When The Red Storm Broke

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The “strange new disturbance” of which Sisson wrote, referring to the Bolsheviks, had been making itself felt for quite some time before his arrival there, and with increasing virulence for fully seven months—in fact, ever since the Czar’s war-battered regime had collapsed in March, 1917, and given way to a Provisional government of republican reformists. But it had not as yet penetrated the consciousness of faraway Washington. Indeed, practically all America, then just entering upon its crusade against the Kaiser’s autocratic Germany, had hailed the Czar’s abdication as the removal of an autocratic incubus on our own side, and—upon receiving confident advice from our Embassy in Russia—had fully believed through the summer and into the fall of 1917 that such enlightened new leaders as Prince Lvov and Alexander Kerensky would democratize Russian institutions, rebuild fighting morale, and make of their nation a worthy partner of ours in a common cause. This was the dream; and here was one of its carriers, Sisson, chosen for his mission because of his stature as one of America’s most astute journalists (editor of the Cosmopolitan Magazine and, before that, managing editor of Collier’s), passing through London with little inkling of what had been occurring under the surface farther east and none at all as to where this was now about to lead.

On November 25, after making his way across a U-boat-infested North Sea and a wintry Scandinavia, he reached the Russian capital’s Finland Station. There he found, as he bounced in his sleigh over the icy hummocks of the Liteiny Prospekt and turned down the Furshtatskaya to the American Embassy, a city of dim-lit streets, tight-shuttered windows, and long-coated, muffled figures with rifles warming themselves before wood fires at the intersections. These were no policemen of a friendly, Provisional Kerensky; these were the Red Guards of the Petrograd Soviet of V. I. Lenin, who had arrived at the Finland Station too (but half a year earlier than Sisson) and who, while the bemused American editor was traveling, had seized the capital and then all Russia as well. Almost overnight Kerensky had been toppled by the Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917 (November, by the Western calendar). Russia’s ill-used armies were melting away, as the slogan “Peace, Bread, and Land” resounded through their ranks; banks, businesses, church properties, great estates were being seized. Moreover, the very day after Sisson arrived in Petrograd, bearing vague and now antiquated general instructions which he summed up as meaning “To be helpful to Russia in any practical way that might develop” and “To place before Russians the American viewpoint on the waging … of the war,” Lenin’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Leon Trotsky, formally appealed to the German high command for an armistice.

When Sisson took up quarters in the Embassy building—a low, sprawling monstrosity in a once-fashionable street, whose imitation-classical friezes, swollen balustrades, misbegotten balconies, and squashed-down mansard roof embodied the worst taste of the recent Romanov past—he found it stuffed to the rafters with a small army of assorted Americans as confused and at loose ends as he, and, moreover, at loggerheads with one another.

There were four other key and contrasting men at the core of the American official colony in Petrograd: the Ambassador, David R. Francis, an elderly St. Louis grain dealer and Democratic politician; William Boyce Thompson, a multimillionaire copper magnate, promoter, and flamboyant high-liver, who headed the American Red Cross Commission to Russia; Thompson’s deputy, Raymond Robins, a fiery Chicago social reformer and Progressive party orator with Indian blood in his veins, who had made a fortune in the Alaska gold rush; and Brigadier General William V. Judson, military attaché—the only one of them who had had any previous experience of Russia or even of foreign service, having witnessed the Russo-Japanese War as a military observer. Of these, Ambassador Francis should have been, by virtue of his position, the dominant and controlling personality. That he was not—that he became in fact the very opposite—was due partly to his own shortcomings and partly to the Washington approach to appointments abroad that was both frivolous and chaotic.