The best books by witnesses to Russia’s February Revolution

Will Englund Author Of March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution
By Will Englund

Who am I?

I’m a longtime Moscow correspondent, having worked there for The Baltimore Sun in the 1990s and for The Washington Post in the 2010s. It was an exciting time to be in Russia, and I couldn’t help noticing parallels between the Russian revolutions of 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I think American policymakers, in particular, profoundly misunderstood both events. In my newspaper career, I am a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the George Polk Award, an Oversea Press Club award, and other honors. In the fall of 2018, I taught for a semester at Princeton University.

I wrote...

March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution

By Will Englund,

Book cover of March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution

What is my book about?

It’s hard to fathom now but one of the forces pushing the United States into World War I in 1917 was a widespread conviction that the February revolution in Russia had turned that country into a democracy overnight. Many Americans, including President Woodrow Wilson, argued that the hour had come for us to join the war in a noble effort to preserve democracy in Russia and extend it to Germany. At the same time, there were plenty of counter-currents: People in the Western states tended to see the war as something brought on by Wall Street; woman suffrage advocates were deeply split over support for the war even as the first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, prepared to take her seat; the labor movement was divided, as was the civil rights movement. In Russia, the new Provisional Government and the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet warily jockeyed for power, neither wanting to be held responsible for the unpopular, undemocratic moves that the moment of crisis would require.

The Books I Picked & Why

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The Fall of Tsarism

By Semion Lyandres,

Book cover of The Fall of Tsarism: Untold Stories of the February 1917 Revolution

Why this book?

Amazingly, in the spring of 1917 an Interview Commission was formed in Russia to obtain oral histories of the revolution that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. Thirteen key players were interviewed about their role in the sweeping and often violent events that had occurred just two months earlier. You can sense the ambivalence that they were struggling with. Of special note is Alexander Kerensky, who would become the leader of the Provisional Government, describing how he called Nicholas’ brother Michael in the middle of the night, waking him up, and persuading him to renounce the throne.

Untimely Thoughts

By Maxim Gorky, Herman Ermolaev (translator),

Book cover of Untimely Thoughts: Essays on Revolution, Culture, and the Bolsheviks, 1917-1918

Why this book?

Gorky, the author of The Lower Depths, was appalled by czarism and by Russia’s conduct in the First World War, yet this series of essays communicates a profound disillusionment with revolution. Russia, he wrote, was “splitting all along its seams and falling apart like an old barge in a flood.” He lamented “our stupidity, our cruelty, and all that chaos of dark, anarchistic feelings, that chaos which has been cultivated in our souls by the monarchy’s shameless oppression, by its cynical cruelty.” The old regime, he wrote, had successfully suppressed the human spirit in its subjects, and now that it was gone Russia would have to live with the consequences.

A Diary of the Russian Revolution

By James L. Houghteling,

Book cover of A Diary of the Russian Revolution

Why this book?

Houghteling was a young Commerce Department official who was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Petrograd. He arrived in January 1917, by sleigh across the border into Russian Finland, seemingly full of American self-confidence. Traveling back and forth from Petrograd to Moscow, he was surprised at how openly Russians were talking about impending revolution, and maybe a little surprised at himself for being so taken by the country and its people. Over just weeks, from the run-up to the revolution to the collapse of the regime, his writing became less arch and more penetrating, his jokes less inane, and his perspective more complex even as he retained his optimism about Russia. Houghteling’s account features prominently in Helen Rappaport’s wonderful book from 2016, Caught in the Revolution.

Donald Thompson in Russia

By Donald C. Thompson,

Book cover of Donald Thompson in Russia

Why this book?

Thompson was a photographer from Kansas who went to Europe to cover the First World War and found himself in Russia as 1917 dawned. His book is drawn from letters he wrote home to his wife Dot, and his eyewitness reporting is better than his analysis. His account of the day police opened fire on protesters in Petrograd with machine guns is chilling. Thompson believed that the Germans were behind the revolution, which wasn’t the case, but his photos of soldiers and barricades and protesters amount to a great visual document of the moment. Read this in conjunction with Runaway Russia, by Florence MacLeod Harper, a magazine reporter with whom he teamed up to cover the revolution.

Forty Years of Diplomacy; Volume 2

By Roman Romanovich Rosen,

Book cover of Forty Years of Diplomacy; Volume 2

Why this book?

Rosen, who turned 70 just weeks before the revolution, was a veteran diplomat who for many years had been Russian ambassador to the United States. Deeply conservative and deeply insightful, he had been thrust aside by Nicholas’ court. He thought that Russia’s declaration of war in 1914 was lunacy and that its conduct and diplomacy during the war was staggeringly self-defeating. The memoir covers decades, but the section on February 1917 is by far the most trenchant. His self-effacing account of dealing with a group of revolutionary soldiers who came to his club one dark night gives a vivid look at the passions and confusion that were sweeping revolutionary Russia. Rosen fled after the Bolshevik takeover in November, 1917, and spent the rest of his life in New York.