European studies blog

15 March 2017

Pskov, Pskov, 35.015: Railway and Revolution

In Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago there is an episode when a young telephone operator Kolya is having a conversation the meaning of which is not initially quite clear to the reader:

Kolya was as usual conducting another conversation and, judging by the decimal fractions which embellished his speech, transmitting a message in code over a third instrument. ‘Pskov, Pskov, can you hear me? – What rebels? What help? What are you talking about, Mademoiselle? Ring off, please. – Pskov, Pskov, thirty-six point nought one five. – Oh, hell, they’ve cut me off. – Hullo, hullo, I can’t hear. – Is that you again, Mademoiselle? I’ve told you, I can’t, speak to the station-master. All lies, fable – Thirty six … Oh, he… Get off the line, Mademoiselle’ (translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari).

Pskov Pskov railway station (postcard)

In fact the author made this character in his novel into a witness and a player in the big game which was to change Russian history for good. From the beginning of the unrest in Petrograd that started on 8 March (23 February) 1917, parliamentarians and politicians had been discussing various options of dealing with the disorder.

Yurii Lomonosov, a transport engineer and employee of the Ministry of Transport recorded in his diary on 14 (1) March 1917:

In the Duma, they debated for the whole day what had to be done. There were various suggestions: dethronement, abdication or persuasion, in other words – Tsarina’s arrest and appointment of a responsible ministry. They agreed on abdication. The Department of Exploitation clerk brought me an order to send the Tsar’s train to Pskov. I wish to believe that this was the last Imperial train.

Just before discontent started in the capital, Tsar Nicholas II had left his family residence in the suburbs of Petrograd, Tsarskoe Selo, for his army Headquarters in Mogilev.

Tsarskoe selo
Tsarskoe Selo railway station (postcard)

Mogilev railway station (postcard)

Yurii Lomonosov and Alexander Bublikov, also a railway engineer and member of the Duma, were tasked with preventing the Tsar’s train from re-entering Petrograd, so that he could not get support from any loyal troops or advisors, and negotiators could put pressure on  the monarch to abdicate. As General Spiridovich, Commander of the Imperial Guards, recalled in his memoirs:

The Tsar ordered to reply that he was waiting for Rodzianko [Head of the Duma] at the Dno station. The Tsar was walking along the platform for quite a while. All were surprised to learn that General Ivanov [commander of the Petrograd Military District with powers of martial law granted by the Tsar] had just arrived to the station with his train […]. We found out that while General Ivanov was at the station, several trains full of drunken soldiers arrived there. Many were rude and imprudent. Ivanov ordered to arrest several dozens of soldiers. Many of them were searched and a lot of officers’ belongings were found on them. They had probably been looted in Petrograd. In a manner of an old father figure Ivanov berated them, ordered to stay on their knees, beg pardon. He took the arrested in his train. All this, as told by witnesses was very strange and made an impression of something trivial, funny and sham.

On  15 (2) March 1917 Nicholas II signed an act of abdication under pressure from his ministers. Unwilling to place the burden of rulership on his frail 13-year-old son Alexei, he named his brother, Grand Duke Michael, as his successor. The following day, Michael announced that he would not take the throne unless a constituent assembly elected by ‘universal, direct, equal and secret suffrage’ voted to maintain the monarchy.  

Michael's authograph
Grans Duke Michael’s autograph refusal to accept the throne (From Wikimedia Commons)

As Yurii Lomonosov recorded in his diary, words changed their meaning overnight: mutineers became revolutionaries and loyal troop turned rebels:

‘What is the disposition?’
‘General  Ivanov  is in Semrin. He is on the phone with the gendarme officers who are going to meet him half way […]. The War Duma Committee ordered to stop all the [rail] traffic. We obeyed […] the order, but instead of destroying the tracks we took away parts of railroad switches, numbered them and took to Petrograd.’
‘Brilliant idea! Thank you very much. One of our telephones will be always connected with your telegraph. Let me know about all movements of General Ivanov.’
And it should be mentioned that the telegraph operators were excellent. They kept sending messages while General Ivanov was shooting their comrades behind the wall. We knew his every step.
As soon as I finished this telephone conversation, I was called again […]:
‘What is happening in Gatchina [an Imperial residence near St Petersburg]?’
‘Twenty thousand loyal troops are there’
‘What do you mean ‘loyal’?’
‘Not revolutionary…’
‘Do remember once and for all: these are rebels. Loyal – are those who are on the people’s side. So, Gatchina has been taken by the rebels. Go on…’   [From the conversation between Lomonosov and the Senior Railway Manager;  16 (3) March 1917]


 The Act of Abdication of Nicholas II and his brother Grand Duke Michael, published as a placard that would be distributed by hand or pasted to walls (shelfmark:  HS.74/1870)

Already on 12 March (27 February), the ‘Temporary Committee of the State Duma and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the two competing branches of power – had been formed, and the following day, the Petrograd Soviet published the first issue of its newsletter, Izvestiia (News). On the day of the abdication Izvestiia issued a special edition in a form of a leaflet, informing their readers about the epoch-making event:


Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

The British Library’s exhibition Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths opens on 28 April 2017, telling the extraordinary story of the Russian Revolution from the fall of Russia’s last Tsar to the rise of the first communist state.