Meriel Buchanan on the growing unrest in Russia (1916)

Meriel Buchanan (1886-1959) was a British writer and the only child of Sir George Buchanan, Britain’s ambassador to Russia for eight years. Meriel Buchanan lived with her parents in St Petersburg between 1910 and January 1918, sometimes accompanying her father on official trips around Russia. Her father’s position allowed Buchanan to attend the royal court and develop relationships with members of the Russian nobility. She also worked as a volunteer nurse in Petrograd’s Anglo-Russian Hospital during World War I. Buchanan had aspirations as a writer and published two novels, one of them set among Russian aristocrats. When these failed, Buchanan turned her hand to non-fiction. The following extract is from her 1918 book Petrograd: The City of Trouble, 1914-18. Showing surprising perception for an insider, Buchanan describes the causes of the growing unrest in Russia in 1916:

Summer 1916

“From all sides came the complaints of a people wearied by the war, disillusioned, lost in what seemed an endless circle of mistakes. [Minister of War] General Polivanov had been replaced by a weak, colourless man who did nothing to stem the rising tide of discontent in the army. [Sergey] Sazanov, who had been minister of foreign affairs for close on six years, whose love of country and for England had helped draw the two great nations together, was supplanted by Sturmer, the man with the German name and German sympathies.

Food was growing ever scarcer, the queues outside the bread shops stretched right down the length of the streets. It was said in all directions that the merchants and shopkeepers were building up huge profits at the expense of the people. Scandal whispered that the Empress trafficked with Germany, even the Emperor was no longer held in the same awe and reverence.

Rasputin’s power at court seemed to increase every day, his name became a byword, though many people, held in a kind of superstitious fear, dared not pronounce it, believing that by so doing they brought down ill luck on their heads. ‘The Unmentionable’, ‘The Nameless One’, so they would whisper about him with nervous glances behind them, as if they feared the power of some evil presence…

There was nothing bad or vile enough that was not insinuated. The dark powers behind the throne. German influence at court. The suspicion of a separate, treacherous peace. The power of Rasputin. Infamous stories about the Empress. Scandalous rumours about the young Grand Duchesses.

Evil influences were no doubt at work and yet they were perhaps not quite what the world imagines. The tragedy is real enough but for its cause, one would have to look deeper than the melodramatic scandal broadcast throughout the world. One must look further back, one must take into consideration a thousand causes, a thousand, thousand reasons. Above all, one must account for the Russian character, with its childlike simplicity and utterly bewildering complexities. It is impossible for us to try to judge them after our own standards, just as it is impossible for us to really understand them.

I have heard people with temerity doing both since I got back to England. “Russia has betrayed us!” “Russia has let us down!” “We really don’t care what happens to Russia!”… How often does on hear these phrases – but do the people who say them know what Russia has suffered? Do they know all the cause and reasons of that terrible war-weariness? Have they lived in Russia those first years of the war, seen the shortage of every kind of ammunition, the appalling suffering of the troops, the heart-breaking losses during those retreats when the soldiers, having no guns to which to defend themselves, had to fight with sticks and stones? Do they know the fearful sacrifice of human life with which each victory was bought?

Have they worked in the hospitals and seen the wounded pouring in, and not even quarter enough bandages to dress those terrible wounds, and no beds for them to lie on and no sheets to cover them? Do they know of the breaking hearts that waited, and perhaps still wait, for those thousands of nameless dead who gave their lives for some general’s mistake…? Do they know what the gradual breakdown of the railways, the lack of transport, the shortages of factories meant? Have they seen those long, long queues of patient women standing from three [o’clock] on some ice-cold winter morning to obtain even the bare necessaries of life?”

unrest in russia 1916
Staff at the Anglo-Russian Hospital in Petrograd in 1916. Meriel Buchanan (obscured) and her parents are in the rear. The Dowager Empress and Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana are in the foreground wearing white scarves.