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A Prisoner of the Boxer Rebellion, 1900

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900

Farm Wife, 1900

The Death of Queen Victoria, 1901

The Assassination of President William McKinley, 1901

The Roosevelts Move Into the White House, 1901

Riding a Rural Free Delivery Route, 1903

First Flight, 1903

The Gibson Girl

Early Adventures With The Automobile

Immigrating to America, 1905

San Francisco Earthquake, 1906

Henry Ford Changes the World, 1908

A Walk with President Roosevelt, 1908

Children At Work, 1908-1912

On Safari, 1909

Birth of the Hollywood Cowboy, 1911

Doomed Expedition to the South Pole, 1912

Sinking of the Titanic, 1912

1st Woman to Fly the English Channel, 1912

The Massacre of the Armenians, 1915

The Bolsheviks Storm the Winter Palace, 1917

The Execution of Tsar Nicholas II, 1918

President Wilson Suffers a Stroke, 1919

Making Movies, 1920

King Tut's Tomb, 1922

Coolidge Becomes President, 1923

Adolf Hitler Attempts a Coup, 1923

Air Conditioning Goes to the Movies, 1925

Prohibition, 1927

Lindbergh Flies the Atlantic, 1927

Babe Ruth Hits His 60th Home Run, 1927

The Wall Street Crash, 1929

The Bonus Army Invades Washington, D.C., 1932

The Reichstag Fire, 1933

Shoot-out with Bonnie and Clyde, 1933

Migrant Mother, 1936

The Bombing of Guernica, 1937

The Rape of Nanking, 1937

Dining with the King and Queen of England, 1938

Images Of War 1918-1971

The Death of President Franklin Roosevelt, 1945

Thoughts Of A President, 1945

Jackie Robinson Breaks Baseball's Color Barrier, 1945

The Assassination of Gandhi, 1948

The Russians Discover a Spy Tunnel in Berlin, 1956

The Hungarian Revolution, 1956

The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, 1963

First Voyage to the Moon, 1968

President Nixon Meets Elvis, 1970

Payoff to the Vice President, 1971

President Nixon Leaves the White House 1974

The Bolsheviks Storm

the Winter Palace, 1917

On the evening of April 3, 1917 a train from Finland arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia and changed history. Aboard was Vladimir Lenin, previously exiled to Switzerland by the Czarist government but returned to Russia by the Germans in the hope that he would transform the popular unrest ignited by the overthrow of the Czar two months earlier into a revolution that would topple the Provisional Government and take Russia out of the war. The German hopes were realized six months later.
Vladimir Lenin rallies a
St. Petersburg crowd, 1917

Lenin was determined to lead his Bolsheviks to power by exploiting the war-weariness that affected Russian citizens and soldiers alike. Throughout the spring and summer he attempted to rally the crowds in the streets of St. Petersburg through rabble-rousing speeches that called for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from the war. However, his efforts to transform the enflamed passions of the people to a march on the headquarters of the Provisional Government at the former Czar’s Winter Palace failed.

Continued set-backs on the Eastern Front further eroded the strength of the Provisional Government. The rift between the Russian Army and the Russian Government widened with each faction suspecting the motives of the other. Finally, Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, called upon the Bolsheviks to defend the city of St. Petersburg against the possibility of a military coup. Kerensky even went so far as to supply arms to the Bolsheviks.

The military coup never materialized, but the esteem of the Provisional Government was diminished while the legitimacy of the Bolsheviks was enhanced - and now they were armed. Emboldened, Lenin ordered an assault on the Winter Palace on the night of October 25. Although later Bolshevik propaganda portrayed the attack as a savage battle, it was relatively bloodless. The defenders of the Palace – Cossacks, a women’s battalion and military cadets or yunkers gave up with little resistance. The immediate outcome was to plunge Russia into a brutal civil war that ended with a Bolshevik victory in 1921.

"Like a black river, filling all the street...we poured through the Red Arch."

John Reed was born to privilege in Oregon. He attended Harvard and after graduating in 1910, pursued a carrier in journalism. His coverage of labor strikes in New Jersey and the Mexican Revolution turned his political leanings to the left. In 1917 he traveled to Russia to cover the turmoil there. He immediately embraced the Bolshevik cause and was welcomed into the movement. He joined the assault on the Winter Palace and later wrote of his experience. We join his story as the insurrectionist mob makes its way down the darkened streets of St. Petersburg:

"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 firewood we clambered, and leaping down inside gave a triumphant shout as we stumbled on a heap of rifles thrown down 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 stair-cases. 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, glassware.

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 touch anything! 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 stair-cases 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.’

John Reed, 1917
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.

...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! Counter-revolutionists! 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 waa 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.

...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.

..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, harm! 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 and ink and paper; the papers were scribbled over with beginnings of plans of action, rough drafts of proclamations and manifestos. 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 h-and writing of Konovalov, which read, ‘The Provisional Government appeals to all classes to support the Provisional Government.’

...we didn't notice a change in the attitude of the soldiers and Red Guards around us. As we strolled from room to room a small group followed us, until by the time we reached the great picture gallery where we had spent the afternoon with the yunkers, about a hundred men surged in after us. One giant of a soldier stood in our path, his face dark with sullen suspicion.

Bolshevik volunteers , 1917
.‘Who are you?’ he growled. ‘What are you doing here?’ The others massed slowly around, staring and beginning to mutter. ‘Provocatori’I heard somebody say. ‘'Looters !’ I produced our passes from the Military Revolutionary Committee. The soldier took them gingerly, turned them upside down and looked at them without comprehension. Evidently he could not read. He handed them back and spat on the floor. ‘Bumagi! Papers!’ said he with contempt. The mass slowly began to close in, like wild cattle around a cowpuncher on foot. Over their heads I caught sight of an officer, looking helpless, and shouted to him. He made for us shouldering his way through.

'I'm the Commissar,' he said to me. ‘Who are you? What is it?’ The others held back, waiting. I produced the papers.

'You are foreigners?' he rapidly asked in French. 'It is very dangerous.' Then he turned to the mob, holding up our documents. ‘Comrades!’ he cried. 'These people are foreign comrades from America. They have come here to be able to tell their countrymen about the bravery and the revolutionary discipline of the proletarian army!'

'How do you know that?' replied the big soldier.'‘I tell you they are provocators! They say they came here to observe the revolutionary discipline of the proletarian army, but they have been wandering freely through the Palace, and how do we know they haven't got their pockets full of loot?'

'Pravilno!' snarled the others, pressing forward.

'Comrades! Comrades!' appealed the officer, sweat standing out on his forehead. ‘I am Commissar of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Do you trust me? Well, I tell you that these passes are signed with the same names that are signed to my pass!’

He led us down through the Palace and out through a door opening onto the Neva quay, before which stood the usual committee going through pockets. ‘You have narrowly escaped,’ he kept muttering, wiping his face.

   This eyewitness account appears in: Reed, John, Ten Days That Shook the World (1935); Salisbury, Harrison, Black night, white snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (1977).

How To Cite This Article:
"The Bolsheviks Storm the Winter Palace, 1917" EyeWitness to History, (2006).

John Reed died of typhus in Moscow on October 20, 1920 at age 33. His body lay in state and was buried in Red Square. The day of his funeral was declared a national holiday.
Once in power, the Bolsheviks revised the Russian calendar, substituting the older Julian calendar with the Gregorian calendar used by most European countries. Under this new calendar, the date of the assault on the Winter Palace changed from October 25 to November 6.
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