The two focal points of the Russian Revolution of 1917 centre on the February Revolution, when the Tsar was deposed, and the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power. But deep political changes and revolutionary fervour continued to bubble away between those key events.
In early June, 100 years ago, Kiev’s central Rada, which had formed in March, proclaimed an independent Ukraine. The decision was supported by the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which had recently begun its session in Petrograd. The Congress voted in favour of Russia’s minority nations and peoples’ right to self-determination. It also resolved to negotiate with Russia’s allies for an immediate end to the war.
Alexander Kerensky, who would later become prime minister, had just been named minister of war and launched a fresh offensive on the eastern front that brought devastating losses. Estimates put the number of deaths at 150,000, with some 250,000 wounded, prompting huge Bolshevik-led demonstrations in support of peace. Some 400,000 workers joined the protests in cities across Russia and Ukraine. As well as Moscow and Petrograd, Kiev and Kharkov saw some of the biggest peace marches. Factory workers staged massive strikes demanding an end to the war and food for the starving at home.
The events of June 1917 lead the way for the so-called July Days, when hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets of Petrograd demanding “All power to the Soviets!”. Armed clashes ensued and several hundred people were killed or wounded as troops attempted to break up the demonstrations (see photo). The protests were followed by mass arrests and violence.
My grandmother Pearl was far away from Petrograd, in the small town of Pavolitch, around 60 miles from Kiev. Here’s what she said in A Forgotten Land about this period:
“Prices continued to rise by the month, even by the week, until even bread became a luxury. How grateful we were for my grandfather’s grain supplies [Her grandfather was a grain dealer]. But with the incoming cartloads from the peasants dwindling, he was forced to raise his prices. The townsfolk were so desperate that they had no choice but to pay – or else go hungry. The bakers ground my grandfather’s wheat with chestnuts and potato peelings and baked bread that was so glutinous it stuck to the gums and was almost impossible to swallow.
“Zayde’s [Grandfather’s] trips to Kiev became rare, but he recounted stories of the increasing unrest he witnessed each time he returned. People talked openly, fearlessly, in the streets about Russia withdrawing from the war and abandoning her allies; power to the workers; people’s soviets. Students handed out leaflets and waved red banners. What did it all mean? Would the war soon be over? How can workers take power? And what were the soviets? To a fifteen year old girl in a small country town, the reports from the city were all very mysterious.”
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.