Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Eyewitness to War & Revolution, Part 3 of 4

Editor's comment: This is the third of four excerpts from the recently published book Four Thirds of Our Life, the autobiography of Nina Alekseevna Krivosheina. Krivosheina lived through revolution and the two world wars that enflamed Russia and Europe in the 20th century. The volume was translated and annotated [with notes in brackets] by our Assistant Editor Kimball Worcester. The series will be presented each Thursday in November 2022. MH

3.  The Night of the October Revolution

Translator's comment: By October 1917, the Petrograd populace had grown somewhat used to the turmoil that appeared to be the logical spawn of the revolution that toppled the tsarist regime in February. The war was still on. There were aspects of regular life that struggled to persist, such as concerts and operas. KW

The Women's Battalion of Death Was Guarding the
Winter Palace the Night of the October Revolution

On the evening of 25 October 1917, I was in Petrograd and went with my relative Natalya Sergeevna Polevaya to hear Feodor Chaliapin, who was performing at the People’s House. . .  Verdi’s opera Don Carlos was on the program, and although I had heard Chaliapin concerts before, I’d never heard him in the role of the gouty old King Philip. I have heard this opera only once in my life —on that significant evening. . .

I went by the tram on Liteinyi Prospekt. The route went along Liteinyi, then wrapped around to Gagarinskaya Street and onward, over the Palace Bridge to Kamennyi Island. I don’t really remember the trip there. It was really nothing special. The passengers behaved as usual, no disruption apparent anywhere, not in the tram or near the theater. At the House there were no particular discussions about an expected event with the Bolsheviks; we had talked about that a few times before, but nothing had happened. In the evenings there was some shooting, and sometimes people were stripped naked in the street— this now seemed mundane (what’s more, street thefts had just started).

The performance went as usual: the orchestra, the chorus, and the other performers were the essential background for the aged king with greying red hair who leaned on a crutch, favoring his afflicted leg. The crowd, as always when Chaliapin appeared on stage, applauded madly and shouted, the hysterical young ladies in the gallery squealing...

The first entre’act was over, and the curtain should just have been rising again. The only thing audible was the quiet murmur of the audience dying down. Suddenly, the theater lights went out, and we were in complete darkness, then total silence. There followed a light outbreak of talk, then all fell silent again. Some time passed in absolute darkness. Neither from the lobby nor from behind the curtain was there a glimmer of light. It was frightening. I whispered to Natalya Sergeevna: “It’s been a long time. Maybe there’s a fire somewhere?” Backstage some muted  bangs were occasionally audible. A wave of whispering spread through the crowd and then fell silent. Again, it was completely quiet, no one stirring. For some reason, none of the spectators (and there were no fewer than one-and-a-half to two thousand) were saying anything, and no one made the first move to get up from their seat. There was no panic, although little by little it was becoming intolerable.

Within five minutes (I later figured out the time almost exactly, so everything here is narrated just as it was), there was a slight movement in the curtain, and a voice spoke from the front of the stage, saying calmly as if it was some usual announcement from the management, “Citizens, don’t be alarmed. We’ve had a small malfunction in the electrical system. It’s nothing serious, and our technicians have immediately started the repair. We hope that the lights will soon be restored. There is some talk of a fire backstage, but there’s nothing of the sort, absolutely nothing is burning. The management assures you of that. I respectfully ask you to remain calmly in your seats.” A kind of sigh passed through the hall, and the quiet continued unbroken. All this went on for fifteen to twenty minutes. Why did no one leave? Why did a spontaneous panic not suddenly erupt? After another ten minutes I started imploring Natalya Sergeevna in a hysterical whisper, “Let’s go. We’ll escape sooner. For God’s sake, let’s leave. Je n’en peux plus!” [I can’t take it anymore!] Nat. Serg. seized me tightly by the arm and angrily whispered, “Sit down. Don’t you dare move even a little, or we’ll perish.” “What is that banging backstage?” I whispered. “Of course, it’s a fire, and they’re chopping away at something.” Natalya Sergeevna clenched my arm with all her might.

“Be silent. I’m not letting you go anywhere. Listen to me. Understood?” What helped me here was being with an experienced teacher. I succumbed and fell silent. I was afraid of very little then, but I had been terribly afraid of the dark since childhood. Entering a dark room in our huge apartment was real torture for me, so in these circumstances the experience of the absolute dark was almost more than I had strength for. Somehow, I screwed up my eyes, curled up in the seat, and just waited. When, when will the light finally come on? It seemed that all this would never end, and it was unbelievable that no one was disrupting this tenacious quiet.  

Then suddenly the light came on for a second and just as suddenly went out. The orchestra began to key up their instruments, the conductor walked out, sat at a music stand, and the curtain rose. Everything came back to life; the unexplained fire was out. At the end of the performance, we retrieved our coats and went out to the street, where suddenly there was the chattering of machine guns, quite unexpected, close, steady. They were shooting in various places, but it was mostly coming from the Neva side, and I thought that something was being chopped down from a wall, maybe some ornamentation!  

Armed Revolutionary Sailors and Soldiers

Natalya Sergeevna said, “Let’s stay the night at my place. It makes no sense for you to go home now.” I really didn’t want to and said, “No, no. I’ve got to get home right away. Things could get worse.” A tram suddenly appeared to our left. I had thought that any kind of street activity had stopped. I just shouted, “I’m off home!” and ran off to the stop and jumped full tilt onto the tram. There were lots of people in it, all the seats taken (benches along the windows), so I stood at the entrance but still inside the tram. Absolute silence reigned here as well, not even any little conversations. In a minute or two, a sailor from the Baltic Fleet hopped on the tram and stepped on my foot in doing so. It was terribly painful, and I cried out loud involuntarily. He politely stepped back and, excusing himself, he uttered clearly and discreetly, “Pardons, madmazelle.” I babbled, “Well,’s okay. It wasn’t on purpose.” A short pause, and suddenly a middle-aged heavy man seated in the far corner at the exit said emphatically and distinctly, “Ha, you were forgiven! Just wait, something’ll still go wrong for you."

We rode along swiftly, the sailor standing alongside me, rifle slung, and a machine gun bandolier under his coat across his shoulder. I remember him perfectly: a young, decent, even pretty face. Also, the middle-aged fellow who appeared to stick up for me. The tram was en route to the ascent up to Palace Bridge, and here I suddenly caught sight of the Winter Palace: lots of people, Junkers [officer cadets graduated from military college] standing in groups and lines, a few bonfires burning, everything surprisingly clear against the background of the palace wall. It seemed to me that I could even make out some of the Junkers’ faces; I clearly saw that they weren’t simply soldiers but specifically Junkers. The tram took off onto the bridge and suddenly stalled, and we all lurched in place from the sudden braking; apparently frightened, the driver decided to go back. A moment later, however, the tram suddenly went forward and boldly left the bridge onto the embankment. On the descent, those young faces again appeared close and distinct in the bright bonfire light; one Junker was slapping himself with his hands in a purely Russian way. However,  the whole group of them stood immobile, as if a magic lantern had...

Now we were rolling along full speed, rattling around the turn onto Gagarinskaya Street, and suddenly it became almost dark. I remember how we stopped on Liteinyi, the driver opened the door and shouted, “Get out. The tram is going to the shed.” Unbroken quiet in the tram had reigned for the whole journey.

I crossed to the other sidewalk, toward the corner of Kirochnaya, the tram passengers quickly disappearing, and I saw that I was completely alone. Not far off there was some serious gunfire. I had to pass about twelve houses, two of them with gardens; I went quickly. There was no one on the street, and I was scarily alone at night on an empty street. I had never had cause to be out at night by myself on the street, even on my own Kirochnaya Street. I walked still faster. Suddenly six shots whistled loudly down the street. Are they shooting at me? But there was no one around.

I couldn’t bear it and ran with as much strength as I could muster, even though at first I had decided that I wouldn’t run for anything, that I didn’t have to show how terrified I was (to whom, exactly?). Finally, I made it home; fortunately, the entry to the courtyard was open, and I flew in under the house’s arches. The black staircase was dimly lit, and I ran up the eight or ten stairs to our apartment, where the door opened right away. “Why are you out so late?” said my mother with displeasure. “They’re shooting again out there. It’s better not to go out in the evenings, as I’ve said. Did you hear a cannon go off not long ago?” “Not at all, we didn’t hear any cannon. You imagined that!

I calmed down a little and then slept well. In the morning there were rumors, of course: what and how, no one knew exactly. Toward evening, however, we found out that Kerenskii and the Provisional Government had fallen and there was a new regime. Well, said our friends, it won’t be for long, and just who are they?

No one then knew, no one understood that this would in reality be for a long time and that a spider had begun to weave its initially imperceptible web. Who in our house or among our friends and acquaintances then knew what sort of man Lenin was, who these Bolsheviks were, what their agenda was? I think almost no one did. After all, the most frightening of them all then seemed to be the SRs [Socialist Revolutionary Party; agrarian socialists]—they were cursed and criticized. In our house, where politics were really of very little interest to anyone, even the Kadet Party [Constitutional Democrats] were beyond the pale. . .

Now I am simply astonished, remembering that easy, senseless carelessness with which Russian society accepted both the revolution in February and the Bolshevist coup d’etat in October. Did anyone know at the time what had happened?

The series will be concluded next Thursday, 24 November 2022, with Nina Alekseevna's account of her escape from the Soviet Union.


The four articles in this series are excerpts from the recently published volume Four Thirds of Our Life, the autobiography of Nina Alekseevna Krivosheina.

Four Thirds of Our Life is available now in hardcover at  and is coming soon in paperback at Amazon.


  1. An episode of the latest season of "The Crown" portrays the plight of the Romanov's murder in Yekaterinburg and how the British Crown did not send a rescue ship/mission. I question since Yekaterinburg is deep inland just how was this rescue mission to be accomplished? We’re not the "White" forces close and expected to rescue the family, and the Bolos fearful of a rescue that they decided the immediate Romanov elimination was necessary? Any truth to the failure of the British as being complicit in this sad episode?

  2. You are spot on with these questions. Truly, there was never a real chance of rescuing the Imperial Family. First, after the revolution,they were sequestered at Tsarskoe Selo, with most of the children down with measles and the tsar away at the front. By the Bolshevik revolution, some months later, with the war still on, their fate was sealed. The practicality of any ship coming to save them, and their being able to get to that ship, was unrealistic. Once they were in Ekaterinburg, with the Czech Legion and some White forces closing in, they were doomed. The Bolsheviks dispensed with them so they couldn't be rescued. Indeed, there was never any real intention to keep the family alive on the part of the Bolsheviks. And the Kerensky government was too fragile and short-lived to have ensured the family's survial.
    In addition, politics in the UK were somewhat against the Romanovs, as they were seen as brutal autocrats, their closeness to the British Royal Family notwithstanding. If they had been brought to the UK, the consequences would have been complicated for both the government and the Royal Family. Remember, Russia was France's ally, and Britain was drawn into the war not as a direct ally of Russia.
    Only in 1919/20, when Crimea was under control of the Whites and the Volunteer Army for a short while, was it possible to rescue the Dowager Empress, her retinue, and some other royals.