Russian newspaper Pravda, March 16, 1917.
The First World War was a global catastrophe. Because it was fought between colonial empires, it drew conscripts from Africa, Australia, India, the Arab World, Canada, and other regions. Outside the European theater, the Japanese Empire and China were involved in the war as well. In April of 1917, the United States joined the war. The war had high stakes for all involved across Asia, Africa, and Europe, so when Russia’s revolutionary factions debated pulling out of the war, other nations paid close attention. For most Russians, there were numerous uncertainties in 1917. For most journalists abroad, the primary question was about the war.
The lines between reportage, editorializing, and propaganda have always been messy, I think. The act of recording an event requires certain conscious decisions: what to include, what to leave out, the order of facts and events, what descriptions are useful for the reader. This is also the problem of historiography. These lines are increasingly blurred today, but in 1917, when war affected nearly every aspect of life from food rations to bonds to the draft, the press played a pertinent, easily abused role in swaying wartime opinions.
France, Britain, and the United States wanted to know if they would have an ally in the War, whereas Germany and Austria-Hungary wanted to know if they could move more forces to the Western Front to deal with the soon-to-arrive U.S. army. At the heart of Russia’s pacifist movement were the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, whose motivation for pulling out stemmed from their opposition to the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and war. As Lenin insisted, imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism. For British, American, and especially French soldiers, Russia’s withdrawal could become a death sentence. Newspapers recognized their readers’ interests and fears.
Many papers did not resort to “yellow journalism” in their editorializing, but were not above subjective writing. A New York Times article from September 5, 1917, by Harold Williams entitled “Extremists Sway Workman’s Council” is a prime example among many. Reporting on the Russian Provisional Government, Williams wrote that “The all-Russian executive proposed a resolution supporting the Government view of the necessity of the death penalty” (Williams). According to Williams, The Menshevik politician Julius Martov “sat silent in a perpetual sneer. . . put his sneer into words, and with the help of Internationalists and Social Revolutionaries defeated” the pro-death penalty measure. He added that “The issue now is patriotism or internationalism.”
It was not uncommon for American newspapers at the time to refer to Mensheviks and Bolsheviks as “extremists” or “internationalists,” in contrast to Russian “patriots.” Pacifists and labor unions in general were seen as contrary to the war effort. Their demand for better wage and working conditions limited the production of weaponry and resources. Editorializing in 1917 was common, but strategically nuanced, in part because the Russian Revolution involved so many different players and interests.
Americans (who celebrate the day they declared independence from a tyrannical monarch) endorsed the sudden democratization in Russia and the end of the monarchy. The United States was quick to recognize the new, post-Tsar government. The New York Times reported on March 22 that America was “First to Recognize Freed Russia” and The New York Tribune reported that the British politician David George Lloyd “believed the revolution in Russia was the greatest service the Russians had yet rendered to the Allied cause” (Tribune March 22, 1917). However, they could not endorse the striking workers and mutinying soldiers who were largely responsible for that democratization. Thus, Russia was influenced by “extremists” and “agitators” rather than citizens and soldiers.
The British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, in a slightly different nationalist gesture, included a poetic description of the Russian monarchy’s complete history on March 17, 1917, titled “Story of the Tsars” in which the author declares that the “story of the Tsars is like a conglomeration of the wild catastrophes of Elizabethan tragedy.” This story appeared next to others about the “Irish Question,” so that Telegraph readers saw Irish rebellions and descriptions of monarchical tragedies in the same document.
However, journalists had a diversity of perspectives, such as the American journalist John Reed. A reporter for Metropolitan Magazine, Reed was an adamant pacifist. He reported on the Great War in 1914 before the U.S. entered, and wrote editorials for the self-consciously socialist newspaper The Masses opposing the war. He lost work in 1917 because of his views, and traveled to Russia that year before the October Revolution. He died of typhus in Russia in 1920, in the midst of the Russian Civil War.
The majority of international journalists, pacifists and hawks alike, approached the Russian Revolution from a largely military-driven perspective. But the Great War was more a catalyst of the Russian Revolution. The 1905 rebellions sparked economic reforms as well as increased persecution. Poverty and oppression under Nicholas II had been a decades-long assault on numerous Russians and subjugated populations in Russia’s surrounding territories, so political involvement had increased in Russia. War was a crucial issue in the summer of 1917, but so too, clearly, were issues like the death penalty, press freedom, freedom of political dissidents, and wealth disparity, issues that the Tsar ignored and the Bolsheviks, in many cases, mishandled after the disastrous Civil War of 1917-1921.
What is clear is that there emerged competing narratives about the Revolution as it unfolded. Later Tribune articles, more neutral in tone, attest to the chaotic day-to-day changes that took place in Petrograd in October and November after the Bolsheviks seized power and counter-revolutionary forces attempted to retake the capital. The lived crisis in Petrograd appeared as a serialized daily drama for readers across the world, most of whom only wanted to know if their sons, fathers, or brothers would make it home alive. The Revolution’s far-reaching consequences had the potential to affect military families abroad and all workers within, but by summer, nobody knew what would come next.