The most significant date in the historical calendar of 2017 had to be the centenary of the Russian Revolution. It was a commemoration, not a celebration, because there can be no celebration of something that led to such prolonged blood-letting and cruelty, even if initial motivations and intentions were – is noble tbe right word? If not, then understandable surely is. Of the many publications that were published on the subject this year, I chose to read China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. No expert on the history of the Russian Revolution, this is the only book I’ve ever read, or am likely to read on the subject. While I found it highly readable and illuminating, it was also baffling. How can you make sense of a situation in which the objective of the revolutionaries is to overthrow the established order and yet not want to take up the reigns of power? Really fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, and months between February, when the Tsar was deposed , and the October Revolution when events forced Lenin into finally seizing power, are indeed most strange.
As a reader with what can only be called a casual interest in the subject, I can’t really assess the value of Miéville’s history, although Karen, a more knowledgable reader than I, deems it magnificent, I found it detailed – events are sometimes followed day by day – and sometimes quite repetitive (due to there being meeting after meeting after meeting), though the author’s novelist’s feel for the dramatic and eye for detail kept any dryness to a minimum. For example, on a night in October 1917
Wet snow over dark streets, Petrograd’s northern Lesoi district. A frantic Saint Bernard dog bayed at shadows slipping through the dark, each shape outlined briefly by the weather, then gone. With each howl, another figure passed, until at last more than a score of Bolshevik leaders were inside the building of the district Duma.
Miéville is obviously sympathetic to the cause, which means that his eye isn’t unbiased. Again though, not being fully conversant with the material, I can’t point out how far this colours the narrative. I did notice, however, that there’s no explicit reference to the execution of Tsar Nicholas and his family (ironically my only prior point of reference). Perhaps an oblique one, though, when Miéville, when discussing whether the degradation of the Bolshevik ideal into the brutality of Stalinism was inevitable, quotes what historian Mike Haynes has called the Bolshevik’s “inability to resist executions”.
That phrase sent chills down my spine at the time of reading and actually returned to my mind again and again as I read through 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. In that light, this anthology unexpectedly became the most emotional read of 2017.
It charts the progress of the Russian Revolution from February 1917 through to late 1919 when the Bolsheviks finally won the upper hand in the civil war through contemporaneous pieces of poetry and prose. So nothing is given, uncertainites are real and joy/terror is coursing through the veins of the authors depending on context. The reader is made aware of this by means of introductory passages, written by the editor Boris Drayluk. These also include short biographies of the authors including their political affiliations and their ultimate fates. I lost count of the number of exiled and executed. Even those who were reds weren’t safe.
I felt myself getting quite emotional, often about authors I had never heard of or read before, many of whom are here translated into English for the first time by a dozen translators. For every Pasternak, there was a Kuzmin; for every Teffi, a Gippius.
What is particularly noticeable is how even during the early heady days following the October Revolution, there were those who were not buying into the dream, who were raising questions about the looting, drunken masses and asking whether this behaviour was a betrayal of their forefather’s struggles. As time progressed, writers like Rozanov and Remizov saw the events of 1917 in apocalyptic terms. Zoshchenko’s piece from 1919 talks about the amazement and fear, fear and rapture spawned by the wonderful audacity of the October Revolution. And yet the piece is satirical.
So what do you want?
They were weak, and you cried “Stronger!”
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but on the other hand, it is powerful.
There is a lot of blood, you say?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is.
But then again, not so much that we shall drown in it ….
Famous last words, or did he see it coming?