houses are unobtainable even at exorbitant prices.

As the Consulate General is furnishing the Embassy daily with full information in regard to the political situation it is presumed that, through this source, the Department is kept thoroughly advised of the situation.

I have the honor to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
[signature indecipherable]
American Consul in Charge.
Newspaper translations.
Memorandum Mr. Macgowan.
Moscow, Russia, March 19, 1917.

Thecoup d'etat, a stage of the uncompleted revolution, executed by revolutionary workingmen and soldiers, too recently recruited to have acquired discipline or to have lost touch with their late companions in field and factory, haswhetted already keen appetites for land, social reorganization and autonomy or independence. TheImperial Duma, declared dissolved, it would seem, in lighthearted confidencethat the bread riots could be ended with machine guns, if the Duma were safely out of the way, neither initiated the crisis nor is certain to guide its further development. Discipline was shaken, perhaps irreparably, when soldiers disarmed their officers. In the absence of popular interest in the war… it is to be feared that troops at the front will slip away from their commands and return to take part in thecarnival of liberty, which to most of them means seizing the large estates for themselves. The workingmen are demanding an immediateConstituent Assembly and there is a tendency not to return to factory and barrack, nor to yield newly acquired weapons, until the political and social reorganization are assured. There is imminent danger of adebacle. Thus, Thursday night a former Deputy of the Imperial Duma returned from Petrograd to Moscow. The train, including the first class car in which the Deputy had reserved a compartment, was seized bysoldiers under arms. He demanded what they were doing in the first class car. The soldiers answered they were going to their native villages to see their relatives. He asked if they hadleave of absence and was told "No." They were going "just so." Asked when they would return to their regiments, they said the war might be over before they had to return. Soldiers are represented in the powerful Councils of Workingmen's Delegates; they retain their rifles and they are to have votes. If the soldiers at the front should seize trains and return, as happened after theRusso-Japanese war, there is reason to fear that the excesses then committed will be a foretaste of worse to come. In these circumstances the Anglo-French offensive, vigorously and successfully pushed to the conviction of the wavering Russian troops that the war can be fought to an end so that there will be no need to abandon it in order to share in the "expropriation " of the land, is the main hope for Russia, as respects not only the hopefulprosecution of the war, but as respects the peaceful evolution of political and social order. Already about ten days have been lost for preparation of munitions, and it is to be feared that, even if they return to work, the munitions workers will have little heart for the business. Thus, with minds distracted more than ever by domestic events, handicapped and disorganized as never before, it can hardly be expected that a blow delivered now or in the near future by the Germans would meet with effective resistance, unless the Western Powers should create an effective diversion. …

Reaction, violent as the revolutionary blow was violent, is sure to come and it will enlist powerful property interests. Indications thus point to aprotracted class struggle.


Telegram from the American Consulate in Petrograd to the U.S. Secretary of State

No. 274 AMERICAN CONSULATE Petrograd, Russia, March 20, 1917


SUBJECT: Revolutionary Movement in Petrograd.



I have the honor to report that as a result of serious economic, political, and military disturbances, the government of this city and district has been completely assumed by an Executive Committee of the Imperial Duma at least for the time being.

On the beginning of the week of March 4th, a shortage of black bread was noticeable. This at once caused unrest among the laboring classes. All other prime necessities within the means of the working classes had already gradually disappeared as the winter advanced: meat, sugar, white flour, buckwheat, potatoes. Fish, fowls, eggs, milk, cheese, and butter, had for a long time been so expensive that they were only within the means of the very well-to-do classes. The unrest first took visible form in the outskirts and factory districts of the city Wednesday, March 7th, when the workmen struck after the dinner hour and met in groups to discuss the situation.

The next day, Thursday March 8th, there were spontaneous isolated demonstrations. In many places, a few of the working class, mostly women, tired of waiting in the bread lines in the severe cold began to cry, "Give us bread." These groups were immediately dispersed by large detachments of mounted police andCossacks.

March 9th, large crowds of women marched to the Kazan Cathedral (opposite the Consulate) with bared heads, still crying for bread and shouting to the police "Give us bread and we will go to work." This crowd was peaceable and was dispersed.

Saturday morning the crowds, composed of working men and students visibly with a serious purpose, came from all districts to thecenter of the city. Besides calling for bread, these crowds shouted "Down with the Government," "Down with theRomanoffs," and occasionally "Down with the War." The mounted police endeavored to drive the mobs from the Nevsky, the main street, but resistence [sic] was made and barracades [sic] built on the side streets. The police withdrew after firing on and charging the crowds with whips without success. Their place was taken by infantry who fraternized with the people. Announcement was made by the police that after 6 o'clock that day, all groups of persons would be fired upon. The crowds did not disperse, and street battles took place, especially on the Nevsky, resulting in great loss of life.

At this time the infantry and cossacks refused to fire on the crowds or to charge them. Towards evening a detachment of cossacks actually charged and dispersed a body of mounted police.

Sunday, when it became known that [Czar Nicholas] hadprorogued the Duma and that it had refused to recognize this order, there was disorganized and sporadic fighting all over the city, with heavy loss of life. The unmounted police were withdrawn from the streets. Many regiments which had been locked in their barracks mutinied, during the night, killed some of their officers, and marched to defend the Duma, which was still sitting. By Monday the disorganized riots developed into a systematic revolutionary movement on the part of the working men and the constantly growing numbers of mutinied troops, to capture the city of Petrograd. The fighting moved rapidly across the city from the Duma as a center, so that by Monday night, only isolated houses and public buildings, upon which machine guns were mounted, were held by the police and the few remaining loyal troops. At midnight the Duma had announced that it had taken the government into its own hands and had formed an Executive Committee to be the head of the temporary government.

Tuesday and Wednesday the fighting was confined to volleys from machine guns fired by the police from the isolated house tops, public buildings and churches, and the return fire by the soldiers, such fighting continuing until all police were taken. Violence necessary in arresting government, army and police officials, took place at this time.

During these two days the fighting around the Consulate was severe, and on several occasions it seemed as if nothing could save the Singer Building from total demolition. Machine guns were presumably being operated from points of advantage in this building by police agents, as well as from neighboring buildings, the revolutionists replying with volleys from their rifles and machine guns mounted in automobiles.

At 4:30 o'clock Monday afternoon troops, always without officers, entered the building. All the business offices in it had been deserted early in the day, except the Consulate. When the soldiers reached the third floor they were shown the location of the Consulate by one of the staff. They insisted on seeing the balconies of the Consulate, and several soldiers, with members of the Consulate staff entered the Consulate and satisfied themselves that no machine guns were located there. No damage was done in the Consulate, but other offices and the building itself were considerably injured.

Notice was given that kerosene would be poured on the building and burned. At 5:30 o'clock the Consulate was closed after everything of importance had been placed in the safe and notices posted on all the doors, stating that the nature of the office was foreign and contained only property of the United States Government. The staff left the building under heavy fire and with a guard.

At 6:30 o'clock, when the firing had ceased, it was arranged to have a Consulate employee constantly on duty, day and night. This alone saved the Consulate from being violated, for Tuesday and Wednesday there was no order in the city and the Singer building was visited five times by armed soldiers, many of whom were intoxicated, looking for weapons.

A military guard has now been furnished the Consulate and the office is intact, and safe for the present at least. The fact that the Consulate is not in a separate building owned by the American Government is particularly unfortunate in this city, there the question of protection of Americana is so apt to arise and where prejudices against firms located in the same building endangers the Consulate and the lives of the staff.

The Singer building has been under suspicion since the beginning of the war as being German, the masses believing the Singer Company to be a German corporation.

I have had to defend the American eagle on the top of the building, as it was believed to be a German eagle and the crowd intended to tear it down until I explained in Russian the difference between the American and German eagle.

The Consulate is keeping in touch with the members of the American colony, none of whom up to the present have been injured. As the Consulate is not at all suitable for housing purposes, having no kitchen, bath or sleeping accommodations, I have notified the members of the Colony that in case they are turned out of their homes orhotels or have to leave for protection, they may come to my home, which is centrally located, where I could protect them and make them fairly comfortable.

I shall make only a limited report of observations on the political situation leading up to the economic situation in this district. It being supposed the Embassy has already cabled a report in the matter.

Immediately following the assumption of national authority by the Executive Committee of the Duma, the Council of Workmens' Deputies challenged its exclusive authority. This council is a body which existed secretly during the old regime and represented the revolutionary workmen. Spontaneously a third authority appeared in the Council of Soldiers' Deputies which soon merged with the workmens' council under the name of the Council of Workmen's Soldiers' Deputies.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, (the 13th, 14th, and 15th,) were, up to the present, the most critical times of the revolution, when there was immediate danger of civil war in Petrograd between the Duma and the Council of Workmens' and Soldiers' Deputies. This crisis passed however, when, late on Thursday afternoon, a provisional agreement was reached. This agreement was based on a temporary ministry chosen from the members of the Duma with a political program of eight points:

  1. Immediate politicalamnesty .
  2. Immediate freedom of press, speech, meeting, the right to strike; these rights to be extended to soldiers insofar as compatible with military organization.
  3. Immediate abolition of allcaste , religious, and race difficulties.
  4. Immediate preparation for a constitutional convention to determine the permanent form of national government.
  5. Immediate substitution of militia with elective officers, under control of local self-governing bodies in place of the old police system.
  6. Election to local self-governing bodies by universal direct, equal, and secret suffrage.
  7. Retention of arms by revolutionary soldiery, the soldiery not to be removed from Petrograd.
  8. Retention of strict military discipline during actual service with full civil freedom to soldiers when not on duty.

On the 15th of March the Emperor abdicated for himself in favor of his brother the Grand Duke Michael. On the 16th the Grand Duke Michael declined the throne unless it should be offered him by the Constitutional Convention. This again averted further civil war as it put all parties in agreement to await the Constitutional Convention.

The old police which was maintained by the national government as a part of the Ministry of the Interior, has been replaced by the City Militia, a volunteer organization under theauspice of the National Duma and the Board of Aldermen. It is now maintaining order throughout the city and cooperating with theCommissariats in the various wards. The Commissariats are under the control of the Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies, which still sits in conjunction with the National Duma.

Passport regulations for foreigners have not been changed and are controlled by a new Gradonatchalnik (Chief of City or Chief of Police) who is now, as formerly, dependent on the Ministry of the Interior.

A new Mayor has been chosen by the Aldermen. He is attempting to control and improve the local food supply which is again the danger point as at the beginning of the revolution. All necessities have to be brought to Petrograd from the provinces and a serious food shortage now exists. If it is not relieved at once it will cause further serious disorders capable of developing into new revolutionary movements with greater socialistic tendencies than heretofore.

Today, March 20th, for the first time in ten days, a very few electric street cars are running but not enough to constitute a resumption of the service. The workmen have not returned to the factories as was hoped.

I have the etc. ["the honor to be, Sir, Your obedient servant," is crossed out]

North Winship [signature]

["American Consul." is crossed out]

What happened next …

By mid-March 1917 the people of Russia were in all-out revolt against the government. Convinced by his generals that there was nothing he could do to stop the revolution, Czar Nicholas abdicated (gave up the throne) on March 15. His replacement, his brother Grand Duke Michael, quickly appointed a provisional (temporary) government. The provisional government tried to bring peace and reform to the country, but it was unwilling to do the one thing that might save it: end Russia's involvement in the war. And so the revolt continued. Peasants took over land for themselves, and soldiers by the thousands deserted the army. The peasants, workers, and soldiers were all encouraged in their actions by a group of radicals known as "soviets," a word that means "representatives of the workers." The most radical of the "soviets" were known as Bolsheviks, and they took the revolution to the next stage in the fall of 1917.

When the provisional government ordered an ill-advised military offensive in the summer of 1917, the Russians were driven decisively back. The failed Russian offensive had two results: It furthered the disintegration of the military, and it spurred the Bolsheviks to action. In the north, German forces overran the Russian province of Latvia and controlled access to the Baltic Sea. In the cities of Petrograd and Moscow in early November 1917, Bolshevik leaders Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Leon Trotsky masterminded a swift action that put control of the government in their hands. The Russian Revolution was over, and the Bolsheviks—who promised to end the war and put control of Russian land and industry into the hands of the people—had won.

One of the first actions of the new Russian government was to ask Germany for an armistice, a truce ending the war. Negotiator Trotsky asked that his country, Russia, pay no price for its defeat, but the Germans set a high price on the deal: They wanted independence for many of the states and provinces within the Russian empire. The Bolsheviks initially refused, but ongoing German military attacks all along the Russian frontier finally forced the Russians to give in. When Trotsky signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918, Russia gave away vast tracts of Russian territory, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine (all of which gained their independence). Russia also lost 25 percent of its population and 75 percent of its coal and iron resources.

The peace concessions and the structure of the new Communist government upset Russian citizens and started a civil war that would last until 1921 and lead to the establishment of the Soviet Union. During the civil war, the Red Army fought against the anticommunist Whites. By 1921, a hundred thousand Russians had died in the civil war and another two million had left the country.

Did you know …

  • Italy and Austria-Hungary could have suffered an economic collapse just as Russia did in 1917. But Austria-Hungary received generous supplies of German munitions, and Italy's allies provided her with needed food, coal, industrial raw materials, and almost three billion dollars in loans, according to Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.
  • Although French soldiers mutinied in 1917, the situation in France was not nearly as desperate as the circumstances in Russia, Italy, or Austria-Hungary. France avoided revolution in part because the French people had a strong belief in national unity, a desire to rid their countryside of Germans, and a steady supply of imports from Great Britain and America. Soon after the 1917 mutiny, for example, a fresh supply of bread arrived from America, which helped calm the hungry masses.
  • Strikes in both Great Britain and France subsided at the end of 1917.
  • Strikes escalated in Germany in 1917 and 1918. Members of the Socialist Party and the Spartacus League made independent calls for the end of the war. By 1918, Germany suffered nationwide strikes and military mutinies.

For More Information


Heyman, Neil M. World War I. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House, 1987.

Paxton, John. Companion to Russian History. New York: Facts on File, 1983.

Sommerville, Donald. World War I: History of Warfare. Austin, TX: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1999.

Winter, Jay, and Blaine Baggett. The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. New York: Penguin Studio, 1996.

Web sites

Traill, David, ed. "Telegram from the American Consulate in Moscow to the U.S. Secretary of State, March 20, 1917." Hanover Historical Texts Project. [Online] (accessed April 2001).

Traill, David, ed. "Telegram from the American Consulate in Petrograd to the U.S. Secretary of State, March 20, 1917." Hanover Historical Texts Project. [Online] (accessed April 2001).

Boy Scouts of America—Unite!

The war effort permeated everyone's life. Through appeals to various youth organizations, the U.S. government even asked children to contribute. For example, President Woodrow Wilson called on the Boy Scouts of America for help in distributing patriotic pamphlets to every U.S. home. The Boy Scouts of America published Boys' Life, one of the nation's most widely read youth magazines. It had a vast network of young boys who were interested in becoming good citizens; and during World War I, being a good citizen meant serving the war effort. The following excerpt from a Boy Scouts of America pamphlet shows how the leadership rallied their scouts into service on the home front to keep the United States safe from the type of internal conflict that was plaguing Russia.

To the Members of the Boy Scouts of America!

Attention, Scouts! We are again called upon to do active service for our country! Every one of the 285,661 Scouts and 76,957 Scout Officials has been summoned by President Woodrow Wilson, Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, to serve as a dispatch bearer from the Government at Washington to the American people all over the country. The prompt, enthusiastic, and hearty response of every one of us has been pledged by our [Scout] President, Mr. Livingstone. Our splendid record of accomplishments in war activities promises full success in this new job.

This patriotic service will be rendered under the slogan: "EVERY SCOUT TO BOOST AMERICA" AS A GOVERNMENT DISPATCH BEARER. The World War is for liberty and democracy. …

As a democracy, our country faces great danger—not so much from submarines, battleships and armies, because, thanks to our allies, our enemies have apparently little chance of reaching our shores.

Our danger is from within. Our enemies have representatives everywhere; they tell lies; they mispresent the truth; they deceive our own people; they are a real menace to our country.

Already we have seen how poor Russia has been made to suffer because her people do not know the truth. Representatives of the enemy have been very effective in their deceitful efforts to make trouble for the Government.

Fortunately here in America our people are better educated—they want the truth. Our President recognized the justice and wisdom of this demand when in the early stages of the war he created the Committee on Public Information. He knew that the Government would need the confidence, enthusiasm and willing service of every man and woman, every boy and girl in the nation. He knew that the only possible way to create a genuine feeling of partnership between the people and its representatives in Washington was to take the people into his confidence by full, frank statements concerning the reasons for our entering the war, the various steps taken during the war and the ultimate aims of the war.

Neither the President as Commander-in-Chief, nor our army and navy by land and sea, can alone win the war. At this moment the best defense that America has is an enlightened and loyal citizenship. …

Here is where our service begins. We are to help spread the facts about America and America's part in the World War. We are to fight lies with truth.

We are to help create public opinion "just as effective in helping to bring victory as ships and guns," to stir patriotism, the great force behind the ships and guns. Isn't that a challenge for every loyal Scout?…

Under the direction of our leaders, the Boy Scouts of America are to serve as an intelligence division of the citizens' army, always prepared and alert to respond to any call which may come from the President of the United States and the Committee on Public Information at Washington.

Excerpt from a pamphlet entitled Committee on Public Information, Boy Scouts of America, 1917. Available online at (accessed April 2001).

By card: A ration card must be presented to obtain certain goods.

Coup d'etat: An overthrow of a government.

Whetted: Stimulated.

Imperial Duma: Government.

Carnival of liberty: The thrilling period after the successful coup d'etat that overthrew the Russian government.

Constituent Assembly: A legal body formed to make or change a constitution.

Debacle: Complete collapse of order.

Soldiers under arms: Soldiers with guns drawn.

Leave of absence: Official permission.

Russo-Japanese war: Russian war with Japan over Manchuria (1904–05).

Expropriation: Transfer of ownership to oneself.

Prosecution: Pursuing until completion.

Protracted: Lengthy.

D.B.M.: Initials of David B. Macgowan, Vice consul at the American Consulate in Moscow.

Cossacks: Russian cavalry.

Romanoffs: The Russian royal family.

Prorogued the Duma: Canceled the Russian legislative assembly.

Amnesty: A pardon granted by a government for political wrongdoings.

Caste: Social classes.

Auspice: Protection, support.

Commissariats: A government department in Russia.