CAUGHT IN THE REVOLUTION: Petrograd 1917
Windmill Books, 2017, 430 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
In 1916-1917, whilst millions of starving Russian workers queued for hours for scarce bread, or perished on the eastern front, or were made idle from factories in a country where the living conditions were as atrocious as the record winter cold, 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, the 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 the Westerners stranded in Petrograd, the Russian capital, by German submarines which had shut off escape through the ports of revolutionary Russia.
The Tsarist court and their Western allies were, by class instinct, ill-disposed towards revolution and were ambivalent about the anti-Tsarist revolution in February which resulted in a new government of (unelected) “respectable and bourgeois gentlemen” (perfectly acceptable, they thought) sharing power with directly-elected plebeian assemblies (‘soviets’) of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ representatives (not at all acceptable).
This 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, upper-class English medical orderly. The newly empowered proletarians were patronised - 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’, wailed James Jones, American engineering manager.
Aristocratic disdain came as naturally to the Western elite as breathing - the socialist ‘doctrine of Liberty’ was one that ‘preached a contempt for beauty’ as once-beautiful mansions and palaces now housed the great unwashed, sobbed Meriel Buchanan, daughter of the British ambassador, George, who recoiled at the disrespect shown towards their officers by Russian soldiers 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, whilst the soviets heralded the beginning of ‘the high road to anarchy’, fretted Major-General Knox, a future Tory parliamentarian.
When the October revolution, eight months later, toppled the nominal government, Western antagonism to revolution redoubled and Lenin’s Bolsheviks - the most visionary, radical, militant and organised of the revolutionary forces – came in for especially heavy mauling. The Bolsheviks were said to be bullies, hotheads, incendiary agitators, German agents.
Lenin was ‘the poison that will destroy the democratic revolution’, said Edward Heald, international YMCA leader. Lenin was a ‘utopian dreamer’ and fanatic, ‘blind to justice or mercy, violent, Machiavellian and crazy with vanity’, spluttered Maurice Paleologue, the French Ambassador. 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 Lenin and Trotsky, or through armed invasion.
Rappaport continues this tradition of aversion to revolution in her casual use of clichéd, politically pejorative language. The crowds that made the Russian revolution? ‘Rabble’ and ‘mob’, of course. The popular supremacy of 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 a hundred 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 personnel (Bolsheviks), 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 government which delivered the same old war and same old class exploitation. In the face of massive 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 all but the merest fraction of the bloodshed (five thousand killed) of the February revolution.
Rappaport, however, is unburdened by any 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 whilst the Russian revolution may have lacked the regal glitz of an aristocratic caste, and come instead in mud-caked boots, unwashed greatcoats 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 their class privilege, through which they glimpsed their future, the future of superfluous people in a world where workers, with the help of those intellectuals who pitch in, govern the society they work and live in, through a great plebeian democratic reset. They feared a new society in which the pampered stratum, like their moneyed counterparts today, would have to earn their keep and be on an equal footing in decision-making. Their real fear of Lenin’s syllabus of Applied Marxism was his radical political and economic democracy (his ‘let every cook govern’ sent shivers up the spine of exploiters of cooks everywhere) which threatened their private wealth and undeserved privilege.
If Russia hadn’t been a backward, predominantly peasant economy, devastated by war and a ruinous peace treaty with Germany; if revolution in Europe had come to the soviets’ aid; if the capitalist West hadn't invaded the fledging socialist state, starved the Russian people through economic embargo and supported a vicious ‘White’ counter-revolution, then a Stalin-free, democratic socialist Russia might have stood a chance. All the ifs were against revolutionary Russia, however, and 100 years on, the capitalist West and its orthodox intellectuals are still breathing a sigh of self-interested relief, though the looming torrent of anti-Bolshevik books on the centenary of the Russian Revolution suggests the old nightmare is still disturbing their peaceful repose.