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!

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

The camera lies… 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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. In a little cottage close by, Lenin is holed up, using a pseudonym, and doing his best to manipulate events to inspire his long-awaited revolution. And there’s another man in the neighbourhood, known as the Caucasian – Stalin – who is intrigued by the new art of film-making, seeing its potential for truth-telling and, more importantly, for truth-creation…

This was Ken Kalfus’ first novel, published in 2003, although he had previously published collections of short stories. Kalfus lived in Moscow for some years in, I think, the ’90s and a lot of his work is about the USSR in one way or another. Regular visitors will know that I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read, and so won’t be surprised to learn that I thoroughly enjoyed this. And how nice of him to write a novel that fits so neatly into my Russian Revolution challenge!*

The book is in two parts, subtitled Pre- and Post-. Gribshin emerges quickly as the main character, and 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. Given our current obsession with “fake news”, it feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published.

Comrade Astapov had gone soft, unsteeled by the violence and death he had witnessed. Recent events had demanded the loss of life on an imponderable scale. Whether the number of Russian dead concluded in five zeros or six was hotly debated in the domestic and foreign press, but the zeros were merely a human invention, a Babylonian bookkeeping trick. The deaths were made tangible only when you stopped counting them: Velimir Krikalev, the looter summarily executed at the outside wall of a foundry in Tsaritsyn; Sonya Khlebnikova, the red-haired girl who perished unfed in some unheated barracks in Kaluga; Anton Gribshin, who froze to death the previous winter on the Arbat while searching for bread.

The first part, Pre-, deals with the death of Tolstoy, though the great man is something of a bit player in his own demise. Instead, we see the media vultures circling, all wanting to get an angle on the story and to tell it in the way that suits their agenda. Meantime, Tolstoy’s family and literary agent are engaged in a battle to gain control of his literary legacy. Spurred on by hints from the Caucasian, Gribshin begins to recognise the power of the camera to present a story that may contain no direct lies, but which nevertheless presents a false narrative. As always with Kalfus, there’s a lot of humour – the scenes between Lenin and Stalin are particularly enjoyable, with Lenin spouting Marxist theory every time he speaks while Stalin the thug is more attracted to direct, violent action. But there’s also a lot of real insight into both the way humans behave and the history and politics of the period.

The second part, Post-, jumps forward to after the Revolution when the new USSR was in the process of being created. Gribshin is now working in the new Commissariat of Enlightenment – the State’s propaganda machine, where he is is responsible for making films showing events as the leaders want them to be interpreted. Kalfus shows us the reality of life at this period: the widespread starvation as the peasants withhold food from the cities; the ongoing civil war and its attendant atrocities; the State’s attempt to weaken the peasantry through the destruction of religion. Finally, this section takes us to another death-bed, this time Lenin’s, where all Gribshin’s learned propaganda skills are merged with Vorobev’s embalming skills to complete the creation of the cult of Lenin, a quasi-religion in its own right, complete with its own rituals and iconography.

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. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

Ken Kalfus

If that all makes it sound like heavyweight politics, then I’ve done it a disservice. The actual Russian stuff is secondary to the examination of the art of propaganda and myth-making, and the story is told with a great mix of light and shade – the underlying darkness leavened by occasional humour and some mild but deliciously macabre horror around the death-bed and embalming scenes. The final chapter (which I won’t detail) showcases all Kalfus’ sparkling originality in storytelling, finding a unique way to show the reader how propaganda continued to be used to re-create the foundational myths to suit the requirements of different leaders of the USSR and beyond, as the twentieth century advanced.

I recommend it to anyone who has been fascinated by the recent corruption of truth by all sides in contemporary events on both sides of the Atlantic, or by the intervention of Russian propaganda in Western affairs. But more than that, I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an excellent story, excellently told.

*Actually, this isn’t mere coincidence. It was partly reading Kalfus’ short story collection Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies that initially sparked my interest in learning more about the period, and I’ve been saving this one as a reward to myself for all the mammoth history-reading I’ve done.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilised world had taken place within 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. Wireless cinema loomed. A man’s psyche would be continually massaged, pummelled, and manipulated so that he would be unable to complete a thought without making reference to some image manufactured for his persuasion. Exhausted, his mind would hunger for thoughtlessness. Political power and commercial gain would follow.

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….Although she was determined not to yield to panic, and run, she ceased to pick her way between cart-ruts filled with water, but plunged recklessly into muddy patches, whose suction glugged at the soles of her shoes. She had reached the densest part of the grove, where the trees intergrew in stunting overcrowding.
….To her imagination, the place was suggestive of evil. Tattered leaves still hung to bare boughs, unpleasantly suggestive of rags of decaying flesh fluttering for a gibbet. A sluggish stream was clogged with dead leaves. Derelict litter of broken boots and rusty tins cropped out of a rank growth of docks and nettles, to mark a tramp’s camping-place.
….Again Helen thought of the murders.
….“It’s coming nearer – and nearer. Nearer to us.”

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….Some of our neighbours have memories of the events that began with the shootings that hot summer. But new people are always arriving in the Park. And they often come under challenging circumstances, from the Caribbean, from South Asia and Africa and the Middle East, from places like Jaffna and Mogadishu. For these newer neighbours, there is always a story connected to Mother and me, a story made all the more frightening through each inventive retelling among neighbours. It is a story, effectively vague, of a young man deeply “troubled” and of a younger brother carrying “history,” and of a mother showing now the creep of “madness.”

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….Although I knew nothing of chemistry, I listened fascinated. He picked up an Easter lily which Geneviève had brought that morning from Notre Dame, and dropped it into the basin. Instantly the liquid lost its crystalline clearness. For a second the lily was enveloped in a milk-white foam, which disappeared, leaving the fluid opalescent. Changing tints of orange and crimson played over the surface, and then what seemed to be a ray of pure sunlight struck through from the bottom where the lily was resting. At the same instant he plunged his hand into the basin and drew out the flower. “There is no danger,” he explained, “if you choose the right moment. That golden ray is the signal.”
….He held the lily toward me, and I took it in my hand. It had turned to stone, to the purest marble.
….“You see,” he said, “it is without a flaw. What sculptor could reproduce it?”
….The marble was white as snow, but in its depths the veins of the lily were tinged with palest azure, and a faint flush lingered deep in its heart.

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….The year before war broke out, Punshon’s Dictator’s Way mocked the dictator of Etruria, ‘“the Redeemer of his country”, in his characteristic country-redeeming attitude so strongly reminiscent of Ajax defying the lightning’. The book was yet another Detection Club project addressing the idea of the altruistic murder. A thrillerish narrative is interspersed with pot shots against Hitler and Stalin (‘who have done so much to bring back prosperity to our world by inducing us to spend all our money on battleships, bombs, tanks, and other pleasing and instructive toys of modern civilisation’) as well as Mussolini, Oswald Mosley [leader of the British Union of Fascists] and the City financiers who gave them backing (‘Money has no smell and money knows no loyalty either’). Mosley had ‘always been a rich man and has a rich man’s idea all through’. Punshon’s contempt for brutal dictators extended to the Foreign Office: ‘They wipe their perspiring brows and say: “…Thank God for Hitler, he may want our colonies but at least he’s fighting Bolshevism.” I don’t know if they thank God for Oswald Mosley too. Perhaps nobody could go quite that far.’

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So…are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 147…

Episode 147…

You see, the thing is, it’s not my fault! No, really, it isn’t! I haven’t bought any books this week, nor requested any from NetGalley – I’ve been good! And yet, still my TBR has gone up again – by 2, to 216. This strange phenomenon is as a result of publishers forming a conspiracy to break my legendary willpower by sending me unsolicited books and too, too tempting catalogues. What’s a girl to do?? And meantime my reading has dropped off because I’ve been distracted…

(Poor Rafa – retired injured again. So sad!)

So anyway, looks like I better get some reading done…

Factual

Continuing my bid to read some of the books that have been on my TBR for longest, I bought this one in June 2013. Still sounds interesting! Fortunately it’s a Kindle version so at least the pages won’t have turned yellow…

The Blurb says: Paris and London have long held a mutual fascination, and never more so than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they both vied to be the world’s greatest city. Each city has been the focus of many books, yet here Jonathan Conlin uncovers the intriguing relationship between them for the first time. It is a history of surprises: Sherlock Holmes was actually French, the can-can was English and the first restaurant served English food in Paris.

Tales of Two Cities examines and compares six urban spaces – the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the music hall and the nocturnal underworld. The citizens of Paris and London were the first to create these landmarks of the modern cityscape. By borrowing, imitating and learning from each other they invented the modern metropolis and so defined urban living for us all.

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Classic Horror

Courtesy of the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics. This is part of a newish hardcover range from OWC. I haven’t had time to look at the inside properly yet but the outside is much more gorgeous than the picture makes it look. The Great God Pan was recommended to me on one of my horror posts by fellow blogger Grass and Vanilla, so this seemed like the ideal opportunity to read it, along with many other stories by Arthur Machen…

The Blurb says: Perhaps no figure better embodies the transition from the Gothic tradition to modern horror than Arthur Machen. In the final decade of the nineteenth century, the Welsh writer produced a seminal body of tales of occult horror, spiritual and physical corruption, and malignant survivals from the primeval past which horrified and scandalized late-Victorian readers. Machen’s “weird fiction” has influenced generations of storytellers, from H. P. Lovecraft to Guillermo Del Toro – and it remains no less unsettling today. This new collection, which includes the complete novel The Three Impostors as well as such celebrated tales as The Great God Pan and The White People, constitutes the most comprehensive critical edition of Machen yet to appear. In addition to the core late-Victorian horror classics, a selection of lesser-known prose poems and later tales helps to present a fuller picture of the development of Machen’s weird vision. The edition’s introduction and notes contextualize the life and work of this foundational figure in the history of horror.

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Vintage Crime

This is one of the books for my Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins, so I have high hopes for this one…

The Blurb says: Also published as The Spiral Staircase. Helen Capel is hired as a live-in lady-help to the Warren family in the countryside. She enjoys the eccentric household and her duties, but her peaceful and simple life is soon disturbed by a series of mysterious murders in the isolated community.

As Helen’s employer, Professor Sebastian Warren, battens down the hatches and locks all the doors of their remote country house, the eight residents begin to feel safe. But somewhere out there lurks a murderer of young girls. As the murders crawl closer to home, Helen starts to wonder if there really is safety in numbers—and what happens when those numbers start to dwindle?

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Fiction

For the Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Ken Kalfus lived in Russia for some years and the Soviet Union appears in quite a lot of his work. I love his writing, so I’m looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Ken Kalfus’s mesmerising first novel is about two events that become milestones in the history of the modern media: the death of Tolstoy and the murder of Lenin. One young filmmaker was there. The story begins in 1910, as Leo Tolstoy lies dying in Astapovo, a railway station in provincial Russia. Members of the press from around the world have descended upon this sleepy hamlet to record his passing for a public suddenly ravenous for celebrity news. Cinema is the newcomer, and Nikolai Gribshin arrives to capture the extraordinary scene and learn how to wield his camera as a political tool. At this historic moment, he comes across two men – the scientist, Professor Vorobev, and the revolutionist, Joseph Stalin – who have radical, mysterious plans for the future. Soon they will accompany him on a long, cold march through an era of brutality and absurdity, as science struggles with superstition. Brimming with intellect, humour, and rich, inventive storytelling, The Commissariat of Enlightenment is a novel of ideas that brilliantly evokes the tragi-comic world of revolutionary Russia as well as the birth of today’s image-based society. 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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

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