The Rule of the Red Guard

By Meriel Buchanan
(Daughter of Sir George Buchanan, British Ambassador to Russia, 1910-1918)

[Scribner's Magazine, October 1918]

The French ambassador received a note on November 21, 1917, informing him that the Bolshevik government, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotzky, had ordered an immediate armistice on all the Russian front and intended to begin pourparlers of peace. General Poukhonine, who had succeeded General Alexieff as commander-in-chief, receiving this telegram of the Bolshevik government ordering an immediate armistice, refused to carry out the instructions and was accordingly replaced by General Krylenko, a small, ferret- faced man who had risen from the ranks.

At the same time my father published a note in the papers remonstrating at the way the order for the armistice had been carried out without consulting the Allies and had been sent to headquarters nineteen hours before it was received at the embassy. Trotzky thereupon published an answering note, saying that the order for the armistice, and the note to the Allied embassies informing them of it, had been sent off at the same moment, and "if it was indeed true that the latter had not arrived at the same time this was only due to technical details that had nothing to do with the policy held by the Council of the Commissaries of the People." The note ended in an assurance that the common efforts and the will of the people would carry out a declaration of universal peace against all imperialistic governments.

British subjects were now more or less prisoners in Russia, Trotzky declaring that not one of them should be allowed to leave till Petroff and Tchicherin, the two Russian pacifists interned in England, were set free. He also threatened to arrest any British subjects carrying on what he held a counter-revolutionary propaganda and declared that, though until now there had been no hostile demonstrations against the embassy, he would not be answerable for the consequences if his requests to release Petroff and Tchicherin were not immediately granted.

Nearly every day threatening articles against my father appeared in the Bolshevik papers, and he was repeatedly warned that he was in danger of being arrested at any moment. And one or two members of the British colony, who were at the head of big factories, were subjected to rough treatment and violent abuse from the workmen.

On December 1 the delegates of the Bolshevik government left for the front to begin the peace negotiations, and on December 4 General Poukhonine was brutally murdered in his railway-carriage as he was leaving headquarters. People had hoped that the troops or the staff would prove loyal, and would be able to hold out against the Red Guards and troops sent down by the Bolsheviks to take possession. But General Poukhonine unfortunately hesitated to take up an armed defensive position, and, having murdered him, the Bolshevik troops under the command of General Krylenko took the position of the staff, meeting with hardly any resistance. General Korniloff, however, managed to escape with four hundred men and, evading pursuit, made his way toward the south to try and join the forces of General Kaledin.

It was said that seven German staff officers had arrived in Petrograd and were being received and entertained by the Bolshevik government as guests of honor. Pamphlets warning the people that they were being betrayed were thrown about the streets, but nobody had the power to do anything, and the peace negotiations continued at the front, though it was rumored that they were not going well, and that the Bolsheviks were not finding it as easy as they had thought.

Part I

And what of Petrograd, the capital, during these days? Winter had set in now. The white, pure silence of the snow covered everything; the flag on the fortress flew, a brilliant patch of scarlet against a steel-cold sky.

Nobody troubled to clear away the snow in the streets. Little boys used the slopes of the bridges over the canals as toboggan-slides, cannoning carelessly against people, utterly unheedful whether they knocked them down or not. Others again used the pavements as skating-rinks, and walking in the streets became a thing fraught with many dangers, ridiculous and otherwise.

Nearly all the trams had broken down and nobody troubled to mend them. Those that remained resembled moving beehives with crowds of people hanging, on all round. One had to fight to get even so much as a foothold on a step, and once having got in it was almost impossible to get out again, so tightly wedged was the crowd at the doors. Pickpockets and thieves swarmed in them, and as there was no police one had no hope of retribution if one did have anything stolen.

Coal was so scarce that the supply of electric light had to be cut off. On certain days one was only allowed it from six to eleven in the evenings, and as one never knew which day that was to be, one ran the risk at dinner-parties of finding oneself in sudden darkness and having a general scramble for candles. And candles were also scarce and not always to be found.

Nearly every night shooting went on in the town. Nobody quite knew why. Sometimes it was just a band of robbers going around, stopping people in the streets or pillaging flats. Or, perhaps, the Red Guards had a difference of opinion. Or else a motor with no lights would fly through the streets with a machine-gun rattling away out of the back window for no particular reason or object.

Committees were started in all the apartment-houses. All the inhabitants of flats, even the women, had to take their turn at keeping watch during three hours of the night, either in the courtyard or else just inside the hall. Day after day more shops were closing, either through lack of material or strike of the shophands. Food that for a short period after the Bolsheviks had gained power had been a little more plentiful, was now scarcer than ever. The bread was practically uneatable. The allowance for the week was one egg, which was generally bad. Butter was almost unprocurable. Leather was so scarce that to get a pair of boots one had to have a ticket, and it was said that there was just one pair of boots for every fifty people.

One wondered sometimes was this to be the end. The great red palace riddled by bullets. The silent empty government buildings. The yellow and white Admiralty with the golden spire that seemed nearly always to catch from somewhere a faint gleam of sunshine. And across the white expanse of the snow-covered square, behind the pearl-like tracery of the trees in the Alexander Garden, the great, gray shadow of the dome of Saint Isaac's softened and dim in the opal-colored mist. And over the frozen river the walls of the fortress, the cathedral with the golden tombs of dead Emperors, the spire that was like a marvellous tongue of flame, a finger pointing to heaven. What was to happen to all these? The old majesty, the old traditions of centuries, the faith that believed in miracles—were they gone forever? The churches were almost empty now; only here and there in the gray shadows a solitary candle burned before a jewelled ikon, or a woman knelt and wept before a crucifix. The old Russia was dead indeed.

I remember walking home from a dinner one evening and passing close to a barracks where a crowd of soldiers stood leaning up against the wall. From an open window a stream of yellow light blazed across the snow-covered pavement, and out into the silence of the cold, clear night came the sound of drunken song, laughter, and the squeak of a concertina. Walking down the street toward us came an old general, his long beard and his white fur cap gleaming silver in the moonlight, the scarlet lining of his gray coat catching the light as he passed that open window, and not a single one of those soldiers leaning against the doorway moved out of his way or saluted, one only spat derisively on the pavement with a muttered curse. His stern old face was like a white mask of suffering, and when the English officer I was with saluted him, as he passed close to us, he started as if wakened from a dream, and returned the salute with a smile that was pitiful in its pleased surprise.

That is the spirit of progress and change, the spirit of liberty. Everywhere signs of disorder and dirt and neglect—streets that were almost empty, shops that had no goods, churches where nobody prayed. And at street corners companies of Red Guards sitting round huge blazing fires, stopping every motor that passed to ask questions, and sometimes turning the occupants out if the answers did not satisfy them, ready at any moment on the slightest excuse to fire off the rifles that were tied round them with a piece of string or a dirty piece of red ribbon. These, men, unkempt, unwashed, unshaved, totally ignorant, had become the rulers of Petrograd, the city built by Peter the Great as capital for his empire.

At night it was always a somewhat eerie sensation to be stopped by these men: The red glare of the fire lighting up the blue darkness; the silence of the snow-covered streets broken by the hoarse, rough voice that commanded the motor to stop; the crowd of dirty, unkempt men swarming round the door; the points of the bayonets that caught here and there a gleam of firelight; the knowledge that at the slightest excuse they had the power to turn one ignominiously out into the street and go off themselves in the motor.

Indeed, this very nearly happened to some friends and myself when one evening coming home from the ballet a shot rang out just in front of the motor. We did not realize at first that it had been fired at us, but when the motor pulled up with a jerk and a man in a dirty fur cap, who might have been a Red Guard or an ordinary thief, tore open the door we saw that this time we were not to be merely spectators. How little help we could expect from anybody was also immediately clear, as people passing glanced at us nervously, and then, looking the other way, hurried on, while a sledge that had been standing close to the pavement drove hastily away into the darkness. Three more men with rifles now surrounded the motor, and, pointing his pistol at us, the man who had stopped us commanded us to get out at once. Mr. Brooks, one of the secretaries of the embassy who was with us, told him it was an English motor and tried to shut the door. But, tearing it open again, the man got up on the step and, pointing his pistol at Mr. Brooks's head, screamed out that we were to let him have the motor at once or he would shoot. With admirable presence of mind Mr. Brooks argued with him that he would get into great trouble if he took the motor as it belonged to the British embassy, and we were on government business. The man retorted furiously that he also was on government business, but after a few minutes' more persuasion and talk he finally got off the step, and, shutting the door with a bang, allowed us to continue on our way unmolested.

Part II

Disorders and desultory street fighting increased day by day, and on the night of December 7 reached a culminating point when a band of soldiers and sailors broke into the Winter Palace and pillaged the wine-cellars. The Preobrajinsky regiment, whose barracks were next door, and who were supposed to be on guard, tried at first to put up a feeble resistance, but very soon joined in. the general plunder themselves. All during the night the orgy continued, and several encounters took place between drunken bands of soldiers and sailors, and from the embassy we heard the constant sound of firing all down the quay and the Millionaia.

Early the next morning, the news having rapidly spread through the town, crowds arrived on the scene to try and get a little booty. Soldiers in huge motor lorries drove up to the palace, and went away with their motors full of cases of priceless wine. Women, their arms full them of bottles, could be seen trying to sell them to passers-by in the streets. Even the children had their share of the plunder, and could be met carrying a bottle of champagne or perhaps some valuable old liquor.

About midday an armed force of sailors and one or two armored cars arrived on the scene to try and restore order. The palace was surrounded and nobody was allowed to pass anywhere near. Thousands of bottles of wine were destroyed and thrown over into the ice, the sailors firing into the bottles the quicker to break them, but the horde of drunken soldiers was so immense that the orgy still continued without any abatement, and order only began to be restored on the arrival of a company of firemen, who flooded the cellars and drowned a lot of soldiers who were too drunk to escape.

Even as far down the quay as the embassy the air was infected with the reek of spirits, and everywhere drunken soldiers lay about, broken bottles littered the streets, the snow was stained rose-red and yellow where in many places the wine had been spilled. All through the town the drunken hordes spread themselves, firing indiscriminately at each other or anybody who molested them. Scenes of indescribable horror and disgust took place, the crowds in some instances scooping up' the dirty, wine-stained snow, drinking it out of their hands, fighting with each other over the remains. And everywhere the soldiers were inciting the people to murder and pillage. It was so easy—you had only to take your rifle—and everybody had a firearm of some sort—to knock down a few shutters or break a few windows and take whatever you found.

In the afternoon I drove out with a friend in one of the little low sledges and tried to do some shopping. Heavy snowflakes drifted down from an iron-gray sky, a piercing wind drove into our faces, the great dome of Saint Isaacs, loomed up, a huge shadow lost in the whirling snow. Several times drunken soldiers hailed us as we passed. On the little bridge at the end of the Millionaia, a company of armed sailors stopped us and made us go down a side-street into the town. The streets were practically deserted, several of the shops were boarded up, now and then the sharp crack of a rifle sounded across the distance, or the fragment of a drunken song.

At the door of one of the provision-shops a huge, burly moujik, wrapped in a sheepskin, stopped us with an outstretched arm as we tried to pass him. "Shut," he said laconically. "But why is it shut?" my friend asked impatiently, seeing a chink of light under the closed doors. The man shrugged his huge shoulders, "Because it is," he answered, standing immovable in the doorway, where we had eventually to leave him.

The red-bearded driver of our sledge grinned at us good-humoredly as we climbed back and pulled the fur rug over us. "Eh, Barina," he remarked pleasantly. "Life is not easy now. Svaboda! (Liberty!) This is what they call liberty! Eh—God help us!" He flicked the blue reins at his thin, white horse and drove on, muttering to himself all the time.

A little farther along a drunken soldier stood before one of the huge fires that burned at the corners of all the streets, a broken bottle held in-one-hand, a pistol in the other, while a Red Guard, leaning on his gun, watched him with an indulgent sniffle. Singing and laughing, the soldier swayed perilously near to the leaping flames, now and then pointing his pistol at the passers-by, cursing them or laughing at them as they drew nervously away. Still a little farther along another soldier lay face down in the snow, an empty bottle still clutched in one hand, while two little boys stood nervously at a distance, and a third, more courageous, tried to loosen the fast-clasped fingers from the bottle to see, perhaps, whether there were a few drops left. As Lunarcharsky, one of the commissaries of the people, said when questioned by a reporter: "What would you have? The whole of Petrograd is drunk."

And that was only the beginning. Having found how easy it was, the soldiers continued to plunder the wine-shops and many of the private cellars in the town. Every night there was shooting, and in some parts regular artillery duels between machine-guns took place, and, though several large wine-cellars were destroyed by order of the Bolshevik government, the streets continued to be full of drunken soldiers and the orgies still went on.

Late one evening some friends who lived a little farther down the quay came to seek refuge in the embassy, as their cellars were being pillaged and the soldiers had fired into the room where they had been sitting at dinner. They telephoned from the embassy to Smolny to ask for armed assistance, which was accordingly sent, and some time after midnight they were able to return to their house, which had been put under a strong guard.

All approaches to the Winter Palace were still barricaded and nobody was allowed to pass. Bottles of wine were sometimes to be bought in the streets for absurdly cheap prices, though one was not always sure of obtaining the real article. There is the story of one man who bought what was supposed to be a bottle of champagne from a sailor for the sum of three roubles. Examining it closer he found it contained only vichy water. Putting it in his pocket, he continued on his way down the street, and presently, when a soldier passed him, tapped it knowingly. The soldier immediately stopped to bargain, and the man succeeding in selling him the supposed bottle of champagne for the sum of five roubles, continued on his way.

Robbery and murder had become daily and nightly occurrences now. Constantly people were being stopped and divested of all their clothes and valuables before they were allowed to continue. It was impossible to go out at night in a motor, as one ran the almost certain risk of being stopped and turned out. Sometimes looking out of the window late at night one might have imagined oneself in a city of the dead. The huge, empty square, white and ghastly under the light of one feeble lamp, the vast shadow of the bridge across the frozen river, by the corner of the Marble Palace, the orange glow of the fire where the forms of two or three soldiers could be seen crouching close to the flames. Now and then only the gray shadow of a sledge slipping silently across the snow, or a muffled figure that passed swiftly as if it feared pursuit.

A story was told at this time of a man who was stopped by a band of thieves and robbed of his watch and money and coat. Shivering, he said to one of the robbers: "You might at least give me your coat in exchange. Mine was new and yours is old, and you can't want two coats." After some hesitation the thief eventually gave him his dirty old sheepskin coat, and the man hurried home, thankful for at least some covering in the cold. Arrived at his lodgings, he took off the coat and found in the pocket what was evidently the result of the robber's day—three or four diamond rings and a sum of money far exceeding that of which he had been robbed himself.

Part III

On December 15 Trotzky sent round another note to all the embassies announcing his intention of entering into peace negotiations, not with the Allied, governments, but with the socialistic parties in all countries; and meanwhile the farce of the peace conference continued, fluctuating, suspended, taken up again.

The Russian frontier had again been closed to English and American subjects, on the ground of a dispute concerning government messengers. The posts were completely disorganized and hardly any news came through, and what there was in the papers was distorted to suit the Bolshevik interests. But on Christmas Day a messenger arrived from England, having just got across the frontier before Trotzky's order to stop him had been received.

Food-supplies were getting scarcer and scarcer. All communications with the south had been completely cut off. The Don country was said to be mobilized, and thousands of officers and cadets were joining the forces of General Kaledin, and at Rostoff the Bolshevik committee was supposed to have liberated and armed a lot of German prisoners to take part in the struggle against him and Korniloff.

The German papers had taken up a violent attitude in regard to my father's statement in the Russian press, and said that the Entente only wished to gain time and prepare the ground for a counter-revolution, and that my father's insinuation that the armistice negotiations were being conducted with the German autocracy and not with the German people would fool nobody in Russia. Admiral Kaiserling and his staff had arrived in Petrograd, a whole hotel was placed at their disposal, and they were treated with every consideration and respect. The town itself swarmed with German and Austrian prisoners, waiving freely and unmolested about the streets, swaggering as if they were already in possession. There is a story of a Russian girl who, meeting several of these men, turned to a friend who was with her and said: "Look. There are a lot of German prisoners." One of the men turned to her with an insolent smile. "Oh, no," he said suavely, "you make a mistake. It is you who are our prisoners."

And meanwhile anarchy spread itself all over the country. In the surroundings of Petrograd and in the Baltic provinces hardly a country house was left standing. My friend's place near Reval, where I had stayed several times, had been completely destroyed and pillaged, the horses and cows on the farm taken or killed, the pigs cut up alive for lard, while she herself barely escaped, having to hide for five hours in the garden with her two small children. In Odessa street-fighting was taking place, and the massacres of Kronstadt were being repeated in the Black Sea fleet. In the Crimea several of the wonderful old palaces and private villas were being plundered. In Kieff there were riots and disorders. In Finland officers and generals were brutally murdered. Many of the treasures of the Hermitage and the Winter Palace had been lost or stolen. Some of the barges in which they had been sent away from Petrograd just before the Bolshevik rising were said to have been sunk, some were supposed to have arrived at Moscow, others at Vologda, but nobody really knew or cared. Pillaging, murdering, and talking about peace were so much more important than the fate of a few Rembrandts and Fragonards.

My father had been very unwell for some time past, and at the end of December the doctor emphatically ordered him to go away at once. An agreement had been finally come to between the British and the Bolshevik governments regarding the question of couriers, and the messengers of the Bolsheviks were to be given passports to England on the condition that they did not stay there after delivering their despatches. Accordingly after some difficulty and delay Trotzky gave my father the facilities for our journey to England, though he would not allow the military and naval representatives going with us any special concessions, declaring that they must travel as ordinary passengers.

The 8th of January was settled for the day of our departure, and our last days in Petrograd passed slowly and regretfully.

The cold was intense, an icy wind swept down the quays, snow continued to fall day after day, piling itself in huge masses all down the streets. It was almost impossible for motors to get through it, and driving in a sledge down the Nevsky was like going on a mountain switchback. Bleak and gray, the sky stretched itself above the town and the ice-bound river. There seemed no help anywhere against the pitiless decree that the folly of man was carrying out. The curse of an inevitable disaster hovered like a bird with giant, overshadowing wings above the country.

On one of the few remaining days I went for the last time into the vast Cathedral of Saint Isaacs. In the dim, gray-shadowed darkness the tiny, yellow flames of a very few candles burned feebly, flutteringly. The great church that had always been so full was now almost empty. Before the Miraculous Madonna of Saint George one old woman knelt in prayer, and two little solitary candles burned. In another part of the church a service was going on, and one or two people stood lost among the shadows, while through the jewelled doors a priest in a wonderful green robe prayed in a halo of golden light that made his figure stand out startlingly clear amidst the surrounding dark.

Going out again into the white, whirling snow-storm I walked slowly up, past the marvellous equestrian statue of Peter the Great onto the quay. The old, pink palace of Prince Munchikoff faced me on the opposite shore, and farther down the river the great gray building of the Bourse stood out, facing the bullet-scarred Winter Palace, standing out dark-red above the snow.

A sense of utter desolation and tragedy laid over it all, the hopelessness of an abandoned city alive still with the memories of long-dead glories, of golden pomp and revelry. Somewhere on the other side of the river the crack of a rifle broke the frozen stillness, and a workman who was passing laughed savagely. A gust of icy wind sent a cloud of snow into my face, and a half-starving yellow dog, limping on three legs rubbed itself against my skirt, looking up at me with piteous eyes. And through the drifting snow the ghosts of Russia's greatness seemed to pass and vanish—men and women who had lived and died for Russia, whose heads were bent under the weight of intolerable shame.

On the last night before our morning start I walked home from a dinner in the Millionaia through a stillness that held something uncanny in its voiceless quiet. The streets seemed utterly deserted, only once two workmen passed, dark, grotesque figures muffled in sheepskins, the points of their rifles black against the snow. The heavy clouds had lifted, a few faint stars shone in the distant, blue darkness of the sky. The empty square showed an almost untrodden purity of snow. The fortress stood a dark shadow above the frozen river, dimly against the sky the spire of Peter and Paul reared a slender black finger, pointing to the stars.

Then the sudden roar and rattle of a motor broke the stillness; filled with a crowd of half-drunken soldiers, it passed down the quay, ploughing its way with difficulty through the heavy snow. Through the coarse, jeering laughter I caught the words, "Liberty—Peace—Hurrah for Peace!"

Liberty and peace—while above the blue-and-silver city of dead Emperors hovered the shadow of German autocracy and German militarism and German power—like a great black monster ready to devour its prey.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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