WWI Centennial: Revolution in Russia

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 269th installment in the series.  

March 8, 1917: Revolution in Russia

After two and a half years of war, with around eight million casualties including two million dead, and mounting shortages and official incompetence undermining whatever support remained for the tsarist regime, the vast Russian Empire was tottering on the brink of revolution. Over a million deserters were at loose ends in big cities like Petrograd and Moscow, where they mixed with factory workers angry about rising food prices and stagnant wages, and a number of long-term strikes and lockouts were already underway, with around 20,000 workers for example locked out of the Putilov Iron Works.

Nature played a capricious role in these fateful weeks, as a brutally cold winter amplified the suffering but also kept people off the streets – until early March, that is, when the deep freeze suddenly broke and unseasonably warm weather brought hundreds of thousands of people out to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar, which is why the events which followed are often called the February Revolution). 

Founded in 1911 by the international socialist movement to recognize women’s labor and advocate for civil rights, especially suffrage, International Women’s Day already had strong political overtones. Against the backdrop of war however it assumed much broader significance, as female textile workers defied orders not to strike and began marching through Petrograd under the rallying cry “Bread and Peace.” They were soon joined by male and female workers from other factories in a show of solidarity, and the marches quickly snowballed into a mass strike, with over 100,000 protesters in the streets. 

This was hardly a disastrous turn of events for the regime in itself: there had been plenty of mass strikes before, and while they occasionally turned violent (due in no small part to suppression by police and Cossack units) they usually subsided after minor concessions on wages or other economic issues. However the protests on March 8 came not long after the Russian parliament, the Duma, reconvened after a month-long delay on February 27 – a coincidence that helped turn strikes into revolution.  

Infuriated by rumors – true, as it turned out – that Tsar Nicholas II had considered dissolving the Duma until new elections in December 1917, the usually fractious liberal reform parties joined forces with their socialist counterparts to unleash a withering rhetorical assault on the tsarist government. Encouraged by this high-level support, even more strikers came out on March 9, with up to 200,000 protesters in the streets. Concerned that the situation was getting out of hand the military governor of Petrograd, General Khabalov, ordered the police to set up barricades on key bridges across the Neva and disperse the protesters. Ominously however many of the Cossack units, usually ultra-loyal enforcers of the tsarist regime, seemed hesitant to brutalize unarmed civilians, and several protests turned violent, as rioters looted food stores and clashed with police.

Sensing opportunity socialist revolutionaries (including the rival Menshevik and Bolshevik factions) now began to play a more active role, organizing new actions with explicitly political aims, and March 10 saw the biggest protests of the war so far, with up to 300,000 people in the streets. Some protesters carried red banners calling for revolution, and crowds sang the “Marseillaise,” the French revolutionary anthem adopted as the rallying cry of socialist movements around the world. Even upper class folk found themselves swept up in the spreading chaos, according to an anonymous British embassy official, believed to be the diplomatic courier Albert Henry Stopford, who wrote in his diary on March 10, 1917:

I had put on my boots and my trousers when I heard a sound which I knew, but couldn’t recall. I opened my window wide and realised it was the chatter of a machine-gun; then I saw an indescribable sight – the well-dressed Nevski crowd running for their lives down the Michail Street, and a stamped of motor-cards and sledges – to escape from the machine-guns which never stopped firing. I saw a well-dressed lady run over by an automobile, a sledge turn over and the driver thrown into the air and killed. The poorer-looking people crouched against the walls; many others, principally men, lay flat in the snow. Lots of children were trampled on, and people knocked down by the sledges or by the rush of the crowd. It all seemed so unjust. I saw red. 

However even at this late stage it might have been possible for some combination of political and economic concessions to defuse the crisis. But the tsarist regime once again displayed an unerring ability to do the exact wrong thing at the wrong time. 

Nicholas II, isolated at his military headquarters in Mogilev about 500 miles south of the capital, heard sketchy reports of mounting protests and scattered violence, but was misled about the seriousness of the situation by Interior Minister Protopopov, who reported the disorder but downplayed its true extent. Convinced it was just another economic strike, the Tsar ordered General Khabalov to disperse the protests by force and threats to conscript male workers who continued to strike.

On March 11 Petrograd was gripped by violence, as thousands of protesters gathered in Znamenskii Square and refused to disperse, prompting the commander of the Volynskii Guard Regiment to order his troops to open fire. Forty protesters were killed in the resulting chaos. Meanwhile Nicholas II also ordered the long-discussed dissolution of the Duma, whose reformist elements he (correctly) believed were encouraging the revolutionary disorder. 

At first the severe measures seemed to be working, as in previous incidents – but on the evening of March 11-12 events took an unexpected turn, as the focus of revolutionary activity suddenly shifted from the workers to the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, and civilian protests gave way to military mutiny.

Although many elements contributed to the mutiny, the main causes were plain enough: the 160,000 rank and file soldiers occupying Petrograd were living in miserable conditions, crammed together in barracks designed for a fraction of that number, with inadequate food and fuel for heat, and the threat of being sent to the front constantly hanging over their heads. When ordered by their corrupt, incompetent officers to fire on civilian protesters, some of whom might be family members or friends, they simply rebelled.  


Click to enlarge

March 12 was the turning point, as half the Petrograd garrison rose against established authority, imprisoning, beating or lynching their own officers if they resisted, and turning their guns on the hated police and Cossacks if they refused to join. Of course this only served to embolden the civilian protesters, and hundreds of thousands of striking workers joined force with the mutineers to seize control of the capital. 

It was not a bloodless revolution, but according to many accounts fighting took place amidst a weirdly celebratory mood. Professor L.-H. Grandijs, a correspondent for the French periodical L’Illustration, described the odd mix of calm and chaos along the central promenade on March 12, 1917:

At four o’clock in the afternoon, I went to the Nevsky Prospekt. I heard rifle shots everywhere. I was about to mount the stairs leading to the Anitschkov Bridge, when the crowd occupying it began to flee. Hardly had we bent our heads when a salvo burst out. The bullets whizzed over our heads, and I heard them hit the nearby houses. The crowd remained strangely calm. As soon as the fusillade was over, people came back to the Nevsky Prospekt and looked around. The first to arrive there was an eighteen-year-old girl, who was as composed as if she were attending just any kind of show. Once the first moments of fear were gone, I heard people laugh all around me.

Later, Grandijs noted that a broad cross-section of society was visible in the ranks of the revolutionaries, inevitably including some disreputable characters, who took advantage of the opportunity for some looting and petty theft:

Two men, one killed and the other wounded, were carried by on stretchers. A Red Cross automobile was loudly cheered by the crowd as it drove by. A nurse was leaning out of it, wildly waving a red handkerchief. She was cheered all along the avenue. The crowd was composed of workers, students belonging to the lower bourgeoisie, and a number of hoodlums, coming from God knows where, who were taking advantage of the disorder… At some distance, orators were addressing the crowd from the statues of the Anitschkov Bridge…

Not long afterwards the carnival-like environment was suddenly disrupted by violence, but once again the crowd showed remarkable calm and purpose, according to Grandijs:

Suddenly, rifle shots rang out again on the Liteiny Prospekt. The women began to run, and in a moment the street was deserted. Huge flames were rising from the Palace of Justice… The soldiers appearing on the Liteiny Prospekt looked tired and anxious, but also very determined, and were all armed with rifles. Then came youthful workers and students, armed with revolvers, bayonets, army rifles or hunting rifles. No one seemed to be in command, yet a certain order, stemming from a common purpose and the strength of their conviction, prevailed.

The absence of commanders raised a critical question: who was in charge now? The lack of a clear answer foreshadowed the fate of the initial “liberal” phase of the revolution. Indeed, the socialists were already planning the establishment of “soviets” or revolutionary councils to represent workers, soldiers, and other major groups in society, as a counterweight to the Duma, the only other institution with national scope and at least some semblance of democratic legitimacy. Their rivalry would effectively paralyze the country, laying the groundwork for a second revolution in November 1917 – this time, a coup by the far more radical Bolsheviks.

Paradoxically, while it led political opposition to the tsarist autocracy, the Duma’s basic legitimacy was always based on the sovereign right of the monarchy, and its moderate reformist members were unsure how or even whether they could proceed without the tsar’s approval. After deciding to ignore the tsar’s order dissolving the assembly, the Duma delayed and debated about establishing a committee to create a provisional government on March 12-13. 

Meanwhile the revolutionaries were taking matters into their own hands, according to George Lomonosov, an engineer and high-ranking officer in the military railway administration, who recalled events on March 13: 

The Committee had not yet been elected when a crowd of people brought to the Duma the newly arrested Stcheglovitoff… After Stcheglovitoff, other arrested high officials were brought in. The Committee had never given orders for any arrests. The people were catching the most hated representatives of the old regime and bringing them to the Duma.

By now everyone understood that the wave of violence could easily turn against the Duma as well, if the crowds in the street believed it was trying to block the progress of the revolution. One conservative member of the Duma, Vasily Shulgin, recalled the atmosphere of terror that prevailed as the reformists, reluctantly led by the Duma chairman Rodzianko, met in a conference room off the main chamber to establish a committee to create a provisional government:

The room barely accommodated us: the entire Duma was on hand. Rodzianko and the Elders sat behind a table… Even enemies of long standing realized that there was something equally dangerous, threatening, repulsive to them all. That something was the street, the street mob… One could feel its hot breath… That is why they were pale, their hearts constricted… Surrounded by a crowd of many thousands, on the street stalked Death. 

On March 13, 1917 the new provisional government committee led by the reformist Prince Lviv took power – or rather, gingerly received it from the revolutionary crowds. Over the next few days the politicians, terrified by the movement that brought them to power, received deputations of soldiers, civilians and police pledging their loyalty to the new government. Even members of the old regime, led by Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, publicly submitted to the authority of the provisional government.

Street fighting in Petrograd continued on March 14, 1917, but the revolutionaries clearly had the upper hand. Lomonosov recorded his impressions, once again noting the strange combination of ferocity and festivity:

In the city firing was still going on. Here and there, from the roofs, machine guns were firing. Groups of soldiers, workmen and students were storming these roofs. The first glance at the streets showed speeding trucks, full of revolutionists. There were also many broken-down and overturned automobiles. But in general the atmosphere was happy and invigorating. Notwithstanding the firing, the streets were full of people, many women and children. In some places we saw attempts to decorate the houses with red flags. The atmosphere was like that of a holiday – like Easter.

Lomonosov’s account also confirms the importance of control of communications during the Russian Revolution – especially telephones, which were manned by a full-time volunteer force of engineering students: 

That called up some of their friends and by noon, I had at my disposition about twenty energetic students of the Institute. Each of the three men on watch at the telephone had four students to run his errands and the rest of them remained at my disposal. But even this staff proved insufficient. Those on watch at the telephones were exhausted. It was necessary to appoint an assistant to each of them. 

Meanwhile Tsar Nicholas II, realizing too late the severity of the situation, was trying to return from Mogilev to his palace outside Petrograd at Tsarskoe Selo, but his train was blocked by troops sympathetic to the revolution and diverted to Pskov, the headquarters of the Russian Army’s northern sector on the Eastern Front. Here he received discouraging messages from General Alekseev, second in command of the Army under Nicholas II, who had decided that the old regime could no longer maintain order and – fearing that further violence in Petrograd could disrupt the war effort at the front – swiftly shifted his allegiance to the new provisional government. 

The readiness of the Russian military’s officer corps, including a good number of conservative aristocrats, to embrace or at least tolerate the provisional government would prove the decisive factor in the impending demise of the Romanov Dynasty. But in the short term many commanders were confused about who represented legitimate authority, reflecting the government’s own confusion. Anton Denikin, a Russian general, recalled the muddle of these days:

The days went by. I began to receive many – both slight and important – expressions of bewilderment and questions from the units of my corps: Who represents the Supreme Power in Russia? It it the temporary Committee which created the Provisional Government, or is it the latter? I sent an inquiry, but received no answer. The Provisional Government itself, apparently, had no clear notion of the essence of its power. 

Unfortunately the situation was about to become even more chaotic, thanks to two related developments: the abolition of officers’ authority within the army, turning all decisions over to soldiers’ committees, and the growing importance of the Petrograd soviet as a rival to the Duma.

The Fall of Baghdad 

Roughly 2,500 miles to the south, the tide was turning in Mesopotamia. Following the humiliating British defeat at Kut-el-Amara in April 1916, when 10,000 Indian and British troops were captured by the Turks after a siege lasting five months, the Indian Expeditionary Force, under Frederick Stanley Maude, received major reinforcements from India and Europe, bringing it up to a strength of seven infantry divisions and one cavalry division.

Now outnumbering the neglected Ottoman Sixth Army, with six under-strength divisions under Khalil Pasha, the IEF resumed the offensive in Mesopotamia in January 1917, advancing to Khudhaira on the Tigris River by January 18 and attacking the Hai salient on January 25, which they mostly cleared of Turkish forces by February 3. Maude renewed the assault on February 9-10, pushing the Turks back to Sannaiyat and recapturing Kut, the scene of their early humiliation, by February 24.  

The Turkish retreat now turned into a rout, and at the end of February British cavalry scouts probing enemy defenses discovered that the Ottoman Sixth Army had evacuated from Al Aziziyah. After pausing to bring up supplies, Maude again returned to the offensive, with his Anglo-Indian force reaching the ruins of the ancient Seleucid capital, Ctesiphon, also abandoned by the Turks, by March 6. 

After a fierce fight on the Diyala River south of Baghdad on March 9, on March 11 the Brits occupied Baghdad, the Ottoman capital of Mesopotamia, practically without a shot, followed by Baquba on March 18 and Fallujah on the Euphrates by March 19. 

John Tennant, a British aviator in Mesopotamia, recalled the aftermath of the British advance up the Tigris, including glimpses of the mangled Ottoman Sixth Army retreating:

Flying towards Azizieh the spectacle was amazing and horrible; dead bodies and mules, abandoned guns, waggons and stores littered the road, many of the waggons had hoisted the white flag, men and animals exhausted and starving lay prone on the ground… No scene can be so terrible as a routed army in a desert country. I turned home sickened. 

Of course the advancing Anglo-Indian troops themselves faced many of the same natural foes, including epic sandstorms that lasted for days. On March 5-6, 1917, Tennant recalled: 

The storm blew throughout the next day. The road was particularly sandy, and the army marched enveloped and choked by solid clouds of sand. It was a following wind, and as it became stirred up the dust floated forward with troops and waggons… The ground was intersected by nullahs [dry flood beds] and cut up by the columns in front. Jammed in by guns and transport, it was impossible to move forward at more than five miles an hour; it was almost dark with the intensity of the driving sand, and one could see only a few yards in front when occasionally one opened one’s eyes for fleeting glances… Spread out in marching echelons, with heads muffled up as if in the Arctic regions, the army stumbled on in the gale.

On the positive side, their arrival in Baghdad, an ancient city of around 200,000, offered some rewards in the form of fresh food. Tennant described one of the most popular refreshments: “A feature that will not be forgotten by many a British Tommy that first day in Baghdad were the oranges; for neither fresh fruit nor vegetables had we tasted for many months. Generals or Privates could bury their faces in cool, fresh oranges. I can remember the delight of it now.” Another British officer, William Ewing, confirmed that oranges were a cause for celebration: “The fresh vegetables were a real luxury after the course of bully beef and biscuits; and our weary men regaled themselves with oranges that were abundant and excellent."

See the previous installment or all entries.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Pryor

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Richard Pryor, who was born on December 1, 1940, is considered by many to be the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Jerry Seinfeld referred to him as “the Picasso of our profession.” Chris Rock has called him comedy’s Rosa Parks. Yet the indelible mark Pryor made on the world of comedy only tells part of his story.

Like his career in the spotlight, Pryor’s world offstage was also highly compelling and full of shocking turns. He’s one of those people whose real life was so off-the-wall at times that it becomes tough to separate fact from fiction. Here are just a few stories about the brilliant and chaotic life of the great Richard Pryor.

1. Richard Pryor had a tragic childhood.

Richard Pryor had a tragic early life, experiencing things that no child should have to endure: Born to a prostitute named Gertrude on December 1, 1940 in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s father was a notoriously violent pimp named LeRoy Pryor. For much of his childhood, Pryor was raised in the actual brothel where his mother worked, which was owned by his own no-nonsense grandmother, Marie Carter. With his mother periodically dropping out of his life for long stretches, it was Marie who served as Pryor’s central guardian and caretaker.

In 2015, The New Yorker published an article to mark the 10th anniversary of Pryor’s passing, which offered further details on his turbulent early life, noting:

Pryor said that one of the reasons he adored movies as a boy was that you were never in doubt as to why the women in them were screaming. As for the sounds that Richard heard in the middle of the night in his room on the top floor of one of Marie’s businesses, he had no idea what was happening to those girls. A number of times, he saw his mother, Gertrude, one of the women in Marie’s employ, nearly beaten to death by his father. Gertrude left when Richard was five. He later registered no resentment over this. “At least Gertrude didn’t flush me down the toilet,” he said. (This was not a joke. As a child, Pryor opened a shoebox and found a dead baby inside.)

2. Richard Pryor walked away from a successful career.

Early in his career Pryor found success by modeling his comedy largely on the work on Bill Cosby, which led to many comparisons being drawn between the two—a fact that Cosby reportedly grew to dislike.

There are conflicting tales of just how Pryor made the 180-degree change in style that led to him becoming a comedic legend. One of the most well traveled tales, and one that Pryor himself confirmed on more than one occasion, states that Pryor was performing his clean-cut act in Las Vegas one night when he looked out into the audience and saw Dean Martin among the crowd. If you believe the story, seeing the legendarily cool Rat Packer’s face made Pryor question what exactly he was doing and caused him to abruptly leave the stage mid-performance. Around this time Pryor moved to the San Francisco Bay area, dropped out of the comedy limelight for several years, and later reemerged with the more pointed, in-your-face style that made him an icon.

3. Richard Pryor won an Emmy for writing.

Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and Richard Pryor in Tomlin's 1973 TV special, Lily.CBS Television, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Though Pryor was better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, the only Emmy he ever won was for writing. In 1974, Pryor won the Emmy for Best Writing in Comedy for Lily, a comedy special starring Lily Tomlin (in which he also appeared). He earned a total of four nominations throughout his career, two of them as an actor and the other two as a writer.

4. Richard Pryor made Lorne Michaels quit Saturday Night Live.

Back in 1975, Saturday Night Live was brand new, so at the time the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, wasn’t yet a powerful TV icon. Therefore, when Michaels stuck his neck out and demanded the right to have Pryor on as a guest host, he was really risking a lot. It took Michaels handing in a fake resignation to convince NBC executives to allow the famously foulmouthed comic to appear. Michaels himself had to implement a secret five-second delay for that night’s episode to be sure that any off-the-cuff, unscripted choice language didn’t make its way out over the airwaves. The delay was kept from Pryor who, upon later finding out, confirmed that he would have refused to do the show had he known about it

The episode, the seventh one of SNL’s premiere season, contained one of the most memorable and edgy sketches ever to appear on the show: (the NSFW) Word Association. Chevy Chase and Pryor’s personal writer, Paul Mooney, have each claimed to have written the sketch.

5. Richard Pryor lost the starring role in Blazing Saddles.

Pryor and Gene Wilder made four films together (Silver Streak; Stir Crazy; See No Evil, Hear No Evil; and Another You), but there could have been at least one more. Pryor was one of the credited writers on Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles and the plan for a time was that he would also co-star in the film, playing Sheriff Bart alongside Wilder as the Waco Kid. In the clip above, Wilder explained how Pryor’s infamous drug use caused him to end up in a remote city and subsequently lose the starring role to Cleavon Little.

6. It wasn’t a drug mishap that caused Richard Pryor to set himself on fire.

One of the most retold stories about Pryor centers around the incident on June 9, 1980 where he set himself on fire and took off running down a Los Angeles street fully engulfed in flames. Though he wasn’t expected to survive the episode, he eventually pulled through and spent the next six weeks recuperating in the hospital. At the time it was often reported that the cause of the accident was Pryor freebasing cocaine. Pryor later admitted that in a drug-fueled psychosis he had actually attempted to kill himself by dousing his body in 151-proof rum and setting himself ablaze. A friend of Pryor’s at the time has gone on record as saying that the idea for the act likely came about that evening after the two of them watched footage of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese monk who famously burned himself to death in 1963 as an act of protest.

7. Richard Pryor was married seven times.

Pryor was married seven times—to five different women. In the 2013 documentary Omit the Logic, a friend of Pryor’s—who served as the best man at one of his weddings—recounts how Pryor showed up at his hotel room door just a few hours after marrying Jennifer Lee, insisting that he already wanted a divorce. Pryor would get divorced from Lee the next year, only to remarry her 19 years later; the two were still together when Pryor passed away in 2005.

8. Richard Pryor had a soft spot for animals.

In 1986 Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a central nervous system disease that ultimately left him confined to a wheelchair. Pryor was such an avid supporter of animal rights, however, that he actively spoke out against animal testing of any kind—even when that testing meant getting closer to a cure for his own condition. The biography on RichardPryor.com provides more insight into this part of his private life:

He's been honored by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for saving baby elephants in Botswana targeted for circuses. In 2000, as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus was preparing to open at Madison Square Garden, Pryor gave the Big Top's first African-American ringmaster, Jonathan Lee Iverson, something to think about when he wrote him a letter in which he stated: “While I am hardly one to complain about a young African American making an honest living, I urge you to ask yourself just how honorable it is to preside over the abuse and suffering of animals."

9. Richard Pryor won the first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Beginning in 1998, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts began awarding its annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which "recognizes individuals who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th-century novelist and essayist Samuel Clemens, best known as Mark Twain." Pryor was chosen as their very first recipient. In the more than 20 years since, he has been joined by an illustrious group of comedy legends, including Carl Reiner, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Steve Martin, Carol Burnett, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Dave Chappelle.

10. Despite his deteriorating health, Richard Pryor never stopped performing.

Even while MS continued to rob him of his mobility, Pryor’s comedic mind continued cranking. Throughout the early 1990s Pryor would often show up at Los Angeles’s famous standup club The Comedy Store to take to the stage in his wheelchair. In the above clip from The Joe Rogan Experience, a few comics discuss what it was like to watch the all-time great perform in his diminished state.

This story has been updated for 2020.