Canadian journalist Florence Harper covered the Russian Revolution, but almost no one knows her story

Florence MacLeod Harper was one of the few Western women to cover the Russian Revolution of 1917, but almost no one knows this Canadian's story.

Harper survived months of violence, street fighting and food shortages but then vanished from public record

Canadian journalist Florence MacLeod Harper, left, was also a volunteer nurse at the American Field Hospital in Russia in 1917. (Runaway Russia)

The Russian Revolution of 1917 is being remembered this month on its centenary as a defining historical event that changed the world, but for many ambitious, intrepid journalists of that era it was quite simply a great story they wanted to cover. 

One such journalist was 27-year-old Florence MacLeod Harper of Woodstock, Ont., In 1916, she boarded a ship from Vancouver to Shanghai, then rode the Trans-Siberian train to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), determined to report on the revolutionary tumult.

"I had the good fortune to arrive in Russia during the old regime and be there for the inauguration of the new one," Harper wrote in her memoir Runaway Russia published in 1918. "I have been told I was lucky. It wasn't luck, just good Scottish 'hunch.'"

Harper was one of the first Western reporters on the ground in revolutionary Russia. But this Canadian's story is virtually unknown. She would have remained a footnote in history had it not been for two British historians who rescued her from obscurity, impressed by her adventuring spirit as one of the first women to chronicle the Russian Revolution, which toppled the Czarist regime and led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

"She was one of half a dozen or so feisty, intrepid women reporters who made their way to Petrograd to tell the story of the revolution," said Helen Rappaport, a British historian who came across Harper's forgotten memoir when she was writing Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917, A World on the Edge, about Western eyewitnesses to the Revolution.

"She relished the excitement and took endless risks with her personal safety, but very little frightened her," said Rappaport, in an email from her home in Dorset, England.

"Getting to Russia in wartime was difficult, and once there, surviving through months of violence, street fighting and food shortages was another challenge.

"Today, her outstanding eyewitness account of six turbulent months in Petrograd has been almost forgotten and the details of Harper's personal life remain a mystery."

Little is known about Harper before she set off for Russia, but Rappaport found evidence that she was likely a war correspondent on the Western Front starting in 1914.

'In Russia at a historic time'

She gained enough experience to be named staff reporter for the New York-based Leslie's illustrated weekly newspaper, which commissioned her Russia articles. Harper travelled to Russia with Kansas-born photographer Donald Thompson, a veteran war correspondent.

Harper, left, with Maria Bochkareva of the Russian Women's Battalion of Death. (From Florence MacLeod Harper's book Runaway Russia)

"Florence Harper had the sense that she was in Russia at a historic time, when society was changing and power was shifting," says David Mould, a British television journalist-turned-historian who wrote articles about Thompson, and through his story discovered Harper.

"Readers — and the politicians and military leaders — were desperate for up-to-date news on what was happening in Russia. Harper was one of the few correspondents who were there to report on fast-moving events," said Mould in an interview.

British television journalist-turned-historian David Mould has written articles about war photographer David Thompson and discovered Florence Harper's work. (Submitted by David Mould)

Together, Harper and Thompson chronicled the workers' street protests and riots, photographed the Czar and met many of the leaders of the provisional government after the February 1917 revolution. Harper travelled to the military front-lines and volunteered as a surgical nurse at an American field hospital, and later reported on the Russian women's military battalions.

I was so fed up with Russia and black bread and machine-guns and riots and murder and discord.- Florence MacLeod Harper

"She had good street smarts, and was comfortable dealing with people at all social levels — hobnobbing with the Petrograd elite at the theatre or opera, interviewing politicians or talking with ordinary citizens," Mould said.   

In an interview with the Boston Globe in 1918, Harper summed up her exciting assignment:

"I have been in Petrograd during the Bolsheviki uprisings, sometimes out all night. I have been in street riots in Moscow, I nursed at the front, got trench fever, and trench foot, crossed the North Sea, sailing on a transport that four submarines chased, and am still alive and well. My friends say that they will have to tell off a firing squad for me on Judgment Day."

Cold, hungry and sick of the violence

Harper left Russia in September 1917. In so doing, she missed the biggest story of all, the Bolshevik coup two months later.

"Why did she leave?" Rappaport said. "She spent her whole time in Petrograd, as did most of the journalists — very hungry. Cold and miserable, too, and sick of the violence."

A copy of Leslie's illustrated weekly newspaper from January 1917. Harper was a staff reporter for the publication. (Wikimedia Commons)

Harper wrote in her memoir, "I was so fed up with Russia and black bread and machine-guns and riots and murder and discord, and the whole situation in general, that I shook the mud of Petrograd from my feet with more pleasure than I realized."

She rode the train out of Russia with suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

"They travelled north up to the Finnish border with Sweden and then on to Stockholm then to Christiania, Bergen — where they got the boat to Scotland," Rappaport said.

"First thing she did in London was eat and eat and eat. Her first breakfast was 'porridge, sole, kippers, bacon and eggs, toast, marmalade, tea.'"

'She simply vanishes'

After that, little is known what happened to her.

"I have searched very, very hard and found practically zilch," Rappaport said.

Ship logs show Harper travelled to the Far East, possibly to report on the fall of China's Qing dynasty. The Canadian then sailed to Seattle, headed to Montreal, and the last trace of her is New York City in the 1940s. After that, the trail stops, said Rappaport.

Helen Rappaport is a British historian who came across Harper's forgotten memoir when she was writing her own book, Caught in the Revolution. (Lucy Davies/University of Leeds)

"She simply vanishes from the record and either worked and published abroad or stopped writing. I wish to goodness I knew more."

Rappaport said she hopes her account of Harper and others may prompt some family members to make themselves known and fill in the blanks of her life story. 

Harper might have abandoned her Russia adventures, but with her memoir, she left a legacy.

"It's a shame that this group of intrepid, feisty women never got the acknowledgment they deserved whereas some of the men — notably John Reed — picked up all the kudos," said Rappaport, referring to the author of the classic memoir of the revolution, Ten Days That Shook The World.

"But Reed did not arrive till September. Harper was there in February and saw much more of the real violence. The only female reporter in Petrograd 1917 who gets a mention is Louise Bryant — but only as an adjunct to Reed, because she was his wife and she went there with him," said Rappaport.

"The women journalists were taking the same risks as the male reporters, suffering the same hardships, but all have been forgotten, or worse have never been heard of in the first place."

About the Author

Jennifer Clibbon is a producer with the CBC News radio syndication service. She lived in China from 1990 to 1994, working as an English teacher and freelancing for CBC Radio, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press. She returned to China in 2005 as a field producer for CBC TV-NYT documentary series China Rising.