When Emily Dicks was studying the 1917 Russian Revolution for GCSE History, she had an extra source up her sleeve – but one she never revealed to her teacher and classmates. Her grandfather Henry, who died before she was born, had witnessed the brutal revolution with his own eyes. He had been sent to school in Petrograd [now St Petersburg] as a teenager and found himself in the midst of history.
Henry recorded his memories in an interview with his son Adrian (Emily’s father) in 1967 and when Emily, now a Radio 1 producer and DJ, was old enough she listened to the tape and was immediately struck by the power of her grandfather’s account. She’s now visited St Petersburg to retrace his footsteps for a Radio 4 programme based on the recording – making it public for the first time.
“It was amazing to be so close to history like that and to hear his understated, restrained memories of what life was like and to be transported back 100 years. It’s a compelling account because he’s got such clear recall,” she says.
Henry’s first-hand account from the frontline of history begins with what he saw in the streets of Petrograd – the capital city of imperial Russia and the centre of Tsarist power – in the last days of the Romanovs…
“In February 1917, in the middle of winter, it was one of those very cold and sloppy kind of snowy days. The masses came out and there was a spontaneous uprising directed mostly against Tsar Nicholas II and his police, who the crowd used to call the ‘pharaohs’. Guards gathered and troops were ordered out and lo and behold refused to fire or intervene. There was a tremendous kind of spontaneous rush of friendly, fraternal rebellious feeling which one felt everywhere.
“I was right on the Nevsky Prospect [the main street of St Petersburg], and that’s where it all took place. What was rather astonishing was the degree of friendliness during these delirious honeymoon days. People not knowing each other would kiss each other in the street, walk arm in arm singing.
“The sight of men in uniforms standing in or riding on the wings of lorries with their rifles and machine guns at the ready was a kind of splendid sight. These were the activists. The soldiers’ standard uniforms were quite handsome. Great big heavy black greatcoats with Persian lamb collars. The police were in a hopeless minority once the crowd had really got going and out of hand – and the soldiers refused to do anything about it. There was very little looting. It was a really marvellous feeling, that this was a revolution where almost the entire population was united against the regime, which seemed to have collapsed with scarcely a shot.”
But the revolution had only just begun. In the months that followed, her grandfather once again found himself in the front row of history.
“Imagining someone I’m so closely related to standing and watching it all, living through that, is amazing,” says Emily.
After the Tsar abdicated in March and Lenin returned from exile in Finland, Henry watched events unfold…
“I went and stood frequently under the balcony of Kschessinska’s palace [the former home of a leading ballerina and mistress of the Tsar, which the Bolsheviks had taken over]. And here there were a couple of cars guarding Lenin and Trotsky who, it mustn’t be forgotten, frequently addressed the people too. But I never succeeded in seeing one of them or actually hearing them speak.
“By October the air of the capital was again thick with foreboding. One rather chilly morning in October I stood very near the Academy of Sciences on the Vasilievsky Island opposite the Winter Palace [seat of the Provisional Government that took power after the February Revolution] and there I saw the old cruiser Aurora [the Russian warship whose arrival announced the start of the Bolshevik Revolution] steam up and begin shelling the palace.
“After the Bolsheviks took over there a kind of terror began. Armed red militia men used to come and make house-to-house searches and go through every room allegedly looking for arms, pushing bayonets under mattresses, and doing quite a bit of looting on the side. But they didn’t usually do any violence to the ordinary people. They were hostile. Although my friends with whom I lived weren’t by any means rich, still they had what might be called a cultivated and rather nice home with grand pianos and things of that kind – and this marked them out as enemies of the people.”
As a boy barely out of school, being in the middle of a violent revolution was no place to be.
“In 1918 when it became unsafe, Henry escaped Petrograd for England via Finland,” says Emily. “He got caught up in the Finnish civil war, which was very violent, as the Finns were fighting for their independence from Russia.”
Later, Henry was to encounter political extremism again and again in the course of an extraordinary career. When the Deputy Führer of Nazi Germany, Rudolf Hess, arrived in Britain in 1941, the now Dr Dicks, a psychiatrist with the Royal Army Medical Corps, was assigned to assess Hess’s mental health at an MI5 safe house in Surrey. In the 1960s he interviewed former Nazi torturers in prison to unearth the roots of their extremism.
Even as an old man living in Hampstead in the 1970s, Henry was so aghast at the USSR’s abuse of psychiatric medicine to persecute dissidents that he threatened to chain himself to the railings of the Soviet Embassy in London.
It is easy to conclude that witnessing political violence at first-hand shaped his worldview in later life. But sadly, having never had the chance to talk to her grandfather about it, Emily will never know for sure. But the tape has brought her grandfather’s words to life 100 years on. As he says: “These kinds of sights are not forgotten soon.”
Archive on 4 – 1917: Eyewitness in Petrograd is on tonight at 8pm on Radio 4