Reading the Russian Revolution – Wrap-Up

All Power to the Soviets!

A year and a half ago I thought it would be fun to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution by setting myself a challenge to read all about it. It’s a period I knew very little about, having forgotten what little I learned in school back in the dark ages. The plan was to read some history, some contemporaneous accounts and some fiction, both classic and modern. And I have to admit, at risk of sounding even weirder than usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience!

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I decided against three of the books on my initial list of ten as I went along, and abandoned another too early to review. On the other hand, I added eleven – a combination of books that were published during the centenary year and books to which some other part of my revolutionary reading led me.

In total, then, seventeen books, of which seven are factual and ten fiction. I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend – and some of the images I used to illustrate my reviews.

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FACTUAL

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996)

Massive in scope and meticulously researched, this history of the Revolution is brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, even for someone with no previous knowledge. It’s an exemplary mix of the political, social and personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

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History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1932)

Trotsky’s own detailed account of the events of 1917 and analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment. Dry and jargon-filled when discussing Marxist theory; sarcastic and even humorous when talking about Stalin or the bourgeoisie; angry and contemptuous when discussing the Romanovs and imperialists in general. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he becomes eloquent and even inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, reminding the reader that he was a participant and passionate leader in the events he’s describing. Essential reading for anyone with a real interest in the period.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

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FICTION

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, and the Ukrainian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.

A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

St Vladimir watching over the city…

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1928-32)

This Nobel Prize-winning novel follows the members of one family, the Melekhovs, through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective. It’s divided into four sections – Peace, the Great War, Revolution and Civil War. The book has the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

A wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus (2003)

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. These two men will soon be swept up in events, as Lenin and Stalin create their Communist utopia…

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.

The major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making; and, as such, feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published. Plus it’s brilliantly written and highly entertaining.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

(NB The three propaganda posters are from Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – another excellent and recommended book.)

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The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (2009)

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents: the Cuban narrator who tells the story, Trotsky living in exile in Mexico, and a young Spaniard, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who has been recruited by Stalin. The primary story is of Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

He [Trotsky] whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence, insight and humanity, all of which means that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is that without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

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So it’s a wrap!

Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Revolution – an obsession which I’m not sure has really ended yet, although the challenge has. The last word must go to Trotsky…

Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

PEACE, LAND, BREAD!

Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia

A picture paints a thousand words…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this summer the British Library held an exhibition discussing the causes and impact of the revolution and illustrating it with contemporary documents, propaganda, photographs and art. This book was issued to go alongside the exhibition, and works very well as a substitute for those of us who weren’t able to attend. It’s beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated, but it’s far more than just a coffee table book. The balance between text and illustrations is excellent, making it a substantial history as well as a visual feast.

The book starts with a very well laid out, lengthy timeline, running from about 1860 to the present day, though it bulges over the revolutionary period itself. It includes not only events in Russia, but also an indication of what was happening contemporaneously elsewhere in the world, in politics, science, etc.; and this gives a very clear picture of how comparatively backwards pre-revolutionary Russia was both culturally and politically. It also includes major events in the world of art and literature, and some fascinating statistics showing the rampant inflation that helped push the people into revolution. This is a great beginning – almost enough to be a pocket history of the revolution on its own, and it’s very well illustrated, with brief but clear and informative information about each image.

Curators Katya Rogatchevskaia and Susan Reed during installation of
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths.
Photo by Samantha Lane

Each of the following chapters takes the form of an essay on one aspect of the subject, each written by a different author, expert in the field s/he is discussing. Together they follow the progression of events so that there’s a flow to the ‘story-telling’. Naturally, each author has his or her own style and some worked better for me than others. A couple of the chapters read as if perhaps too much is being crammed into the available space, giving a rather dizzying impression of names and events. Others take a more broad brush approach which, while it means they perhaps don’t contain so much detailed information, worked better for me as a casual reader. Overall, though, the standard is excellent – thoroughly researched and informative and only very rarely falling over the line towards being a little too academically presented for my taste.

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

The first chapter deals with the history of tsarism and the rise of the various parties and groupings that would participate in the revolution. Like the other chapters, it’s a necessarily brief account but it’s enough to give a clear and, as far as I can judge, accurate picture. The second chapter describes the events of February to October 1917 – the actual revolutionary period. Then there’s a chapter which takes us through the civil war that followed the revolution. Because I’ve been reading so much detailed history of the period this year, these chapters didn’t add much for me in terms of new information, but they provide a concise summary of events and the illustrations give an extra layer of interest. There are propaganda posters, newspaper headlines and extracts from articles, cartoons, paintings and extracts from important documents – and all placed where they’re relevant so that they enhance the text superbly. There are also little side panels containing extracts from contemporaneous writings of people involved in the events as either participants or observers.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

Personally I found the final chapters particularly interesting, since they covered the post- revolutionary period and subjects that I haven’t read so much about. The fourth chapter describes the beginnings of the Soviet state and its impact on society, culture and the arts. The rise in the use of propaganda is wonderfully illustrated, bringing it to life much more than words alone could possibly do. We are shown the attempts to destroy orthodox religion and the concurrent creation of the cult of Lenin, including the use of the same kind of religious symbolism the churches had used. And this chapter also covers the artistic response to the revolution, including the poetry of Alexander Blok and the futurist art of Mayakovsky.

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

Chapter five takes the story on through the early decades of the twentieth century, showing the spread of the Soviet Empire until it had recovered most of the old Tsarist empire. It also discusses the regime’s attempts to spread revolution throughout Europe via the Comintern, using propaganda and attempting to gain influence over the new socialist parties springing up in many countries between the wars. And finally, there’s an epilogue where the editor herself discusses the literary impact on and response to the revolution, from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky via Gorky, Bunin, Sholokhov, Pasternak, et al, through to the more modern dissidents like Solzhenitsyn.


Since I started this challenge to read my way through the Russian Revolution, several people have asked in relation to one book or another whether it would be a good place to start. In truth, this is the one that I would recommend as a starting point. It’s nowhere near as detailed as the major tomes like A People’s Tragedy or History of the Russian Revolution, but it gives a clear, concise overview of the main people and events, and widens the discussion out to look at the worlds of literature and art – designed to appeal to the bookish amongst us. And the wonderful illustrations make it an easier read, perhaps, giving opportunities to pause and visual prompts that help in absorbing the information. The illustrations also mean that this would be an interesting supplement for people who already know the history. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

 

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .
….Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

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….It had to finish like this. Sooner or later he had been bound to discover what was concealed from other beings – that there was no real distinction between the living and the dead. It’s only because of the coarseness of our perception that we imagine the dead elsewhere, in some other world. Not a bit of it. The dead are with us here, mixed up in our lives and meddling with them…. They speak to us with shadowy mouths; they write with hands of smoke. Ordinary people, of course, don’t notice. They’re too preoccupied with their own affairs. To perceive these things you’ve got to have been incompletely born and thus only half involved in this noisy, colourful, flamboyant world…

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….When we reached the crest of the steep winding brae leading into it, the smoke from the straw chimneys was the only visible sign of life. Otherwise one might have imagined that some terrible scourge had made an end to all the inhabitants and no one had come near the clachan since from a superstitious dread.
….Green hill rising behind green hill – they raised in me a brooding, inherent melancholy. I felt this place had lived through everything, had seen everything, that it was saturated with memories and legends. I thought of it submerged under the sea, of the ocean receding farther and farther from it; of glaciers creeping down the mountains, forming the glens and ravines; of the mountains as spent volcanoes covered by the impenetrable Caledonian forest. And now there was nothing more for it to know and it was waiting for the clap of doom.

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….“There is so much lying going on around that I could scream. All my friends, all my acquaintances, people whom earlier I never would have thought of as liars, are now uttering falsehoods at every turn. They cannot help but lie; they cannot help but add to their own lies, their own flourishes to the well-known falsehoods. And they all do so from an agonising need that everything be just as they so fiercely desire.”

Ivan Bunin quoted in Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths

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….“No one’s going to harm a hair on my precious uncle’s head. He’s safe enough. He’ll always be safe – safe and smug and prosperous and full of platitudes. He’s just a stodgy John Bull, that’s what he is, without an ounce of imagination or vision.” She paused, then, her agreeable husky voice deepening, she said venomously, “I loathe the sight of you, you bloody little bourgeois detective.”
….She swept away from him in a swirl of expensive, model drapery. Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised, and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moustaches. The epithet ‘bourgeois’ was, he admitted, well applied to him. His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois and always had been. But the employment of it as an epithet of contempt by the exquisitely turned out Jane Olivera gave him, as he expressed it to himself, furiously to think.

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So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Meanwhile Esther was telling us about a friend from preschool who is named either Lisi or Ilse or Else and either took a toy away from her or gave her one, at which point the teachers did either nothing at all or just the right thing, or something wrong; little kids are not good storytellers. But Susanna and I exclaimed That’s great! and Incredible! and How about that! and the relief when she stopped talking brought us closer together.

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….The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. [FF shouts: Hear! Hear!] And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world that, for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate.

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….I had tried to explain to my mother that it was awful to go so early; that one looked so silly when the field was full of small children. I could not explain that when it was dark a new dignity would transform the fair into an oasis of excitement, so that it became a place of mystery and delight; peopled with soldiers from the camp and orange-faced girls wearing head scarves, who in strange regimented lines would sway back and forth across the field, facing each other defiantly, exchanging no words, bright-eyed under the needle stars. I could not explain how all at once the lines would meet and mingle performing a complicated rite of selection; orange girls and soldier boys pairing off slowly to drift to the far end of the field and struggle under the hedges filled with blackberries.

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With this one it’s all about the images…

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….There are certain humiliating moments in the lives of the greatest of men. It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. To that may be added that few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist.
….Hercule Poirot was morbidly conscious of this fact.
….He was a man who was accustomed to have a good opinion of himself. He was Hercule Poirot, superior in most ways to other men. But in this moment he was unable to feel superior in any way whatever. His morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.

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….At first Mr Cooke is angry with Isabelle. He wants her to know what she is putting her mother through. When the anger lifts he wishes it back because then he is just terrified. He is so frightened he wants to hold his daughter tight and never let go. Then he just wants to hold her hand, then just to see her. Just to see her. The yearning is worse than the fear. The yearning is a sorrowing ache that burrows deep down into the core of him.
….As the night wears on he gets less and less tired. Mr Cooke knows how men talk about girls. He knows what might have happened to his own Isabelle. Over the long hours of the dark, as all the hope he will ever feel is sucked out through his soles into the wet, treacherous earth, it comes to feel absolutely vital that he find the dancing shoes that she has worn thin with all her dancing.

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 124…

Episode 124…

Oh, my! The TBR has reached 199 – will I be able to reduce it before any other book arrives to tip me over the 200 cliff? It’s partly the tennis, but mainly it’s all these Russian books, fact and fiction. There seems to be something about Russia that makes every book massive. When you start looking forward to books about mathematicians as light relief, then you know there’s something wrong! On the upside, I haven’t requested any review copies at all in June so far – isn’t that impressive? Admittedly I also haven’t finished any, meaning the total of outstanding books for review is still 35…

Gratuitous pic of the best clay court player in the history of the universe…

Back to books! Here are a few more that I hope to get to soonish, including three of my 20 Books of Summer

Crime

This has been on my TBR ever since I read and enjoyed Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo back in September ’15. Given that it’s only novella length, I should really have been able to fit it in before now…

The Blurb says: Every Saturday evening, travelling salesman Fernand Ravinel returns to his wife, Mireille, who waits patiently for him at home. But Ferdinand has another lover, Lucienne, an ambitious doctor, and together the adulterers have devised a murderous plan. Drugging Mireille, the pair drown her in a bathtub, but in the morning, before the “accidental” death can be discovered, the corpse is gone–so begins the unraveling of Ferdinand’s plot, and his sanity…

This classic of French noir fiction was adapted for the screen by Henri-Georges Clouzot as Les Diaboliques (The Devils), starring Simone Signoret and Véra Clouzot, the film which in turn inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

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Factual

Courtesy of the publisher, the British Library. The book is actually to accompany an exhibition they’re holding about the Revolution which I won’t be able to attend. But the book itself sounds interesting, and at first glance looks very well illustrated. It doesn’t look it from the cover photo but it’s actually a largish, coffee-table book in terms of style, though the contents look far from superficial…

 The Blurb says: One hundred years ago events in Russia took the world by storm. In February 1917, in the middle of World War I and following months of protest and political unrest, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. Later that year a new political force, the socialist Bolshevik Party, seized power under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. A bloody civil war and period of extraordinary hardship for Russians finally led to the establishment of the Soviet Union. This book accompanies a major exhibition that re-examines the Russian Revolution in light of recent research, focusing on the experiences of ordinary Russians living through extraordinary times. The Revolution was not a single event but a complex process of dramatic change. The story of the Revolution is told here through posters, maps, postcards, letters, newspapers and literature, photographs and personal accounts. Leading experts on Russian history reveal the Revolution as a utopian project that had traumatic consequences for people across Russia and beyond.

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Fiction

Courtesy of NetGalley. I must say that early reviews of this one have dampened my enthusiasm considerably. Unlike the blurb which makes it sound balanced and nuanced, reviews seem to suggest it’s actually another of the great Indian misery novels – you know, the ones that suggest everything about life there is horrible and hopeless. If so, I imagine it will quickly be thrown at the wall as my tolerance for these books lessens each time I read one. But we’ll see…

The Blurb says: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness transports us across a subcontinent on a journey of many years. It takes us deep into the lives of its gloriously rendered characters, each of them in search of a place of safety – in search of meaning, and of love.

In a graveyard outside the walls of Old Delhi, a resident unrolls a threadbare Persian carpet. On a concrete sidewalk, a baby suddenly appears, just after midnight. In a snowy valley, a bereaved father writes a letter to his five-year-old daughter about the people who came to her funeral. In a second-floor apartment, a lone woman chain-smokes as she reads through her old notebooks. At the Jannat Guest House, two people who have known each other all their lives sleep with their arms wrapped around each other, as though they have just met.

A braided narrative of astonishing force and originality, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is at once a love story and a provocation-a novel as inventive as it is emotionally engaging. It is told with a whisper, in a shout, through joyous tears and sometimes with a bitter laugh. Its heroes, both present and departed, have been broken by the world we live in-and then mended by love. For this reason, they will never surrender.

Humane and sensuous, beautifully told, this extraordinary novel demonstrates on every page the miracle of Arundhati Roy’s storytelling gifts

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Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again, and yet another that I was tempted to go for by Cleo’s great review. This sounds fascinating, especially since people in Glasgow still talked about Peter Manuel as a kind of bogeyman when I was growing up, even though he was hanged before I was born…

The Blurb says: A standalone psychological thriller from the acclaimed author of the Alex Morrow novels that exposes the dark hearts of the guilty…and the innocent.

The “trial of the century” in 1950’s Glasgow is over. Peter Manuel has been found guilty of a string of murders and is waiting to die by hanging. But every good crime story has a beginning. Manuel’s starts with the murder of William Watt’s family. Looking no further that Watt himself, the police are convinced he’s guilty. Desperate to clear his name, Watt turns to Manuel, a career criminal who claims to have information that will finger the real killer. As Watt seeks justice with the cagey Manuel’s help, everyone the pair meets has blood on their hands as they sell their version of the truth. The Long Drop is an explosive novel about guilt, innocence and the power of a good story to hide the difference.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Amazon.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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