Friday, September 02, 2005

Ivan Vasilyevich, velorutionary

A few items discovered in a search for "bicycle" in the Trotsky archive at

Was young Lev Davidovich Bronstein's first lesson in independence learned on two wheels?

In the country I played croquet and ninepins, led in forfeits, and was insolent to the girls. It was there that I learned to ride a bicycle made entirely by Ivan Vasilyevich. Because of that, I dared later to exercise on the Odessa track.
-- Leon Trotsky, My Life

The leaders of the October Revolution recognized the utility of the bicycle.

Lenin’ s office and mine in Smolny were in opposite ends of the building. The corridor that connected us, or rather separated us, was so long that Vladimir Ilyich laughingly suggested establishing a bicycle connection. We were connected by telephone and sailors were constantly running in bringing important notices from Lenin.
-- Leon Trotsky, Lenin

Who knows? What might have happened to the course of the October Revolution if Trotsky hadn't persuaded that critical bicycle battalion in Petersburg to join the revolution?

From Leon Trotsky’s
The History of the Russian Revolution Volume Three: The Triumph of the Soviets

The uncertainty lies in a bicycle battalion. Recruited, like the cavalry, from well-to-do and rich peasants, the bicycle men, coming from the intermediate city layers, constituted a most conservative part of the army.

Brought in from the front to put down the July movement, the bicycle battalion had zealously stormed the Palace of Kshesinskaia, and afterward been installed in Peter and Paul as one of the most reliable detachments. It was learned that at yesterday’s meeting which settled the fate of the fortress, the bicycle men had not been present. The old discipline still held in the battalion to such an extent that the officers had succeeded in keeping the soldiers from going into the fortress court. Counting on these bicycle men, the commandant of the fortress held his chin high, frequently got into telephone connection with Kerensky’s headquarters, and even professed to be about to arrest the Bolshevik commissar. The situation must not be left indefinite for an extra minute. Upon an order from Smolny, Blagonravov confronts the enemy: the colonel is subjected to house arrest, the telephones are removed from all officers’ apartments. The government staff calls up excitedly to know why the commandant is silent, and in general what is going on in the fortress. Blagonravov respectfully reports over the telephone that the fortress henceforward fulfils only the orders of the Military Revolutionary Committee, with which it behoves the government in the future to get in connection.

All the troops of the fortress garrison accepted the arrest of the commandant with complete satisfaction, but the bicycle men bore themselves evasively. What lay concealed behind their sulky silence a hidden hostility or the last waverings? "We decided to hold a special meeting for the bicycle men," writes Blagonravov, "and invite our best agitational forces, and above all Trotsky, who had enormous authority and influence over the soldier masses.” At four o’clock in the afternoon the whole battalion met in the neighbouring building of the Cirque Moderne. As governmental opponent, Quartermaster-General Poradelov, considered to be a Social-Revolutionary, took the floor. His objections were so cautious as to seem equivocal; and so much the more destructive was the attack of the Committee’s representatives. This supplementary oratorical battle for the Peter and Paul fortress ended as might have been foreseen: by all voices except thirty the battalion supported the resolution of Trotsky. One more of the potential bloody conflicts was settled before the fighting and without bloodshed. That was the October insurrection. Such was its style.

It was now possible to rely upon the fortress with tranquil confidence. Weapons were given out from the arsenal without hindrance. At Smolny, in the Factory and Shop Committee room, delegates from the plants stood in line to get orders for rifles. The capital had seen many queues during the war years—now it saw rifle-queues for the first time. Trucks from all the districts of the city were driving up to the arsenal. “You would hardly have recognised the Peter and Paul fortress," writes the worker Skorinko. "It’s renowned silence was broken by the chugging automobiles, shouts, and the creak of wagons. There was a special bustle in the storehouses. . . . Here too they led by us the first prisoners, officers and junkers.”

The meeting in the Cirque Moderne had another result. The bicycle men who had been guarding the Winter Palace since July withdrew, announcing that they would no longer consent to protect the government. That was a heavy blow. The bicycle men had to be replaced by junkers. The military support of the government was more and more reducing itself to the officers’ schools—a thing which not only narrowed it extremely, but also conclusively revealed its social constitution.

And does this mean that there are no troops in Petrograd prepared to defend the Provisional Government? asked the astonished Maliantovich, who had up to that moment dwelt in the kingdom of the eternal truths of law. I know nothing, Konovalov answered, shrugging his shoulders. It’s pretty bad, he added. And what are these troops that are on their way? insisted Maliantovich. A bicycle battalion, it seems. The minister sighed. There were 200,000 soldiers in Petrograd and in the environs. Things were going badly with the régime, if the head of the government had to fly off with an American flag at his back to meet a bicycle battalion.

The ministers would have sighed deeper if they had known that this third bicycle battalion sent from the front had stopped at Peredolskaia and telegraphed the Petrograd Soviet to know for just what purpose it was being sent. The Military Revolutionary Committee telegraphed the battalion a brotherly greeting and asked them to send their representatives immediately. The authorities sought and did not find the bicycle men, whose delegates arrived that same day in Smolny.


In spite of the complete blockade now at last established, the besieged (at the Winter Palace) still kept in touch with the outside world by telephone. To be sure, as early as five o’clock a company of the Keksgolmsky regiment had already occupied the War Ministry, through which the Winter Palace had kept in touch with headquarters. But even after that an officer still remained apparently for some hours at the apparatus of the South-western front, located in an attic chamber of the ministry where the captors never thought of looking. However, as before, this contact was of no help. The answers from the Northern front had become more and more evasive. The reinforcements had not turned up. The mysterious bicycle battalion never arrived. Kerensky himself seemed to have disappeared like a diver. The city friends confined themselves to briefer and briefer expressions of sympathy. The ministers were sick at heart.


The junkers wanted to know what was going to happen next, and demanded from the government explanations which it was not in a position to give. During this new conference between the junkers and the ministers, Kishkin arrived from staff headquarters, bringing an ultimatum signed by Antonov and delivered from the Peter and Paul fortress to the Quartermaster-General, Poradelov, by a bicycle man: Surrender and disarm the garrison of the Winter Palace; otherwise fire will be opened from the guns of the fortress and the ships of war; twenty minutes for reflection. This period had seemed small. Poradelov had managed to extract another ten minutes. The military members of the government, Manikovsky and Verderevsky, approached the matter simply: Since it is impossible to fight, they said, we must think of surrendering—that is, accept the ultimatum. But the civilian ministers remained obstinate. In the end they decided to make no answer to the ultimatism, and to appeal to the city duma as the only legal body existing in the capital. This appeal to the duma was the last attempt to wake up the drowsy conscience of the democracy.


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