The second day of the revolution: March 11, 1917 (photo: Imagno/Getty Images)
In the years leading up to the Russian Revolution — perhaps the most important historical event of the 20th century — five British writers were on the scene and sucked into the violence. Closely watched by the secret police, who did not respect judicial niceties once a suspect was arrested, these significant eye-witnesses were exposed to danger and risked their lives. They wrote about their exciting experiences in letters, diaries, dispatches, articles, memoirs and novels. Somerset Maugham was in his forties; Arthur Ransome, Hugh Walpole and Robert Bruce Lockhart were in their thirties; William Gerhardie was in his twenties. Gerhardie went to Russia as a soldier, Ransome as a foreign correspondent, Walpole as a Red Cross volunteer, Lockhart as a diplomat, Maugham as a spy.
In the hermetic foreign community of Russia the five writers knew each other and had various degrees of experience and expertise. Gerhardie was a native speaker of Russian; Lockhart spoke it fluently, with an excellent accent, and was sometimes mistaken for a Russian; Ransome, Walpole and Maugham learned to read and speak the language. In their different ways, they were supposed to carry out the official policy of the British government: support the moderate socialist regime of Alexander Kerensky and keep Russia in the war against Germany; oppose Lenin and the Bolsheviks and prevent them making a separate peace that would free massive numbers of German troops to fight against Britain and France on the Western front. Ransome and Lockhart eventually contravened British policy by supporting the Bolsheviks and opposing British military intervention in the civil war that followed the Revolution.
The pre-revolutionary situation was complex and volatile. In the spring of 1917 Joseph Stalin had arrived in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) from Siberia, Leon Trotsky from America and Vladimir Lenin (courtesy of the Germans) in a sealed train from Switzerland to the Finland Station. Lockhart slyly called Nicholas II a “man of all the domestic virtues, but of no vices and no will-power,” and said he wasn’t fit to run a village post office. After the strikes, riots and mutinies during the first revolution in March, the Tsar abdicated, ending three hundred years of the Romanov dynasty.
The problems facing the new government were overwhelming, indeed insoluble; the masses angry and violent. A biographer wrote, “A war with millions dead, food and supplies on a downward spiral, a people expecting, now that [the March] revolution had come, either the immediate transformation of their lives or an outlet for all their accumulated hatred and envy — these were the circumstances the Provisional Government had to master, and without constitutional authority, a secure basis of power or popular support, or strong, unified leadership.”
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