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Harrison E. Salisbury discusses his book on the 1917 Russian revolution, "Black Night, White Snow"

BROADCAST: Feb. 2, 1978 | DURATION: 00:48:31


Studs Terkel talks to New York Times journalist Harrison E. Salisbury about his book on the Russian Revolution of 1917 entitled, "Black Night, White Snow", detailing the roles of the SR's, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks, the Narodniks, Kerensky, Kropotkin, Stalin, Zinoviev and more.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Harrison Salisbury "[Russian] Black night, white snow, wind, wind, a man can't stand, wind, wind all over God's world." That's from Aleksandr Blok's "The Twelve. [Russian]."

Studs Terkel This becomes the title of your book, this poem by Aleksandr Blok, "The Twelve". A word about that, because in a way, perhaps, it sets the theme of the mood for your book, "Black".

Harrison Salisbury This is the poem of the revolution. Aleksandr Blok, the great Russian poet in the months and weeks just after the revolution almost went mad by the violence of his feelings. And he wrote this poem about 12 Red Guards staggering through the streets of Petrograd, cold night, snow, hungry, rude, ignorant men shooting off their rifles in any direction and finally seeing a vision of Christ in the street as they made their progress through Russia.

Studs Terkel This is an eloquent opening theme. At the same time, in your author's note--and I'm reading the book--you make clear that there was something goofy about that. You did a great deal of research into the archives and you came up with a whole approach that made the Russian Revolution almost a Mack Sennett comedy.

Harrison Salisbury Well, I did, it really--you know, it isn't the way we thought it happened. We've seen those marvelous pictures of the storming of the Winter Palace and we've heard of the careful planning of the Bolsheviks and everything moving like, with military precision. It didn't happen that way. It was a great comedy of errors that almost didn't happen and didn't have to happen.

Studs Terkel We'll come to that, about it didn't happen that way, that the boners, there was ineptitude on both sides. And that it was almost as you say, Charlie Chaplin. And then you say it didn't have to. Perhaps we can come to--we'll hold that. Let's start at the beginning. It has a very dramatic opening. It's in 1887, three young men, Narodniks, are executed. And that's how it begins.

Harrison Salisbury That's how it begins, because one of those three young men was the brother of Lenin. His name is Aleksandr Ulyanov. Ulyanov was Lenin's name. These three young men were hacked, or were executed, for an attempt on the life of Alexander III. It was an utterly inept attempt. They had bombs, they never threw them anywhere. They were walking up and down Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg hoping to throw them at the Tsar, but the Tsar never came along, and they walked back and forth for several days and finally the police noticed this and hauled them in. They didn't know they were bombers, they had no idea what they were. It turned out that there was a revolutionary plot to kill the Tsar, and that was really the dramatic point in the life of Vladimir Ulyanov, Aleksandr's brother. It was after his brother's execution, this man, Vladimir Ulyanov, whom became known as Lenin, who had up to that point been a simple, young, adolescent schoolboy doing well in his lessons as his brother had, began to change.

Studs Terkel In a town along the Volga.

Harrison Salisbury In a little town way out in the boondocks

Studs Terkel A middle-class family, a mother interested in culture and the arts, father did, too. I guess they--middle-class.

Harrison Salisbury Very middle-class and very conventional and all of them brought up in the virtues and in all the morals to do good, to live decent lives, to get up early in the morning and take cold showers and not indulge themselves in anything and do well in school.

Studs Terkel But his brother, his brother--incidentally, a highly principled guy. This brother was one of these. Now there were various movements throughout history, attempts at revolution, these were the Narodniks, they were called. Who were

Harrison Salisbury Well, these actually, they were the, they came after the Narodniks a little bit, they called themselves the Narodni Voltsky, "The People's Will." But actually, Aleksandr Ulyanov, he didn't want any party, the party had long since been eliminated by the Tsar's police. They had succeeded in killing Tsar Alexander II, and after that they were just wiped out. And these young people had nothing but a tradition to go on.

Studs Terkel I'm thinking as you point out in this book, that's written, by the way, so very dramatically and simply as Harrison Salisbury writes, that there always were, throughout the history of Russia, various attempts. The very opening song is "Stenka Razin".

Harrison Salisbury Oh, yes. And that is, that was a song of the revolutionaries because it celebrates Stenka Razin, who is a peasant leader of a revolt in the Volga region against Catherine, and the singing of that song was forbidden in Russia under the Tsars, and so the revolutionaries used to get together and sing it, and you can just imagine how it resounded out in those days.

Studs Terkel So there was an attempt [at the time on?] Catherine. And then who were the Decembrists?

Harrison Salisbury Decembrists, Dekabristy as they call them in Russia, they were a bunch of young officers who had been with Alexander I, marched all the way to Paris in the Napoleonic days and they came back to Russia determined to bring their backward country into step with Western Europe. And they thought that the Tsar would be amenable to their ideas, but unfortunately the Tsar was not. Alexander I died, and they made a demonstration in Senate Square, and they were arrested and a group of them were executed and the rest were exiled to Siberia.

Studs Terkel And, so, your book opens then with the execution of three of these students of a later time, 1887, and one happens to be the brother of Lenin, and the book concerns two revolutions. We think of 1917, 1905.

Harrison Salisbury Well, that's right, because I think that that whole thing really is one process, but 1905 was this most unexpected thing in which demonstration of workers who all believed and loved the Tsar and who were ardently [risen in?] the church in this group of simple workers were organized by this priest who was really in the employ of the police but who became sort of carried away by what he was doing, and they marched through the streets of St. Petersburg--

Studs Terkel Is this Father Gapon?

Harrison Salisbury This is Father Gapon, and it was the 9th of January, 1905, and they were going to the Tsar to the little father because they knew if only the Tsar realized how they were suffering and all the problems they had, he would do something about it. They didn't blame the Tsar, they blamed all the people around him, and they were sure that the Tsar would hear their petition, and they march through this cold winter day to the square in front of the Winter Palace, and as they approached it, the Tsar's troops began to shoot them down. And it was a massacre. It became known in history as Bloody Sunday. And with that single event which was so dramatic and so poignant and so unnecessary, all Russia began to come apart. It was no revolutionary movement at all, it was just the people themselves, and before the year was over, the Tsar almost fell, the Empire almost broke up. And just in the end, he managed to hold it together. It was a warning of what was going to come.

Studs Terkel Come some 12 years later.

Harrison Salisbury That's right.

Studs Terkel In the meantime, Lenin himself. Now we come to this middle-class, rather conventional young man now because of his brother's death, he starts reading various works.

Harrison Salisbury He did. He began to read. He first began to read what he knew his brother had read, a book by Chernyshevsky called "What Is to Be Done?" And he read that--

Studs Terkel "Chto Delat".

Harrison Salisbury "Chto Delat". That's right, and he was terribly moved by this. I read it a number of times. I think it's the dullest book in the world, but he was terribly moved, and a great whole generation of young people were and he began to believe that the Tsar must go, the regime must be brought down, that it couldn't be brought down by the methods that his brother and the Národní Voltsky and the and the Narodniky and all the others had used, that is, not by terror but by some organized conspiratorial plan.

Studs Terkel So this is the idea had in mind. I'm thinking also of the books--he wrote a book later on, a booklet called "What Is to Be Done?"

Harrison Salisbury The same title, he used the same

Studs Terkel Based on this guy's works, but then as he became, there's a phrase here that became a rather familiar one that you've picked up, interesting, when he was arrested now as a student. When the cops said, "Why are you here?" He says, "The wall is rotten. One shove, it will fall." That became a rather familiar phrase.

Harrison Salisbury Oh, yes, indeed. That's right. The police officer thought he was a young man in trouble because of his friends, but he already knew what he wanted to do, was shove that wall down.

Studs Terkel So because, since, as you point out, in 1905, and of course your descriptions are marvelous, I think--since we speak of the revolutionary tradition in Russia, and perhaps you also have remarkable descriptions of the conditions and the despair and the poverty, but Turgenev, who was always loved by the youth, perhaps we should read the sequence. Oh,

Harrison Salisbury Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel It's just a thought about revolution.

Harrison Salisbury I think that that epitomizes these young people better than almost anything you could possibly could have been

Studs Terkel Why don't you and I read this?

Harrison Salisbury All right, yes. This is a dialogue and it runs like this. [content removed, see

Studs Terkel Now I suppose this--I guess Turgenev, being an artist, is always prescient. You know, and I suppose he called the shot, didn't he, that--

Harrison Salisbury I think this is the exact spirit of those remarkably idealistic young people. That's what they thought, that's the way they saw themselves and they were willing to give themselves and give their lives. That was the spirit of Vladimir Ulyanov's older brother Aleksandr.

Studs Terkel Even though it says that, of course you may have been subject to a delusion, might find you have sacrificed young life in vain. I'm thinking it's almost like calling the shot.

Harrison Salisbury It really is. It really is.

Studs Terkel Ideals and disillusionment.

Harrison Salisbury We have that

Studs Terkel I'm thinking about, so your descriptions here, your description, there were certain celebrations, a certain holi--and your description of a celebration, which the Tsar, hundreds of thousands appear, and certain little gifts are handed out to the people and the tremendous stampede and the horrors, and how would you describe those events?

Harrison Salisbury Well, that, of course, was one of the most dramatic, and that really cast a pall over the whole reign of Nicholas II. This was Khodynka. This was when he was in Moscow for the formal coronation ceremony and they'd arranged this great popular mass gathering in which the people would honor their new tsar and they were together in these fields out just on the outskirts of Moscow called Khodynka, and there they were going to have free beer and they were going to get little mugs which would be free, and they would get pryanyky, which are Russian sort of oh, hard sweet rolls and other little presents and gifts from the Tsar. There'd be little scarves for the women. And the night before this was all to happen, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in those fields. It was in the spring, beautiful weather in May. And they gathered in the fields and at six o'clock in the morning something happened. Nobody knows to this day what it was, but the crowd started moving. Maybe they started, maybe somebody said there aren't enough to go around, they started moving and there were ditches in the field and there was a tremendous massacre in which perhaps a couple of thousand people were killed.

Studs Terkel And all these are factors, aren't they?

Harrison Salisbury Oh, yes.

Studs Terkel In this growing discontent, but also the conditions, you point out the conditions, the poverty, the lower depths, Gorky's lower depths were true in a way, weren't they?

Harrison Salisbury "The Lower Depths" was absolutely and literally true, and one of the interesting things is that when he wrote this this play, which is set in the lowest, most ugly slums of Russia, the art theater was going to present it, and Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko, the directors of the art theater, wanted their actors to know what it was really like so that they could realistically, the theater was great on realism, realistically present this play. And, so, they arranged with a Moscow newspaperman who knew the worst slum in Moscow to take them there. And they went, the group of them, a scenic designer, the actors and all the rest, and they went to this place. And there was a room up in a loft where writers used to gather. These were people who wrote the parts of a play in handwriting, there were no typewriters in those times, and they sat around this room. And if a play didn't come in for the parts to be written, why they had no money to eat. They'd sell their shirt or their shoes and they sat around half-naked half the time and drunk and they were brought in to us to see the life in this "trushchoby," is what they call it in Russia, and they bought some vodka for these fellows, and as they were, you know, the artist was taking notes and they were all looking around wide-eyed. One of the crooks in the assembly took a bottle and came up behind one of the artists and was about to clop him on the head, he was just saved in time and they got out of there in a big hurry. But they really got the whiff of what

Studs Terkel This, in a sense, was the beginning of realistic theater, wasn't

Harrison Salisbury It was, of course, that was what the--

Studs Terkel By the way, something--paradox is always at work here. In the middle of poverty and despair, there was an explosion of the arts, you point this out, too.

Harrison Salisbury Incredible explosion in the arts, and it was fostered, in a sense, and helped on by these remarkable Moscow millionaires that financed the painters and they financed the art theater. They also financed the Bolsheviks, incidentally, they gave a lot of money to the revolutionaries. But this brilliant generation of poets and writers and artists and playwrights and composers came ahead of the revolution, and they really, most of these people, many of them had a vision of what was happening. They knew that Russia was exploding. They knew it long before the politicians, before the Tsar or any of the real revolutionaries had any idea of what was happening to that country.

Studs Terkel Again, the artist always was.

Harrison Salisbury I think the artist is always ahead of everybody else. I really believe that theory.

Studs Terkel We're talking now about that 1905, 1917 period, between there, things were popping.

Harrison Salisbury In that

Studs Terkel And at the same time, something interesting, your insights and your findings, the tremendous unemployment in St. Petersburg in 1895, when a--and yet industrial growth.

Harrison Salisbury Oh, fabulous growth!

Studs Terkel How would you explain that, you see?

Harrison Salisbury Well. Actually, what you had in Russia was a Russia at the takeoff point. It was at just at the point, like Japan and like Germany before that, and like England and France in the early part of the 19th century, they were just bounding into the industrial age and money was pouring in from abroad, all the entrepreneurs and big industrious of Europe were putting their money into Russia, this was a great thing. So the people were being sucked into the big cities from, they were peasants and they were being employed at a pittance and working 16, 18 hours a day. Children, girls of six and eight, boys of nine and ten, working conditions were so bad that you can hardly describe them, they were so awful.

Studs Terkel This was, all the time this matter was building. And--oh, I know what I was going to talk--in the meantime, among the revolutionaries, there are various groups, there are the Bolsheviks come into being, the Mensheviks, perhaps you talk a little, because we have a younger generation also listening and people not are going--the various groups, the various political organizations involved.

Harrison Salisbury Well, the tradition of revolution in Russia had been a violent one, and this was what was the, Narodniks were founded on, the Narodnaya Volya and all those, and in the late 19th and early 20th century, this was picked up by what we call, the people who call themselves S-Rs, socialist revolutionaries, and they still believed in assassinating tsarist officials, and they did, they assassinated a great many and they were regarded by the Tsar's police as a very most dangerous of all the revolutionaries. And in a sense they were, because they killed so many people, but they didn't really change the political situation very much, and then--

Studs Terkel And they were sort of parallel to the terrorists

Harrison Salisbury That's right. They carried on this great tradition. Then this new group began to grow up which was really founded on Marxist philosophy and they didn't believe in this kind of violence. They thought that the time was on their side, that the evolution in Russia would make the revolution inevitable. And then they split into two groups, and roughly speaking, the Bolsheviks, which Lenin headed and that just word simply means a majority because they were one party, and the Mensheviks, which that word means minority, the Mensheviks believed that they didn't have to carry out an actual revolution because it would happen as a result of the force of circumstances, whereas Lenin believed that it could only be carried out by a conspiratorial organization, in fact, his organization with himself at his head and calling all the shots, and that is the situation roughly as the actual revolution approached.

Studs Terkel So the internal struggle is now possessing Lenin. Now, he began originally, as you point out, gently as a student quietly but bit by bit now--

Harrison Salisbury Bit by bit as the struggle for power really grew and as he became more and more intense and more convinced that he alone had the actual way of achieving this, he began to use methods which were more and more immoral, and then finally he, his whole philosophy I think was summed up in one conversation that he had with a great, almost idyllic Russian revolutionary called Angelica Balabanoff. And she did not, I think she did not want--she didn't like his methods, and so forth and so on. So he said to her in essence, "You can't make a revolution with white gloves." He said that his technique, which really consisted in slandering his opponents, he had gotten from another revolutionary, a man named Plekhanov, who had said to him in the early days, "First we'll pin the convict's badge on this man and then we'll examine his case. " In other words, first you slander him, and then you see whether there is anything worthwhile in what he says.

Studs Terkel 'Cause of his change in him, then he was becoming this way.

Harrison Salisbury Oh, real immoral disintegration.

Studs Terkel We're also talking about his being sometimes out of touch since he was in exile, too, both in Finland and in Austria.

Harrison Salisbury This is true. He spent most of his adult

Studs Terkel And also in Switzerland, I mean.

Harrison Salisbury Before the revolution he was out of the country, really, from oh, from about 1900 until the revolution in 1917. He came back briefly in 1905, but most of that time he was in Finland, too. So he did get out of touch, as any exile gets out of touch, and during World War One he was so out of touch he had no communications with Russia. And he in fact even turned his back on Russia and devoted himself almost entirely to petty quarrels among the revolutionaries and tried to influence the revolutionary movement which was almost nonexistent in Switzerland.

Studs Terkel I know people will wonder because you, in a sense, that this is indeed a revisionist history of that period, your sources. How did you come about and find these new?

Harrison Salisbury Well, in many different ways. In the first place, one of the things that no one has done, I think, for about 50 years, is to go back to the early revolutionaries themselves, because in the days immediately after 1905 and immediately after 1917, they were very proud of everything they did and they began to publish their memoirs and their statements and tell how this happened and they opened up the tsarist records and they published all these things. Now, after Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin got in there, these early records began to be suppressed and they became more and more difficult to get a hold of and that as the new volumes appeared the truth changed, and changed, and the versions changed and they've been changing, and they're still changing. So what I went back to were these original absolute records, and then I had--

Studs Terkel Where was this? In--

Harrison Salisbury Some here and some in the Soviet Union. I had very good luck in having the collaboration of a couple of Soviet historians who can't really publish all this material themselves, but I was able to feed questions to them, and they were able to go into the archives and get the answers for me. I was really surprised at some of the information I got, and then I had a unique opportunity about 10 years ago at the time of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, to talk to a few of the survivors in Moscow themselves. To get their own version of what really happened to them. I talked to a man who was sort of a foster son of Lenin. He was really, he was a genuine foster son of Lenin's sister. But he lived with Lenin and Krupskaya in the Kremlin and he was a man who'd grown up there and seen all these scenes of revolution as a child. And then after Lenin's death and when Stalin came into power, he, along with most of the members of Lenin's family, were oppressed by Stalin and he was sent out into exile.

Studs Terkel So you went to first sources here.

Harrison Salisbury As many as I could, yes.

Studs Terkel Then we'll come to the matter of the comedy because the posters and of course the heroic figure and the flag and upraised clenched fists, that wasn't, it was really a goofed-up situation from 1905 to 1917 and the storming of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg.

Harrison Salisbury Well, you know, I always was taught to believe by the histories that I read and the propaganda on both sides from the communists and the anti-communists that this was a very well-organized thing, and a violent thing and they stormed the Winter Palace and Lenin was giving the orders and all that sort of thing. When I came to investigate, it turned out that in the first place nothing was planned, in the second place Lenin had a hell of a time getting his comrades to go along with him and having this coup anyway. They didn't want to have it, they didn't think it was necessary. They knew that they were going to come into power constitutionally in another week or so, so why go through this great drill? But Lenin knew what he wanted. He wanted to have all that power himself. And, actually, up until the very night of the revolution, there might not have been one. The only, it was really a comedy in which Kerensky the opponent and Lenin on this side, each one of them did rather silly things. And in the end it turned out that Kerensky did one more, so I think he, he got out of town and he never was able to get back.

Studs Terkel That reminds me of an Italian movie called "Big Deal on Madonna Street" and there have been variations of this film in which guys are trying to perform a hold-up and they goof up. In this case, the coup was a goofed-up matter, but the side that was least inept won. As you interpret this, see.

Harrison Salisbury We've all heard, for instance, that the great cruiser Aurora opened fire on the Winter Palace. Well, it did, finally, after a long, long time but they couldn't get it to start firing because they had a signal system that required them to hoist a red lantern on a fort. And they couldn't find a lantern. So for hours they went around looking for a lantern and they finally put it up. But the Aurora didn't fire on the Palace, it just fired blanks.

Studs Terkel Oh, boy. We're talking to Harrison Salisbury and his book, a very revealing one, by the way, a very enthralling one, too, is called "Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917". Doubleday. We'll resume the conversation in a moment, there's a very funny insight here that we're going to talk about and we'll come to that in a moment, that historical moment that turns out to be comic history. Resuming the conversation with Harrison Salisbury, something here about Lenin and some of the revolutionaries in 1905. Middle-class, but they're talking proletarian street talk. Is Lenin was--quoting you, "Lenin was deliberately coarse in his political polemics, employing rude peasant oaths and derisive street language, as almost as though he were seeking to establish proletarian credentials by using phrases and language that would never have been heard or permitted by his schoolmaster father or his cultured mother."

Harrison Salisbury That was absolutely true. Lenin was brought up a very proper, strict, strict boy, he never used any kind of profanity, he didn't use any kind of bad language, his mother and father kept him even from hearing it. They wouldn't let him go in places where he could--he never used it in his ordinary conversation. But as he went on becoming more of a revolutionary, he began to talk with more and more filth.

Studs Terkel But that is here, too. I mean, during the '60s, some of the young kids of the left who were college graduates and, for that matter, not necessarily the left, just young middle-class kids generally begun using a barroom, you know, and deliberately misusing language so they could be accepted as blue-collar guys.

Harrison Salisbury Well, don't you remember the Berkeley Free Speech Movement which was the beginning of all these college revolutionary

Studs Terkel It's funny, though, there are always these precedents for it. But at the same time you have these figures observing what's going on. Tolstoy is still alive, and he has, you know, rather sad and pertinent comments to make. It seems the Tsar had signed a manifesto that seemingly gave rights to people, but Tolstoy said it did not indeed.

Harrison Salisbury Well, I think one of the, I mean, [if?] we're talking about the absurd things, Tolstoy, who was, he was just appalled by the condition of his country and he thought he was going to die, and he thought he would write a letter to the Tsar as man to man. Tolstoy was great on that sort of thing, so he wrote this letter to the Tsar warning him about things that he thought that the Tsar should know and would want to know about his country, and he felt that it might embarrass the Tsar if this thing was made public. So he made clear that he was not going to publish the letter, it was just between him and the Tsar, and the only response he got back from the Tsar was, "Don't worry, I won't publish your letter.

Studs Terkel So this is, something now is happening, and so many, you touch so many aspects, something happening in Russia or other events, cults are coming into being, I'm thinking of the cultism that is here, too, you know. Cults come into being. There is Rasputin and his power. There is a folk hero, a police spy, Boris Azef becomes a folk hero. So something--

Harrison Salisbury This was the most awful thing of all, I think this Boris Azef affair, and he was just symbolic of many others. He was a police spy. He was deliberately programmed by the police to enter the revolutionary movement and he became the head of the S.R.s, the socialist revolutionaries' so-called fighting squad. Now, the duty of the fighting squad was to arrange assassinations of Tsarist officials. This man Azef, who was employed by the interior minister, arranged the assassination of two successive interior ministers. He was working both sides of the street. He was organizing the S.R. fighting squads to carry out assassinations and after the assassinations he would tip off the police as to who did it except for himself. Of course, many people in the police knew that he was involved in these

Studs Terkel But how then, this is the point that [may play? make way?] a sort of cynicism of the time and of, perhaps of decadence, to how did he become a folk hero?

Harrison Salisbury I think that's it's comparable in our day to the Manson case. I think that this is the clearest example of young people so revolted by the conditions of their life that they go to the other extreme. In another earlier generation the pure revolutionary hero had been their hero, and now it's just the reverse.

Studs Terkel Well, since you talk about parallels, I was thinking, in here on page 200 of Harrison Salisbury's book, "For a decade, spiritualism and seances, occultism and superstitious cults have been growing in popularity. The royal family was not alone in its interest. Intelligentsia and ordinary citizens sought new foundations with which to rebuild their shattered faith."

Harrison Salisbury This is right, and when people are so frustrated in their ordinary life, they try to move out of it in some fashion. This was what was happening in Russian society. We think of the Tsar and Rasputin and the Tsarina as being something of a unique phenomena. It isn't unique at all, in fact Rasputin was not even unique as far as Nicholas II and Alexandra were concerned. He was only the fourth or fifth charlatan who had come into their life. And in fact, there had been an earlier man who, perhaps they believed in even more strongly, until along came Rasputin.

Studs Terkel And they're called "starets."

Harrison Salisbury That's right. They were called starets, and sort of a pseudo holy man. And earlier, however, the interesting thing is, that they had this French doctor, a man named Dr. Phillipe. Of course, he wasn't a doctor at all. He was a Frenchman, all right, but the French authorities immediately reported to the Russian police that he was a charlatan, he had been arrested several times in France, and yet they admitted him into the inner circle and he even gave the Tsarina a bell which she used until the end of her days, and he told her that any time that enemies approach, you just ring this little bell and it'll ward them off, and she believed it.

Studs Terkel Now I was thinking aside from the Tsarina and the Tsar and their blind faith and superstitions, the fact that so many people were looking toward the irrational because of their loss of faith. I'm thinking of some of the young kids today, not simply here, in so many societies and the various religious or pseudo-religious movements. Something about the rational world has so disturbed them.

Harrison Salisbury I think lots of great

Studs Terkel That they're looking toward the irrational.

Harrison Salisbury There are, certainly among the young writers and the young intellectuals in Russia at that time, there was a strong movement toward all kinds of mediums and all kinds of cults and some of them were completely bound up with them, some of them really lost their minds in this process. The number of suicides and the number of cases of insanity amongst the young poets and writers and artists was phenomenal.

Studs Terkel And as you say, there's a number of young suicides today among young people, looking for parallels about a certain kind of cynicism.

Harrison Salisbury I think you'll find that whenever a society is in a state of decay.

Studs Terkel But also at the same time, you're pointing out the various poets and the various artists were viewing the times and writing, they're very beautiful here as Yekaterina Breshkovskaya, who was the" little grandmother" of the Russian Revolution, she writing to her friend, an American, Alice Stone Blackwell, suppose you read that--her description of the moments of seasons.

Harrison Salisbury Well, this was a wonderful, wonderful old lady who had been a hero of the revolutionary movement all her life, and she was in exile at this time in remote Siberia. She'd been in the United States many times and she had lots of fans in Boston, lots of friends, and she was always writing these ladies in Boston. She wrote to her dear friend Alice Stone Blackwell in Boston, "Tulips, daffodils, and other spring flowers rejoice my solitude and carry my thoughts to you. In a few days, the first party of convicts will start for the North whether I am to go with it or not, they do not tell me. The summer is short here but it rejuvenates me all the same, and if I can spend it in the open air I should be ready to meet the winter, however severe." This is an old lady in her early 70s, a revolutionary out in eastern Siberia.

Studs Terkel But she's writing of the possibility of being in a camp, in a prison camp, at the same time describing the beauty of the seasons.

Harrison Salisbury Oh yes, she was a great believer and lover of nature and fresh air and all kinds of things that--

Studs Terkel Just as you say that, you speak her, you write here of the peasants and their feeling toward land, that very strong feeling.

Harrison Salisbury There's nothing stronger, I think, than the feeling of a Russian peasant for his land, and I must say that it persists to this day and I guess it's never going to be resolved by the Soviet government. But this was underlying the whole revolution. In fact, I don't suppose when you come right down to it that there could have been a revolution in Russia without the peasant and his feeling for his land and his feeling in some way had been alienated from him. He'd always believed, even when he was a serf when he was really a slave, that this was a formality and the land really belonged to him, and that the Tsar supported him in that belief. And then along came Alexander II who freed the serfs in the 1860s, but he didn't give them the land. And this contradiction they never could understand. They were simple people, devoted to that land, believing that the land was more important than anything else in the world. They couldn't understand. They were sure it was a mistake. They were sure that the Tsar hadn't done it, but some of these officials were trying to cheat them and they were going to get that land sooner or later.

Studs Terkel That's when Lenin came along with that phrase, wasn't

Harrison Salisbury That's right.

Studs Terkel "Bread and Land", wasn't it?

Harrison Salisbury "Bread, Peace and Land". That was his phrase and that's what brought him to power. And it's an interesting thing to analyze that. We think of Lenin, you know, as the great Marxist and all that sort of thing, the great political theorist. But he came to power with what is really just a populist phrase: bread, the people were starving. And it's interesting that within weeks of his coming into power the bread lines were strong and longer than ever all over Russia and the starving was more intense. Peace: he brought them peace, he brought the peace of Brestatov, the terrible peace in which he had to give up half of Russia. Unfortunately, the Germans soon had to capitulate and so that he didn't have to live with that peace. He never expected to.

Studs Terkel People were hungry for peace, too.

Harrison Salisbury That's right, they wanted peace above everything

Studs Terkel They were so tired of the war.

Harrison Salisbury And land. And this was, of course, was what the peasant wanted, and this had not been a Bolshevik plea at all, this was something he took very honestly. He said, "I take this from the socialist revolutionaries." He took it, and the peasants got their land. They just went out and took it. They killed the landlords who were surviving and they often burned down houses and they got the land. And then what happened? They began to take it away from them and as of today, of course, the peasants don't have the land. And this is the great tragedy and the central contradiction of the whole revolution.

Studs Terkel You know, as--naturally, we're thinking of today and the tremendous disillusionment in the bureaucracy and the repression and the dream. Whatever happened to that dream? That's the question that always comes up.

Harrison Salisbury This is the sad, sad tragedy, you see. The dream was wonderful. It was a beautiful dream, and there's no question about it. And there was a need for that dream. Russia was an oppressed, desolate, grey, terrible country in those closing years of the Tsarist regime and the revolutionaries had this bright dream of something that would be better than anything that had been seen in the whole world. And the truth is that before Lenin himself died, he realized that the dream had failed and that these terrible forces within Russia, the bureaucracy, the tyranny, all those things were going to perpetuate themselves.

Studs Terkel You think he himself realized that, too.

Harrison Salisbury I think so, and I'm going to write another book in which we get to hear that point.

Studs Terkel By the way, it was from the bottom up, this feeling, and that you speak of the headless revolution for a while there. Because there were the barricades set up by the people themselves, the peasants who came to the cities and the city workers themselves, and that Lenin was still removed from this thing

Harrison Salisbury and-- This is the important

Studs Terkel He had lost touch with much of what was happening.

Harrison Salisbury The boiling over, the February Revolution in 1917 wasn't made by any revolutionaries at all, it was made by, really by women in the streets of Petrograd, they'd been standing in those streets in this cold winter day after day coming out at four A.M. to wait for their bread or their kerosene or their salt and then eight o'clock came and the store opened, there was no bread, and the police were standing by them and the police ordinarily in Russia would attack anybody who demonstrated, but they were beginning to feel it, too. And the combination of these two factors, the women and the police, is what made the revolution.

Studs Terkel Some remarkable scenes here, by the way, on that very point and that theme. The Cossacks were friendly to the crowds. Now we know that that thing was toppling, because they were, it wasn't

Harrison Salisbury They'd always ridden down the crowds, and now instead of that they were very careful to ride right through the crowd and not hurt anyone, and when a mounted policeman, a police officer, tried to get his police to open fire on the crowd, a Cossack shot him.

Studs Terkel They shot him?

Harrison Salisbury Shot him, and that was the signal, that was when it really turned.

Studs Terkel And when one of the Cossacks fell off the horse, the crowd lifted and put him back on the horse.

Harrison Salisbury Put him back up. That's right.

Studs Terkel Where do you find this? In your research you found these incidents, anecdotes, events.

Harrison Salisbury Oh, over little personal anecdotes and personal stories.

Studs Terkel What about the sailors of the ship coming, the goof-ups, the mistakes of the Kronstadt?

Harrison Salisbury Well, of course, Kronstadt is a special, is a really

Studs Terkel This was when?

Harrison Salisbury Kronstadt began in 1905, really. Kronstadt is a great naval base and a great naval base at St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, whichever we want to call it. And those Kronstadt sailors in 1905 had first shown their violent revolutionary sympathies and for good reason because they had been so oppressed. There was no navy so severe as the Russian Navy on it. It was like 100 years before, in the days of Captain Bounty--

Studs Terkel "Mutiny on the Bounty".

Harrison Salisbury Exactly, that kind of thing. And by the time 1917 came along, there were sailors in the dungeons of Kronstadt who'd been there since 1905, and they just exploded up, and they were the ones who really saved the day for Lenin, they were about the only supporters that he had of a military nature.

Studs Terkel So this was what was happening, with a back-and-forth proposition throughout this time, wasn't there? I was thinking about, Lenin himself he didn't, he still had this fantasy, because he speaks of, he thought that there'd be a world all would rise up everywhere, and of course he was dead wrong.

Harrison Salisbury Yes, indeed. And that was of course, it was, he was not alone in that, the revolutionaries, none of them really believed that Russia could do it alone. In fact, they didn't really expect that Russia would be in revolution until the Germans had risen. This with the--Germany was the heart of the revolutionary movement in Russia, in Europe, and France and England were on the side, and they expected these advanced industrial countries to have a revolution and Russia would tag along. Many of them felt that Lenin was absolutely wrong to insist on having this revolution in Russia when it hadn't happened anywhere else.

Studs Terkel And at the same time we're having, while this going on, the various artists Gorky and Mayakovsky are observing the scene, aren't they?

Harrison Salisbury They are indeed. In fact, Gorky of course, Gorky was essential to the Bolsheviks in that particular way because he had the entree to them, the Moscow millionaires, and he was a conduit for so much money which they needed in their organizations in addition to the moral support, but he and Lenin, they had an on-and-off relationship, and when the revolution actually occurred, Gorky was very, very upset and he became one of Lenin's most vitriolic critics.

Studs Terkel Did he? Toward the end.

Harrison Salisbury Oh, yes he did. He was

Studs Terkel a There's a quote that you have here, that well, he just couldn't stand the, what?

Harrison Salisbury He couldn't stand the tyranny, he couldn't stand the police power, he couldn't stand the shooting and the executions of people. Well, this is something which he wrote after the revolution, and he used to write things like this day after day. [content removed, see

Studs Terkel Wow. I didn't realize that his bitterness had reached that magnitude.

Harrison Salisbury That's right. And we think of Gorky, you know, in the later days as having come around to Stalin and all the rest of it, that he was the man who had been for revolution from the very beginning as early as Lenin and anyone else had done as much for it. But he could not stand this inhumanity of man to man.

Studs Terkel And now we come to the coup itself. Now we come to the moment of the revolution succeeding and here is where the comedy comes in, isn't it? Now, there was confusion throughout.

Harrison Salisbury There was so much confusion that most of the people in Petrograd didn't even know the coup had taken place.

Studs Terkel I mean, I'm thinking about these various scenes you're describing here. The phrase here [content removed, see catalog record]. Page 475 here, I was just marking this thing. And these are now a question of legend comes into being. Oh, here it is. "The October events"--this is October 17.

Harrison Salisbury Right.

Studs Terkel "Are encumbered by trivia, petty rivalry, miscalculation, hesitation, ineptitude, posturing, and mistakes. Almost nothing was planned and what did happen was often accidental. The Bolsheviks did not seize power in one bold clandestine move. They blundered into power, divided fighting against each other, to the final moments Lenin took only an occasional role in what happened." And that's when Kerensky pulled bigger boners than Lenin did.

Harrison Salisbury Yes, well, let's take Kerensky for an example. He and his ministers in the days before the revolution when the foreign diplomats came in to see them, they were foreign diplomats, rumors, I mean there was nothing secret about this revolution in the first place, it was all argued out in the newspapers for days before it happened, because there was a big split in the Bolshevik Party over whether they should do it or not. And Kamenev and Zinoviev disagreed with the idea of having a coup, and their letters of disagreement were published in the newspapers and Lenin then whacked them and his letters were published, and so all of Petrograd was watching this thing and discussing should we have the coup, shouldn't we have it, when should we have it. And of course, the government, the Kerensky government was aware of every one of these things, and the diplomats kept coming around and saying, "Well, now, look, I mean, what about this thing?" And they said, "Oh, we can't wait for it to happen because we know we're going to be able to crush it. We're not worried about that. That doesn't worry us at all."

Studs Terkel So the word really is as you point out, banality. There's banality to it. Not as an exercise, of the confusion, not an exercise in revolutionary tactics, but as an illumination of the banality which so often lies at the heart of great moments in history. Now, that is the part over and beyond this particular event we're talking about, the Russian Revolution, banality that lies at the heart of so many seemingly great moments in history.

Harrison Salisbury Don't you think that's often the case, Studs? I mean, what we know about these great moments are the legends and the myths and the immediate coloration that those events take on. Now, we know today that the Bolshevik coup d'etat on November 7th was a watershed mark in the history of events because it brought into power this group of extreme radicals in Russia, but we didn't know that night, and in fact no one knew in Russia what was happening, and they didn't know how it happened, so that after it happened, then it was given as this form and shape and color, we have the, not only the pictures which I've seen on the walls of every building in Russia, you go into the Tretyakov Gallery and here are these beautiful paintings of them storming the Winter Palace and I think, well, it must have happened that way. How do I know it didn't? I've read accounts, I've seen movies of it and all the rest of it. Until I read some of these early documents and I find an account in one of them that the first news that the surviving Kerensky ministers had as they sat there in the malachite chamber on the night of the revolution, the first news that anything untoward was happening was when the telephone operator called them and said there's a delegation of two or three hundred people approaching the Palace. This was the storming of the Palace that I thought was, you know, firing guns, cannon bombardment, machine guns and all the rest of, a delegation of two or three hundred people are approaching. [pause in recording] That was it. That was it.

Studs Terkel All so dull.

Harrison Salisbury They took all of these ministers out, having arrested them, they took them out, and they were going to take them over to the fortress of Peter and Paul to confine them, and on the way, there was all sorts of shooting. Everybody was shooting in Petrograd that night, but they weren't

Studs Terkel We haven't mentioned Trotsky so far. He was saying that never in history have so many orders been issued.

Harrison Salisbury Oh yes, that's right. That was it. That was his moment after the revolution, that very next day, everybody spent all day long issuing orders in all directions. I like a scene of the moment in the revolution in Smolny in which Lenin and Trotsky are together. It's the evening of the revolution, it had--The Winter Palace has not yet surrendered, and they don't know how it's all going to come out. And here is Trotsky and Lenin, they are getting a little rest in the one room of Smolny, which is a former convent for the noble girls, and they're lying on the floor wrapped up in blankets that Lenin's sister has probably provided them, and they're worrying about what's going to happen, and Lenin is very worried because he says, "You know, they haven't taken the Winter Palace yet." And Trotsky wants to get up and go and find out, and he said, "No, no, don't bother. Don't bother." And here are these two men lying on this cold floor, the great names in history, nobody knows them at this moment, wondering if the revolution is really going to happen.

Studs Terkel You know, perhaps, and as Harrison Salisbury continues with this very vivid recreation of these events, you know, and how during the gatherings, the Bolshevik gatherings, young workers challenged Lenin here and there, and nobody seemed quite certain what it was about. Perhaps these last two quotes, a comment about Lenin by a colleague, Berdyaev, and Kropotkin, Prince Kropotkin's thoughts. Perhaps these two can tell us also about a dream shattered.

Harrison Salisbury They really can, they really

Studs Terkel And in a way it adds this, this adds a sort of, the final note to your serio-comic book about a tragic and seemingly, indeed historic moment, and the banality beneath it, at the same time the dream.

Harrison Salisbury Yes. Well, of course, Berdyaev was, he was perhaps the great philosopher of that day in Russia, a religious man. He'd been a Marxist at the start. He'd been right with them on at the beginning and then he changed, and he didn't believe that Lenin was a vicious man. He said [content removed, see catalog record]. That really summed it up as far as Lenin was concerned. And then a year or so later the old anarchist Prince Kropotkin, he had certainly believed in the overthrow of the Tsar, but he wrote this letter to Lenin, it was in 1920. He said [content removed, see catalog record]. That was Kropotkin's final word, that letter.

Studs Terkel And you end with a sort of parable, the very last epilogue, if there is one, where is my home, and this is not too removed from the Blok poem and feeling. This is the girl who's wandering about, and--

Harrison Salisbury Well, this is, this really is, it seems to me this epitomizes the whole thing. It did epitomize it for two poets, I think. One was a poet named Balmont and the other was a poetess named Satiev, and they were in Moscow and it was a cold winter, and the city was starving to death and they sort of were attracted to each other for comfort. And one, late one afternoon Balmont had an appointment to meet this poetess and as he went through the streets in the dying light of the afternoon, the winter afternoon, he saw a woman in the street ahead of him, and she wore a long dark caftan almost like a monk's robe, and a warm white shawl over her head. He couldn't tell whether she was beautiful or not, but he knew that she was a young woman, and she spoke to him. She said [content removed, see

Studs Terkel Harrison Salisbury is my guest. That parable may tell it. "Black Night, White Snow", Doubleday the publishers. Quite a remarkable chronicle. Thank you very much. You opened with that dream again, that rebel, "Stenka Razin", we close again with it.

Harrison Salisbury Good.

Studs Terkel What's the Russian word for "Au revoir," goodbye?

Harrison Salisbury "Do svidaniya."

Studs Terkel "Do