Reporting the Russian Revolution

This post is the first part of my article, ‘Russia is all right’ which has just been published in the academic journal ‘Media History’. I will publish the recond part of it next week. This post also incldues some photos from my recent trip to Saint Petersburg.

The frozen River Neva and fog covering the spires of the Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, March 2019. Photo by the author.

‘Russia is all right’: British newspaper reporting of the Russian Revolution of February 1917


Like all good journalists grappling with the complexities of world-changing events, the Reuters correspondent in Petrograd at the time of the revolution of February 1917 knew what was most important for readers

The first duty of a British correspondent in these days of national upheaval is to assure his compatriots that “Russia is all right” as a friend, ally, and fighter. The very trials she is undergoing will only steel her heart and arms.[i]

This article will argue that while such expressions of optimism were widespread in the coverage of the February revolution – especially in editorial columns written in London – some of the reporting from correspondents did actually give readers a good sense of the way that events were unfolding; the difficulties involved in reporting revolutions in general, and this one in particular,   notwithstanding. It will consider the political influences on news coverage, and the practical difficulties with which correspondents had to contend. Covering revolutions makes extra demands on the journalist who is already struggling to explain what is happening. In time of revolution, of lasting social and political change, the correspondent is also expected, to a degree at least, to explain to his or her audience what might happen. If this article argues that on the second count much of the British newspaper coverage – especially the editorials – of the 1917 February revolution fell short, then it hopes to make a new contribution to the field by proposing that on the first – the correspondents’ reports – it did better. It will conclude by suggesting that the desire to believe that Russia would fight on was so strong that it eclipsed other interpretations of events, and meant that readers – including policy makers – were ill prepared for what would eventually come to pass. 

Editorial and political contexts to the coverage of February 1917

Policy makers needed to know more than anyone, yet Russia had to a large extent been a mystery to British political elites for decades.  As Michael Hughes has pointed out, ‘No British Prime Minister or foreign secretary visited Russia in the 20 years between 1894 and 1914.’[ii] That changed with the outbreak of the First World War, when St Petersburg (its name soon changed to the less-German sounding ‘Petrograd’) was the capital of an important British ally against the Kaiser. Nevertheless, what Hughes has also identified as the ‘Whig’ convictions of Embassy staff over Russia’s political destiny[iii] may have persisted, not least because their networks of contacts were also limited. Diplomats ‘before 1914 usually tried to avoid dealings with correspondents from foreign newspapers working in the city, since some journalists had contacts with individuals and groups that were anathema to the Russian government.’[iv]

When revolution came, the most important question for political leaders and the press alike was  whether Russia would continue to fight the war. Lloyd George himself having long seen ‘the vital role of Russia in the war’ as ‘an article of faith’[v], it is no wonder this preoccupied correspondents and editors to the extent that it did. Unfortunately for the optimists, the Russian Army soon proved unreliable in playing the martial role which London wished to assign it to it. There were clues in the unfolding of the February revolution itself. Wildman calculated that there were an astonishing 232,000[vi] men under arms in Petrograd and the suburbs at the time of the revolution, ‘the overriding unanswered question,’ as he put it, ‘how deeply the general dissatisfaction in the country had penetrated the units that would have to be used’[vii] to put down the uprising. In the event, the conclusion was that it had penetrated enough for the soldiers not to do the bidding of the Tsar and his commanders.

Like many journalists faced with the challenges of making sense of a revolution while in the midst of it, the correspondent cited above, Guy Beringer, had made a bold prediction which would turn out to be wrong. For the revolution of February 1917 did not ‘steel’ Russia’s ‘heart and arms’. It is true that the Russian Army did launch an offensive in July of that year: an operation which initially ‘made good progress’[viii] – but then ‘ground to a halt as the troops, feeling they had done their duty, refused to obey orders to attack.’[ix] Neither heart nor arms, in other words, were sufficiently steeled. In fact, the July offensive was the Russian Army’s last major action in the First World War. The unrest of the July days followed the operation’s failure. Four months later, Lenin and his Bolshevik followers seized power from the Provisional Government which had been formed after the February revolution. Less than a year after the Reuters despatch was published, its confidence in Russia as a fighting force was finally confirmed as groundless. Russia’s new government signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, making a ‘shameful peace’[x] with Germany. From the point of view of the countries still at war with Germany, Russia was no longer a fighter, or an ally. The eventual rise of Soviet power would mean Russia was no longer a friend, either.

The River Neva in St Petersburg, March 2019. Photo by the author.

This was not the way that the British political or press establishment hoped or expected that the February revolution would end. Not surprisingly, the British priority was winning the war, although as Charlotte Alston has argued, when looking at the debate which surrounded the extent and nature of allied opposition to the fledgling Bolshevik regime, ‘military and political decision making on intervention was more concerned with the war against Germany than with Russia.’[xi] This was certainly the view of the most powerful of the press barons, Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe), proprietor of both The Times and the Daily Mail. As Jean Chalaby has put it, ‘From the early days of Anglo-German antagonism until the 1919 Versailles peace conference, Northcliffe ceaselessly crusaded on jingoistic values.’[xii] He also had an unshakeable belief in his own political influence. Only a few months before the February revolution, he had claimed credit for what he saw as his part in the departure from office of the then Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith.[xiii] His newspapers had been patriotic to the point of jingoism during the Boer War, and in warning – for years – of the dangers of Germany’s desire to increase its military power. In his memoir, the American war correspondent, Stanley Washburn, gave an extraordinary account of a meeting with Lord Northcliffe in 1914. Washburn had been hired to go to Russia for The Times. Passing through London on his way to take up his posting, Washburn was granted an audience with ‘The Chief’, as Northcliffe liked to be known by his subordinates.  ‘I am very glad you are going to Russia for us,’ Washburn later recalled the press baron telling him

but before you go I want you to thoroughly understand that perhaps the Times is different from any other paper for which you have worked. Of course, as I told you, we want the news, but I want you to realize first and foremost, if you find you can do anything in diplomacy, in a military way, or through political intrigue, which I gather is a favourite pastime of yours, you are to forget the Times and serve the “Cause,” which is more important to me even than exclusive dispatches.[xiv]

Northcliffe’s priorities were confirmed by the turn his own career was to take a year after the February revolution: he was appointed to the advisory committee of the Foreign Office’s Department of Information as ‘director of propaganda’.[xv] The existence of this Department also had a bearing on the work of Reuters in particular – an important factor not least because the despatch cited above was very widely used.  The revolution took place at a moment when,    ‘There was also an intensification of Britain’s propaganda effort, particularly after the establishment of a Department of Information in February 1917. Reuters played an ever-increasing role in the work of this Department’[xvi]. At the time of the revolution, Beringer, ‘enjoyed a virtual monopoly of reporting to the west’[xvii] (as others struggled with technical and other obstacles discussed below).

Beringer is also an example of another factor with which correspondents had to contend: that of their own political views, and the consequences which followed. ‘Personally, Beringer was strongly anti-Bolshevik’. The following year, after the Bolsheviks had taken power, he was arrested.[xviii] Other correspondents found themselves subject to verbal attacks and intrigues from their compatriots:  Morgan Philips Price, the left-wing correspondent for the Manchester Guardian so loathed the coverage of Russia which appeared in the Northcliffe titles (during the First World War these included both The Times and the Daily Mail) that later in 1917 he wrote of, ‘abominable behaviour of the Northcliffe Press […] especially of its correspondent, Wilton’ – even expressing the hope ‘the Russian people […] will turn [him] out of Petrograd.’[xix] The papers of David Soskice, also working for the Manchester Guardian, show that as early as 1914 he corresponded with Francis Acland, a foreign office minister, to raise concerns about Arthur Ransome, then another member of the British Press corps in the Russian capital.[xx]

The Hermitage in St Petersburg, formerly the Winter Palace. March 2019. Photo by the author.

The challenges of newsgathering and distribution

In addition to this broader context, those reporting on the revolution also faced considerable challenges in their immediate surroundings. It would be too easy to criticize a journalist, faced with the immensely difficult task of predicting the consequences of a revolution, for getting it wrong. Trotsky himself, writing in his own history of the Russian Revolution, excused an error made by John Reed, that author of Ten Days that Shook the World on the grounds that ‘work done in the heat of events, notes made in corridors, on the streets, beside camp fires, conversations and fragmentary phrases caught on the wing, and that too with the need of a translator – all these things make particular mistakes unavoidable.’[xxi] News was extremely hard – and breathtakingly costly – to come by. The Daily Mail reported on March 19th ‘fights at the station’ to get copies of newspapers, ‘one copy of the Russian Word (Slovo) is said to have been bought for £1000. I myself saw one knocked down for £350.’[xxii] Sympathy for correspondents facing immense challenges has not been confined to those observers, such as Trotsky, who might have been expected to show it for journalists who largely shared their views. The consequences of revolutions are far easier for historians to evaluate than for correspondents to predict. ‘Very few […] could forecast the degree and range of the impact of events of the February-March Revolution of 1917, the ease by which the imperial government fell, terminating a 300-year-old dynasty, or their long-term effects,’[xxiii] as Normal Saul has argued. For journalists, there were other issues, too:  censorship; political pressure; and the great difficulties of reliable communication with the outside world.

This was the greatest initial challenge which correspondents faced. On March 14th 1917, the Daily Mail published the following news item – if that is an adequate description. In fact, it was more of a non-news item

Up to a late hour last night the Russian official report, which for many months has come to hand early, had not been received, nor was there any news of events later than the announcement on Monday that the Duma and Council of Empire sittings had been suspended by imperial orders.[xxiv]

One can almost sense the writer’s frustration in the phrase ‘up to a late hour’. Yet presumably the item was considered newsworthy because the Mail’s editorial team suspected something was up. When Nicholas II’s decision to give up his throne brought to an end centuries of Russian autocracy, even as the country was fighting the First World War, the telegraph from Petrograd had been cut off. Donald Thompson, a pioneering news cameraman from the United States, wrote in a letter to his wife of his experience as he tried to send a cable, ‘the old lady in charge […] told me not to waste my money – that nothing was allowed to go out.’[xxv] For a country which had been relatively late to industrialize, Russia did have reasonably efficient telecommunications. The order to mobilize troops some two-and-a-half years earlier had been given from St Petersburg’s[xxvi] Central Telegraph Office ‘to the principal centres of the Russian Empire.’[xxvii] The technology existed: the Russian authorities just preferred that the country underwent massive political change away from the gaze of the entire globe. The correspondents, of course, had different ideas; their newspapers, different expectations. Yet   the closure of the telegraph office was not the only obstacle which they faced. The First World War is not a glorious chapter in the history of journalism. As Phillip Knightley has argued, ‘More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth.’[xxviii] One of the main reasons for this was censorship. As John T. Smith has pointed out, ‘All the combatant countries restricted news from the front at the start of the war.’[xxix] Russia was no exception, although, in terms which recall the verdict the 19th century Russian satirist, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin passed on his country – ‘the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfil them’ – Smith went on to argue, ‘The Russian censorship regulations were thus comparable with those of other belligerents. However, in the implementation of these regulations, Russian censorship appeared more lax.’[xxx] It was not lax for the first days of the February Revolution. It simply cut the capital off from international communication. Nor was this a problem confined to this particular episode of Russia’s revolutionary history. Later that year, as the October revolution loomed, W.P. Crozier of the Manchester Guardian wrote to Soskice in Petrograd, explaining ‘We are rather under the impression that some of your telegrams to us may have been suppressed at the Russian end’[xxxi] and asking him to send duplicates of his despatches by post, too.    

[i] Manchester Guardian, March 16th 1917, 5; Daily Mail March 16th 1917, 6

[ii] Hughes, Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution, 2

[iii] Hughes, Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution, 91

[iv] Hughes, Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution, 77

[v] Hughes, Diplomacy Before the Russian Revolution, 196

[vi] Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt, 124

[vii] Wildman, The End of the Russian Imperial Army: The Old Army and the Soldiers’ Revolt, 125

[viii] Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, 418.

[ix] Pipes, The Russian Revolution 1899-1919, 418.

[x] Figes, A people’s tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, 548.

[xi] Alston, ‘British Journalism and the Campaign for intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918-20’, 35

[xii] Chalaby, ‘Northcliffe: Proprietor as Journalist’, 37 

[xiii] McEwen, ‘The Press and the Fall of Asquith’, 863

[xiv] Washburn. On the Russian Front in WW1, 25

[xv] Marquis, ‘Words as Weapons’, 473

[xvi] Putnis, ‘Share 999’, 154

[xvii] Read, The Power of News, 152

[xviii] Read, The Power of News, 154

[xix] Philips Price, Despatches from the Revolution: Russia 1916-18. (London: Pluto Press, 1997), 41

[xx] Acland to Soskice, 11 January 1914, Parliamentary archives, STH/DS/1/AC.1

[xxi] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 1200.

[xxii] Daily Mail, 19th March 1917, 5

[xxiii] Saul, War and Revolution,  59

[xxiv] Daily Mail, 14th March 1917, 5

[xxv] Thompson, Donald Thompson in Russia, 41

[xxvi] It was only after the declaration of war, in August 1914, that the city’s name was changed to ‘the more Slavonic    Petrograd’. Figes, A people’s tragedy, 251.

[xxvii] Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914, 507

[xxviii] Knightley, The First Casualty, 80

[xxix] Smith ‘Russian military censorship during the First World War’, 74

[xxx] Smith ‘Russian military censorship during the First World War’ 79

[xxxi] W.P. Crozier to Soskice, 2nd October 1917, Parliamentary Archive, STH/DS/1/MG/25

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