Caught In The Revolution: Petrograd 1917
Windmill Books, 2017
In 1916-17, millions of starving Russian workers queued for hours for scarce bread, perished on the eastern front or were left unemployed in a country where the living conditions were as atrocious as the record winter cold.
Meanwhile, the cream of the native Russian and foreign Western elites shopped at ease in specialist stores for luxury goods and swanned around at swanky dinner parties, sumptuous banquets, grand balls and nights at the opera.
In Caught In The Revolution, British historian Helen Rappaport writes that the imperial pomp of this leisured world of furs and jewels, champagne and cake, and limousine and coach-and-horse, hid the “decay of a dying era” from Westerners stranded in the Russian capital of Petrograd. German submarines had shut off escape through the ports of revolutionary Russia for these foreign elites.
The Tsarist court and its Western allies were, by class instinct, ill-disposed towards revolution. The Westerners were, at best, ambivalent about the anti-Tsarist revolution in February that resulted in a new “provisional” government of (unelected) “respectable and bourgeois gentlemen” sharing power with directly-elected plebeian assemblies (“soviets”) of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ representatives.
If the Provisional Government was just about acceptable to these Western elites, the soviets most certainly weren’t.
The new-fangled, grass-roots democracy of the soviets was met with condescension. Weapons — and politics — were now in the hands of “irresponsible people”, complained Elsie Bowerman, an upper-class English medical orderly.
The newly empowered proletarians were patronised. James Jones, an American engineering manager, wailed that workers couldn’t cope with liberty because the “poorer classes had no opinions of their own” and were the “prey of the last unscrupulous demagogue they have heard”.
Aristocratic disdain came as naturally to the Western elites as breathing. Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British ambassador, sobbed that the socialist “doctrine of Liberty” was one that “preached a contempt for beauty” as once-beautiful mansions and palaces now housed the great unwashed.
She recoiled in horror at the disrespect Russian soldiers showed their officers, who “crowd into first-class carriages and eat in Restaurant cars while officers wait”.
Fear predominated — it was “like watching some savage beast that had broken out of its cage”, trembled Negley Farson, an Anglo-American exporter. The soviets heralded the beginning of “the high road to anarchy”, fretted Major-General Alfred Knox, a future Tory parliamentarian.
When the soviets took all power into their hands in the October Revolution eight months later, toppling the largely nominal Provisional Government in the process, Western antagonism to revolution redoubled. Lenin’s Bolsheviks — the most visionary, radical, militant and organised of the revolutionary forces — came in for especially heavy mauling.
The Bolsheviks were denounced as bullies, hotheads, incendiary agitators and German agents.
Lenin was “the poison that will destroy the democratic revolution”, said Edward Heald, international YMCA leader. French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue spluttered that Lenin was a “utopian dreamer” and fanatic, “blind to justice or mercy, violent, Machiavellian and crazy with vanity”.
His British counterpart recognised that, as the Bolsheviks were the most popular and able of the revolutionaries, it was imperative that they be “squashed”, including assassinating its leaders Lenin and Leon Trotsky, or through armed invasion.
For her part, Rappaport continues this tradition of aversion to revolution in her casual use of cliched, politically pejorative language. The crowds that made the Russian revolution were “rabble” and “mobs”.
Bolshevik ideas and organising? Nothing but power-hungry, extremist ideologues “fomenting unrest” and “exploiting grievances” through “inflammatory speeches” and “overblown rhetoric”.
Rappaport’s stale political stereotype of a minority Bolshevik “coup” maintains 100 years of wilful misreading of the October Revolution. The fulcrum for the revolutionary transfer of power between classes was certainly limited in time (one night) and organised with military secrecy and precision, but the absence of mass involvement in the mechanics of insurrection does not mean that the October revolution was a minority affair.
After the euphoria of seeing off the Tsar with a two-fingered salute in February, the popular mood had rapidly descended into a surly resentment at the new, bourgeois Provisional government, which delivered the same old war and same old class exploitation.
In the face of huge popular pressure from months of protests and mutinies, and a leaderless, abortive uprising in July, the Bolsheviks finally overcame their hesitation and acted swiftly and decisively to carry out the popular will.
The efficiency that the Bolsheviks brought to the insurrectionary deed in fact prevented nearly any bloodshed — after 5000 had been killed in the February Revolution.
Rappaport, however, is unburdened by sophisticated political analysis and settles for the simplistic morality tale of evil Bolsheviks versus freedom-loving democrats. Rappaport is much happier when writing, as she does in her many other books, about princesses in pretty white dresses.
But while the Russian Revolution may have lacked aristocratic glitz, and come instead in mud-caked boots, unwashed coats and dirty fingernails, it had the political majesty of revolutionary democratic change.
The Western foreign elite of a century ago saw the October Revolution through the prism of class privilege. They glimpsed a future in which they would be superfluous, as working people took power in a plebeian democratic reset. They feared a new society in which the pampered stratum, like their moneyed counterparts today, would have to earn their keep.
Lenin’s maxim of “let every cook govern” sent shivers up the spine of the exploiters of cooks everywhere.
If Russia hadn’t been a backward, predominantly peasant economy, devastated by war and a ruinous peace treaty with Germany; if the revolution that broke out in Germany and elsewhere at the end of World War I had been successful and come to the Soviets’ aid; if the capitalist West hadn't invaded the fledgling socialist state, starved the Russian people through economic embargo and supported a vicious “White” counter-revolution, then a democratic socialist Russia, rather than a Stalinist dictatorship, might have stood a chance.
All these “ifs” were against revolutionary Russia, however. One hundred years on, the capitalist West and its orthodox intellectuals are still breathing a sigh of self-interested relief. Yet the looming torrent of anti-Bolshevik books on the centenary of the Russian Revolution suggests the old nightmare still disturbs their peaceful repose.