It took nearly a century for Philip Jordan to be recognized as a firsthand observer and informal reporter on the 1917 Russian Revolution. Jordan was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, in 1868, and was thought to be the son of a slave. He spent his youth as a reckless street fighter and alcoholic, until he was hired as a valet for David Rowland Francis, the governor of Missouri at the time, at the age of 21.
Jordan became a trusted, dependable, and loyal member of the Francis family over time. He was especially close to the governor’s wife Jane, who repaid his good work by teaching him to read and write and who excused his occasional hard liquor overindulgence.
When President Woodrow Wilson appointed Francis as the United States’ Ambassador to the Russian Empire in 1916, Jordan accompanied him to St. Petersburg, the Empire’s capital. Jordan arrived at the American Embassy on April 13, 1916, and fired the Russian cook, taking charge of supplying food, drink, and even black market goods to the embassy.
Diplomacy was quickly overtaken by events, however, as the Russian Revolution of 1917 drastically altered the political landscape. As the Russian aristocracy lost control of the country to rival moderate and radical socialists, labor unionists, and anarchists, defeated, undisciplined soldiers fled the front lines for the capital, as did uprooted peasants.
Jordan could easily observe frequent, boisterous protest marches and other demonstrations that sometimes turned violent from the embassy’s windows. A frequent embassy visitor taught him enough Russian to communicate with the locals, and despite the chaos, he did not fear roaming city streets where he saw police and dissidents shooting at each other.
Jordan kept in touch with Jane Francis, who had refused to accompany her husband to St. Petersburg. “We are all setting on a bomb, just waiting for someone to touch a match to it,” he wrote in one letter to her. These insane people are killing each other in the same way that we swat flies at home.” Jordan, the Ambassador’s valet, was describing the revolution that was taking place. He described lying flat on his stomach to avoid being hit by rapidly fired bullets while trapped in one street battle.
On other occasions, he wrote about food shortages, horrifying crimes committed by prowling thugs, attending an Orthodox Church funeral service, the ambush and slaughter of horse-mounted Cossacks who had previously terrorized the peasantry in the name of the Emperor, and the daily struggle to keep the United States Embassy operational.
Ambassador Francis left Russia in 1918, and Jordan accompanied him on visits to Buckingham Palace in the United Kingdom and the White House before returning to Missouri. We can appreciate Jordan’s unique perspective on the Russian Revolution as a working-class foreigner thanks to a researcher who discovered his letters in the late 1970s and Helen Rappaport’s recent bestselling book on the subject.
After Francis died in 1927, Jordan moved to Santa Barbara, California, with the ambassador’s son, where he died of cancer in 1941.