Historian Ben Whisenhunt describes the events on the ground when the Bolsheviks took over the Russian government. He also explains the role of John Reed, an American journalist who provided a key firsthand account of the revolution.
BRIAN: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
JOANNE: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory.
NATHAN: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind the headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.
JOANNE: I’m Joanne Freeman.
BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re going to start today’s show with a reporter named John Reed who went to Russia in September 1917. The Harvard-educated Reed was young, but he’d already made a name for himself as a daring foreign correspondent. He rode along with revolutionary general Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1913. And before going to Russia, Reed was a reporter on the Eastern Front of the First World War, which was still raging.
This is historian Ben Whisenhunt.
BEN WHISENHUNT: And so he was somebody who was, I think, officially a journalist, but even in those adventures, he becomes somewhat of a participant.
BRIAN: Whisenhunt says Reed arrived in the Russian capital of Petrograd, today’s St. Petersburg, at a historic moment.
BEN WHISENHUNT: The mood is very tense. The mood is very unsettled.
BRIAN: Russia was in turmoil. Czar Nicholas II, the last of a long line of autocratic rulers, had abdicated that spring. He was replaced by a group of liberal and moderate socialist lawmakers from the Russian parliament, who had formed a provisional government.
BEN WHISENHUNT: The problem with that came though was that they made a promise when they came to power in February. And that was they wanted to stay in the war.
BRIAN: That war being World War I. Czar Nicholas II had entered the conflict on the side of the Allied Powers in 1914.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Staying in the war was really extremely unpopular among ordinary Russian citizens. World War I was devastating. World War I had overwhelmed the Russian population. Russia itself was unprepared for the war in many ways, and so that was kind of almost a death sentence for this provisional or temporary government.
And so by the time John Reed arrives in September, they’ve gone through several months of basically another failing government, and the scene seems to be set for something to change. They don’t know what it was, but they didn’t believe that this government could last much longer.
JOANNE: And it didn’t. On November 7, 1917, Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party toppled the provisional government. The Bolsheviks were the world’s first Marxist party ever to seize state power. They promised to build a worker’s paradise and a common motherland for all of Russia’s national and ethnic minorities. The Bolshevik Revolution would alter the history of Russia and the United States as well. And John Reed was in the thick of it all. He went on to provide Americans with one of the most widely read eyewitness accounts of the revolution.
NATHAN: So today on the show, we’re marking the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with a look at its impact on America. We’ll hear about warfare between Americans and Russians, the only direct confrontation between these two emerging superpowers. We’ll also ask why Lenin appealed directly to American workers and consider the first Red Scare, not in the 1950s, but in 1919. But first, let’s return to John Reed, who was in St. Petersburg on that November day, 100 years ago.
BRIAN: Vladimir Lenin had recently returned from political exile. He was the leader of a radical workers party called the Bolsheviks.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Which in Russian means the majority party. But rarely were they ever the majority party.
BRIAN: This is Ben Whisenhunt again.
BEN WHISENHUNT: And their basic agenda was one of what we’d think of as basically as socialism.
BRIAN: The Bolsheviks were just one of many revolutionary parties in Russia. But the provisional government was fragile, and it lacked popular support. The Bolsheviks also had a winning campaign slogan– peace, land, and bread. Peace for the soldiers who wanted out of the war, land for Russia’s impoverished peasants, and bread for its hungry workers.
On the evening of November 7th, which Reed would later call a cold, nervous night, the Bolsheviks launched a surprise attack in St. Petersburg.
BEN WHISENHUNT: They go to basically two or three sites, where the provisional government– where they had offices, where they held power in the city itself. And then overnight, he and his what are known as Red Guards were able to seize control of these three buildings.
BRIAN: And that was it– at least that night.
JOANNE: Wait. That was it?
BRIAN: Essentially, yes. This was the first step in what would become a new revolutionary state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Later in Soviet filmmaking, they will actually depict this as a great and heroic evening, where there were barricades and there were fires and people were shooting at each other. But for the most part, that didn’t really happen that way. There is some gunfire.
There are some people who do die here and there. But as far as having some sort of front inside the city between one faction and another, it didn’t really happen on the moment of the revolutionary evening. I think Lenin himself actually was disappointed that it wasn’t more born in blood.
BRIAN: John Reed was in the crowd, rushing from one building to the next. In the process, Reed became a true believer in the Bolshevik Revolution.
BEN WHISENHUNT: He had dabbled with socialist politics before that, but he wasn’t a very committed person to much of anything. But once he reached Russia in 1917, he seemed to find his calling in some sense.
BRIAN: Reed later wrote–
JOHN REED: Vast Russia was in a state of solution. Old Russia was no more. Human society flowed molten in primal heat, and from the tossing sea of flame was emerging the class struggle, stark and pitiless. And the fragile, slowly cooling crust of new planets.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Reed bought into and believed in the idea that the Russian Revolution was not simply a political revolution, that it replaced one government with another, and that part of the ideology that will develop in the Soviet Union and that Reed really believed in was a kind of almost remaking of society.
NATHAN: And Reed was determined to promote the revolutionary cause. He returned to the US with a briefcase full of notes and turned them into a book. Ten Days that Shook the World was published in 1919. Reed gave Americans a sympathetic account of this distant revolution.
He wrote in the book’s preface, “In the struggle, my sympathies were not neutral.” Still, he tried to describe what he saw as accurately as possible. Lenin, who Reed met while he was in Russia, liked the book so much that he even wrote an introduction.
VLADIMIR LENIN: With the greatest interest and with never slackening attention, I read John Reed’s book, Ten Days that Shook the World. Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world. Here is a book which I should like to see published in millions of copies and translated into all languages. It gives a truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is a proletarian revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
BRIAN: The proletariat is the Marxist term for the working class. Whisenhunt says, the reception to Reed’s book was a bit more mixed in the United States.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Well, it was sort of a love-hate sort of situation. It was very widely viewed. It sold very well. He went on a speaking tour before and after the book was published in the United States, and he did this several times, as other authors of books that had been involved in the Russian Revolution. And one thing to note about that time period, of course, is in the United States, is that knowledge of Russia was very thin.
And so for him to go out and to give these sort of tours and give these speeches was really talking to people who only knew things in a very sort of fragmentary way. And that might be through a couple of newspaper articles or that sort of thing. But it really was not a very well educated population on Russia at the time.
BRIAN: When I was a freshman in college, everybody had to take expository writing, and I took a course on the Russian Revolution. And this is the book we read. Do you think that the book did have an impact on American attitudes towards the Russian Revolution?
BEN WHISENHUNT: I think so. I think that people who were more moderate to liberal-minded at the time could find some sympathy for what had happened in the Russian Revolution, and in reading the book. For the people who had already aligned their minds against what had happened in Russia, and the creation of the new Soviet Union, they saw him just simply as basically a traitor.
BRIAN: Ben, I understand that John Reed is one of three Americans buried in the Kremlin wall today. What’s up with that?
BEN WHISENHUNT: Right. So in a short time after the revolution, he was very popular in Russia itself. He will be idolized by the Soviet government mainly because he was an unrelenting supporter of the revolution and the aftermath, but also because the Soviets liked the idea of having Americans endorse their revolution. And so his legacy will be very much shaped not by his widow, Louise Bryant, who actually did not want him buried in the Kremlin wall.
It will be very much shaped by the Soviets. John Reed becomes sort of this poster boy in some ways for what American socialism or American Bolshevism could and should look like. There are even John Reed clubs that emerged in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s, but they also have them in Europe and the United States as well.
BRIAN: If we step back from the moment, and you know, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see that for much of the 20th century, the Soviet Union was United States’ ideological foil. Do you think that’s something that we can find in Ten Days that Shook the World itself? Does Reed’s work foreshadow that? Or what does it tell us about the kind of relationship that will emerge between the United States and the Soviet Union?
BEN WHISENHUNT: I think that he, like Lenin in some ways, in 1917 believed that there could be a good relationship between the two. He and Lenin talk about this. It’s not reflected so much in his book, but they talk about how the United States and the Soviet Union at that time don’t really have direct areas of conflict in the world, like trade and other sorts of things.
And so there’s no reason why they can’t be friendly, even though they appear to be ideologically at odds. But you have to remember at the time that being a socialist or a communist in the United States, up until about this moment, was not seen as to be a negative thing necessarily. Eugene V. Debs, who was a quite famous candidate for president–
BRIAN: And we might add a socialist candidate for president.
BEN WHISENHUNT: Yes, a socialist candidate. Ran in 1912 and got 6% or 7% of the vote and got over a million votes. And so I think the fear that’s generated is one that is quite distinctly intentional by a small group of people among the elite, because what they saw happen in Russia was the nobles and landowners and people with status lost what they had.
And I think that creates or generates a fear, not only in the United States, but sort of worldwide, that if you allow Bolshevism into your country, then you’re going to have chaos, and you’ll have a destruction of the system that exists.
BRIAN: Do you assign Ten Days that Shook the World in any of your classes?
BEN WHISENHUNT: I never have, actually. And the reason is, I’ve been teaching Russian history for 20 years at College of DuPage. And the reason that I don’t is that I think that it’s very difficult for students to read and understand in the historical sense what’s going on, because there are lots of names, lots of dates, lots of locations, and lots of acronyms, because the Soviets were in love with acronyms for everything.
But I think, though, that it’s something that is absolutely a valuable resource to give you a glimpse at that moment, because the question of the Soviet Union– in my lifetime, in the 20th century, growing up– was always cast in stone. So when I was in high school and college in the 1980s, there was no debate. It–
BRIAN: And where was this?
BEN WHISENHUNT: I finished high school in Nebraska.
BRIAN: Nebraska, OK.
BEN WHISENHUNT: And part of what got me interested in Russian studies was the fact that all of my classmates would sit and tell me that this is the evil empire, and this was the time of Reagan. And I can remember very distinctly as a sophomore in high school, listening to the wisdom of my 16-year-old classmates tell me that we needed to preemptively nuke all Russians because they were evil people.
And I thought, that can’t really be true. And so I think what we see now in the past 25 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a kind of unraveling of that mythology. So why are we so hardened against this country? What’s the point? And why were they so hardened against us? And I think, what we already have found and will continue to find is that there’s a great deal of diverse voices, from both the Soviet side, Russian side, and the American side, that the Cold War wasn’t necessarily as cold as we thought it was.
BRIAN: So do you think that Reed provides an insight at a particularly fluid moment in the relationship between these two nations?
BEN WHISENHUNT: I think the key thing that Reed provides for the readers of 1919, when they read his book, and still today, he provides a positive, detailed, credible, firsthand account by an accessible American, somebody who writes well, somebody who can explain things.
And the question I ask my students when I introduce it to them is, is what would make an American, Harvard-educated, from Oregon, not necessarily very ideological, what would make him observe these events and become such a true believer? And that’s true of other people at the time, too, other Americans who witnessed it. What makes it so attractive?
Why is this revolution so attractive to these people who have no stake in it? I mean, there’s no reason for him to care. He can go home and do something else. And so I think that that’s one of the things that I use, his work and others, to stress to my students is, is what makes these Americans jump in so far?