Simanaitis Says

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IN THE long view of history, St. Petersburg, Russia, was called Petrograd for only the briefest of periods, 1914 to 1924. During that decade, though, it was central in a cataclysmic event, the Russian Revolution. Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 tells part of this. And, 100 years later, I’m caught up in day-to-day details of that society teetering on edge. What follows are some tidbits gleaned from this fascinating book.

Author Rappaport notes of Tsarist Russia in 1917: “Official mismanagement, corruption and waste of supplies were prodigious, made worse by a crippled rail network that was unable to transport food efficiently from the provinces—where it was still plentiful—to the cities that most needed it.”

A bread line in Petrograd in 1917. This and other images from Caught in the Revolution.

Rappaport cites American diplomat J. Butler Wright saying, “… the women are beginning to rebel at standing in bread lines from 5:00 A.M. for shops that open at 10:00 A.M., and that in weather twenty-five degrees below zero.” [Minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit.]

In the meantime, Petrograd’s aristocracy and, for that matter, its foreign contingent were doing fine. Rappaport quotes a National City Bank of New York employee, Leighton Rogers, being impressed by a Russian acquaintance’s “little family affair.”

Buffet choices occupy ten lines of description in the book. What’s more, “It turned out that this bacchanalian feast was merely the zakuski, or hor d’oeuvres, preceding a full sit-down dinner of salmon, roast venison and pheasant, followed by ice-cream bombe and yet more fruit and cheeses, served with wines from claret to burgundy and champagne.”

“At the end of the dinner…,” Rappaport says, “Rogers’ Russian host had produced the ultimate treat for his American guests: ‘two packets of Beeman’s Pepsin chewing gum.’ ”

The International Women’s Day parade in Petrograd, February 23, 1917.

Unrest of the less fortunate masses was first controlled by Cossacks and Tsarist mounted police. The latter acquired the pejorative term фараоны, faraony, pharaohs, for their tall shaving-brush headgear of black horsehair.

The Cossacks were rather less despised. In fact, more than once, when faraony on rooftop installations fired Maxim machine guns into the crowds, Cossacks returned the fire.

“Shoot the Pharaos on their roofs…,” a propaganda postcard read.

Rappaport offers an 11-page Glossary of Eyewitnesses. Mini-bios of 80 Americans, Brits, Canadians, French and other nationals identify people caught up in the evolving chaos.

A few names are familiar. Somerset Maugham, for instance, was a sometimes spy for British Intelligence during World War I. His Ashenden, or, The British Agent published in 1928 is based on his experiences.

Phil Jordan, 1868–1941, is new to me. He was the Black valet, cook and chauffeur accompanying U.S. Ambassador David R. Francis and his family. Jordan was rare among ex-pats in bothering to learn the Russian language. One of his adventures was acquiring a rare case of champagne and hauling it back to the official residence in the embassy’s Ford Model T.

Phil Jordan chauffeurs Ambassador Francis and counsellor J. Butler Wright in the embassy’s Model T.

Another notable appearing in the book is Paulette Pax, 1887–1942, a Russian-born French actress who returned to play in the French farce L’Idée de Françoise at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. Rappaport cites in a footnote: “In Paris in 1912 Pax had briefly been mistress to the British secret agent Sidney Reilly.”

Paulette Pax, Russian-born French actress. Image from

As general unrest grew in Petrograd, theatrical performances were threatened. But the Mikhailovsky had a firm rule: As long as the house numbered seven, the show went on. Rappaport observes that Pax and the troupe “took to the stage and performed the play ‘as though to a full house.’ ”

Lilie Bouton de Fernandez Azabal, 1875–1967, is another wonderful character described in the book. Iowa-born, Madeleine Bouton was a repertory actress in New York whose first husband was German Baron Guido Nimptsch. Divorcing the Baron, she moved up to Countess, wife of Russian Count Gricha von Nostitz. Outliving the Count and residing later in Biarritz with her third husband, a Spanish nobleman named de Fernandez Azabal, she found time to write her memoirs, The Countess From Iowa (Lilie de Fernandez – Azzbal). A must read, I say!

An Iowan adventuress becomes a Countess. A French farce plays to an Audience Rule of Seven. A Russian-cajoling expat hauls champagne in the embassy’s Model T. What a tale! And I’m only 82 pages into the book’s 430. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. jlalbrecht64
    May 28, 2017

    Another great (IMO) book about this period and the end of another dynasty is Frederic Morton’s “Thunder at Twilight – Vienna 1913/1914”

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