The Storming of the Winter Palace

"Your Imperial Highness! Your Imperial Highness, wake up!"

The voice was so kind, so homey-rather than rouse him he practically entered into his dream. But the warm huskiness repeated and repeated—and finally made him wake up. This old, gray-haired, Winter Palace footman, with luxurious, flowing side-whiskers, who had long since grown accustomed to the idea of no one from the Tsar's family spending the night here, instead of the joy of not disturbing the high-born guest's sleep, had decided to enter the room and lean over the bed.

"Your Imperial Highness! The palace has become dangerous. After the troops left, some gangs tried to break through different doors a few times. Only the locks are holding them back. What forces do we have to fight them off?"

The cold and nasty waking got through to Mikhail. Now this he had not expected! That gangs would invade the palace. What gangs could there be in the capital?

"Gangs from where?"

"God know where." The footman was distressed. "A few have gathered up and gone wild. Soldiers too. And all kinds of rabble. I suppose they know how many treasures we have here. What cellars."

Now fully awake, stretched out on his back, Mikhail lay in satin in an alcove. Between the parted curtains he could vaguely see the footman's large head—there, behind him, some small light on the table, a candle, he hadn't dared light a lamp.

But why should Mikhail, barely out of sleep, be supposed to understand what he was to do with the doors or how to protect himself? This kind of guard should have been provided for by someone, and what about General Komarov?

"Oh, my God, Your Imperial Highness!"—the footman—whom Mikhail remembered from childhood, he had been at the Gatchina palace at one time, and at the Anichkov, only he forgot his name—clucked in the same warm, muffled, and homey voice of a nanny. "Please do not think I am burdening you with this concern. I took it upon myself to interrupt your sleep only in alarm over your safety. You see, we have no armed guard and we're all old men. Tonight they broke into the Mariinsky Palace. Who is to prevent them from breaking in here? They might have done so already except they think, well, there are troops here now."

Mikhail turned quickly.

"The Mariinsky? When?"

"Oh, it was after midnight. They called us."

"So…" And he himself had just been meeting there! "And the Council of Ministers?"

"l can't know, Your Imperial Highness. Probably they were saved by having dispersed."

And still Mikhail did not fully understand! The old man added:

"You cannot stay in the palace now, Your Imperial Highness. They'll break in and find you. It is more dangerous for you here than anywhere else. You need to … before dawn … move … go … They'll recognize you by daylight."

Only now did the full bitterness of it fill his roused chest and awakened head: flee? He was supposed to flee his family roof at night, right now, in secret and in haste?

Mikhail’s bed had been made up for him on the third floor, next to his father's inviolable bedroom where he had lived when he was the heir—but he had not spent a day here since that crushing day when Mikhail's grandfather—already missing a leg and spilling blood on the marble of the stairs and the parquet floors—was barely carried to the first couch, for the last minutes of his life.

After that, his father had had to hide in Gatchina from new attempts on his life. He had fled.

ln the twenty-three years of his reign, his brother had barely lived in this palace; he had fled to Tsarskoye, fled to Peterhof.

And here Mikhail, who had come for just the night, was being suggested the same thing: flee.

How easy to arise in the night at the battle alarm—and immediately gallop off into the darkness, in strict regimental formation. But what torture and pain it was when you were woken up to a trembling candle to be driven out of your family home!

Mikhail lay on his back as if pinned, unable to rise, not even his head, but he understood more and more clearly.

Now it was so clear to him. Yes, he had been naïve to come to the Winter Palace to sleep. He had placed himself in danger of brigandage.

Sleep in palaces as if time had not passed?

Had he been sitting with Natasha now at Gatchina, he would know no distress. Oh Rodzyanko, big-headed Rodzyankol He'd lured him into an ambush! Not only had he summoned him into this chaos, he'd also abandoned him without protection. After all, his vehicle was allowed anywhere and could have taken him to the train station. And now, here? …

Danger from a drunken, dissolute gang was humiliating, one could not fight them as equals and surrounded by combat friends. No matter what he did, no matter what action he took, there would still be disgrace, insult, and loss. Mikhail wasn't afraid of a galloping German grenadier, but a resentful Russian foot soldier seemed terrible. He felt that.

But what could he do? He drew himself up. Drive through the city now?

That was hardly safer than remaining in the palace. A motorcar would have no protection at all against that kind of gang.

Where to then? Headquarters, on Galernaya? Also too well-known a place.

To the home of his adjutant, Count Vorontsov? Not close.

So there was nothing he could do? There was no solution at all?

Gentle-faced, in his nightshirt, the grand duke looked at the old footman with distraught astonishment.

Oh, he had already thought it all through, the old man. His Imperial Highness could neither drive nor walk through the city; it was dangerous in either case. But perhaps he could think of some quite reliable family very close to the palace? Best of all would he on Millionaya, because the exit there was good.

If he hadn't said "on Millionnaya," Mikhail might not have grasped the idea and his thoughts would have long wandered. But no sooner had he let his mind go from house to house down Millionnaya than he remembered: his own Horse Guard, Colonel Prince Putyatin, the palace's equerry! No. 12.

The old man rejoiced and went to telephone and wake up Johnson the secretary, while he asked the grand duke to dress, and if possible, by candlelight. Right now they should not turn on the overhead light in the outer rooms and attract attention; let the palace appear to sleep.

The candle remained in its saucer on the wall, and in the unaccustomed lighting of the large palace room, Mikhail dressed, trembling slightly.

By candlelight, everything looked different: the sculpting of the ceiling, the curtains, the antique furniture—as it had in the early part of the last century, under his great-grandfather. It breathed that age and the age before that even. Mikhail did not even suspect how deeply he felt this connection to the dynastic nest; although now, today, he had immediately refused to allow troops to set up here—because this was not a place for battle. This palace was a treasure of memories.

Actually, if the troops had remained, then might he not have had to flee?

Poor men, where did they wander off to? Perhaps he should have kept them?

The footman returned, encouraged. He had awakened Princess Putyatina by telephone. The prince himself was not there, he was at the front, but the princess was proud to welcome His Imperial Highness and would stay awake in anticipation of his arrival.

The secretary had already risen and would join them in a moment.

Awaken anyone else?

"Your Imperial Highness"—the footman's voice trembled—"if you will entrust me with your exit, then there is no need to initiate anyone else. One Hermitage guard and the Hermitage theater's doorkeeper will also know. You will exit onto Millionnaya just a few buildings from no. 12. You could give instructions to walk through the second-floor; I could open the halls on the formal side for you, but that would take longer. You could also go through the infirmary."

"Fine, my clear man, lead me through the infirmary. And from there as you know."

The footman dropped in gratitude to the grand duke’s hand. He was nearly sobbing, which only doubled the bitterness in Mikhail’s heart. Yet again it was conveyed to him that he was not simply changing his place of lodging and taking cover for a few hours but doing something important and irrevocable that his mind could not grasp.

The old man brought along another candle fitted into a lamp. But the one here he extinguished as he exited.

He went in front and held the lamp up so that the sphere of the shuddering light would spread more widely.

Mikhail walked a couple of steps to the side and back of him.

And behind him was Johnson.

They took the Admiralty side of the third floor and reached a comer stairway, where dim lamps were lit. They descended to the second. And walked through the entire enfilade given over for an infirmary with windows on the square.

This infirmary had been opened by Aleksandra Fyodorovna in the very first days of the war and had been here ever since. Many hundreds of wounded men had passed through it.

The footman lowered his lantern and carried it near his knee. Nightlights burned here and there on the wall and by the duty nurse’s small tables. The patients were asleep and no one was tossing and turning; there were no freshly gravely wounded men because there had not been major battles for a long time and the long-term patients had nearly finished their treatment. One or two who got up here and there did see the young general's passage; they may have been surprised, but they didn’t recognize him. The nurses did, apparently.

Passing through the infirmary halls helped ease his heart's agonizing pang of farewell. Here we all are, together, Russian forged by a single war and the single chain of bandaged wounds. We are all on the same side. And those gangs—we are not those gangs.

The hall had such high ceilings that the nightlights didn’t help you see the ceilings from below. There had not been balls here for many years, but Mikhail had seen them as a young man and remembered. In those days the walls had been decorated with branches of tropical trees and flowers from the Tsar’s hothouses. Along the flights of stairs and the mirrored walls rows of palms would be set out and all this flooded with the shimmer of chandeliers and candelabras—and the colorful uniforms, embroidered with gold and silver, were brilliant, as were the women's priceless diadems and necklaces. Everything always opened with a polonaise. And only here, the only place except for Poland, did they dance a quick mazurka.

All that had vanished long ago—all the spinning, all the people, and all the lights had gone out—and now even the night lamps remained behind them. From the last infirmary room the old man unlocked the door and they crossed the covered bridge to the Hermitage. And once again he raised his lantern, lighting the way.

Lighting the Petersburg views—the gallery hung with views of old Petersburg in gold frames. Old Petersburg.

The windows of the hanging garden flashed by, the defenseless winter jasmine and lilac drifted with snow.

And another bridge-passage, another threshold of parting, and they crossed into the New Hermitage.

Again a fateful presentiment entwined with and squeezed his heart. Why couldn't he return in a week in the full light of clay and pass through confidently, his spurs jangling?

But the sense was of farewell. Even in the total silence, his spurs jangled just a little.

Now they were walking through the picture galleries. As they went, and to the lantern's light, he could not see a single one properly, let alone remember; Mikhail mixed up these halls and all he could see on the walls were huge still-lifes, animals, stalls with game, fish, fruits, vegetables—an outsized, monumental, screaming abundance that does not at all gladden a pinched soul.

In the middle of the halls were porphyry vases and porphyry floor lamps. With his two free hands Mikhail covered his face and made a washing gesture.

Each new room, each row of paintings crammed with dead game, dead fish, and insensible fruits blocked out the dear domestic part of the palace he'd left, where his unforgettable father had lived and where his mother now no longer returned.

And he wondered why had they collected all this. Why hadn't they lived more simply?

In a hall at the curve of the building were coins and medals, coins and medals …

They started through a gallery that could not be confused with anything else: the loggias of Raphael.

The raised lantern floated up ahead—the old man's arm had not grown numb—as if purposely showing the biblical scenes on the walls.

Mikhail turned to check on Johnson—and saw his own menacing shadow floating through the loggias, like the vision of yet another ancestor to yet another descendant.

But he had to keep going, relentlessly. Carrying this shadow, for the edification of he knew not whom.

They made one more turn, into the foyer of the Hermitage theater, across the long, glassed-in passage over the snowy Winter Channel, French windows to the floor.

Outside, a distant fire was reflected across the sky.

The loyal old man halted and turned.

"Your Imperial Highness! If we now leave by the service stairs, we will be in the courtyard, but that only has access to the embankment and you would have to double back, and it's far. But take this corridor and go through the Preohrazhensky barracks and you will come directly out on Millionnaya, and there you have another four buildings or so and to cross only Moshkov Lane. What would you have?"

What doubt? Wasn't what he meant by this to ask whether the grand duke was afraid of the Preobrazhensky Guards?

"Will you have me escort you through the barracks?"

"No need," Mikhail answered quietly.

The Preobrazhensky are our men.

He suddenly put one arm around the old man, who began to sob and caught his hand to kiss it.

This sobbing of the footman tore through the last film of consciousness.

What had happened?

Had he sensibly taken cover? Or had he fled? Or left the roof of seven generations of Romanovs—as the last of them?

The great-grandson of the Emperor who lived here, the grandson of the Emperor who was killed here—was he fleeing for all of them, taking them with him?

He didn't notice at which threshold this happened. Which crossing.

Taking a military stride, he started down the final corridor.

Editorial Note: This excerpt comes from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, March 1917 The Red Wheel, Node III, Book 1 (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017). Reprinted by permission of  University of Notre Dame Press.

This year's Fall Conference hosted by the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture will feature the work of Solzhenitsyn as its guiding theme. Please check back here for more information, including a link to register, in the near future.

Featured Image: After the capture of the Winter Palace. Petrograd. 26 October 1917. Photo by P. Novitsky, 1917; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-80.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is widely acknowledged as one of the most important figures—and perhaps the most important writer—of the last century. A Soviet political prisoner from 1945 to 1953, he set himself firmly against the anti-human Soviet system, and all anti-human ideologies, from that time forward. His story One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) made him famous, and The Gulag Archipelago, published to worldwide acclaim in 1973, further unmasked communism and played a critical role in its eventual defeat. Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in 1970 and was exiled to the West in 1974. Photo Credit: Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr, Author: Andrew Tregubov, all right reserved.

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