American Women in the Russian Revolution
Thank you for coming. I would like to invite you to travel one hundred years back in time, to the year 1917. The political and social events that took place that year in Russia affected the development of the world. Debates over the legacy of 1917 have been ongoing; scholarly literature about the events is abundant. The centenary of the Russian Revolution is an important milestone in modern historical and political discourse. It is a moment to look back in perspective and reconsider what happened then, how it affected the world, and what lessons we can learn from it.
For the sake of convenience, we will use the common term “Russian Revolution” during the talk, but the term is not historically correct since it was not a single event. It all started with the turbulent end of the 19th century in Russia, then continued with the first unsuccessful Revolution of 1905 (where the first soviets were created) and the three bloody years of WWI. In February of 1917, the Russian Tsar abdicated. The liberal Provisional Government was formed. It was supposed to govern in collaboration with the Duma, the Russian Parliament. Lots of hopes were placed on the modernization and liberalization of the country. The population, even the nobility, was ready to cooperate with the new government. It was clear that the country couldn’t survive under the old autocratic way of ruling. However, the Provisional Government made a number of huge strategic mistakes and turned out to be very weak. Violent political turmoil and rivalry between the Provisional Government and the Bolsheviks took place in July of 1917. In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks took power in the country and announced the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Fortunately, there are numerous eyewitness accounts of the 1917 events in Russia. Interestingly enough, already in 1919 The New York Times Review of Books pointed out: “There have been several excellent books of impressions of events in Russia, singularly enough some of the best of them have been by woman authors.” Prof. Choi Chatterjee in her research on Gender and American Travel Narratives of 1917-1920s specified:
Women were writing good social and cultural history at a time when political history was the norm. Women writers rarely kept a safe distance from the people they were observing; instead, they insisted on inserting themselves into the historical narrative and recording their personal experiences of the revolution.
Today, I would like to introduce five extraordinary American women who witnessed the fateful events of 1917 in Russia. They came from different social backgrounds and were brought to Russia by different circumstances, which make it extremely interesting to analyze their point of views on the same events. Regardless of their position, they all wished to understand, not to judge, the changes, and tried to be as objective as possible.
Our first heroine, Princess Julia Cantacuzene, Countess Speransky (1876 - 1975), was the granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th President of the United States, and was born in the White House. While traveling to Rome with her aunt’s family in 1893, seventeen-year-old Julia met a young Russian diplomat, Prince Mikhail Cantacuzene. In 1899, the couple was married in Newport, RI and moved to Russia. For the next seventeen years, Princess Julia Cantacuzene lived at the top level of St. Petersburg aristocracy. In the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, she and her husband, then a general of the Imperial Army, managed to escape St. Petersburg for Sweden and then the United States where Julia championed the cause of the Russian aristocratic exiles and organized the American Central Committee for Russian Relief. She subsequently published three memoirs of her time in Russia. The first one, The Revolutionary Days, appeared in 1919 and opened with the following words:
These pages merely contain my personal recollection of what occurred around me from the beginning of the war until our departure from home. There is no pretense to literary merit, and I do not aspire to present one political party in a more advantageous light than I do the others. In each group I noticed many a loyal patriot trying to stem the fatal flood; and everywhere there was much suffering. Recent Russian history has been so startling, and so weighted with importance for us, that all I saw and heard fixed itself in my mind.
Unlike Julia Cantacuzene, our next heroines were women-journalists. Florence Harper, a reporter for Leslie’s Weekly, the oldest illustrated American newspaper, was sent to Russia together with the photographer, captain Donald Thompson to cover the events of WWI on the Russian front. Harper and Thompson arrived in Petrograd in February 1917 and suddenly found themselves living through the crash of the Russian empire, the chaos of the Revolution, and the birth of something entirely new. They courageously threw themselves into the cauldron of events on the front and in and around the Russian capital (until August 1917 when they left for the USA). Since their focus was on the pictorial documentation of events, they created a fascinating record of what they saw in the form of Thomson’s Photo book “Blood Stained Russia” and Harper’s book “Runaway Russia” , both published in 1918. In the Introduction to the photo-book, Florence Harper wrote:
We knew at the time that we were witnessing the stupendous spectacle of a nation of 170,000,000 people winning and losing its liberty, but we little realized what a tremendous effect upon the struggle for freedom of the world the Russian tragedy was to have
Rheta Childe Dorr, one of the leading journalists of the Progressive era and the first editor of The Suffragist, came to Russia deliberately, for three months (May – August 1917), to witness the days of “the great changes”. Upon return home, she made a strong statement in the book Inside the Russian Revolution :
- Early in May 1917, I went to Russia, eager to see again,
- in the hour of her deliverance the country in whose struggle for freedom I had, for a dozen years, been deeply interested. I went to Russia a socialist by conviction, an ardent sympathizer with revolution, knowing personally some of the brave men and
- women who suffered imprisonment and exile after the failure of the uprising of 1905-6. I returned from Russia with the very clear conviction that the world will have to wait awhile before it can establish any cooperative millenniums, or before it can safely hand over the work of the government to the man in the street.
Dorr’s colleague Bessie Beatty stayed in the country for nine months (June 1917 – February 1918) and witnessed the second part of the historical “swing” from the February to the October Revolution. For Beatty, it all started as a fun adventure. She got an assignment from the San Francisco Bulletin in the spring of 1917 to travel around the world and write a series of articles entitled “Around the Globe at War Time”. The newspaper’s idea was to repeat the round-the-world tour performed by journalist Nellie Bly for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper, which, in its turn, was inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Fulfilling the assignment, Bessie Beatty went through Hawaii, Japan, China, the Russian Far East and rode the Trans-Siberian Railway. She arrived in St. Petersburg in June of 1917. There, her journey ended and the real adventure started. She found herself stuck in the middle of the revolutionary events. However, Beatty didn’t complain. Instead, later she wrote in her book “The Red Heart of Russia”: “I have been alive at a great moment, and I knew it was great.”
When John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, arrived in Petrograd in September 1917, Beatty joined them because Reed’s credentials gave the trio access to revolutionary leaders and the main locations where critical events unfolded. It was Bessie Beatty, Louise Bryant and John Reed who created the first poignant descriptions of October 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over. Adventurous Beatty obtained all the possible permissions and risked being arrested multiple times, but she wanted to be at the epicenter of the events, and succeeded in doing so. She was one of the first civilians and the first journalist who entered the Tsar’s Winter Palace after it was taken by the Bolsheviks. The ministers of the deposed Provisional Government passed by her on their way to the Fortress of Peter and Paul as political prisoners. Later, she obtained permission to visit political prisoners in the Fortress itself. Also, it was Beatty who described in details the negotiations between the Germans and the Bolsheviks at Brest-Litovsk when Russia decided to withdraw from WWI.
Louise Bryant, unlike Beatty, considered herself a passive observer at first: she had followed her husband John Reed on his journey to Russia. She clearly stated her position in the subtitle of her book Six Red Months in Russia: An Observer’s Account Of Russia Before and During the Proletarian Dictatorship . She was so taken by the spirit of radical innovation that flourished in Russia then, so touched by the spirit of the Russian people, whom she perceived as accepting all the hardships brought on by the War and the Revolution without complaint, and, finally, so moved by the popular hope of a bright future for all that she became an advocate for “the new world”.
The American women highlighted the important role their Russian counterparts played in the events of 1917. Bessie Beatty summed it all up perfectly:
- People usually become class-conscious in response to class oppression. … Russia’s struggle was the struggle of human beings as human beings, rather than human beings as males or females.
- In the days of the terrorists, women claimed the right to throw bombs as well as men. It was granted them. With equal generosity, the government rewarded them with hard labor, exile in Siberia, and even hanging. They spent their strength and their blood as lavishly, as recklessly, as courageously, as any of their brother Nihilists. When freedom came to Russia, no one questioned the right of women to share it.
Another question that puzzled the American women in 1917 Russia was the question of the “Woman With the Gun” . All of them wrote about the female Battalion of Death in their memoirs. When the Russian Army became exhausted and demoralized after three years of WWI and too many soldiers began deserting, the Provisional Government appealed to Russian women, proposing to form a voluntary women’s regiment to show an example of patriotism to the men, so that the men would be ashamed and would return to the front lines. It is believed that the idea was brought was brought to Alexander Kerensky, the Russian Minister of Defense at that time, by Maria Bochkareva, a peasant woman who rose to become an officer of the Imperial Army. Reportedly, two thousand women responded. Several women’s battalions were organized. The Battalion of Death, headed by Maria Bochkareva, was the most famous and the only one that took part in military action. Bochkareva’s women promised to fight for their country to the death. That’s why they were called the Battalion of Death. And the women did demonstrate exemplary discipline and heroism, although they were unable to change the course of the war. Looking at them, Rheta Childe Dorr exclaimed: “…a country that can produce such women cannot possibly be crushed forever. It may take time for it to recover from its present debauch of anarchism, but recover it surely will. And when it does it will know how to honor the women who went out to fight when the men ran home.”
Florence Harper, however, disapproved of the idea. She reminded her readers that the goal of the women’s battalions was to inspire the men to fight. If that was the motive, she argued, they failed. “It was a splendid failure, - added Harper, - but nevertheless they failed.” Those brave, sincere, and patriotic women did more harm than good, in her opinion: many Russian male soldiers took up the position that if fighting had become women’s work, there was no need for them to do it.
Harper was accused of running down her sex because she didn’t approve of women-soldiers. She defended herself by emphasizing that she thought very highly of women doing women’s jobs during war time, as for example, working in munition factories and hospitals day after day and night after night, taking care of and uplifting the people around them. When Russian women started doing men’s jobs, in Harper’s eyes, they allowed their men to become irresponsible and weak.
Symbolically enough, Florence Harper’s book and Thompson’s photo-book both opened with photographs of Maria Bochkareva, who was called by Thompson the “Jeanne D’Arc of Russia”. Both Rheta Childe Dorr and Louise Bryant opened their books with a photograph of Catherine Breshkovsky, nicknamed “the little grandmother of the Russian Revolution” . Using those portraits as front-pieces assigned a gender to the revolution, making it explicitly female. Who were these two women who came to embody the Russian revolution for American women?
Catherine Breshkovsky (Breshkovskaia, in an alternate spelling) was a well-educated, young, married woman from Russian upper society who stood up against the Tsar’s regime and argued for social justice at the end of the 19th century. She was imprisoned several times and served out two penal terms in the mines of Siberia. The American explorer and journalist George Kennan met her in Siberia in 1878 and wrote later in his book Siberia and The Exile System: "All my standards of courage, of fortitude, and of heroic self-sacrifice have been raised for all time, and raised by the hand of a woman" . In 1900, Breshkovsky managed to escape to Switzerland, and from there to the United States. Being fluent in English, French, and German, she campaigned in the United States for the cause of the Russian Revolution. She also shared the memories of her childhood and youth with Dr. Abraham Cahan who published them in New York. After returning to Russia in 1905, she was captured and sent to Siberia again. Rheta Childe Dorr met her when she returned to Saint Petersburg after the February Revolution of 1917. Breshkovsky was asked to serve as a member of the newly created Provisional Government of Russia.
By this point, Breshkovsky was no longer a young woman. Choosing the picture of a “grandmother” for the opening image, spoke to the fact that the Revolution was not something that happened overnight: it was the work of several generations, from the failed Revolution of 1905 to the February Revolution of 1917. Breshkovsky embodied the female revolutionary. What Dorr and Bryant couldn’t know, however, at the time when their books were published was that Breshkovsky became disillusioned with the Bolsheviks very fast and had to escape Russia again. She died in Czechoslovakia in 1934.
Maria Bochkareva’s fate was also hard. Bochkareva’s female battalion was on the front line when the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917. The regiment was disbanded. Bochkareva herself was originally detained, but released shortly thereafter. She obtained the permission to return to her native city of Tomsk in Siberia. In 1918, when the Civil War spread throughout Russia, after trying to reach General Kornilov, the commander of the White Army in Caucasus, Bochkareva was arrested by the Bolsheviks and scheduled to be executed for her connection with the Whites. Miraculously, she was rescued by a fellow soldier who served with her in the Imperial Army and convinced the Bolsheviks to let her go. She was allowed to leave Russia. From Vladivostok, on the Russian Far East, Bochkareva arrived in San Francisco by ship. In the US, the famous philanthropist and activist Florence Harriman took Bochkareva under her wing and arranged a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson in Washington, D.C. on July 10, 1918, during which Bochkareva begged him to intervene in Russia. Since there were many rumors about her, Bochkareva decided to write down her biography and dictated it to the Russian émigré-journalist Isaac Don Levine in New York. The book of her memoirs Yashka: My Life As Peasant, Exile, and Soldier was published in 1919.
Then, Bochkareva travelled to the UK and was granted an audience with King George V. However, she yearned to return to Russia. In August 1918, Bochkareva arrived in the northern city of Archangelsk. She tried to form another women’s regiment, but failed. In April 1919, she returned to Siberia and decided to serve under the White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. She was captured by the Bolsheviks and shot as an enemy of the working class on May 16, 1920. She was just 31 at that time.
Vivid portraits of these two extraordinary Russian women – Catherine Breshkovsky and Maria Bochkareva – were preserved in history by their American counterparts. The Russian women’s lives were devoured by the revolution; the American women, fortunately, were in a position to return home, think it over, and share their experiences and thoughts with the world. And they did their best. Here again are some of Rheta Childe Dorr’s reflections on the Russian Revolution:
All my life I have been an admiring student of the French Revolution, and I have fervently wished that I might have lived in Paris of that time, to witness, even as a humble spectator, the downfall of autocracy and the birth of a people’s liberty. Well – I lived for three months in the capital of revolutionary Russia. I saw a revolution, which presents close parallels with the French revolution both in men and events. I saw the downfall of autocracy and the birth of liberty much greater than the French ever aspired to. I saw the fondest dream of the socialists suddenly come true, and the dream turned out to be a nightmare such as I pray this or any country may forever be spared.
I saw a people delivered from one class tyranny deliberately hasten to establish another, quite as brutal and as unmindful of common good as the old one. I saw these people, led out of groaning bondage, use their first liberty to oust the wise and courageous statesmen who had delivered them. I saw a working class which had been oppressed under czardom itself turn oppressor; an army that had been starved and betrayed use its freedom to starve and betray its own people. I saw elected delegates to the people’s councils turn into sneak thieves and looters. I saw law and order and decency and all regard for human life or human rights set aside, and I saw responsible statesmen in power allow all this to go on, allow their country to rush toward an abyss of ruin and shame because they were afraid to lose popularity of the mob.
Rheta Dorr considered this to be a great lesson about the importance of democracy, taught through Russia’s example: “…Russia has demonstrated that there is no advantage to be gained by taking all power out of the hands of one class and placing it in the hands of another.”
Despite everything that happened, the women tried to be constructive. They proposed to “somehow make an honest effort to understand” what was happening in Russia . They talked about the preparations to the new economic development and about creating a system of education that would encourage children to be “thinking” human beings, capable of accepting responsibility if needed .
And there was one more, quintessential message shared with readers by those courageous women. Rheta Childe Dorr provided it in the form of a historical anecdote. An old French priest was asked about what he did during the Reign of Terror. He replied, “I lived”