Reporting Revolutionary Russia — final part

This is the second and final part of my article, ‘Russia is All Right’, recently published in the journal ‘Media History’. It looks at the way that British newspapers covered the Russian revolution of February 1917. You can read the first part here. The photos are from my recent trip to Russia, part of my research for my forthcoming book, ‘Assignment Moscow’

The frozen River Neva, Saint Petersburg, March 2019, photograph by the author.

The optimism of the editorial columns

The cutting of communication had led the newspapers in London to expect big news. The Telegraph, in fact, reported on March 16th,  ‘For several days no news with regard to the political situation in Russia which, however, was known in well-informed quarters to be critical, had been received in London.’[i]  ‘Since Monday no word had come from Russia, and silence had fallen upon what was manifestly a serious situation,’[ii] wrote the Manchester Guardian once news finally made it to out. The Daily Herald decided that, ‘the information that is allowed to reach the outer world is often studiously vague.’[iii] Once the facts were confirmed, the revolution was widely welcomed: the leader columns echoing David Monger’s conclusion that, ‘Before the Bolsheviks’ emergence, propagandists interpreted the Tsar’s overthrow as positive for both Russia and the alliance.’[iv]  This was not confined to the fervently pro-war editorials in titles owned by Lord Northcliffe, although they led the charge. ‘The cause of freedom and of the Allies has triumphed,’ the Daily Mail’s editorial of March 16th, 1917 boldly announced. ‘The one power which will gain nothing from this great stroke will be Germany’[v], ran the final sentence. This belief was echoed in the edition of The Times which appeared on the same day, even if The Times was more reflective. ‘It is still too soon for entire confidence in the issue,’[vi] its editorial said – adding a measured note of caution to its categorical opening statement ‘A great Revolution has been accomplished in Russia’ – before continuing, ‘but the general trend of events and the attitude of the Army and of the more important elements of the population justify the Allies of Russia in optimism.’ Grounds for optimism were sought everywhere. The Times also carried a news story – headlined ‘Revolution in Russia’ – which included reports of military activity on the Somme, and in the Balkans. It appears to have been part of a daily series. The words ‘The War: 3rd Year: 225th Day’ appear between the headline and the story – a reminder of the true preoccupations of readers then, even if much of what was served up to them was characterized as part of one of the most shameful episodes of journalistic history.[vii] Beyond the newspapers’ welcoming change in Russia, optimism was scarce, perhaps one reason why the Times editorial also offered hope in the form of ‘the manifest eagerness of all parties that Russia should continue to wage the war with even greater vigour than she has displayed hitherto.’[viii] In another delayed despatch from the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, the Mirror told its readers on March 20th, ‘‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[ix] The Express announced confidently, ‘The Russian revolution has been accomplished, and the forces of reaction have been overcome.’[x] The Observer of Sunday 18th March reported the revolution with a series of stacked headlines, which included, ‘A marvellous rising’.[xi]

It is understandable that, with the First World War now well into its third year, and conscription having been introduced in 1916[xii], the effect which the revolution would have on Russia’s contribution to the allied war effort against Germany was the leading concern. It continued to be so for as long as the war lasted. Then, as now, the Sunday newspapers faced the challenge of trying to find new angles to the big stories of the week. The Sunday Times of March 18th was fortunate enough to have the text of ‘The Tsar’s Manifesto’[xiii] published in Petrograd too late on Friday to make the Saturday papers in London. The headlines of an analytical piece on the preceding page promised, ‘Fidelity to the allies’; the text ‘an energetic prosecution of the war by the new Russian government’[xiv]. The Financial Times of the following day was even more forthright: ‘There is now but one desire among the people—to fight on until Prussian militarism has been destroyed.’[xv] The Daily Mirror – which had published the ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – told its readers on March 20th, ‘The workmen express the determination to employ themselves on overtime in order to make up for all the work that has been lost, and are loud in declaring their intention of carrying on the war to victory.’[xvi] This was wishful thinking of the first water. The workers of Petrograd were among the reddest of the red: just the kind of constituency which would have been receptive to the argument that the war was being waged in the interests of aristocrats and capitalists, and at the expense of the workers. The Mirror, which had been founded in 1903 by Northcliffe, had, unsurprisingly, not lost its patriotic outlook since its sale in 1913 to his brother, soon to become Lord Rothermere. The Daily Express also published the Reuters ‘Russia is all right’ despatch – perhaps showing, among other things, that the Reuters correspondent understood very well that fulfilling his ‘first duty’ would have the added benefit of getting his despatch used more widely. The Manchester Guardian was another newspaper in which it appeared. The Manchester Guardian went even further than the optimism of the Reuters wire, in an editorial which brightly declared, ‘England hails the new Russia with a higher hope and surer confidence in the future not only of this war, but of the world.’[xvii]

It is worth recalling here the admonishment which Stanley Washburn remembered receiving from Lord Northcliffe about the importance of ‘the Cause’. While press barons’ and their readers’ shared desire for an allied victory may have led to some wishful thinking, the press barons’ ties to political elites – such as Northcliffe’s role as ‘director of propaganda’ – were another factor. As Alice Marquis wrote, the British system of censorship during WWI  ‘consisted of a close control of news at the source by military authorities, combined with a tight-knit group of ‘press lords’ who (over lunch or dinner with Lloyd George) decided what was “good for the country to know’”[xviii]. While it may be, as Curran has argued, that, ‘The press barons are usually accused of using their papers as instruments of political power’[xix], this was one era when they were largely happy to place that power, real or imagined, at the service of the state.   

A view of the Admiralty, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.

Strong eyewitness reporting

Telegraph links restored, the newspapers enthusiastically caught up with the news. The Times printed almost 6,000 words from its correspondent. In accordance with the convention of the time, he was not named. The correspondent can be identified as Robert Wilton, both from his own memoir, Russia’s Agony, and from the less than complimentary opinions of his coverage from Philips Price, and, later, by The Times itself. Its own history, published in the 1950s, concluded that, ‘Wilton’s service, often important, was erratic,’[xx] and that the newspaper felt that ‘their writer did not command full confidence’[xxi]. Such a verdict presumably delighted Morgan Philips Price – who, given that he died only in 1973 – would have lived long enough to read it.

For all that Wilton has not been remembered favourably – Russia’s Agony, his rather flawed account of the revolutionary year of 1917, rushed out the following year, may have something to do with that (the book was dedicated to the Cossacks, who, Wilton maintained, would soon drive the Reds from Russia) – and the reputation he had ‘in Zionist circles, and even into the Foreign Office’[xxii] of being an anti-Semite, his coverage of the February revolution was lively and informative. Especially given his relatively advanced years for a war correspondent – Wilton was born in 1868, and so was approaching fifty when the revolution started – Wilton did a first-rate job of getting to the action, and getting the story. He was rewarded with as much space as The Times could find for everything he had sent. Wilton’s story appeared under stacked headlines: ‘Abdication of the Tsar’; ‘First News from Petrograd’; ‘Revolution Complete’[xxiii] (one the sub-editors might later have wished for the chance to rewrite), even though, despite the middle of those three, the paper had to admit, ‘we are still without news of the first outbreak’[xxiv]. Even though they finally had news from Russia, they did not appear to have all that their correspondent had sent, or to have it in the right order. Wilton’s prose gave his story pace, even if the passive voice in lines such as ‘Warnings not to assemble were disregarded. No Cossacks were visible’[xxv] seems, to modern readers at least, to soften the sense of urgency. Walking the streets of Russia’s revolutionary capital, Wilton suddenly found himself in the middle of the fighting

…as the armoured cars, which all appear to be in the hands of the revolutionaries, have been dashing through the streets around The Times office, fusillading the Government machine guns, all attempts to get from one place to another were attended with the greatest risk[xxvi]

Wilton went on to tell his readers that, returning from calling on the British ambassador, he ‘was walking through the Summer Gardens when the bullets began to whiz over my head.’[xxvii] For all this excitement, The Times was very keen to situate Wilton’s coverage in the wider context as it was seen from London. Under the headlines, but before the reader reached Wilton’s ‘History of the Movement’, there was a paragraph explaining that Andrew Bonar Law, who was then in the war cabinet, had told the House of Commons that the revolution ‘was not an effort to secure peace, but an expression of discontent with the Russian government for not carrying on the war with efficiency and energy.’[xxviii]

Covering revolutions is one of the biggest challenges for journalists. Philips Price even found himself in the wrong place – he was reporting from the Caucasus at the time – but showed enough initiative to get to Moscow, and thence to Petrograd. On the way, he caused the resignation of the foreign minister, Pavel Milyukov, by reporting unguarded remarks the minister had made about Russia’s war aims[xxix]. Those who were in Petrograd faced not only the difficulties of coming by reliable information, but also great danger. Wilton was not alone in having bullets pass close by. Alfred Fletcher of Central News, whose report was published in both the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph on March 16th, wrote of streets, ‘full of the whizzing of bullets from rifles and machine-guns’. Apparently unable to contain his own excitement, and just in case his reader had not got the message, he explained, ‘In short, we are faced with revolution in the truest sense of the word.’[xxx] Not wanting his professional activity to draw unwanted attention, Donald Thompson became a pioneer of secret filming. He cut a hole in his camera bag to, ‘get pictures with this gyroscopic camera of mine without anyone knowing what I am doing.’[xxxi] This was prudent. The revolutionary streets of Petrograd could suddenly become the scene of deadly acts of violence. An Associated Press despatch, published in the Manchester Guardian and the Daily Mirror on Saturday March 17th described, ‘Regiments called out to disperse street crowds clamouring for bread refused to fire upon the people, mutinied, and (slaying their officers in many cases) joined the swelling ranks of the insurgents.’[xxxii]

Given the strong political views of their owners, and the dangerously unpredictable circumstances in which they were working, the correspondents deserve credit for the picture which they were able to paint of Petrograd at the end of autocracy.

His despatches delayed as those of Robert Wilton and others had been, the Daily Mail’s correspondent finally got his work into print once the telegraph links had been reopened. As with Wilton, the Mail’s correspondent is not named. He may however be assumed, on the basis of bylines which appeared the previous month, to be Henry Hamilton Fyfe. On Friday March 16th, the Daily Mail, like The Times, published a series of reports together. Readers were informed at the beginning that the section datelined ‘Saturday’ (and presumably all that followed) had been ‘transmitted on Wednesday at 9.55am’. Fyfe did not seem scared by the fact that walking the streets was, in Wilton’s words, ‘attended by the greatest risk’. Hamilton Fyfe brought the atmosphere of the streets of revolutionary Russia to the breakfast tables of Britain. The weeks leading up to the February revolution were a time when ‘Bread had to be queued for, and its availability was unreliable.’[xxxiii] The queues were so long that the people of Petrograd had sometimes to wait for hours, even during Russian winter nights. One of Thompson’s first impressions on arrival was to ‘notice bread lines in front of bakeries, and, in fact, at every place where food is sold.’[xxxiv] In one memorable passage, he wrote

Bread shops are besieged by hungry people. Last night I did not retire until nearly 2:30 and I could look out from the back of the hotel from my window and see the people lined up in front of a bakery. In the morning when I got up some of those same people were still standing there.[xxxv]

In the 1918 edition of his book, the page following is a photograph of a bread queue, perhaps the one he describes. A thick line of dark figures in heavy coats and fur hats stand patiently and apparently motionless on the snow-covered street.  There were suspicions that what bread was available was not being shared fairly. The hungry, their patience exhausted, sometimes took the law, and bread, into their own hands. Hamilton Fyfe reported one such incident. ‘A baker’s shop well known for its profiteering had its windows smashed, and the place looted.’[xxxvi] Hamilton Fyfe explained that ‘large quantities of bread [were] being kept for richer and more fortunate customers.’ In a forthright tone of the kind which might still be found in the Daily Mail today, Hamilton Fyfe was blunt in his assessment of the incident. ‘Such conduct,’ he wrote, ‘when people have to stand from 5 till 11 o’clock in a queue deserves punishment.’ Hamilton Fyfe’s reporter’s eye for detail helped him to bring to life for his readers the Russian capital as it responded to the news that the autocracy was no more. It was on the Tuesday – as his paper waited for news that Hamilton Fyfe, walking around the streets of the Russian capital, began ‘to meet incongruous sights. Here a soldier, rifle-less but with an unsheathed officer’s sword in hand, there a civilian carrying, somewhat gingerly, a rifle with fixed bayonet, and farther on a delighted youth with a carbine.’ The details which Hamilton Fyfe picked out form a pattern within their apparent randomness: a pattern of shocking change, which mapped the reversal of the old order. In the same issue of the Daily Mail, that of March 16th, once the news floodgates had been opened, Hamilton Fyfe wrote of an encounter between a group of mutinous soldiers, on foot, and two mounted officers. Faced with guns, the officers backed off. ‘This slight incident showed what was really happening,’ Hamilton Fyfe wrote. The confrontation seemed to represent in miniature the failure of tsarist authority. On March 19th, the Daily Mail even hinted at the revolution’s socialist future reporting ‘Order No. 1’, the Soviet edict which declared that soldiers should be answerable to the committees which they formed amongst themselves, and to the Petrograd Soviet, rather than to officers or the government. In the Mail’s view, Order No. 1

‘shook the old army to its foundations’[xxxvii]. Even if the correspondent judged it a ‘treasonable incendiary document’[xxxviii], they understood it was newsworthy.    

The reporting of Wilton, Fletcher, and Hamilton Fyfe and others provided eyewitness accounts of what was happening in the revolutionary capital: eyewitness accounts which added indispensable context to the celebratory editorials which were being gleefully written in London.

Conclusion

Was everyone then really as optimistic as the leader columns seemed to suggest? In his autobiography, the bulk of which was written, as Rupert Hart-Davis said in his prologue, ‘between 1949 and 1961’[xxxix], Arthur Ransome gave an account of a lunch in London on November 7th 1916 with two government ministers (one of them, Francis Acland, apparently not put off by David Soskice’s earlier concerns about Ransome) ‘I told them,’ Ransome wrote, ‘that I thought we should be considering the possibility that, if we could not bring the war to an end in 1917, we should have to manage without the help of the Russians.’[xl] It would clearly not be beyond a writer of Ransome’s talent to have put a shine on this in the intervening decades. In the following chapter, which covered the coming to power of Lenin and the Soviets, Ransome conceded, ‘Forty years after the events I find it hard to remember the actual dates of this or that happening at which I was present.’ He was referring there to the way the October revolution unfolded, but the point could arguably be more widely applied. Nevertheless, even if those of his fellow correspondents who were reporting from Petrograd in February 1917 were able to give detailed accounts of what was happening, the analysis, the weighing up of the significance of those events in the London editorial columns, was less impressive.

As John Reed showed in Ten Days that Shook the World, his influential account of the October revolution, the Bolsheviks understood that the British press was against them. Reed described a revolutionary laughing defiantly at an editorial in The Times which had thundered, ‘The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets’[xli]. At the time of the February revolution, the Northcliffe papers did not see Bolshevism as such a threat. Even after the October revolution they insisted that Lenin’s government could not last. Headlines such as ‘Leninists paralysed’[xlii]; ‘Lenin losing control’[xliii]; ‘Bolshevist split’[xliv] were common during November 1917. This did their readers no favours in terms of informing them, in terms of helping them to understand what the west was dealing with.

There was, therefore, a contrast between the perspectives which the correspondents offered, and those which appeared in the editorial columns. In some ways, the correspondents, drawing on a more detailed knowledge of the country and its affairs than that possessed by press barons or political elites, did an admirable job. There were exceptions: the message that ‘Russia is all right’ filed from Petrograd, and widely published, being among them. The Daily Telegraph’s correspondent also wrote, ‘Let it be said at once that so far as the common cause of Great Britain and Russia is concerned, the revolution gives no ground for anxiety—or, at least, very little’[xlv]. The focus on food shortages, demonstrated by people breaking into bakeries suspected of hoarding, gave an insight into the state of the country. It also, implicitly if not explicitly, cast doubt on the idea that Russia could continue the war, even supposing that it wanted to. For if a country’s infrastructure was so weak that it could not feed its own capital city, how might it feed, clothe, and arm troops at the front? Even taking into account the ‘unseasonably cold’[xlvi] winter of 1916-17, and the effect it had on rail transport, the system was not working efficiently. Even those correspondents, Wilton being the leading example, who came to loathe the Bolsheviks, and to yearn for their downfall, had not allowed themselves to be blinded to the nature of the revolution, and the shortcomings of the Tsarist Russian army. During the war, Wilton’s reporting even threatened to sour relations between the British and Russian governments because, as Keith Neilson put it, ‘The British idea of fair reportage found little sympathy in Russia. Even during the war, Wilton’s condemnation of ‘unduly optimistic’ reports concerning Russia’s war effort was viewed by the Russian censors as ‘tantamount to treason”’[xlvii]. Perhaps sensing that their publics did not wish to hear of Russian weakness, and possible abandonment of the cause, the newspapers’ owners, through their editorial columns, did not offer it. They, too, preferred to think that Russia was all right.

This was nothing but wishful thinking of the most fanciful kind – as Lenin’s later, and enduring, revolutionary success with the slogan, ‘Peace-Bread-Land’, would come to show. Both editors and the political elite wanted desperately to believe that revolution in Russia would not be bad for the overall allied war effort. In consequence, those were the terms in which events in St Petersburg were portrayed.

Statue of Lenin outside the Smolny Institute, Saint Petersburg, March 2019. Photograph by the author.



[i] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[ii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[iii] Daily Herald, 17 March 1917

[iv] Monger, Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain, 130

[v] The Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 4

[vi] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[vii] See, for example, Knightley, p. 97.

[viii] The Times, March 16th 1917, 7

[ix] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[x] The Daily Express, 16th March 1917

[xi] The Observer, 18th March 1917, 6

[xii] Taylor, The First World War: An Illustrated History, 114.

[xiii] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 7

[xiv] Sunday Times, 18 March 1917, 6

[xv] Financial Times, 19 March 1917, 3

[xvi] Daily Mirror, March 20th 1917

[xvii] The Manchester Guardian, 16 March 1917, 4

[xviii] Marquis, ‘Words as Weapons’, 476

[xix] Curran, Power Without Responsibility, 44

[xx] The Times. The History of The Times, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I, Chapters I-XII 1912-1920 (London, The Times, 1952), 242

[xxi] The Times. The History of The Times, 244

[xxii] The Times. The History of The Times, 248

[xxiii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxiv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxv] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvi] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxvii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxviii] The Times, 16th March 1917, 7

[xxix] Philips Price, My Three Revolutions, 52-53

[xxx] Financial Times, 16th March 1917, 3; Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xxxi] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 64

[xxxii] Associated Press despatch printed in The Manchester Guardian, 17th March 1917, 7

[xxxiii] Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, (London: Penguin, 2003), 32

[xxxiv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 26

[xxxvi] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxvii] Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt, 187

[xxxviii] Daily Mail, March 16th 1917, 5

[xxxix] Rupert Hart-Davis, prologue to The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 9

[xl] Ransome, The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome, (London: Century Publishing, 1985), 204

[xli] Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World, 74

[xlii] Daily Mail, 12 November 1917, 3

[xliii] The Times, 12 November 1917, 8

[xliv] The Times, 22 November 1917, 5

[xlv] Daily Telegraph, 16 March 1917, 5

[xlvi] Pipes, The Russian Revolution, 272.

[xlvii] Neilson, Britain and the Last Tsar,46

References

Alston, Charlotte ‘British Journalism and the Campaign for intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20’ Revolutionary Russia 20:1 (2007), 35-49 doi: 1080/09546540701314343

Chalaby, Jean. “Northcliffe: Proprietor as Journalist.”  In Northcliffe’s legacy: aspects of the British popular press, 1896-1996 . Edited by Peter Caterall, Colin Seymour-Ure, Adrian Smith, 27-44. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000. 

Clark, Christopher. The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914. London: Penguin, 2013.

Curran, James and Jean Seaton. Power Without Responsibility: Press, broadcasting and the internet in Britain. 7th ed. Abingdon: Routledge. 2010.

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. London: Pimlico, 1997.

Hughes, Michael. Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 2000.

Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty. London: Pan, 1989.

Marquis, Alice ‘Words as Weapons: Propaganda in Britain and Germany During the First World War’ Journal of Contemporary History 13:3 (1978), 467-98

McEwen, J. M. ‘The Press and the Fall of Asquith’ The Historical Journal 21:4 (1978), 863-883

Monger, David. Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain. Liverpool University Press, 2012.

Neilson, Keith. Britain and the Last Tsar. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Philips Price, Morgan. My Three Revolutions. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1969

Philips Price, Morgan. Dispatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916-18. Edited by Tania Rose. London: Pluto Press, 1997.   

Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution 1899-1919. London: Harvill, 1997.

Putnis, Peter “SHARE 999”, Media History, 14:2, (2008)141-165, DOI: 10.1080/13688800802176771

Ransome, Arthur. The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome. London: Century, 1985

Read, Donald The Power of News: The History of Reuters (Second edition). Oxford University Press, 1999.

Reed, John Ten Days that Shook the World. London: Penguin, 1977.

Saul, Norman E. War and Revolution: The United States and Russia 1917-1921.University Press of Kansas: 2001

Service, Robert. A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, London: Penguin, 2003.

Smith, John T. ‘Russian military censorship during the First World War.’

Revolutionary Russia, 14:1, 71-95, (2001).  DOI: 10.1080/09546540108575734

Taylor, A.J.P. 1966. The First World War: An Illustrated History. London: Penguin, 1966

Thompson, Donald. Donald Thompson in Russia. New York, The Century Co. 1918.

Times, The. The History of The Times, The 150th Anniversary and Beyond 1912-1948, Part I, Chapters I-XII 1912-1920. London: The Times, 1952

Trotsky, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution (translated by Max Eastman). London: Pluto Press, 1977.

Washburn, Stanley On the Russian Front in WW1: Memoirs of an American War correspondent New York: Robert Speller and Sons, 1982

Wildman, Allan The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt (Princeton University Press, 1980),

Wilton, Robert Russia’s Agony London: Edward Arnold, 1918

The version of record of this manuscript has been published and is available in ‘Media History’, published online June 26 2019. doi.org/10.1080/13688804.2019.1634526

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