November 7th, 1917 - John Reed
Fall of the Winter Palace
It was an astonishing scene. Just at the corner of the Ekaterina Canal, under an arc-Iight, a cordon of armed sailors was drawn across the Nevsky [Prospect, a main road], blocking the way to a crowd of people in column of fours. There were about three or four hundred of them, men in frock coats, well-dressed women, officers - all sorts and conditions of people. Among them we recognized many of the delegates from the Congress, leaders of the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries; Avksentiev, the lean, red-bearded President of the Peasants' Soviets, Sarokin, Kerensky*s spokes-man, Khinchuk, Abramovich; and at the head white-bearded old Schreider, Mayor of Petrograd, and Prokopovich, Minister of Supplies in the Provisional Government, arrested that morning and released. I caught sight of Malkin, reporter for the Russian Daily News. “Going to die in the Winter Palace,” he shouted cheerfully. The procession stood still, but from the front of it came loud argument. Schreider and Prokopovich were bellowing at the big sailor who seemed in command.
“We demand to pass!” they cried. “See, these comrades come from the Congress of Soviets! Look at their tickets! We are going to the Winter Palace!”
The sailor was plainly puzzled. He scratched his head with an enormous band, frowning. “I have orders from the Committee not to let anybody go to the Winter Palace,” he grumbled. “But I will send a comrade to telephone to Smolny....”
“We insist upon passing! We are unarmed! We will march on whether you permit us or not!” cried old Schreider, very much excited.
“I have orders –“ repeated the sailor sullenly.
“Shoot us if you want to! We will pass! Forward!” came from all sides. “We are ready to die, if you have the heart to fire on Russians and comrades! We bare our breasts to your guns!”
“No,” said the sailor, looking stubborn, “I can't allow you to pass.”
“What will you do if we go forward? Will you shoot?”
“No, I'm not going to shoot people who haven't any guns. We won't shoot unarmed Russian people …“
“We will go forward! What can you do?”
“We will do something!” replied the sailor, evidently at a loss. “We can't let you pass. We will do something.”
“What will you do? What will you do?”
Another sailor came up, very much irritated. “We will spank you!” he cried energetically. “And if necessary we will shoot you too. Go home how, and leave us in peace!”
At this there was a great clamour of anger and resentment. Prokopovich had mounted some sort of box, and waving his umbrella, he made a Speech:
“Comrades and citizens!” he said. “Force is being used against us! We cannot have our innocent blood upon the hands of these ignorant men! It is beneath our dignity to be shot down here in the streets by switchmen –“ (What he meant by 'switchmen' I never discovered.) 'Let us return to the Duma and discuss the best means of saving the country and the Revolution!”
Whereupon, in dignified silence, the procession marched around and back up the Nevsky, always in column of fours. And taking advantage of the diversion we slipped past the guards and set off in the direction of the Winter Palace.
Here it was absolutely dark, and nothing moved but pickets of soldiers and Red Guards grimly intent. In front of the Kazan Cathedral a three-inch field-gun lay in the middle of the street, slewed sideways from the recoil of its last shot over the roofs. Soldiers were standing in every doorway talking in loud tones and peering down towards the Police Bridge. I heard one voice saying:
“It is possible that we have done wrong …” At the corners patrols stopped all passers-by - and the composition of these patrols was interesting, for in command of the regular troops was invariably a Red Guard …The shooting had ceased.
Just as we came to the Morskaya [Street] somebody was shouting: “The yunkers have sent word that they want us to go and get them out!” Voices began to give commands, and in the thick gloom we made out a dark mass moving forward, silent but for the shuffle of feet and the clinking of arms, We fell in with the first ranks.
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.
“How many of you did they kill?” I asked.
“I don't know. About ten …
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 fire-wood we clambered, and leaping down inside gave a triumphant shout as we stumbled on a heap of rifles thrown down by the yunkers 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, glass-ware… 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 take anything. This is the property of the People!” Immediately twenty voices were crying, “Stop! Put everything back! Don't take anything! Property of the People!” Many hands dragged the spoilers down. Damask and tapestry were snatched from the arms of those who had them; two men took away the bronze clock. Roughly and hastily the things were crammed back in their cases, and self-appointed sentinels stood guard. It was all utterly spontaneous. Through corridors and up staircases the cry could be heard growing fainter and fainter in the distance, “Revolutionary discipline! 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 Imperia! 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, Provocators! Kornilovists! Counterrevolutionists! 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.)
“Pazal’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; Tereshchenko 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 learned how the people in the street wanted to lynch them, and shots were fired - but the sailors brought them safely to Peter-Paul …
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 wardrobes 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, ink, and paper; the papers were scribbled over with beginnings of plans of action, rough drafts of proclamations and manifestoes, 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. I took one of these scribbled pages, in the handwriting of Konovalov, which read, “The Provisional Government appeals to all classes to support the Provisional Government –“
All this time, it must be remembered, although the Winter Patace was surrounded, the Government was in constant communication with the front and with provincia! Russia. The Bolsheviki had captured the Ministry of War early in the morning, but they did not know of the military telegraph office in the attic, nor of the private telephone line connecting it with the Winter Palace. In that attic a young officer sat all day, pouring out over the country a flood of appeals and proclamations; and when he heard the Palace had fallen, put on his hat and walked calmly out of the building…
Ten Days That Shook the World
First published 1919; Reprint 1977