Friday, February 28, 2014


My Mother and Dad met by accident. It was Leap Year 1936. Mother was in her final year at Yale School of Nursing. She had wanted to be a medical doctor; but her Father had insisted she earn a nursing degree first. That, of course, was a mistake. It’s a fork in the road. Once you’re a nurse, you don’t become a doctor: it’s like the chasm between workers and management. And Mother had gone away to boarding school at the age of twelve. By then she was tired of school. I don’t think Mother ever intended to get married. She was a real MHT – Mount Holyoke Type. They were among the first women libbers.

Mother had originally wanted to go to Wellesley, and was accepted. But one of her friends at National Cathedral School, where she took a year’s post-grad after Dickinson Seminary, had had her heart set on Wellesley and was on the waiting list. So Mother turned Wellesley down. Her friend was accepted. Mother hoped that her sacrifice had played a part. Her friend never knew. This story played a part in my psyche and own saga with Stan and the Whiffs. In my case, it was a futile gesture, since Stan had already been selected to be tapped. But I hadn’t known.

Anyway back to 1936. Mother’s roommate asked her to join her on a double date with two Divinity students. Mother really wasn’t interested. Her roommate persisted and persuaded her to go since the younger Divinity student was engaged. Mother had first choice. By selecting the already engaged, younger man, presumably she’d never see him again. Dad had worked a few years as a social worker in Boston before finally deciding to become a minister. And even at the end of his life, at 73, Sherry had something of a baby face. Dad’s classmate had a moustache, which made him look older. So Mother mistakenly chose the younger looking man, who was not engaged.

Elizabeth and Sheridan really didn’t know each other. When they were married on September 1, 1937, they had spent less than an entire week together. And they hadn’t written very often. Mother graduated from Yale School of Nursing in 1936. She taught Chemistry at National Cathedral School in Washington the following year, while Dad finished up his studies at Yale Divinity School.

According to Dad, Mother called the shots. She wrote him to determine his intentions. Perhaps her Father was exerting some pressure for her to get married. They agreed to meet half way in New York City. Dad said he got on the train in New Haven without knowing exactly what he was going to do. They met at the Hotel Pennsylvania. He proposed and she accepted. But they still didn’t know each other.

In many ways Elizabeth was a catch. Her Father was a successful businessman in the middle of the Great Depression and a Congressman to boot. It would clearly be an abuse of power today—perhaps, it wasn’t considered such then— but Grandfather Rich had three of his prospective sons-in-law investigated by the FBI; so if Sheridan W. Bell, Jr. had had any significant skeletons in his closet, they should have been uncovered then. Anyway, it was very useful for a Methodist minister to have a wife. (I later learned from Aunt Julie that Uncle Charlie had been exempted from the background check because his father had gone to Dickinson College, which Baba attended, but from which he did not graduate. Evidently Baba felt that the Dickinson connection was a good enough reference.

Sherry visited Betty once in Washington. It was near the end of her year teaching Chemistry. Daddy said it was the messiest lab he had ever seen. That should have been a sign. After they had been married a few months, Grandma Da took Dad aside and quietly suggested that Elizabeth might need some help with housekeeping.

I understand that Grandfather Bell died within the year of my parents wedding. So I suppose none of us at the Bell Reunion in 1994, besides Aunt Claora, had had the opportunity to get to know him well. Just before that reunion I heard a story from Mother, I think, about Grandfather Bell at my parents wedding in 1937. He was, of course, the Minister. On the day of the wedding he got up early and thought he would play a trick (or perhaps conduct a test) on one of my Mother’s relatives, who was helping to prepare the pre-wedding buffet. Grandfather Bell went to the back door and said he was a stranger in need of some food. Remember this was still the Great Depression. Mother’s Aunt said something like: " I can’t possibly help you. I’m having over a hundred people to breakfast this morning."

Can you imagine her chagrin when she went to the wedding and realized she had turned away the Minister and father of the groom! With today’s increasing tragedy of homelessness, it’s important to remember the saying of one tradition that you never know which stranger is an Angel. In words attributed to Christ: "If you do it to the least of these my brethren, you do it unto me." Enough pontificating! But it sounds as though Grandfather Bell had a terrific sense of humor. I know his son, my Dad, certainly did.


On our last day in Venezia– 28 February 2006 – Dennis bought four more paintings of Venice from Picchio Sanangelo, as well as a painted blackamoor from the same woodcarver we had purchased a simple gold Venetian mask in 1987.

While he was negotiating with Picchio, I was approached by an enterprising scout for a glass factory in Murano. We were offered a free ride in one of those handsome mahogany water taxis. I wanted to accept. I figured we could see the factory, hear as much of the spiel as we wanted, then leave on a vaporetto with our VeniceCards. Dennis exploded: “There is no free lunch!!!” I laughed and took a photo.

Then I had Dennis pose again with his pointed, jabbing finger. I included it on one of the two collages I put together for the reception at the Bohemian Club after his funeral. It’s now on the shelf in the closet of my bedroom…. and I look at it almost every day.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

CONSTANTINE the GREAT ~ February 27, 272 CE ~ May 22, 337 CE

Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus (27 February c. 272– 22 May 337), commonly known in English as Constantine I, Constantine the Great, or (among Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Christians) Saint Constantine, was Roman emperor from 306, and the sole holder of that office from 324 until his death in 337. Best known for being the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine reversed the persecutions of his predecessor, Diocletian, and issued (with his co-emperor Licinius) the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious toleration throughout the empire.

The Byzantine liturgical calendar, observed by the Eastern Orthodox Church and Eastern Catholic Churches of Byzantine rite, lists both Constantine and his mother Helena as saints. Although he is not included in the Latin Church's list of saints, which does recognize several other Constantines as saints, he is revered under the title "The Great" for his contributions to Christianity.

Constantine also transformed the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium into a new imperial residence, Constantinople, which would remain the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire for over one thousand years.

Etching by Piranesi

Ten and a half years ago on October 28th I stood in the middle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome and listened to a tape of my song of the same name, from a music drama about Constantine, I had written originally for the Bohemian Club as a submission for a Grove Play. The lyrics had been written a few years before, but I didn’t write the music or record it until after the play had been rejected by the Jinks Committee, following previous acceptance by the Reading Committee. When I retire in a few years, I intend to complete this and another play now on the back burner. But these won’t be resubmitted to the club. Instead, I’ll see where else there might be a place for them. More importantly, I plan to complete multi-media presentations on DVD.

By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~ I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer ~~ merely One of Four,
But Ruler of the Western World.
With flags unfurled & standards raised,
My legions march to victory:
~~ (O’er the grave?
~~ Who knows?)
With power supreme~~
which grows far greater
than any peasant
e’re foretold~~
The world is weary,
and bodies ... cold;
But Roman might
By the Cross of Christ I conquer.
~~I am Caesar ~~ Imperator ~~
No longer merely One of Four ~~
Soon ruler ~~ Augustus of the World.

Dennis and I had been in Venice and were in Rome before starting a ten day Mediterranean cruise ending up in Istanbul on Election Day 2000. (That was the only time I have voted by absentee ballot. I’ve never missed an election; but I like to vote in person.)
This was my second time on the Ponte Milvio. The first was in 1997 after dinner on a Sunday night with the choir from St. Dominic’s in San Francisco on a concert tour in Italy. We had just spent a frustrating day in Rome with little opportunity to go sight seeing on our own; so after dinner near the Vatican, I walked to the Victor Emmanuel monument at the Piazza Venezia and from there strode a power-walk about five kilometers up the Via del Corso in a straight line through Via le Tiziano, Via Flaminia to the Milvian Bridge and arrived just before midnight. (I returned to our hotel in the outer hills by taxi.)
One-thousand-six-hundred-ninety-eight years ago on October 28th in the year 312 C.E., Constantine defeated the Emperor Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (then at the northern most boundary of the city) and became sole ruler in the western half of the Roman Empire.
What initially interested me in the story of Constantine was the sheer scope of the geography. Even today it would be staggering for a single individual to affect events in places diverse as York, Rome, and Istanbul, let alone found one of them (now the largest city in Europe). Constantine —the Great— born in Dalmatia, accomplished all that. CONSTANTINE, the play, is based on actual history, legend, and a good bit of fiction. The major character is the hero Constantine. He is the real figure who changed the course of history. In the beginning we hear about his exploits second hand from other people when he became one of four tetrarchs after his father’s death in York, England. But at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, he demonstrates his valor, his stubbornness, his ingenuity, and his ability to exploit the situation.
After seeing angled rays of the sun through clouds the day before the battle, followed by a vision of the cross in a dream later that night, and then adopting the symbol of the Chi-Rho (the first two Greek letters of the word for Christ) to be painted on his soldiers’ shields, Constantine was able to win a victory against great odds. This victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was the significant event in his life. It led to Constantine’s later conversion and the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – an event which has had continuous impact on Western culture ever since.
Constantine becomes a Christian, yes, but primarily as the means to win the battle in order to gain absolute power. Later he insists on unity at the Council of Nicaea, again not so much from a religious standpoint as from a concern for conformity. His principal goal is to maintain order and hierarchy with himself at the top. He also wants family unity. This is the major source of conflict in the play. The single idea unifying the plot is the oftentimes difficult relationship between fathers and sons. The central irony is that Ossius saves Constantine’s life only – mistakenly – to recommend the execution of Crispus, Constantine’s son.
So the secondary major character is Lucius Marcellus Ossius, essentially my invention. He evolves from being a naive idealist to become a politically astute prelate. Ossius uses Constantine to gain acceptance of the Christian faith. He succeeds, but at the very moment of victory, he compromises the essence of that faith. Ossius becomes my metaphor of the Church as an institution and how it was changed by official recognition after the conversion of Constantine. This was a crucial intersection in history. Before that time it took great courage to declare oneself a Christian. Ever since, it has often been the reverse. In becoming an established institution, the Church lost sight of its original mission. This is not to imply that there is no truth in the Church, only to suggest that the great truths are hidden beneath the fabric of ritual and organization, and need to be rediscovered by seekers in each generation.
Ossius is basically a composite. There was a Bishop Ossius from Spain who advised Constantine on Church matters, may have interpreted the dream at the Milvian Bridge, probably presided at the Council of Nicaea and presumably counseled Constantine about the fate of Crispus. One fact I changed is having Ossius baptize Constantine. This act rounds out their relationship. (It’s unclear who really did baptize Constantine. Rome insists that it was Pope Sylvester, but he had already been in his tomb for at least two years.) It is fully documented, however, that Constantine was baptized just before his death.
Color photo of Rob Bell in front of colossal head of Constantine 1997

The Emperor Constantine seeks absolute power…with Unity of Empire, Faith and Family. Ossius wants Christianity to breathe the fresh air outside the catacombs – to be established and accepted in the open. Each uses the other as a means to his own goal. Each achieves that goal – but as is often the case in real life – gets more than he bargained for as a result of a relatively new cliché: the “law of unintended consequences.” The scene between Ossius and Constantine just before the Council of Nicaea is the heart of the play.

It is essential that we deal with this Arian heresy.
Yes, his ideas are dangerous. Arius preaches that Jesus is our brother— that we are all brothers.
Exactly! If Jesus is not Divine, on what basis do we owe him allegiance? If all men are brothers, on what basis do they owe ME allegiance? Anarchy- that’s the result of his ideas. The very integrity of the Empire is at stake.
I agree. We need hierarchy to maintain order. An ox will submit to his yoke, if he knows who's in command-- and if there’s a dog beneath him can kick.

Things are not always
as they seem.
The DREAM was
full fraternity;
But the folly
of that ideal
has only now
become too clear.
too disorganized.
It would be
The need...
is for
With recognition--
The Church has responsibilities
for Stewardship of resources.
We cannot afford
to squander Authority.
Hierarchy enhances Power--
Power for the
Greater Good.
Would that it were different.
The Situation’s changed.
Constantine: TRUTH is an ABSOLUTE
Ossius: (Though in practice it is not.)
Constantine: Truths, perhaps, are relative.
Ossius: (Indeed, some can be bought.)
Constantine: POWER is a process.
Ossius: (A means for good or ill.)
Constantine: UNITY is our purpose
Ossius: (Meaning submission to HIS will.)
Constantine: UNITY of EMPIRE
already is achieved.
Ossius: UNITY of FAMILY --
substantially, believed.
is the matter here at hand.
Without IT, all may crumble...
to blow away like sand.
(C): One EMPIRE, (O): One EMPEROR!
(C): One FAMILY, (O ): One FAITH!
Duet: Our DREAM is Salvation (Subjugation)
for the whole Human Race.
Good friend, I would like you to chair this Council on my behalf.
It is of utmost importance that we reach consenus. Above all--Unity.
Constantine puts on his crown and an elaborate robe and leads Ossius to the main stage set up for the Council.
Soldiers with swords drawn flank the entrance for the procession of Bishops.

At the beginning of that scene, each of the two main characters has already accomplished most of his principal goals. Constantine has absolute power in a unified empire (after his son, Crispus, had won a great naval victory in the Hellespont, where he defeated the superior fleet of Licinius, Augustus in the East). Ossius is a bishop in a recognized and powerfully established Christian Church. But here is the fatal flaw— hubris. Constantine’s quest for Unity had three elements: Empire, Family and Faith. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The operative word is foolish. Consistency in itself may be a noble goal; but the word ‘foolish’ implies an unreasonable consistency. By imposing conformity at the Council of Nicaea and excommunicating those with whom they disagreed – by being exclusionary with people and texts – Constantine and the Church cut themselves off from collective wisdom. Selecting four Gospels may appear to be balanced; but prohibiting other writings is a foolish consistency. Arius may indeed have been a heretic and worthy of excommunication. It is clear to me, however, that the Church has not had a monopoly of those seeking truth. Further, it appears that some of the most profound thinkers have been rejected and persecuted by institutions. The classic example is Jesus.
In the play, the character Arius is one of my heroes. His view is that Jesus is a great man, and not a deity. His song is one of the few that I chose to write in a regular –almost sing-song – rhyme scheme… largely because the historical Arius was known to preach in such a style. I called Arius’ piece “Heretic’s Song.”
(Dennis didn’t like that title and preferred the first line “Jesus is our Brother” and thought the theology expressed in the lyrics was actually fairly mainstream. I’m not so sure. In any case, as he lay dying, Dennis asked me to play Robby’s song— and along with The Bach unaccompanied 'cello suites— was one of the last things he heard. Dennis also requested that my recording be played during communion at his funeral at Grace Cathedral. The sound person at the Cathedral, however, got a mixed signal and didn’t play the CD at the right time. I had to get up and go back to the sound booth more than halfway down the nave to ask her to begin. But it probably turned out for the best, since then there wasn’t the clicking sound of high heels and shuffling of feet during communion).

Jesus is our Brother
He teaches us the way
To reach our heavenly Father
By learning how to pray.
Note well, he says OUR Father
Not merely his own.
To be a model for us mortals
What good is a God alone.
Oh yes, Jesus is our Brother,
Jesus is our Brother,
Jesus is our Brother
But more than this
Jesus is our Friend!

Jesus is our pastor
A shepherd to his flock.
Not only is he master
But paschal lamb; take stock
Of what he offers
A means so we’ll atone—
Be one with God creator
Round an inward heavenly throne
For the kingdom is within you
The kingdom is within you
The kingdom is WITHIN YOU
And through the end
Jesus is our Friend.
Our Brother Jesus
Is our Friend!

The tragedy for Constantine in terms of the play is that by insisting on complete unity in matters of faith, he depends more completely on Ossius’ corrupted, incomplete wisdom. Arius is truer to the ideals expressed by the younger Ossius in his song “Blessed are the Poor” but Arius is excommunicated and his writings banned. So complete unity of faith leads eventually to disunity of family and the tragic execution of Crispus. Therefore, the Fausta/Crispus story in part four is a necessary dramatic consequence to the scene at the Council of Nicaea.
The main external villains are the anti-Christian Emperor Maxentius, defeated by Constantine at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, and his sister Fausta – Constantine’s second wife – who plots the downfall of Crispus, Constantine’s heroic, virtuous son. The Crispus/Fausta story is based on legend. What is clear is that Constantine ordered the execution of both. For my play, I chose to adapt a variation of the Greek myth about Hippolytus & Phaedra, that is: the virtuous son, who rebuffs the sexual advances of his step-mother, and is then jealously accused of having raped her. Constantine learns the truth too late, after his son is already executed on his command. Fausta is then crushed beneath shields as in Richard Strauss’ opera based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
No doubt one of the most controversial elements of this play is my choice of Sophia as the name of the third part of the Trinity. It may sound like New Age or feminist jargon. I believe, however, it is correct historically that it was not until the latter part of the Fourth Century (two generations later than the events of the play) with the translation of the Bible and liturgy from Greek to Latin by St. Jerome that spiritus sanctus acquired its masculine character. In Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and other Middle Eastern languages, the equivalent word is feminine. Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s great church is Constantinople, does not mean Saint Sophia, but Holy Wisdom. And so I have used the names Holy Wisdom and Sophia interchangeably as the third part of the Trinity, which gives a rather Zen-like balance to the concept.
The play ends as it began— with Constantine’s baptism on his deathbed. In death Constantine is finally reconciled to his executed first son, Crispus. The anachronistic, bejeweled Byzantine angel from the vision the night before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge returns and stands in benediction above a kneeling Constantine and Crispus to form a visual tableau of reconciled Unity—a Father, Son and Holy Wisdom.
Chi-Rho image:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014



Able was I ere I saw Elba.

Palindrome courtesy of Jeffrey Hardy

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The United States Constitution placed restrictions on the power of Congress to enact taxes.

"The Congress shall have power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises [ . . . ] but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States [ . . . ]Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers [ . . . . ] No Capitation, or other direct, Tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the Census or Enumeration herein before directed to be taken."

Article I, § 8, Clause 1, grants to the Congress the power to impose taxes, but requires excise taxes to be geographically uniform. The Constitution states that all direct taxes are required to be apportioned among the states according to population. This basically refers to a tax on property as well as a capitation.

President Lincoln had Congress impose an income tax as a Civil War necessity, but the Supreme Court in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co. (1895), ruled that this had been unconstitutional, a decision which greatly limited the Congress' authority to levy an income tax. The 16th Amendment allows the Congress to levy an income tax without apportioning it among the States or basing it on Census results.

"The Congress shall have power to lay
and collect taxes on incomes,
from whatever source derived,
without apportionment among the several States,
and without regard to any census or enumeration."

On February 25, 1913, the Secretary of State Philander Knox proclaimed that the amendment had been ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the states, and thus had become part of the Constitution. An income tax, the Revenue Act of 1913, was shortly passed by the Congress. (

I work in the Trade side of Customs and Border Protection, now part of Homeland Security. We used to be the U.S. Customs Service in the Department of the Treasury, and our old mission was "To collect and protect the Revenue." San Francisco's handsome eclectic renaissance-revival Custom House opened in 1911, two years before ratification of the 16th Amendment. Some people have said our building is a cross between a fortress, a palace and a bank. All three descriptions are apt. Before the income tax, Customs duties were the principal source of revenue for the federal government.

Customs duties paid off the debt from the War for Independence, financed the purchase of Louisiana, Florida, Gadsden and Alaska, besides paying for the Mexican American War. So over half the physical territory of the United States was financed with Customs duties. Today, although we still collect revenue, that is not our primary mission, which is tied to regulation of trade and anti-terrorism.

Pierre-Auguste RENOIR ~ February 25, 1841 ~ December 3, 1919

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (February 25, 1841 – December 3, 1919) was a French artist who was a leading painter in the development of the Impressionist style. As a celebrator of beauty, and especially feminine sensuality, it has been said that "Renoir is the final representative of a tradition which runs directly from Rubens to Watteau".

Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born in Limoges, Haute-Vienne, France, the child of a working class family. As a boy, he worked in a porcelain factory where his drawing talents led to him being chosen to paint designs on fine china. He also painted hangings for overseas missionaries and decorations on fans before he enrolled in art school. During those early years, he often visited the Louvre to study the French master painters.

In 1862 he began studying art under Charles Gleyre in Paris. There he met Alfred Sisley, Frédéric Bazille, and Claude Monet. At times during the 1860s, he did not have enough money to buy paint. Although Renoir first started exhibiting paintings at the Paris Salon in 1864,recognition did not come for another ten years, due, in part, to the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War.

During the Paris Commune in 1871, while he painted on the banks of the Seine River, some members of a commune group thought he was a spy, and were about to throw him into the river when a commune leader, Raoul Rigault, recognized Renoir as the man who had protected him on an earlier occasion.

In 1874, a ten-year friendship with Jules Le Coeur and his family ended, and Renoir lost not only the valuable support gained by the association, but a generous welcome to stay on their property near Fontainebleau and its scenic forest. This loss of a favorite painting location resulted in a distinct change of subjects.

Renoir experienced his initial acclaim when six of his paintings hung in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874.

In 1881, he traveled to Algeria, a country he associated with Eugène Delacroix,then to Madrid, to see the work of Diego Velázquez. Following that he traveled to Italy to see Titian's masterpieces in Florence and the paintings of Raphael in Rome. On January 15, 1882 Renoir met the composer Richard Wagner at his home in Palermo, Sicily. Renoir painted Wagner's portrait in just thirty-five minutes. In the same year, Renoir convalesced for six weeks in Algeria after contracting pneumonia, which would cause permanent damage to his respiratory system.

In 1883, he spent the summer in Guernsey, creating fifteen paintings in little over a month. Most of these feature Moulin Huet, a bay in Saint Martin's, Guernsey. Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands in the English Channel, and it has a varied landscape which includes beaches, cliffs, bays, forests, and mountains. These paintings were the subject of a set of commemorative postage stamps issued by the Bailiwick of Guernsey in 1983.

While living and working in Montmartre, Renoir employed as a model Suzanne Valadon, who posed for him and many of his fellow painters while studying their techniques; eventually she became one of the leading painters of the day.

In 1887, a year when Queen Victoria celebrated her Golden Jubilee, and upon the request of the queen's associate, Phillip Richbourg, he donated several paintings to the "French Impressionist Paintings" catalog as a token of his loyalty.

In 1890 he married Aline Victorine Charigot, who, along with a number of the artist's friends, had already served as a model for Les Déjeuner des canotiers, and with whom he already had a child, Pierre, in 1885. After his marriage Renoir painted many scenes of his wife and daily family life, including their children and their nurse, Aline's cousin Gabrielle Renard. The Renoirs had three sons, one of whom, Jean, became a filmmaker of note and another, Pierre, became a stage and film actor.
Later years
Around 1892, Renoir developed rheumatoid arthritis. In 1907, he moved to the warmer climate of "Les Collettes," a farm at Cagnes-sur-Mer, close to the Mediterranean coast. Renoir painted during the last twenty years of his life, even when arthritis severely limited his movement, and he was wheelchair-bound. He developed progressive deformities in his hands and ankylosis of his right shoulder, requiring him to adapt his painting technique. It has often been reported that in the advanced stages of his arthritis, he painted by having a brush strapped to his paralyzed fingers, but this is erroneous; Renoir remained able to grasp a brush, although he required an assistant to place it in his hand. The wrapping of his hands with bandages, apparent in late photographs of the artist, served to prevent skin irritation.
During this period he created sculptures by cooperating with a young artist, Richard Guino, who worked the clay. Renoir also used a moving canvas, or picture roll, to facilitate painting large works with his limited joint mobility.

In 1919, Renoir visited the Louvre to see his paintings hanging with the old masters. He died in the village of Cagnes-sur-Mer, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, on December 3, 1919.

Image &

Monday, February 24, 2014

RUSSIAN REVOLUTION ~ February 24, 1917

The Russian Revolution is the collective term for the series of revolutions in Russia in 1917, which destroyed the Tsarist autocracy and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. In the first revolution of February 1917 (March in the Gregorian calendar) the Tsar was deposed and replaced by a Provisional government. In the second revolution of October that year the Provisional Government was removed and replaced with a Bolshevik (Communist) government.

The February Revolution (March 1917) was a revolution focused around St Petersburg. In the chaos, members of the Imperial parliament or Duma assumed control of the country, forming the Russian Provisional Government. The army leadership felt they did not have the means to suppress the revolution and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, the last Tsar of Russia, abdicated, effectively leaving the Provisional Government in power. The Soviets (workers' councils) which were led by more radical socialist factions initially permitted the Provisional government to rule, but insisted on a perogative to influence the government and control various militias. The February Revolution took place in the context of heavy military setbacks during the First World War, which left much of the army in a state of mutiny.

This revolution broke out without definite leadership and formal plans, which may be seen as indicative of the fact that the Russian people had had quite enough of the existing system. St Petersburg the capital, became the focus of attention, and, on 23 February (8 March) 1917, people at the food queues started a demonstration. They were soon joined by many thousands of women textile workers, who walked out of their factories—partly in commemoration of International Women's Day but mainly to protest against the severe shortages of bread. Already, large numbers of men and women were on strike, and the women stopped at any still-operating factories to call on their workers to join them.

The mobs marched through the streets, with cries of "Bread!" and "Give us bread!" During the next two days, the strike, encouraged by the efforts of hundreds of rank-and-file socialist activists, spread to factories and shops throughout the capital. By 25 February, virtually every industrial enterprise in had St Petersburg been shut down, together with many commercial and service enterprises. Students, white-collar workers and teachers joined the workers in the streets and at public meetings, whilst, in the still-active Duma, liberal and socialist deputies came to realise a potentially-massive problem. They presently denounced the current government even more vehemently and demanded a responsible cabinet of ministers. The Duma, consisting primarily of the bourgeoise, pressed the Tsar to abdicate in order to avert a revolution.

On the evening of Saturday the 25th, with police having lost control of the situation, Nicholas II, who refused to believe the warnings about the seriousness of these events, sent a fateful telegram to the chief of the St Petersburg military district, General Sergei Khabalov: "I command you tomorrow to stop the disorders in the capital, which are unacceptable in the difficult time of war with Germany and Austria." Most of the soldiers obeyed these orders on the 26th, but mutinies, often led by lower-ranked officers, spread overnight. On the morning of the 27th, workers in the streets, many of them now armed, were joined by soldiers, sent in by the government to quell the riots. Many of these soldiers were insurgents, however, and they joined the crowd and fired on the police, in many cases little red ribbons tied to their bayonets. The outnumbered police then proceeded to join the army and civilians in their rampage. Thus, with this near-total disintegration of military power in the capital, effective civil authority collapsed.

By nighttime on the 27th, the cabinet submitted its resignation to the Tsar and proposed a temporary military dictatorship, but Russia's military leaders rejected this course. Nicholas, meanwhile, had been on the front with the soldiers, where he had seen first-hand Russia's defeat at Tannenberg. He had become very frustuated and was conscious of the fact that the demonstrations were on a massive scale; indeed, he feared for his life. The ill health of his son (suffering from the blood disorder hemophilia) was causing him difficulties, too.

Nicholas accepted defeat at last and abdicated on 13 March, hoping, by this last act of service to his nation (as he stated in his manifesto), to end the disorders and bring unity to Russia. In the wake of this collapse of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty—Nicholas's brother, to whom he subsequently offered the crown, refused to become Tsar unless that was the decision of an elected government; he wanted the people to want him as their leader—a minority of the Duma's deputies declared themselves a Provisional Government, chaired by Prince Lvov, a moderate reformist, although leadership moved gradually to Alexander Kerensky of the Social Revolutionary Party.

Image & text:

When my brother Sherry (Sheridan) was a student at Princeton in the early 1960's, he had an interview with Alexander Kerensky living in exile in New York.

Titian in the Frari (Venezia)