Simanaitis Says

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PHIL JORDAN—PETROGRAD, 1917 PART 2

PHIL JORDAN was a working man caught up in one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century: the Russian Revolution. He also wrote letters home. Yesterday, I provided introduction to Jordan; today, I share selections from his letters gleaned from Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge and Jamie H. Cockfield’s “Philip Jordan and the October Revolution.”

Philip Jordan, 1868–1941, African-American valet, chauffeur, and major domo to David R. Francis, U.S. ambassador to Russia. Image cropped from one in Caught in the Revolution.

Jordan wrote many of these letters to Mrs. Jane Francis, wife of Ambassador Francis, who didn’t accompany them to Petrograd. Indeed, she had given Jordan his only schooling, relatively meager as exemplified by his idiosyncratic written English. Cockfield notes that Jordan’s “spelling of large English words, as well as of Russian names and terms, was usually correct, while commonplace words were frequently misspelled.”

On September 19, 1917, Jordan shared the view that “I believe there will be more people starve to death here in Petrograd than they will kill with bullets. It does certainly look mighty bad right now, and think what it will be when she drops to 38 & 40 below!”

He described the shortage of food: “I see in the papers that the people [back home] are complaining about having to pay 10 cts. for a loaf of bread. I wish I had that bread over here at 10 cts. a loaf. I could sell it without any trouble for $5.00 a loaf.”

Not that he was in any sense a war profiteer: “I know a very rich family with the finest furnished house I was ever in worth millions and can not get anything to eat…. I have a woman who brings milk and cream from the country, and I take them a bottle of milk and cream once a week only trying to do my bit.”

Of his food searches: “This Ford automobile is certainly a lifesaver. I go all through the villages and buy chickens and vegetables.”

Concerning a growing violence, Jordan wrote, “The Gov and I have been killed so many times in the last twelve months that we are getting use to it. Some days and nights you will see on the Nevsky Prespect ten or twenty thousand marching with black flags and banners reading that we are on our way to kill all Americans and all rich people.”

Cockfield says, “Jordan, of course, over-dramatized the situation of foreigners in Russia.”

On the other hand, having recently watched the 1965 flick Doctor Zhivago, I’m putting my money on Jordan, Boris Pasternak, and The Daily Mirror of London, September 19, 1917.

The caption describes “A terrible scene which occurred in the Nevsky Prospect, Petrograd’s famous thoroughfare…” Image from Caught in the Revolution.

On November 18, 1917, Phil wrote Mrs. Francis, “On last Tuesday the Bolsheviks got the city in their hands, and I want to tell you that it is something awful.… I have found out that the best thing to do right now is to keep your mouth shut and look as much like an American as you can.”

“A room in the Tsar’s Winter Palace, ransacked by Bolsheviks after they took over the Palace with little or no resistance.” Image and caption from Caught in the Revolution.

In February 26, 1918, Ambassador David Francis and Phil Jordan left Petrograd, never to return. By 1924, the city would be called Leningrad, a name retained until its reversion to St. Petersburg in 1991.

On return to the U.S. in 1918, Phil received the well-deserved honor of being invited to the White House. Later he said, “I was born in Hog Alley, and I think you know that a kangaroo can jump further than any other animal, but I don’t believe he could jump from Hog Alley to the White House—that was some jump.”

Phil continued to work for the Francis family and was eventually provided rent-free accommodations and a small trust. He died from cancer, age 73, in Santa Barbara in 1941.

In November 1917, Phil had written to his mistress back home, “After living in a wild country like this for 18 months, it makes you feel like there is only two decent places to live. One is Heaven and the other is America.”

A genuine American patriot. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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