Professor, Honorary Councillor of State Edv. Hjelt:


The memorial table of officers of the
Russian Baltic Navy killed by the rebellious sailors in
the Sveaborg Naval Base and in the streets of Helsinki
during the Russian February revolution of 1917.
(The Church of the Helsinki Orthodox Cemetary).

The Russian revolution in the beginning of March 1917 overtook Finland with total surprise. Some thoughts were presented about an eventual or even probable revolution after the war, but not before that. The most, what was thought about, was that a transition of power to more liberal elements could take place during the war, but no specific benefit for Finland was expected from that. When everything happened like turn of the hand, without any major internal war, bloodshed or instantaneous anarchy, it came as a big surprise.

Finland was not prepared to meet such a historic event. People far and wide just stood confused in front of this. Hopes were fostered for freedom to come from a completely other direction, any hope on anything good to come from the east was abandoned, and thoughts about an armed liberation, aided from outside, had started to find room. The youth had already in reality given a form to these hopes, and the society, if not completely unanimously, gave sympathy for these efforts and endeavours. And then, suddenly, the oppressive government is sweeped away and, certainly no independence but an internal freedom is offered to us from the east!

An enlarged delegation set by the Diet took the civilian political lead in the country. It assembled, as soon as it became evident that a real coup d'etat had taken place in Russia, to deliberate issues like restoring the autonomy, for making a proposition to a manifesto etc. In the beginning I stood outside of this because I was not a member of the Diet's delegation and had not lately taken part in any party politics. By pure coincidence I was, however, given a part in a little corner during these strange days. My activities were of humble kind, because of inner conviction; I was not eager to bind myself to such a direction which not necessarily, up to my judgment, could lead the country to most favourable outcome. Here I will not give a comprehensive description of the development of events, I just present some personal experiences and impressions.

During Wednesday and Thursday, March 14 and 15, rumours about abdication and establishing a provisional government in Russia began to spread. No confirmed news were available because the newspapers were censored as before and telegraphic messages were held back. One could hardly notice any revolution in Finland. The old regime still continued being alive. But an atmosphere of restlessness and excitement could be felt. On the 16th early in the morning it was learned that Seyn and Borovitinoff were arrested and brought aboard on a naval vessel. A feeling of relief was felt when these worst and hated instruments in our country were brought down and made harmless. Simultaneously the full sense of seriousness of the situation finally reached everyone of us. There were no rejoice, people only quietly whispered what had happened and what was coming in forth of us. As I later learned, the new government gave no immediate thoughts to circumstances in Finland. In a meeting, held by the local Finns on the 15th at the residence of the Revd. Malin of the Swedish congregation (tr. note - in Petrograd), thoughts were presented about rendering the most prominent men in the old regime (tr. note - in Finland) harmless. In the same meeting there was our "friend" D. Protopopoff present and his attention was called to the improper fact that the these men still stood at the highest level of government in Finland. He was at once ready to take necessary measures. The Provisional Government sent a telegram to the commander-in-chief of the Baltic Fleet (tr. note - in Helsinki), Admiral Nepenin (tr. note - Hjelt uses the form Njepenin), for arrest of Seyn and Borovitinoff. He answered in some hours that the former's arrest could set forth an anarchy in Finland, and what comes to the latter, the whole Senate will stand behind him. N. was, however, sent a new order to fulfill the original order.

The same day, or Friday the 16th, I was summoned to be present at Admiral Nepenin on the vessel Krechett (previously Polaris). About ten people of different political parties were there (A. Ramsay, E. Schybergson, Ståhlberg, K. Castrén, E. Nevanlinna, Paasikivi, Kallio, Gylling and, perhaps, still somebody else). Some of those summoned did not appear. I don't know who had chosen us as trusted people in the parties, most probably the acting Governor-General Lipski had done this following a suggestion by a member of the Senate. In the vessel's stateroom we were received by Lipski and the chief of the Governor-General's chancellery, Orloff. Outwardly both looked totally calm. Lipski gave his usual mawkish smirk. The interpreter, Melartin, seemed to be very nervous. After a moment the admiral, a corpulent, convincing person, entered and greeted all of us. In a loud and distinct voice he, quite calmly, read the telegraphic order to arrest the Governor-General Frans etc. Seyn and the Vice Chairman of the Senate Mikael etc. Borovitinoff, and to transfer them into custody on some armoured vessel, "which order," he added, "I also have fulfilled". No facial expression, not a word revealed what he himself thought or felt. He had acted by the orders like a soldier. The admiral also informed that the new commissar for Finnish affairs, Rodicheff, is going to arrive the next day and he had presented a wish to have a meeting with trusted people of the society. He had summoned us to ask us to be available for Rodicheff for this purpose, and he hoped that we support maintaining law and order in the country. He expressed his satisfaction that Finland now has got her long nurtured wishes fulfilled. Ståhlberg returned thanks on our behalf for the trust confided in us. Even Lipski, the old fox, presented his congratulations for the dawn of brighter times in Finland. It sounded false and tasteless. So we left the flagship. The next day Admiral Nepenin was killed by a bullet from a bluejacket rifle.

We considered ourselves having no authorities for such sort of negotiations we were informed about, and so we the same evening took part in a Diet delegation meeting where we expressed the necessity that the delegation should appoint authorized negotiators. For my own part I emphasized that I do not consider myself to be appropriate to represent the Young Finnish Party because I nowadays stand completely outside of its activities. However, when each group voted for its representatives, I was elected by the Young Finns. Each one of the bourgeois parties elected three persons: J. Grotenfelt, Lille and E. Estlander, Ståhlberg, Setälä and me, Danielson-Kalmari, Paasikivi and Nevanlinna, as well as Kallio, Mäkinen and Alkio. Socialdemocratic delegates elected five persons, among them Tokoi, Manner and Gylling.

Dr. T. Kaila arrived at the delegation's meeting as an emissary for the Finnish colony in Petersburg (tr. note - Hjelt uses this form, not Petrograd). He brought important and interesting information about the revolution and the situation in the Russian capital. A great joy to me was the message, that those Finns, who were released there from prisons, are safe. News about shooting in the harbour and the naval harbour in Katajanokka (tr. note - in Swedish Skatudd) as well as about outbreaks of unrest on vessels, was brought to the meeting.

When I late in the evening returned home, I took my way to the harbour. The naval vessels were carrying red lanterns, signs of revolution. It was dark and completely quiet. Only some stray shots were heard. Some bands of soldiers roamed quietly on the streets. A half-drunken naval officer, even outwardly judging in a deranged condition, jumped up to a tram. Next morning we learned that the revolt had spred to all vessels, and that during the evening and night a great number of naval officers were either taken into custory or shot by the rank-and-file bluejackets. In the morning soldiers and sailors marched with red banners on the streets, partly in processions singing the Marsellaise, partly in separate crowds, giving out red ribbons and pieces of cloth. Patrols of armed rank-and-file bluejackets roamed everywhere round the city disarming all officers, who when giving the slightest resistance or refusing to take the red token were gunned down and left lying there. All hotels and restaurants and many private houses were searched and officers found there were disarmed or arrested. The police had to leave the field and keep away. Order was maintained by military rank-and-file patrols. The civilian population was left alone. A lot of people was on the move but the public stood completely passive. The whole thing seemed to be a confrontation between rank-and-file soldiers and officers and, in which, the methods of the former did not arouse much sympathy. The revolutionary admiral, half-Finn Maximoff, who was appointed as the commander-in-chief for the Baltic Fleet, arrived in the afternoon at Helsinki. He drove around in his car, made speeches to soldiers and street people in Russian and in Swedish about the freedom won by them through the revolution and simultaneously urged them to stay calm. Later on the same day Rodicheff arrived and even he, as his first task, spoke to soldiers and sailors for restoring order and peace. The next day, Sunday, was relatively calm but the city was actually in the hands of soldier hordes.

Those appointed as deputies were informed than on Sunday afternoon they should assemble at the House of the Estates for a conference with Rodicheff and that at midnight they should leave for Petersburg by extra train. Before Rodicheff arrived, there was a meeting in which the draft for a manifesto to the people of Finland by the new Russian government was presented. The socialists considered it dissatisfactory. They wanted that their special issues, Prohibition Act, Labour Welfare Act, the cotter issue, expansion of local government franchise etc. should equally be noted in the manifesto or some other way in connection with this. Any remarks, that these were internal issues not belonging to the scope and meaning of the manifesto, had no effect on them. In the meantime Rodicheff, accompanied by Baron Korff and Admiral Maximoff, arrived. The former was appointed as an adjoint to the Governor-General. R. was a tall man with pleasant and kind looks and disposition. He was entirely hoarse because of the numerous speeches to soldiers. After being welcomed by Ståhlberg he expressed his delight in being able to bring to us the news about reinstallment of the autonomy, summoning the Diet, appointing a new Senate formed of trusted people of the country etc. The proposition to a manifesto was read in detail and Rodicheff did not find anything to object. The socialists' demands, he said, were internal affairs which could be taken up by the new Senate. He also asked our opinion about conscription. The answer was that only the Diet can resolve this. The socialists remarked, that the issue concerning setting up a domestic militia was connected with the withdrawal of the Russian military and should be taken under discussion when the war is over. Admiral Maximoff requested at this point permission to speak and expressed his wish that Finland, grateful for the freedom rewon by Russia, should show solidarity by giving at least a few volunteers to the army. Only one of the deputies answered to this and did it with a less successful way. When I, after the meeting, exchanged a couple of words with Maximoff, I explained why there is so weak interest for the military issue right now. He expressed the opinion that when, among other things, "34 officers had fallen on the streets of Helsinki" we should have an obligation to join to the Russian efforts in the war. When I remarked that they were Russian soldiers who had shot their officers, and that we have nothing to do with this, he answered that what had happened is a link in the revolution which gave us freedom. I got the impression that M. is a benevolent emotional man.

On our journey to Petersburg we were joined by Korff and also by Ehrnrooth and Holsti, who on behalf of the delegation had previously visited Petersburg. The journey went without any adventures. The Russian socialdemocrat Skobelev (M.I. Skobelev, 1885-1939, Menshevik, Minister of Labor in a later Provisional Government - translator's notice), who had visited Helsinki, was also on the train. Right in the middle of the night song and hurrahs woke us up. Soldiers and socialdemocratic youths in the city of Lahti waited upon Skobelev who gave a long speech to the gathered people. The train waited there humbly. At Beloostrov (the first station on the Russian side - translator's notice) a military patrol went through the train but they were mostly interested in Comrade Skobelev more than in other passengers. In the morning some small groups on the train discussed about the list of senators while other deputies negotiated with the socialdemocrats to make them more easy to get on with.

At the station in Petersburg we met, among others, Protopopoff. We were all going to meet at the nave of the Swedish congregation which was aimed to be our headquarters. There were no carriages available at the station. Our luggage were piled on a goods sledge to be carried to the meeting place. We had to content ourselves with walking. Procurator Grotenfelt and I succeeded, however, in finding an idle cabman. I had visited Petersburg for numerous occasions but this entré was different from the previous ones. The city was calm and movement on the streets was, perhaps, a little less vivid than usually. There were red flags everywhere and people, especially all military men, carried a red ribbon or token. No police could be seen, only soldier patrols as well as citizens' protective guards with white ribbons around arms. Here and there in front of grocery stores stood long queues of people. Some burned or destructed buildings witnessed of street fightings. We were given a friendly reception by the Reverend Malin and his wife, and we got many vivid and colourful descriptions about the events there. In the nave we enjoyed a good breakfast, prepared of foods brought by us from Hotel Societetshuset in Helsinki and arranged by the amiable wife of the Reverend.

During the rest of the day we were engaged in discussions, mostly concerning the manifesto. They were long and tough like all the debates in our usual political circles. There were lots of talk and precious time was consumed. The socialdemocrats still wanted to bring forth their special subjects and make the manifesto dependent on these. They wanted that fulfilling of these should be noted in a specific rescript. Finally they retreated to a proposition that the new Senate will be obliged, without any consideration, to submit for confirmation the laws adopted by the Diet, the Prohibition Act, the Labour Welfare Act etc. Only on these terms the socialists will accept the proposition for the manifesto, to which some minor remarks were made, too. These provisions the bourgeois deputies could not accept. A special board was set up to balance the opinions which only partly succeeded. At the same time other bourgeois deputies were engaged in the issue of the senators. This was, however, too poorly prepared for a definitive proposition.

In the evening Protopopoff arrived at the meeting. The situation was explained to him and he talked seriously to the socialists. There is now, said he, a threshold between Finnish and Russian matters. One should be very careful not to step over this. The overthrown government's biggest error in the Finnish issue was that it had stepped over this threshold and that way gotten into a marsh. The Finns have to take care of their internal affairs, and now, if the socialists' wishes were followed, making the Russian government to get involved in the internal affairs of Finland is very questionable. One also should not waste time for internal disputes. The socialists seemed to be embarrased - they were bound to party resolutions in homeland - and they retired for negotiations. On the bourgeois side it was previously expressed a wish that socialists, because they were the biggest party in the Diet, could form the new Senate. Under the break there was a private discussion with Protopopoff, who among other things said that it boiled within him when he heard this party feud about trifles at a time, when time was more valuable than ever and the issue was the whole country's freedom and independence.

When the socialist deputies returned, Tokoi asked Protopopoff if the highest Russian government would accept a list of senators consisting of socialdemocrats. P. answered that the Russian government has no reason to interfere with such kind of matter which is considered an internal Finnish matter. If Finland considered it necessary to make an experiment of this kind - dangerous experiments must sometimes be done - it will be their business. The answer was thus an affirmative one and the socialdemocrats could go over to the senator issue. The manifesto was accepted and could be sent for approval. For us on the bourgeois side it was a great relief, but the socialdemocrats seemed to be nervous because of the responsibility they just had assumed. As a friendly gesture towards the socialdemocrats, some changes were made in the manifesto, which instead of improving it, made just the contrary, i.e. religious crimes in addition to the political ones, became as objects for amnesty, and that the laws adopted by the Diet should be carried out without delay by the Senate etc.

An essential extension in the manifesto was the immediate revoke of the all-Empire legislation. In the proposition only a suspension to this was discussed. We have thought that the collaboration of the State Duma was prerequisite to this, but our Russian friends thought that we were unnecessarily cautious in this. The present State Cabinet, they explained, has the authorities of both the Sovereign and the Duma and could thus revoke the imperial legislation concerning Finland. It was for us, at least in this specific case, a hilarious news, but all this gave an impression of indifference which in no way could be considered reliable.

The Finnish deputies had their lodgings in private families because the hotels were crowded. Grotenfelt, Lille and I had our quarters in the apartment of Mr. Krook, which was temporarily vacant. For the dinner we were invited to the family Palmgren who lived in the premises of the Swedish church.

For most of us the next day was quite free. Some of the lawyers as well as Danielson-Kalmari and Setälä had a meeting at the Minister State Secretariat to give, together with Protopopoff and the new Governor-General Stakhovich, a precise formulation to the manifesto, to crosscheck the translations etc. This went on from morning to late afternoon. A small episode happened before the meeting had begun. It was to be held downstairs in the room of the Adjoint Minister State Secretary. Before that, however, the Adjoint, Platon Ivanoff, had arrived there, locked the door, taken the key and went to General Markoff, who had previously been arrested but then given the permission to return home and was kept as interned there. When Protopopoff came and learned this, he got into a rage, but finally Baron Th. Bruun succeeded, with a lot of persuading, to get the key. Markoff was described as being resigned but Ivanoff was greatly embittered.

In the afternoon went out with Lille to make a promenade in the city and we especially saw the destroyed Palace of Justice and the Spalernaya Prison, where many Finns had sat incarcerated and were now suddenly released. The former building, an impressive edifice of large extensions, had been completely demolished, from the cellar to the attic. Only the walls stood there and windows were black holes. Spalernaya was less destroyed. A part of the windows were still there but also here fire had been raging. The street outside was full of halfburnt papers and books blended with snow. Here one got the most visible sign of the wild outbreak of a long suppressed hate. Our main interest was assigned to the approval of the manifesto. Without it we would not feel comfortable to return home.

The proposition, referred by Protopopoff, was timed to be on the agenda between 5 and 6 o'clock, but then we got a message that it was postponed until 1/2 9 o'clock. At 8 o'clock the Finnish colony in Petersburg had requested our presence at a dinner. It was the first day restaurants were open after the revolution. About a hundred people gathered there, also the new Governor-General was invited as well as Protopopoff, and the second adjoint at the commissariat for Finnish affairs, Estonian Dr. Ramott, and furthermore Korff. Stakhovich looked out fine and imposing but probably he was more prone to an enjoyable life than to work. He said that he hardly knows about the circumstances in Finland but he is assured that we could take care of ourselves. A lot of people gave speeches, for instance, Stakhovich in French, but no message concerning the manifesto was received. In a telephone call Protopopoff asked that if there is any obstacle for the Russian senate to promulgate the manifesto, too. He was given an answer that this depends completely on the Russian government. Time was running. 1/2 12 o'clock was set as the departure time for our extra train. This was postponed to 1 o'clock by telephone. It was 1/2 11 o'clock when Protopopoff finally came. He theatrically hoisted the manifesto high up with applause and rejoice. The manifesto was read in three languages, followed by spontaneously sung 'Our Country' (the national anthem - translator's notice). Speeches to celebrate this important event were given by Danielson-Kalmari in Finnish, and Lille in Swedish. The spirits were high but we had to hurry up to the railway.

Our countrymen in Petrograd had not succeeded in finding other carriages than plain work sledges. The deputies sat on these in a brotherly concordance and thus we left for Petersburg's streets. This suited fine for the situation. I myself had not an opportunity to test these means of transportation because I was invited with Korff to Protopopoff's automobil. There the latter let me hear much interesting, both concerning the manifesto and other things. The signing did not proceed completely swiftly. Doubts were presented if one could sign such an important document without closer examination. But Protopopoff had emphasized how urgent the matter was: Finland was waiting; if the manifesto will not arrive in the morning, the country will become restless, he has to take it there in this evening, the train was waiting etc. It was, he assured, scrutinized down to a point. Miliukoff said that he had read it through and found it "moderate" and requested signing of it. Seven of the eight present signed it. One, the State Comptroller Godniev, refused because he was not convinced about the Cabinet's full authority over everything what was settled in the manifesto. This is how this remarkable paper was confirmed. - Protopopoff thought, that the present government should act with feverish speed because the situation is still uncertain and no one knew, how the tide will turn. He saw a great danger that there can be a shift of power towards labourers. Their ideologists - Chkheidze in a leading position - had an active roll, and the collapse of the present government, before the national assembly has convened, could not be excluded. And then we meet a counteraction, however not by the old system - it was definitely collapsed - but a counteraction anyway. "The black sister," he said, "always goes behind the red one, and they are not far apart. In the happiest case Russia goes towards a bourgeois republic. But the peasants' point of view is not yet clear."

At 2 o'clock at night the train departed and the journey went without any adventure. About 12 o'clock we arrived at Helsinki. At the Senate building, University, House of the Estates and elsewhere Finnish flags with coat of arms were flying. We were overtaken by the feeling that a new dawn will rise for our people, and yet the joy among many of us was far from being overwhelming and unclouded.

We need, it seemed to me, some other sort of freedom than the Russian svoboda could give to us. It should be built on a Teutonic foundation without any dependancy to Slavic bursts of sentiments.

Helsinki, at the end of March 1917.

A chapter from "Från händelserika år I-II" (Eventful years), Helsinki1920, the memoirs of Edvard Immanuel Hjelt (1855-1921), professor in chemistry, honorary state councellor, senator, rector och high chancellor of Helsinki University.

Translated (©) by Pauli Kruhse .

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