Editor’s Note: The following piece is excerpted from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Red Wheel, Node III: March 1917, Book 3, newly translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz, and reprinted with permission from the University of Notre Dame Press. The Red Wheel is Solzhenitsyn’s multivolume epic work about the Russian Revolution told in the form of dramatized history. This excerpt presents a riveting account of the arrest of Admiral Adrian Nepenin, a progressive admiral who had welcomed the February Revolution that led to the overthrow of the czarist regime, but who now finds himself the victim of an insurrection by revolutionary sailors. All military authority has broken down even as Russia is still a belligerent in the First World War. In a subsequent chapter, Nepenin will be cruelly murdered.
Ground detachments had been drifting into port since early morning, wishing to see the admiral, wishing to have their own soviet of deputies.
Nepenin received the sailor deputies and heard them out. He ordered tea and bread prepared for their meeting in the joiners workshop.
Then he received the officers who had come with their ground units. He gave permission for the ground regiments to “organize.”
Clearly, they had to wait a while for the new regime’s beneficial influence to reach here. Duma deputies might even arrive today. In Petrograd, both Manifestos of abdication had been published.
But that last night the fleet had not held out! These murders (all the details of them, all the names, were not yet known on the Krechet) could not be pushed out of memory. This was not the moment to reproach the sailor deputies, though, or even to devise a punishment. Herein lay the tragedy of revolutionary murders: they cannot be tried or disputed and don’t even require apologies. Someone was killed—yes, they were, that’s it, bad luck.
One had to be big-hearted about the confusion of these ignorant people who had always been deprived of social justice, and someone’s malicious, pre-dawn telegram threatening to kill the admiral himself—one had to see the whole broad picture of Russia’s nascent liberation and keep the Baltic Fleet in this frame until a lucid moment came.
Most of all, Nepenin was astonished at this sailor outburst given the correctness of his own behavior. After all, he had made no attempt to deceive, he had announced everything to the sailors as soon as he himself found out, and he was the first of the major military leaders to recognize the revolutionary government—but everything had gone as though he had dug his heels in for the Czar to the very last. Why? What had his officers died for?
Confident of its rightness, revolution never answers questions like this.
But Nepenin wasn’t shaken in his sense of rightness, either. Or in the rightness of his ardent inner circle—Cherkassky, Rengarten, Dovkont. If anyone was wrong, then it was those who for so many years had dragged out their opposition to progress, free development, and all Russians coming together as equal citizens.
But this would all be corrected, if only they were given the time. Nepenin himself would correct things here in the fleet.
Yet how could he now face the sailors’ formation—while suspecting a murderer in each man?
Suddenly, just after noon, a rumor went around—not a wireless message but a rumor, though how?—through orderlies, embarrassed that apparently . . . apparently . . . on the city square, they had named the mine defense chief, Vice Admiral Maksimov, to be the new Commander of the Fleet!
Rengarten, red in the face, reported this to Nepenin as utter nonsense.
Indeed, what nonsense was this? How was it that sailors in the city could name their new commander themselves?
But before they could wonder or ridicule—ten minutes later—an automobile with a red flag came driving down the embankment, and heading from it to the Krechet was the robust Maksimov himself, and by his side Nepenin’s staff officer for warrants Captain 2d Rank Lev Muravyov (a Decembrist surname!) and several sailors peering quite maliciously.
Thus, all as one, they barged in on Nepenin, the sailors with pursed brows and lips and their hands on their carbines, Muravyov with an entirely shameless, independent look, and Maksimov with a roving—or even mischievous?—smile on his big face.
The admirals were left alone, and Maksimov shrugged and explained with a strong Finnish accent:
“There you have it, Adrian Ivanych! A little while ago I was arrested, now I’ve been promoted to Commander of the Fleet, and tomorrow I’ll be hanged.”
He didn’t relate how this was so, how he’d gone from arrest to commander. Had he promised them something?
“I did not consider refusal possible, not wanting to undermine the fleet’s battle worthiness.”
The sailors did not leave them entirely alone but stood on the other side of the door, looming.
Nepenin sat in total shock. Up until the day before yesterday, only the Emperor could have removed him. But now the Emperor had removed himself. Nepenin couldn’t immediately picture to whom the Commander of the Baltic Fleet now reported. There was no such thing as reporting to the government or even the Minister of the Navy. The new government didn’t even have a Minister of the Navy. Guchkov held both positions. Guchkov was generally of like mind with all the Young Turks, but there was no way right now to verify and support like-mindedness by telegraph.
But something had to be decided.
What could be decided, though, if the Emperor Paul I, where everything had begun yesterday, had already sent a wireless message to all ships to carry out only Maksimov’s orders and not Nepenin’s?
The Emperor Paul had a “central committee of ships’ deputies.”
No, Nepenin could not surrender his power—this was now the competence of . . . the Provisional Government?
But how could he prevent it?
No matter what Nepenin thought, he no longer had the authority.
Although he still had it weighing on his shoulders and heart.
First, he decided to report—not to GHQ but to the State Duma—about all that had transpired.
He wrote—and wanted to carry it to the wireless cabin himself. But the sailors at the door wouldn’t let him in.
He was as if under arrest.
They read the telegram and then let his adjutant carry it off.
How could he not transfer his authority now? . . .
To avoid dual power, he and Maksimov decided to sign all orders jointly.
They decided that Maksimov, taking for his automobile not only a red flag but also the flag of the Commander of the Fleet, would go see the commandant of Sveaborg Fortress to establish unity of actions.
With him, the entire accompanying group of sailors left, too. The admiral returned to pace through his Krechet, where an agitated crowd seethed, blue Dutch sailor shirts interspersed with gray soldier greatcoats.
Staff officers proposed composing on Nepenin’s behalf an order to the fleet saying that he welcomed the new regime.
It had already been written and announced both yesterday and today at dawn, but so what? One more time to hammer home the point, circumstances were such.
In the end, a nerve-wracked Rengarten came to tell him what was being printed at the fleet printing press “by deputy decision”: thousands of leaflets with a transcript of the night’s conversation between “deputy” Sakman and Kerensky. And Kerensky’s declaration that sailors were ensured complete freedom to agitate.
Meanwhile, it turned out that not only was there a “committee of sailor deputies” on the Emperor Paul, but there were three of them in different places and of different opinions.
Cherkassky suggested that as long as there was communication, as long as Nepenin had access to the telegraph cabin (the Krechet crew was remaining calm), he should contact General Naval Headquarters in Petrograd and request that Kerensky come to the telegraph for a conversation.
Cherkassky went to summon him.
Nepenin tried not to let his firmness dissipate. He had to make it through just a few hours!
Orderlies brought news that the assembly of the crews in the joiners workshop had chosen a new fleet staff!—and had also elected Nepenin as one of the staff.
Right then, a group of armed sailors entered from the embankment, about 20 men, while 40 remained shy of the gangplank—and announced they were arresting all Krechet officers.
They were told that the admiral’s vessel and headquarters could not be left without officers.
They droned a while and left a few—the flagship navigator, mechanic, priest, and several on the staff—Cherkassky, Rengarten, and Spolatbog—and ordered the rest to get off, arrested.
There was nothing to be done. The admiral shrugged and obeyed.
The loyal Decembrists looked at him with breaking alarm.
And right away, the 60 or so men in a tight crowd led them down the embankment, toward the fortress.
* * *
GREETINGS TO YOU, DAWN OF LIBERATION
FROM BASE SLAVERY UNDER THE EXECUTIONERS’ YOKE!
(from Russian Will newspaper, March 1917)
© 2021 by University of Notre Dame
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