Delusions of Democracy: James Houghteling, Butler Wright, and American Misconceptions about Revoluti

Americans in Revolutionary Petrograd

International Conference

European University at St. Petersburg

6-7 October 2017

Delusion: a false belief held despite strong evidence against it;


Americans badly misunderstood the revolutions in Russia in 1917. Both in Petrograd and in Washington Americans – including Ambassador David Francis, President Woodrow Wilson, and the foremost expert on Russia, George Kennan – euphorically proclaimed that the fall of the Romanov autocracy and the formation of a provisional government meant that Russia had been transformed overnight into a democracy inspired by the United States that would wage war against the Central Powers much more vigorously than before. Such Americans’ misinterpretations of the February Revolution set foundations for their very negative reactions to the Bolshevik-led seizure of power from the provisional government in October. By disregarding or downplaying the war-weariness of soldiers, the unruliness of workers, and the popularity of socialists in the late winter, spring, and summer of 1917, many Americans set the stage for viewing the Bolsheviks as a small band of German-financed conspirators with no significant base of social support who would soon be overthrown by patriotic Russians. Although the Soviet government defied such American expectations by clinging to power, promoting revolution in Germany, and defeating White forces in the Russian Civil War, the fundamental misconceptions had a lasting influence on American official and popular views of the Russian revolutions.

As historians have long recognized, the widespread American expectation that the fall of the tsarist autocracy naturally would lead to Russian emulation of the shining example of the United States had deep roots in the writing and public speaking of George Kennan and other figures in the preceding decades.[1] In this paper I attempt to shed some new light on the more immediate development in 1917 of major American delusions (especially about the supposed birth of a pro-American democracy with a strong war-fighting spirit) by focusing primarily on two relatively neglected sources: diaries by James L. Houghteling, Jr., and Joshua Butler Wright. By examining the day-by-day notes of the two diplomats it may be possible to see more clearly how misleading beliefs were formed and buttressed by listening to wealthy, well-educated, English-speaking Russians and by dismissing or discounting unwelcome information or warnings.

James L. Houghteling, Jr.

James Houghteling, a native of Chicago from a family of bankers, served as a special attaché to the American Embassy in St. Petersburg in the first few months of 1917. The 33-year-old Houghteling assisted with providing aid to German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in Russia.[2] From January 18 to April 8 he recorded in a diary what he saw in Petrograd, in Moscow, and on the train between the cities, as well as what he heard from American colleagues and Russian acquaintances. Houghteling’s diary, published in New York in 1918, is not important because of its impact on American thinking about Russia – it received only a few short reviews, which were at best polite and at worst sharply critical.[3] Instead, the diary is valuable for the insights it offers about how Americans in Russia in early 1917 viewed developments there and who influenced their perspectives.

Since Houghteling did not learn much Russian[4] during his brief time in Russia, he depended heavily on information, rumors, speculation, and predictions from fellow Americans, Britons, and Russians who could speak English, German or French. Houghteling seems to have been especially influenced by Samuel Harper, a professor from the University of Chicago; Joshua Butler Wright, counselor of the U.S. Embassy; British journalist Harold Williams and his wife Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams; wealthy Russian women who hosted parties that Houghteling attended; and Aleksandr Ivanovich Guchkov, a conservative politician who became the first Minister of War in the provisional government formed after the collapse of the Romanov autocracy.[5]

Tyrkova-Williams was a leader of the Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) party and Samuel Harper had close ties to Kadets, including Paul Miliukov, a professor of law who became the first Foreign Minister in the provisional government. Perhaps in part because of such connections, Houghteling tended to view developments in Russia through a Kadet-like framework, including the Kadet conception of the transcendence of class interests.[6] Thus, one of the most striking features of the book is how frequently Houghteling praises unselfishness and altruism – virtues that are contrasted explicitly to “the crude selfishness of the [tsarist] bureaucracy” and implicitly to working class radicalism. In the very first line of his Introduction (even though it apparently was written in November 1917), Houghteling stressed how he had been “tremendously impressed by the ardent sentimental love which all classes of people show for their broad-stretching fatherland.” That “enthusiastic love,” he continued, explained “the great phenomenon of the Russian Revolution of this year 1917: the entire lack of selfish ambitions.”[7]

Many Russian liberals, including Tyrkova-Williams, felt that Russians in Petrograd in March 1917 experienced a miraculous rebirth that purified them of selfishness and fostered a new sense of community or brotherhood. Yet Tyrkova-Williams soon concluded that the supposed “unity was fictitious,” that the belief that all the partitions between people had disappeared was an illusion.[8] Americans like Houghteling, in contrast, persisted in that belief about the revolution.

Houghteling knew that workers had been key actors in the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and that some of them militantly asserted themselves at factories. On March 13 he recorded: “Petrograd is absolutely in the hands of the uprisen soldiers and workmen.” Three days later he noted that “We were much impressed to see a great red flag waving over the Winter Palace… .” Although Houghteling may not have understood fully the meanings of red flags, he clearly grasped the implications of a story he heard of an American who owned a manufacturing plant in Petrograd and whose factory hands suddenly refused to work full time. Although the American owner fired the workers, Houghteling noted, “they defied him and would not leave the building.” Houghteling also knew that many workers expressed enthusiasm for socialism. On March 25, watching the massive Liberty Parade, Houghteling witnessed how a “section of red socialists … suddenly struck up a hymn, and every one in the crowd immediately joined – soldiers, marchers and spectators.” Influenced by what he learned from wealthy Russians at a tea party, Houghteling expressed concern about socialists’ “preponderance among the workingmen in Petrograd” and recorded that “the problem is to put them back in their places without bloodshed.” Thus, he began to consider the need for a strong military leader to restore order and to think that “perhaps more blood must be shed.”[9]

Yet on the whole Houghteling refused to allow what he saw and heard to dim his optimism. On March 20, after listening to “a timorous American” spread “pessimistic rumors,” including tales that workers were refusing to go back to work at the munitions factories, Houghteling insisted on maintaining faith in Russia: “if one believes some of these faint-hearts, she is about done for. We think that she is just beginning.”[10]

Houghteling similarly set aside ominous rumors and evidence of antiwar sentiment among soldiers. With his own eyes Houghteling on March 12 “watched officers trying vainly to make a battalion fall in”; some of the soldiers instead gave away their guns and walked away. Even when an officer drew his revolver and pointed it at the soldiers, many of them just shrugged their shoulders. (64) Houghteling knew that not only in Petrograd, but also at the front, many soldiers were deserting, in part from a desire to return to their home villages to participate in the division of seized lands of nobles. (170, 173) Yet like Ambassador David Francis and almost all other diplomats present at a meeting at the U.S. Embassy on March 16, Houghteling refused to accept one American’s pessimistic forecast that “the revolution will take all the starch out of the troops at the front, and that we can no longer figure Russia as a factor in the war.” (130) Instead he focused on indications that supported what he wanted to believe. “Anti-war talk isn’t popular,” Houghteling concluded after seeing soldiers, officers, students and civilians in his train carriage denounce “an untidy socialist” who argued against the war. (172) Seeing many soldiers resume saluting their officers in Moscow, he observed: “This is a good sign.” (178) Perhaps most importantly, Houghteling pointed to a photograph that he placed as a frontispiece to his book: it showed soldiers marching in Petrograd on April 1, 1917, carrying a banner that declared: “In the Name of Liberty, War Against Germanism to Full Victory” (“VO IMIA SVOBODY VOINA S’ GERMANIZMOM DO POLNOI POBEDY”).

As the United States hesitantly moved toward entering the war against Germany in March 1917, Americans both in Petrograd and at home knew that their country was not ready to fight. If Russia left the war before enough doughboys could be trained, outfitted, and sent to France, Germany would be able to transfer divisions from the eastern front and perhaps defeat the Allies on the western front. Many Americans therefore wanted very badly to believe that the removal of the allegedly pro-German Empress Aleksandra, the ouster of bureaucrats who favored peace, and the establishment of a popular representative government would lead Russia not only to stay in the war but to wage it more enthusiastically and effectively than before.[11] Wishful thinking thus contributed to the widespread interpretation of the revolution against the autocracy as a triumph of American-style liberty.

Houghteling shared and fostered that view. After seeing an “Izvyestia” bulletin that declared people had a right to know what was happening, Houghteling proclaimed that “a new charter of liberty for Russia.” (84) After a long lunch on March 20 with Professor Boris Bakhmeteff (who would soon be sent as Ambassador to Washington), Houghteling enthusiastically commented on how the provisional government’s deep interest in relations with America and its desire to “open every possible facility for American trade” offered great promise that “Free Russia” would “leap ahead with tremendous strides.” (156-7) The next day, after meeting with the new Minister of Public Enlightenment, Houghteling noted how the provisional government planned to expand primary schooling “to make the people fit for self-government” and to model the educational system on the American example. (162) At the end of March, after lunching with the Wrights, Houghteling observed that the provisional government more generally considered “the United States its model and its best friend.” (187) All of this fueled Houghteling’s faith in the Americanization and democratization of Russia, which he maintained even as he prepared his diary for publication in November 1917. The revolution against the tsarist autocracy, he wrote in his introduction to the book, stemmed from “the same sort of exalted patriotism that inspired the fathers of the American nation in our Revolution.” (xviii)

This intense faith led logically to the belief that the Bolsheviks and other radical socialists who led the overthrow of the provisional government were not authentically Russian. Like the treasonous tsarist bureaucrats earlier, they were actually agents of German intrigue, Houghteling informed his readers. “The Bolsheviki and extremist agitators are not blood-children of the Russian Revolution,” he declared.[12]

Joshua Butler Wright

While Houghteling was a diplomatic novice who served in Russia for only three months, Butler Wright was an experienced career diplomat who spent almost a year and a half in Russia (from November 1916 to March 1918). Houghteling and Wright also differed in their temperaments and political orientations: whereas the more even-tempered Houghteling was a liberal who would go on to be an administrator in the Democratic administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Wright was an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt who colorfully expressed his negative views of the character of foreign peoples. Yet Houghteling and Wright responded to revolutionary developments in Russia in similar ways. Both overcame concerns about working class radicalism to express great enthusiasm over a supposed triumph of democracy in March 1917 that they believed would invigorate Russia’s war effort. And despite their revulsion at the seizure of power by the treacherous Bolsheviks both men preserved a faith that America had a special mission to fulfill in Russia.

From his first days in Petrograd Wright was repelled by the filthiness and ignorance of the Russian masses. He recorded being struck by “the overpowering odor of the muzhiks” and dismayed by the obtuseness of his “phlegmatic servants.” In the spring “the greatest menace” in Russia seemed to Wright to stem from the “impossible” demands of workmen for much higher wages and fewer hours. By May he saw “the fever” spread to his own servants, who impudently and obstinately refused to leave when he dismissed them. In contrast, Wright and his wife Harriet greatly enjoyed playing bridge, skating, and otherwise socializing with Russian elites.[13]

Against that background Wright’s enthusiasm about the overthrow of the autocracy is striking. On March 15, after Nicholas II abdicated and quiet had been restored in Petrograd, Wright marveled at what appeared to have been “one of the most astounding popular revolutions in history.” He was still troubled by some of what he heard and saw. An armed crowd outside the embassy had called for bread and an end to the war on March 12. Three days later “Reds” were crying “Down with capital!” There were a hundred thousand men in Petrograd who did “not acknowledge, respect, or salute their officers,” and whom social democratic partisans were straining to influence, he noted on March 21. Despite those worrying signs, Wright felt exultant when Washington recognized the provisional government and order seemed to have been restored in Petrograd. “It is the most incredible dream!!” he wrote on March 22.

As the United States moved toward war against Germany in February and March, Wright followed the news with mounting excitement and he welcomed the declaration of war by Congress on April 6.[14] Since he anticipated and favored U.S. intervention in the European war, it is not surprising that Wright seized upon indications that the Russian revolution would raise the fighting spirit of Russian soldiers and discounted opposite indications. “There is no talk of giving up the war,” he recorded on March 18; “on the contrary it seems that it will be more vigorously prosecuted.” On March 26 he noted that German planes were scattering notices to Russian soldiers, urging them to leave the trenches and go home, but he wrote that there were “no signs of wavering on the part of the Russian troops.” He even recorded that French officers had been astonished by the morale of regiments that mutinied earlier against the autocratic order. The next day, on the other hand, Wright acknowledged that U.S. military and naval attaches claimed that troops that had gotten “once out of hand” could not be relied upon and he reported rumors that “groups of men are deserting wholesale from the central and northern fronts.” However, Wright did not want to believe the rumors: “I can hardly credit that,” he wrote, “because upon the success of the war depends the success of the revolution.”

Wright maintained his optimism about the Russian war effort through the beginning of May. An enthusiastic demonstration outside the embassy on April 29 by twenty thousand soldiers, laborers, women, and trade unionists buttressed his confidence: “The people were all pro-war to a victorious conclusion, anti-separate peace, and pro-republic.” On May 2 he conceded that there were divergent opinions about the meanings of the Mayday parades, which had included banners urging the proletariat of the world to unite as well as banners condemning German militarism. However, he was determined to focus on the positive: “it seems rather well established that a separate peace is not to be thought of; …that the military situation improves daily; that the socialist element is purging itself of the more violent and radical members; and that the government … is growing stronger.”

That was on the eve of a political crisis caused by a statement from Foreign Minister Miliukov; intense criticism of his declaration led to his resignation and the reorganization of the provisional government. Thereafter it became more difficult for Wright to be sanguine amid reports that soldiers at the front were fraternizing with the enemy and that desertion was a serious problem, as he noted on May 8. By May 23 Wright was complaining to his diary that “these people need constant spurring on to maintain their share of this conflict.” Instead of enhancing Russian energy and efficiency, the revolution had led the problem of morale and vigor to become “four times as difficult” as it had been under the old regime.

As early as May 6, Wright began to think about the desirability of having the provisional government “repress disorder by force.” A week later he declared to his diary that the sailors of the Baltic fleet needed “a good thrashing.” In the following months Wright increasingly came to believe that the solution to Russia’s problems was “a military dictator,” as he wrote on August 2.

By the time Wright began to think democratic Russia needed a strong man to impose order, though, the United States was fully committed to waging war against Germany; there was no turning back. As he took a leading role in launching an Allied propaganda campaign to maintain or improve Russian morale, Wright repeatedly compared Russia to America. On May 26, encouraging reports that soldiers at the front “cheer the United States with vigor” and that peasants vowed to return all deserters to the army led Wright to think, “It all seems to lend color to the belief that the interior is now going through just what we did directly after the [American] Revolution.” Apparently Wright was reflecting on Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion as moments of turbulence along the way to the consolidation of the U.S. federal government. A week later, playing golf in the suburbs of Petrograd with Ambassador Francis, Wright found that the area, with its log houses, “greatly resembles our western towns in many ways”; although some places were “ill kept” there was “so sign of anarchy or violence.”[15]

This line of thinking about parallels between America and Russia persisted and seems to have stoked Wright’s sense of a special American mission in Russia. Three weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power Wright thought that America was the only nation that could “help this distracted country.”[16] At the beginning of 1918 he recognized that there were “relatively few patriotic [i.e. pro-war] Russians” for Americans to cheer and support, but he also believed that the Russian people were anxious for help from America above all.[17] As he left Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railway in March 1918, he repeatedly likened Siberia to the American West.[18] (Since Wright had worked as a rancher in Wyoming as a young man, the similarities may have made an even more powerful impression on him than on other Americans.) Upon reaching Vladivostok Wright cabled the State Department a recommendation for political and economic, as well as military intervention. Although a “wave of ultra socialism” was still sweeping Russia, Wright believed that American propagation “of any germ of a responsible Siberian government would meet with welcome from a tired people.” A broad program of American aid and reconstruction would bring “all the propaganda of the manifold institutions of the United States” to Siberia and have a lasting, positive effect.[19]

Louise Bryant

Patriotic liberals and conservatives like Houghteling and Wright were not the only Americans prone to wishful thinking and misconceptions about revolutionary Russia. Soon after she arrived in Petrograd in the late summer of 1917, for example, leftist journalist Louise Bryant imagined the “half-fed shivering throngs” she saw hurrying through the streets “lifting their faces and beholding a vision of world democracy.” While Butler Wright had thought in March 1917 that the supposed orderly political revolution was “the most incredible dream,” a year later Bryant glowed about how Russia was a land “where events only heretofore dreamed … have suddenly come to be.” Whereas President Wilson, George Kennan, and other liberals had claimed the peasant commune (mir) had over the centuries prepared Russians for democracy, Bryant asserted that the Soviets were a natural form of government because the Russian masses had “long experience with communistic institutions.” Despite the creation of the Cheka and the forcible dispersal of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly, Bryant insisted that “The Bolsheviki are in power because they bow to the will of the masses” (italicized in original). Like Bryant, other American radicals saw in Russia what they hoped to see or focused selectively on information that seemed to confirm what they wanted to believe.[20]

Closing Comments

In showing that Houghteling, Wright, Bryant, and many other Americans had delusions about the coming of democracy to Russia, I am not arguing that it was impossible for democracy to emerge in Russia after the fall of the autocracy or that the establishment of the Bolshevik dictatorship was inevitable. As Laura Engelstein observes in her new history of revolutionary Russia, there were some possibilities for democratic development in 1917. Yet it was delusional to imagine that a pro-American government could consolidate democratic authority in Russia while waging a war most soldiers no longer were willing to fight and while postponing the redistribution of lands to which peasants felt entitled. In writing about revolutionary Russia it is important for historians to have critical distance from the views of Russian and American liberals in 1917, to avoid reproducing their exaggeration of the primacy of privileged elites in the fall of the autocracy, and not to echo their depictions of the February Revolution as a triumph of a single broad impulse for democracy that transcended class divides.[21]

Demonstrating that American misconceptions about revolutionary Russia were not merely projected onto the Russian screen by ignorant Americans in the distant United States but also developed on the ground in interaction with Russians in Petrograd is only a very small contribution to historians’ understanding of Russian-American relations in that era. Yet I hope it will be recognized that some of the major dynamics present in 1917 – the influence of Westernized, English-speaking Russian elites on American notions about Russia; American desires for a “strong man” to impose order on an unruly democracy; and the blaming of evil, sinister figures for obstructing the fulfillment of Russia’s natural democratic destiny – are themes that would reverberate in American-Russian relations for many decades, in fact for an entire century.

[1] See, for example, Frederick F. Travis, George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship, 1865-1924 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1990); David S. Foglesong, The American Mission and the “Evil Empire”: The Crusade for a “Free Russia” Since 1881 (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] Houghteling has received little attention from historians. Two exceptions are Norman Saul, War and Revolution: The United States and Russia, 1914-1921 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001), 82-3; and Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge (New York: St. Martin’s press, 2016. Rappaport presents many quotations from Houghteling’s diary but no analysis of his interpretation of the revolution.

[3] James L. Houghteling, Jr., A Diary of the Russian Revolution (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1918). One kind reviewer praised the book’s “genuine effectiveness and interest.” The Dial, Vol. 64, March 28, 1918, p. 301. A less indulgent reader harshly criticized the brevity of Houghteling’s depiction of the crucial days of revolt and the detailed recounting of trivia. “The Problem in Russia: A Three Months’ Record of Revolutionary Events,” Boston Evening Transcript, April 3, 1918, p. 6.

[4] In an “ugly American” moment at the start of his service, Houghteling exasperatedly asked: “why doesn’t any one speak anything beside Russian?” Near the end of his tour of duty, Houghteling understood enough Russian to recognize that fellow passengers on a train were talking about America and Americans, but he could engage in conversation only with those who spoke French or German. A Diary of the Russian Revolution, 7; 171-2.

[5] In his preface, dated November 25, 1917, Houghteling thanked Harper “for the ground-outline he has given me of Russian institutions, politics, and customs, which has enabled me in greater measure to grasp the significance of what I saw and heard.” Ibid., viii. Houghteling called Tyrkova-Williams “a very clever Russian woman” and noted that the Williams’ apartment was “a great rendezvous for liberals of all sorts.” Ibid., 13.

[6] On Kadet ideas of nadklassnost’ see William G. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution: The Constitutional Democratic Party, 1917-1921 (Princeton, 1974), esp. 83-92. On the Kadet influence on George Kennan’s views of the February Revolution, see Travis, George Kennan and the American-Russian Relationship, esp. 326-8.

[7] Houghteling, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, xiii-xiv. Unselfishness or disinterestedness was a cardinal virtue upheld by many middle-class progressives in the United States, including Woodrow Wilson. Yet Houghteling’s emphasis on that theme seems to have been influenced by the people he associated with in Petrograd.

[8] Ariadna Tyrkova-Williams, From Liberty to Brest-Litovsk: The First Year of the Russian Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1919), 10-13.

[9] Ibid., 75, 139, 170, 176-7, 178-9, 184. On April 1 Houghteling recorded being highly impressed by seeing General Korniloff riding in the midst of “a stunning group of staff officers” and receiving smart salutes from soldiers on the sidewalks. He went on to reflect: “If these soldiers will obey, there will be order in the city and an end of the spirit of superciliousness on the part of the workingmen… .” Ibid., 188.

[10] Ibid., 163-4. On this occasion, Houghteling had tea with “Mrs. B. W___” (probably the wife of Butler Wright).

[11] Houghteling noted on February 20 that all in the Russian army believed Tsarina Aleksandra was “sending news to the Germans” (38). On March 1, after calling upon the wife of a rich merchant, he recorded that “No one in Russia, except the desperately seared bureaucracy, wants a separate peace” (48).

[12] Houghteling, A Diary of the Russian Revolution, xviii. On the theme of German intrigue, see 124n, 129.

[13] Joshua Butler Wright Diary, Mudd Library, Princeton University, entries for November 20, 1916, January 8, 1917, May 31, 1917, January 23, 1917, and January 28, 1917. For the published version see William Allison, Witness to Revolution: The Russian Revolution Diary and Letters of J. Butler Wright (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002).

[14] Wright Diary, entries for February 4, March 4, March 7, April 2, and April 7, 1917.

[15] Wright Diary, May 26 and June 3, 1917.

[16] Wright Diary, December 1, 1917.

[17] Wright Diary, January 1 and 2, 1918.

[18] Wright Diary, March 8, 11, 15, and 18, 1918.

[19] Wright to Secretary of State, March 26, 1918, reprinted in Allison, Witness to Revolution, p. #?

[20] Louise Bryant, Six Red Months in Russia (London: Journeyman Press, 1982; first published in May 1918), 45; ix; 56; 55.

[21] Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914-1921 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

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