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

* * * * *

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…

* * * * *

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

* * * * *

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!

Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy

Causes and effects…

😀 😀 😀 😀

On 26 April 1986 the no.4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded. In this book, Plokhy sets out to explain why and how this disaster occurred, and to look at the fallout, both actual and political, that followed. Plokhy is the Mykhailo Hrushevsky professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University. The book begins with him visiting the present-day Chernobyl site, now a kind of macabre tourist venue, with the destroyed reactor buried in its own specially designed sarcophagus.

He then takes us back in time, to the Soviet Congress of 1986, when the newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev set out to change the direction of the USSR from military might through the long-standing arms race to becoming an economic powerhouse. This led to dramatic increases in targets for the building of nuclear power plants and for the amount of energy to be produced, all on ridiculously short time-frames. Plokhy goes even further back to show the early slipshod development of nuclear power plants in the USSR. While some people already had safety concerns, they were living under a regime that didn’t welcome dissent, and so mostly these were not passed up the line or were ignored when they were.

Having set the technical and political background, Plokhy then recounts in detail the events that led up to the disaster – a series of technical and management failures, mostly caused by the time pressures and targets forced on the plant. He gives a vivid account of the immediate aftermath, when it was unclear how devastating the accident had been, and when men were sent in to investigate without adequate equipment to protect themselves or even to accurately measure the radiation. Denial became a feature of the whole thing – both official denials by the government, trying to hide the scale of the accident from their own people and from international governments; and the more human denial, of people caught up in the disaster, unable or unwilling to believe that they couldn’t somehow put the genie back in the bottle – that things had spiralled beyond their control. Plokhy shows clearly how the regime’s culture of holding individuals culpable as scapegoats for systemic failures led to a lack of openness, which in turn delayed necessary actions like evacuation which would have saved at least some lives.

The sarcophagus built over the destroyed reactor

Plokhy goes on to show the political aftermath, suggesting that the disaster played a major role in the break-up of the Soviet Union a few years later. And he finishes with a heartfelt plea to the international community to act to prevent such disasters in the future by monitoring and rigorously inspecting nuclear facilities, especially in countries with authoritarian governments where there is a culture of blame that prevents people expressing safety concerns.

I found this an interesting and informative read, and felt Plokhy handled the technical side of the story well. He simplified it enough for my non-technical brain to grasp the main points, but there are plenty of facts and figures in there for those with a greater understanding of the science of nuclear power. In terms of style, he tries to get a balance between the politics, the technological aspects and the individual people caught up in the events, and to a large degree he manages this well. However, I did find the book occasionally got bogged down in giving too much biographical detail about some individuals – more than I felt was necessary for the purpose of the book. In contrast, I found as the book went on there was a tendency to deal in numbers rather than people, so that the book didn’t have quite the emotional punch I was expecting. Regulars will know I’m not one for a lot of emoting in factual books, but I did feel with this one that I began to view the outcomes as statistical rather than as a tragedy with a human face.

Serhii Plokhy

And I found the somewhat polemical chapters at the end rather simplistic, in truth. While I wouldn’t at all argue with the need for monitoring, I’m not convinced that, firstly, authoritarian states would welcome international interference and, secondly, that we in the oh-so-superior democratic west have a much better record in either safety or encouraging openness. Seems to me we do a pretty good line in “blame culture” ourselves. However, I agree with Plokhy’s basic argument – that this technology with such vast potential for disaster should be subject to international scrutiny, since radiation respects no borders.

Overall then, despite a few criticisms, I found this a well-presented and worthwhile read that shows clearly the links between policy and technology and the dangers when the two are not working in synch. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allen Lane, via Amazon Vine UK.

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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.

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The Golden Sabre by Jon Cleary

A wild ride through post-revolutionary Russia…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Matthew Martin Cabell has been in the Eastern Urals carrying out a survey for the oil company he works for, and now wants to go home to America. But Russia is in the midst of the Civil War that followed the Revolution, and the local leader of the Whites, General Bronevich, sees an American citizen as a good opportunity to make some easy money. Eden Penfold is an English governess looking after the children of a local Prince who has gone to fight in the war. Eden has received a message from the children’s mother that she should bring the young Prince and Princess to her in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), but Eden is worried how she will make the journey safely in these dangerous times. When Bronevich attempts to rape Eden, Cabell kills him – and suddenly Matthew, Eden and the children are on the run through Russia in the Prince’s Rolls Royce… pursued by a dwarf!

The book was written in 1981 and is packed full of some cringe-makingly out-dated language and non-politically correct attitudes towards women and gay men, so if you find it impossible to make allowances for different times, this is probably one to avoid. That would be a huge pity though, because it’s a rip-roaring adventure yarn, full of excitement and danger, and with a nice light romance thrown in for good measure. And despite the outdated attitudes, it actually has a spunky leading lady in Eden, and Cabell gradually develops a good deal of sympathy for Nikolai, the gay servant who accompanies them on their journey. Partly it feels as though Cleary himself was struggling to get in tune with more modern attitudes (he would have been in his sixties at the time of writing) and partly he’s portraying what would have been the attitudes of society back in the early 20th century, so I was able to give him a pass and enjoy the ride.

And what a ride! As the Rolls Royce travels south to the Caspian Sea, then over into what’s now Georgia, our intrepid heroes have to negotiate their way through White Army factions, Bolshevik villagers, louche aristocrats holding out on distant estates waiting to see what the future holds, Muslim forces intent on redressing old grievances, mercenary ship captains, deserts, mountains… and did I mention the dwarf? The one thing all these people and places have in common is that they all want to kill the travellers, though for varying reasons. They’ve reckoned without Cabell’s strategic ingenuity, though, not to mention Eden’s dexterity at bashing uppity men over the head with her handbag! But even Cabell and Eden seem incapable of shaking off the implacable dwarf…

Jon Cleary

Although it’s a wild adventure story first and foremost, Cleary has clearly done his research about Russia at this moment in time, and there’s a lot of insight into the maelstrom and confusion that followed the Revolution. He doesn’t overtly take a side – he makes it clear the days of aristocratic rule had to come to an end, but he doesn’t laud the Bolsheviks either. All sides are shown as taking advantage of the chaos for personal gain, and he shows vividly the lawlessness to which the country descended – villagers holding kangaroo courts and carrying out summary executions; soldiers on all sides raping and pillaging as they rode through; aristos trying to get their valuables out of the country before they were confiscated by one faction or another. He also shows the anti-Semitic pogroms and the flight of Jews looking for their own promised land where they could live in peace. Again, Cabell recognises his own anti-Semitism, and learns over the course of the book to see the Jews as not just equals, but potential friends. Lots of stereo-typing, but also a good deal of recognition of the stereo-typing too – if one can bear the language, the messages are pretty good. Even the dwarf is treated somewhat sympathetically…

I loved this, despite my frequent cringing! Cabell and Eden are hugely likeable, and the young Prince and Princess become well developed characters over the course of the story too. The gay Cossack servant Nikolai might be clichéd, but he touched my heart nevertheless. And though he’s the baddie, Cleary’s depiction of the dwarf is nicely nuanced too, with a real level of understanding for his character having been distorted by the bullying and prejudice he’s faced throughout his life. I laughed, I sympathised, I held my breath, I shuddered and more than once I gasped in shock and surprise – what more could you ask for from an adventure story? Go on – stick your modern prejudices in a box for a few hours, and jump in the Roller… and keep an eye out behind you for the dwarf…

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The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

A valuable but somewhat biased contribution…

🙂 🙂 🙂

During World War II, many women in Soviet Russia went off to war, not just in the traditional female roles of nurses, cooks, etc., but to take up arms themselves – to kill or die for their country. When they came home – those who came home – they were not lauded as heroines. At best their service was forgotten; at worst, they were seen as unwomanly, no longer suitable marriage material, sometimes even shunned by those around them. Decades later in 1985, as Soviet Russia was about to enter the period of glasnost (openess) under then President Gorbachev, Svetlana Alexievich published this collection of oral histories from some of the women who served. For her ground-breaking work, including this book, Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. This is the first time the book has been translated into English, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the current leaders in the field of Russian-English translation.

There is no doubt of the importance of this work in bringing a piece of the Soviet Union’s lesser-known history to light, and for giving a voice to many women who had been silenced by their society’s desire to forget their contribution. Many of the memories Alexievich records show the patriotism and courage of these women, while also giving an insight into their naivety as they set off for “the Front” – words that seem almost to have taken on an element of propaganda, as something glorious and heroic. The reality, of course, was brutal and barbaric. Alexievich tries to understand why so many women – girls, in many cases, often only sixteen or seventeen – were determined to cut off their cherished braids, learn to shoot or fly or bandage wounds, and set off for war.

I left for the front a materialist. An atheist. I left as a good Soviet schoolgirl, who had been well taught. And there . . . There I began to pray . . . I always prayed before a battle, I read my prayers. The words were simple . . . My own words . . . They had one meaning, that I would return to mama and papa.

The answers were as varied as the girls themselves. Some went against the opposition of their mothers, because they had lost a father or brother or lover and wanted revenge. Some saw it as a great patriotic duty. Some were more or less forced into it by parents who had no sons to send, or who had already lost their sons in the carnage. Some went simply because their friends were going. Some, and these were the saddest, saw it as an exciting adventure. Often the recruiting officers tried to talk them out of it, but the girls were determined to go – I formed the distinct impression it had simply become the ‘done thing’, a kind of macabre fashion statement. When they got there, the men they were to serve with often saw them at first as an annoyance – just another thing they needed to worry about. But many of these girls soon became vital cogs in an army that was losing men in almost unimaginable numbers. Alexievich lets us hear from snipers, girls who worked dragging the injured from burning tanks, women who flew war planes or manned their guns, surgeons who worked through extreme exhaustion to treat a never-ending stream of men and women with horrific injuries, nurses who tried to give some comfort to those in agony, waiting for death.

I had some reservations though, mainly around Alexievich’s intentions. Apparently she interviewed hundreds of women and received written accounts from many more. At the beginning of each section, she gives a little introduction telling the story of how she collected and selected her material, and it was these that made me wonder about her agenda. She becomes emotional to the point of mawkishness again and again, often inserting herself into the middle of a memory to show how deeply it has affected her. She admits immediately to being obsessed with death, and I felt it became clear quite quickly that she also had what felt like an unhealthy, voyeuristic obsession with suffering.

I listen to the pain . . . Pain as the proof of past life. There are no other proofs, I don’t trust other proofs. Words have more than once led us away from the truth.

I think of suffering as the highest form of information, having a direct connection with mystery. With the mystery of life. All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love.

And these women tell me more about it . . .

She makes plain – though I’m not sure intentionally – that she dismissed memories that didn’t meet her criteria. So women who wanted to talk about pride in the eventual victory rather than suffering were dismissed, with it being signalled that they had been indoctrinated by men to think about the ‘man’s’ war rather than the ‘woman’s’.

Svetlana Alexievich
(Photo by Elke Wetzig)

I couldn’t help but feel that she was very close to distorting history to suit her agenda – to prove that women suffer more, have bigger hearts, more capacity for empathy, find it harder to kill. True? Perhaps. Or perhaps some form of reverse sexism. We live now in a world where women regularly serve on front lines – in some countries it has been the norm for decades, if not centuries – and I doubt if our female soldiers would relish being portrayed as somehow less fitted for war, or that the many men who live with ongoing emotional trauma are happy to be considered less feeling. I also felt that Alexievich’s sympathy for the women only lasted until it interfered with her work. I was particularly put off by one anecdote she recounts, when she sent a transcript to a woman she had interviewed. The woman scored out some personal stuff and said her son would be horrified to read it, since she had never told him. But Alexievich overrode the woman’s objections and printed it anyway, carefully including the woman’s full name. It felt as abusive as anything the society she is criticising had done to the women.

Some of the extracts are intensely moving, some so horrifying they are difficult to read. Others left me curiously untouched – repetition dulls the senses perhaps. Eventually I found I was having to force myself to pick the book up, so finally gave up at about two-thirds of the way through. I do think this is a valuable contribution to the historical record, but one that needs to be viewed with a certain amount of caution as having been too carefully selected to bolster the author’s viewpoint, rather than to give an unbiased and balanced platform for the memories of the women who served.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics.

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Harking back to the good old days…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov falls foul of the new Bolshevik regime in the Russia of 1922, they show him mercy because he had written a famous revolutionary poem back in 1913. So instead of killing him, they sentence him to permanent house arrest in the luxurious Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The book is the story of his life there and, through him, of life under communism in the USSR.

The basic tone of the book is light and entertaining. Rostov is a noble from a wealthy land-owning family but on the whole he’s happy to go along with the ideals of the new regime, even if he’s not terribly enamoured of its practicalities. The depth in the book comes from various scenes and anecdotes that shed light on the changing Russia. Rostov occasionally gets nostalgic over Tolstoyan-like memories of winter sleigh-rides in troikas and aristocrat-filled dances. Even in his new life, Rostov is privileged – still rich and the Metropol is still the haunt of the upper echelons, though now these are drawn from the party hierarchy rather than the nobility. Towles uses this to show that life under the communists soon grew to resemble life under the Tsar – only the elite had changed.

Rostov is soon befriended by a little girl, Nina, also resident in the hotel because of her father’s job being attached to the regime. Nina’s character didn’t work so well for me – she often speaks with a vocabulary and level of understanding well beyond her years. However, in reality she’s something of a plot device to give Rostov a connection to the world outside the hotel and an opportunity to pontificate on his philosophy of life.

My initial impressions of the book were very favourable. Towles’ prose is excellent, often intelligent and sparkling with wit. I suspect it’s also full of references to Russian literature that went over my head because I’ve read so little of it, but it isn’t done in such a way that I felt ‘left out’. Unfortunately, as I went on, I began to find it too much of a good thing. I found myself longing for him to say something plain, rather than being relentlessly whimsical or turning every phrase into a beautifully constructed bon mot. This verbal playfulness not only slows the thing to a crawl but verges dangerously on style over substance.

Metropol Hotel, Moscow

My other major issue with the book is that, whether he means to or not (I’m not sure), the impression is that in his desire to ridicule the Bolsheviks and the Soviet system, Towles seems to be giving a rather glowingly nostalgic view of life before the revolution. Since life under tsarism was at least as brutal for most of the population, this is an odd tone to take, especially for an American. Being anti-communist shouldn’t make one pro the tyranny of an absolute monarch, I wouldn’t have thought. Towles seems to favour the aristocracy as being more ‘gentlemanly’ than the Bolsheviks (a real consideration when you’re a starving peasant, I’d imagine). And he does things that seem to suggest that the Count, by birth, deserves special treatment. It’s not that the Count gets special treatment that I found odd – it’s Towles’ implicit approval that jarred.

Amor Towles

As the book goes on, the story becomes gradually less credible, and the device of Rostov being stuck in the hotel begins to feel restrictive of how much Towles can show of the world beyond the doors. The end indulges in yet more nostalgia for the good old days when aristocrats lived in luxury, and we are left sighing for the beautiful estates and days of civilised idleness (that a tiny percentage of pre-revolutionary Russians enjoyed at the expense of all the rest).

Perhaps reading the book at a point when I’ve been so steeped in reading about the real history of the tragedies of the Russian people may have coloured my view somewhat, but I think I’d have been just as critical of the book’s apparent message at any other time. It’s very well-written, amusing and entertaining. But it’s too light for its subject matter – too removed from the real world to say anything substantial about life under the Soviets. Towles wants, I think, to make points about denial of individuality, loss of personal freedom, loss of civilisation, but his choice to use a hangover from the old ruling elite makes the politics feel wrong. A few people may have lived privileged, intellectual, art-filled lives before the revolution, but most lived in appalling conditions in both towns and villages, without education, suffering real poverty and hunger. For them, perhaps communism didn’t work out the way they hoped, but I doubt they got overly nostalgic about the past either.

So I have mixed feelings – in the end it felt oddly off-kilter, lacking any real profundity or depth, but even so I did find it an entertaining and enjoyable read for the most part and, on that half-hearted basis, would still recommend it.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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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.

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Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

The man behind the cult…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This new biography of Lenin concentrates on the personal, though with Lenin the personal can’t avoid being political. Sebestyen starts with a brief introduction in which he makes some comparisons between the events of 1917 and the rise of populist leaders today. He makes a direct comparison between the methods of Lenin and Trump, though he doesn’t name the latter – he doesn’t need to: he describes a man who lies for political gain, who makes simple and simplistic promises that appeal to a certain element of the people but which will never, can never, be kept, who rabble rouses by identifying individuals or groups as “enemies of the people”.*

Next up is a prologue in which Sebestyen tells of the night of the October revolution. This gives a flavour of the style of the book to come – it’s very readable but it’s written in a light kind of way that makes it seem almost farcical. The basic facts are the same as those in Trotsky’s and Figes’ accounts, but this prologue reads more like an Ealing comedy than a people’s tragedy. At this stage I was a little concerned the book may lack depth, but happily, although the book has a much lighter tone overall than those other tomes, as it progresses Sebestyen doesn’t shy away from or try to disguise the darker aspects of Lenin’s personality.

The book follows the conventional linear structure of biographies, starting with Lenin’s background and childhood and ending with the cult of Lenin which followed his death. We see him first as the son of a ‘noble’ – not quite the kind of aristocrat we would think of as a ‘noble’ in this country, but more what would pass as upper middle or professional class. As a child and youth he was intelligent, a voracious reader and rather cold emotionally to people outwith his family. Sebestyen suggests that it was the execution of his brother, for attempting to assassinate the Tsar, that instilled in the young Lenin an interest in revolutionary politics and a deep hatred for the bourgeoisie who turned their backs on the family after this scandal.

Much of the book is taken up with Lenin’s long years in exile, his personal relationships with his wife and later his mistress, and with those other budding revolutionaries in exile who would later become political allies or enemies. As Lenin’s life progresses, Sebestyen discusses his various writings, giving a good indication of the development of his own ideology and the methods he would employ when the revolution began. Lenin is shown as entirely dedicated to the cause, something of a loner, hardworking, and dismissive of many of the intelligentsia who talked a lot but did little to practically advance the revolutionary cause. However, he is also seen as ensuring he steered clear of personal danger, often writing furiously from his safety in exile to encourage those back in Russia to act in ways that would put them in extreme danger from the state.

Lenin is Proclaiming Soviet Power at the Second Congress of the Soviet by Vladimir Serov

(Spot the difference: the painting on the left is from 1947 when Stalin was in power and he is seen standing behind Lenin. The artist re-painted it in 1962, by which time Stalin was dead and out of favour, and he’s been painted over. How are the mighty fallen! I took this info from the fascinating Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – review coming soon.)

In truth, I found the long sections about Lenin’s period in exile began to drag, but I feel that’s because I’m always more interested in the political than the personal. So I was glad to get back to Russia as the Revolution dawned. In this section, there’s quite a diversity in the depth of information Sebestyen gives. For instance, the account of the reasons for Russia going to war in 1914 feels incredibly superficial, as do the days between February and October 1917 – in fact, Sebestyen more or less skips right over the October Revolution. On the other hand, he goes quite deeply into the matter of Lenin’s return on the “sealed train” and the question of how suspicion of German support played out. Clearly Sebestyen has concentrated most on those events in which Lenin had a direct involvement, which makes sense since this is a personal biography of the man rather than a history of the period; and it’s actually quite interesting to see how absent he was during some of the major points of the revolution – that personal safety issue again. Overall there’s still enough information to allow the book to stand on its own, but a reader who wants to understand the ins and outs of the revolution will have to look elsewhere for a more detailed account.

The same unevenness is shown in the period following the revolution – some events are given more prominence than others. The murder of the Romanovs, for instance, is given in some detail and with a rather odd level of sympathy (terrible, perhaps, but no more so than the starving millions, the people driven to cannibalism, the widespread torture and the 7 million children left orphaned, surely). On the other hand, the account of the civil war is an unbelievably quick run through – it almost feels as if Sebestyen had rather run out of steam by the time he reached this stage. Sebestyen finishes with a description of the cult of Lenin and how his legacy (and earthly remains) were used by subsequent Soviet leaders to bolster their own regimes.

Victor Sebestyen

All-in-all, I found this an approachable and very readable account, lighter in both tone and political content than some of the massively detailed histories of the period, but giving enough background to set Lenin’s life in its historical context. And it undoubtedly gives an intriguing picture of the contrasts in his personality – a man who seemed to love and engender love from those near to him, but whose friendship could easily turn to enmity when he felt betrayed, and who could show great cruelty in pursuance of his political aims. So despite my criticisms of the superficiality of the coverage of some of the historical events, I feel it achieves its aim of giving us a good deal of insight into Lenin the man. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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* Though it’s a comparison that can’t be taken too far: Lenin was an intellectual, well informed and had a clearly defined political ideology – three things of which no-one could ever accuse Trump. Lenin also succeeded in achieving his aims. But, of course, both were also accused of being the puppet of a foreign power, though this was unlikely to have been true in Lenin’s case. 😉

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

A candle burned…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Set to the background of Revolutionary Russia, this is a sweeping saga of doomed love. Separated from his family by war, Yuri Andreevich Zhivago is torn between his duty to his wife and family and his adoration of the lovely nurse Lara. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer from severe commitment issues alongside a healthy dose of narcissism but, fortunately, he’s such a wonderful, intelligent, incomparably talented poet and sensitive human being (we know this because he tells us himself) that all the people he abandons throughout his life still adore him – because they recognise his innate superiority to all other mortals. I think it was when Pasternak finally seemed to be trying to draw some kind of vague parallel between Yuri Andreevich and Christ that I really began to feel bilious.

I make it a general rule to try not to find out too much about authors because knowing about their lives tends to intrude on my feelings about their books. Unfortunately a couple of years ago I read The Zhivago Affair, an interesting (and recommended) book that tells the story of the publication of this book, and makes it clear that the parallels between Pasternak’s and Zhivago’s lives are so great that Yuri Andreevich can only really be seen as the author’s alter-ego. Pasternak himself moved his mistress in more or less next door to his wife and children and insisted on them all living in harmony, so he’s not up there on my list of favourite human beings. Therefore, I found Pasternak’s raptures over Zhivago’s character, intellect and poetic ability as nauseating as his justification of his adultery and treatment of his various women, all of whom simply adored him while recognising they really weren’t fit to shine his shoes.

….The night was filled with soft, mysterious sounds. Close by in the corridor, water was dripping from a washstand, measuredly, with pauses. There was whispering somewhere behind a window. Somewhere, where the kitchen garden began, beds of cucumber were being watered, water was being poured from one bucket into another, with a clink of the chain drawing it from the well.
….It smelled of all the flowers in the world at once, as if the earth had lain unconscious during the day and was now coming to consciousness through all these scents. And from the countess’s centuries-old garden, so littered with windfallen twigs and branches that it had become impassable, there drifted, as tall as the trees, enormous as the wall of a big house, the dusty, thickety fragrance of an old linden coming into bloom.
….Shouts came from the street beyond the fence to the right. A soldier on leave was acting up there, doors slammed, snippets of some song beat their wings.

Trying hard to put my antipathy to the author and main character to one side, there are some positives. Some of the descriptions of the freezing snow-covered landscape are excellent, as are the often poetic scenes of daily life in either city or country, and the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation serves them well. Pasternak assumes his readers will know the history of the period, so doesn’t tell it in any structured form. Instead, he gives sketches of various aspects of life – the breakdown of order in the cities, the drunkenness, brutality and hunger in the country, life as a forced conscript in the Red Army during the Civil War. In a sense, he uses Zhivago’s various women to illustrate or symbolise aspects of Russian society after the Revolution – those who emigrated, those who conformed as best they could to the new regime, those who were destroyed by it. There is an underlying, and largely underdeveloped, theme of individuality and art struggling to survive under first chaos and then growing state control of every corner of existence.

Zhivago and his lover, Lara

However, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives. The book is poorly structured, has no flow and relies far too heavily on increasingly ridiculous coincidences. There are parts where the author doesn’t bother to fictionalise at all, instead simply dumping factual information on the reader. The characterisation starts out fairly well but seems to fade as Pasternak becomes distracted, first by his vague and unsatisfactory forays into the political/historical aspects, and then by his increasing tendency to use Zhivago as a conduit to allow Pasternak himself to waffle on pretentiously about art and literature and indulge in a good deal of barely disguised self-adulation.

….Gordon and Dudorov belonged to a good professional circle. They spent their lives among good books, good thinkers, good composers, good, always, yesterday and today, good and only good music, and they did not know that the calamity of mediocre taste is worse than the calamity of tastelessness. . . .
….He could see clearly the springs of their pathos, the shakiness of their sympathy, the mechanism of their reasonings. However, he could not very well say to them: ‘Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent, and the brilliance and art of your favourite names and authorities, all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me.’ But how would it be if one could make such declarations to one’s friends! And so as not to distress them, Yuri Andreevich meekly listened to them.

The extracts from Yuri’s journal, where – in the midst of war, with people around him starving to death, with an abandoned pregnant wife and an increasingly neurotic mistress – he takes time out to do a bit of lit-crit of earlier Russian authors, feel like the ultimate self-indulgence. And to top it all off, Pasternak gradually begins to incorporate a kind of religious symbolism into the story, but again without enough depth or direction to make it work.

Pasternak and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, the inspiration for Lara

I admit I always struggle with Russian literature, partly, I think, because even good translations still leave them feeling clunky and partly because the Russian propensity for having a cast of thousands, each with four or five variations of their names, means I always find reading them a tedious slog. In this one, a character mentioned once hundreds of pages earlier will suddenly re-appear with no re-introduction, no reminder of who they are or what role they have played. If that happened in a modern novel, I’d criticise it as poor writing, so I reckon the same standards ought to apply to classics. My truthful feeling about this one is that it may have come to be seen as a classic not so much because of its quality, but because at the time of publication in the midst of the Cold War, its mildly unflattering portrayal of the communist regime, added to the romanticism of its having been smuggled out of Russia and printed in the West, may have fed into the Western intelligentsia’s support for artistic dissidents and led to it being lauded because of its very existence rather than judged on its literary merits.

In conclusion, then, a flawed work in terms of plot, structure and characterisation but with the saving graces of some fine descriptive writing and occasional insights into Russian society before, during and after the Revolution. I’d recommend it more in terms of its historical significance than its literary worth and, on that basis, I’m glad to have read it.

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A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

Exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge. It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period, looking at all the different parts of society and how they were affected at each point. It’s very well written, remains largely free of academic jargon and, to my joy, contains all the relevant information in the main body of the text, meaning no flicking backwards and forwards to notes. The notes at the back are mostly reserved simply to give information about the extensive sources Figes has used.

It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

The first part describes society as it was at the point where revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy. Figes describes the Romanov dynasty in some depth – Nicholas II’s autocratic style of rule, the influence on him of Alexandra and, through her, Rasputin, and the methods of government that were in force, with all power still concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class of nobles. He shows what life was like for the peasants, still nasty, brutish and short, but with some more liberal landowners making efforts to provide education for the young. He takes us into the new industrial centres, beginning to suck people in from the villages including those newly educated peasants – places which appalling working and living conditions made ripe for the revolutionary ideas beginning to circulate via the intelligentsia. The church, which Figes suggests never had a solid grip even on the peasant classes, was weakened further as people moved to the cities where there weren’t enough churches to serve the rapidly expanding population. The army, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly out of date – Nicholas loved to parade his cavalry and to see his officers in smart uniforms, but wasn’t terribly interested in the less romantic motor vehicles and new weapons being incorporated into the armies of the bordering nations, west and east.

Nicholas II and his cavalry

Part 2 covers the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began. Again Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history. The famine of 1891, due largely to failures in policy, eventually forced the Tsar to appeal for voluntary groups to provide aid to the starving masses. The liberal intelligentsia dived enthusiastically into this, and thus began some of the organisations which would become political protest movements. But still Nicholas rejected reforms, leading to increasing radicalisation of the disaffected. The 1904 war against Japan, which Nicholas expected to win easily, highlighted the weakness of the army, while the eventual loss was a national humiliation which further undermined the monarchy. The 1905 revolution arose from all of these factors, further aggravated by the brutal force used to disperse protest marches. Although this revolution failed, Figes shows how it hardened attitudes and consolidated the various factions which would play major roles in the years to come. Figes explains these factions well, including their various policy aims, which is a great help in understanding the confusion of personalities and groups that feature in the events of 1917. And finally this section takes us up to the early years of WW1, showing the terrible losses and huge hardships suffered by soldiers and civilians.

As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

The third section concentrates on the revolutionary year – from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This is basically the period covered in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and while Trotsky’s massive account is obviously more detailed, this one has the huge advantage for the reader that Figes has done the groundwork of explaining all the different groupings and factions. So where Trotsky lost me a little in the mid-section, Figes manages to keep a level of clarity throughout the confusion of this year. It seems to me that Trotsky’s history must have been one of Figes’ major sources for this section, and the two accounts complement each other well, I found. In retrospect, I suspect it would have been better to read them the other way round though – this one first, then Trotsky. Figes gives what feels like a less biased account, not unnaturally, dismissing the idea of the coup as ‘bloodless’ and showing some of the horrors that took place, along with an almost complete breakdown of any kind of social order. He also discusses the issues of Lenin’s return on the ‘sealed train’ and German funding of the revolution, suggesting that the Germans did indeed provide gold but that Lenin and his comrades were not at any point acting as German agents.

Lenin gives a speech

Part 4 tells the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution – the various factions within the Whites, all fighting for different aims, and thus never really consolidating as a unified force; the former Allies, primarily Britain, providing support for the Whites in an attempt to destroy the Bolsheviks; the growth of the Red Army under Trotsky’s leadership to huge numbers of men, but without sufficient equipment to keep them supplied; the forced conscription, massive brutality and violent anti-Semitism inflicted by both sides.  Figes then goes on to describe Lenin’s regime after the war, including the huge rise in bureaucracy that allowed the major players in the regime to begin to form their own fiefdoms and power bases. He also shows the country in a state of ruin, the cities depopulated, the villages racked by famine and starvation, until eventually Lenin was forced to turn back towards a form of capitalism, prompting accusations of betrayal by those who were still fanatical about the ideals of the revolution.

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

Figes concludes that the people brought about their own tragedy. The country’s social and economic backwardness and lack of real belief in democracy meant that they opened the door for what was essentially a return to tsarism in a different form. And he warns, prophetically when you remember this book was first published in 1996, that the fall of the USSR would not necessarily lead to an embracing of democracy in the former states, or in Russia itself.

The book is generously illustrated with over a hundred plates. Some are the usual portraits of the main players, but many show the ordinary people of the cities and villages and, often, the real horrors they endured. Some are indeed upsetting – the ones relating to torture or cannibalism for instance – and while I found those pictures, and Figes’ vivid and unsparing descriptions of the events behind them, hard to take, I didn’t feel either were gratuitous or sensationalised – they are an essential part of the historical record, and that’s the way in which Figes presents them.

Orlando Figes

This is an exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read. It’s brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject. It is an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the 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. My highest recommendation.

NB This beautifully produced, special centenary edition of the book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodley Head.

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The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Only connect…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Narrated by Beata Pozniak, Mark Bramhall, Rustam Kasymov

Leningrad, 1937: in the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation, a failed artist spends his days airbrushing enemies of the Soviet regime out of history, while retouching pictures of Stalin to ensure that he always looks great – in fact, getting younger by the year. The artist understands the danger of photographs, so when his brother is killed by the regime, he persuades his sister-in-law to destroy all pictures of him. But he begins to paint his brother’s face over those faces he has been tasked with removing, so that over time his brother appears in many pictures, even alongside Stalin. Then, as a small act of rebellion, he leaves a trace of a ballerina he has been told to erase – an act that will cost him dearly…

Kirovsk, 2013: a chorus of the women of this poisoned industrial town tell the story in first person plural of Galina, granddaughter of a ballerina who had been sent to Siberia after falling foul of Stalin’s regime. Galina’s beauty allows her to rise out of the poverty of her beginnings, becoming a beauty queen and marrying the 13th richest man in Russia. Along the way, she breaks the heart of her first love, and perhaps also her own…

Grozny, Chechnya, 2003: since the local museum burned down, the Deputy Director of Regional Art has been forced to take on the role of head of the tourist board – a difficult task in a city still scarred by war…

These are the three locations in which this collection of stories take place, over the period of the last century. Although each story is separate and could easily be read on its own (in fact, I believe some of them were first published as individual short stories in various papers and magazines) they are so beautifully interlinked that the eventual effect is to create something that really must be considered a novel. The central linking stories are those of Galina and her first love, Kolya, who later becomes a soldier in the war in Chechnya; and of a painting by the Chechen artist, Zakharov – the painter is real, the painting, as far as I can gather, is an invention of the author. The painting is repeatedly altered by the people into whose hands it falls over the decades, till it becomes a kind of metaphor, partly for the way history can be altered to suit the agenda of the historian, and partly of the different perceptions people can have of the same events.

Through the stories we gradually learn the history of Kirovsk through the people who have lived there. A small town founded to house the workers in the nearby apatite mines, everything is poisoned by the pollution from the mineworks – the air, the water, the people, a huge proportion of whom die young from cancer. A place so ugly that the wife of the local Communist Party boss had a forest created from metal and plastic to provide a little beauty (another invention, but made entirely believable in the context). A place where many of the present-day residents have links to those dissidents exiled to the north under Stalin’s regime. A place where being different has always been dangerous – where mothers believe the best gift they can give their daughters is to bring them up to be unremarkable.

Kirovsk

This book will undoubtedly appear in my Book of the Year round-up – the stories are so wonderful I really want to tell them all to you. The first story, Leopard – the one about the failed artist – blew me away with its power and deep humanity. It’s moving, frightening and funny all at the same time. The writing is incredible – there are sentences which made me cry at the beginning and had me laughing by the end, and vice versa. The pacing is perfect, slowly stripping the layers away to reveal, not the simple core of the character, but his entire complexity – the mix of fear and courage that have defined his actions and will determine his fate. Sobbed buckets, I did! And yet I laughed too, in places, and the ending left me with a mix of hope and despair – a belief that redemption is possible, but only remotely.

And this sets the tone for the rest. Some of the stories are tragic, some more uplifting, but none are monotone – each has moments of heartbreak and, not joy perhaps, but fellowship and humour, humanity breaking through in even the most inhumane circumstances. The characterisation is superb throughout – so many characters and all very different, but each ringing entirely true; no real heroes or villains, just people trying to get through their lives as best they can. Family is at the heart of it, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, brothers, lovers. Marra’s sense of history is impeccable as we see the changes in society over the decades, and he matches it with changes to the language he uses in each different time period. In format, the book is designed like an old mixed cassette tape, with an A- and B-side, each consisting of four longer stories, and an “interval” in the middle, made up of short sections which explain the reason for the format and provide many of the links that eventually bring the thing together into one complete and immensely satisfying whole.

Anthony Marra

I listened to the Audible audiobook version, and the narration is wonderful – if you can take audiobooks, then I highly recommend listening to this one rather than, or as well as, reading it. Each of the narrators speaks with a Russian accent, and each deals brilliantly with the changes in tone between emotionalism and humour, not overplaying either but letting the words speak for themselves. I often struggle to concentrate on audiobooks, but not this one – it held my attention through every word, and despite the complexity of all the links I never found myself lost. It took me a while to attune to each voice – there are three narrators, two male and one female – but once I had, it seemed in each case as if no other voice could have spoken these words. A stunning performance of a stunning book – my highest recommendation for this one.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR.

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History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

All Power to the Soviets!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time. He admits to his own bias, but claims that he has rigorously fact-checked, including only what can be verified in written records. In order to stop the book reading like an autobiography or memoir, he refers to himself in the third person throughout. I ended up with 24 A4 pages of notes on this 900-page book, so will be summarising and paraphrasing brutally to keep this review even close to a readable length. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s highly likely that a different reader would disagree with my interpretations or emphases.

Trotsky begins by giving a fascinating explanation of why revolutions arise, and how they differ from other forms of changes of government, even violent ones. His position is that the involvement of the masses is key – that a tipping point is reached when people suddenly feel they cannot tolerate the existing regime any longer. Therefore the masses create the demagogue to lead them once that point is reached, rather than the demagogue being the starting point. This section, and other sections where Trotsky talks in general terms on political theory, are excellent – intelligent, concise and clear; and the translation is remarkable, especially for such a complex subject. The translator, Max Eastman, knew Trotsky and was well aware of the events under discussion, which perhaps makes his translation transcend the literal.

Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd July 4th 1917, when troops of the Provisional Government opened fire with machine guns.

Next Trotsky explains the historical background which brought Russia to the tipping point. His argument, in summary, is that for geographical and cultural reasons Russia was a backwards nation, politically and economically, so that, when it came under pressure from the encroaching Western powers to industrialise and modernise, it did so by jumping some of the steps that those more developed countries had already gone through. He calls this the law of combined development. This sudden industrialisation led to skewed figures in terms of the percentage of the population employed in huge industrial concerns – this new industrial class, the proletariat, forming an ideal environment for revolutionary ideas to ferment. And the increased poverty and suffering brought on by the lengthy war – an imperialist war – sped up the natural progression towards the revolutionary tipping point. At all stages, Trotsky’s argument is that the pressure for revolution came from the masses upwards, and that the Bolsheviks merely gave guidance to the process of insurrection through providing a Marxist-based political education to the workers.

Trotsky next speaks of the Romanovs and their supporters, and it’s here that any pretence of impartiality or balance disappears entirely. Trotsky’s words positively drip hatred and venom. He criticises their intelligence, understanding, lack of compassion, cruelty. He compares them to other monarchies overthrown in earlier revolutions, specifically the French and English, but ranging widely and knowledgeably over centuries of history. His anger and scorn come through in every word, and, while the various overthrown Kings are shown as weak and contemptible, he puts much of the blame on the Queens in virulent, misogynistic prose.

The whole establishment of the historical, political and philosophical background to the Revolution is excellent, so long as the reader keeps Trotsky’s bias firmly in mind at all times. The following sections then go into an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the period from February – the beginning of the 1917 insurrection – to October, when the Bolsheviks finally came to power. I found these parts much harder to follow, because Trotsky assumes a good deal of familiarity with the political stance of the many factions and personalities involved, and therefore often doesn’t explain them. I found I was constantly referring to the lists at the back of the book, which give brief summaries of each of the parties and explain the unfamiliar terms that appear frequently in the text. These lists are very good in that they are concise and focused, but I still found myself confused and glazing over at many points. As the book goes on (and on), I gradually grew to have a greater understanding of all these factions and their leaders, so that the last third was much clearer to me than the middle section when they are referred to first. If I had the strength of mind, I’m sure that a re-read of those middle chapters would be much easier, but on the whole, by the end, I felt I had gleaned enough to understand the overall progress of the Revolution even if some of the detail had passed over my head.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, mainly when talking of Stalin or the bourgeoisie, he is sarcastic and often quite humorous. The Romanovs and imperialists in general bring out his anger and contempt. These are all written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and, I admit, inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. I would find my critical faculties had switched off, and become suddenly aware of tears in my eyes – the power of the demagogue reaching beyond speech onto paper, indeed! These passages break up the more factual stuff, and remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

By the time Trotsky was writing this, Lenin was of course dead, and Stalin had come to power. Trotsky appears to have three major aims in addition to recounting the history: firstly, to show that he himself played a crucial and central role in events; secondly, to prove that while he and Lenin may have disagreed on some practical issues, their political philosophies had been closely aligned; and thirdly, and leading on from the previous two, that Stalin’s attempt to re-write history must be exposed and repudiated. Stalin, Trotsky suggests, is deliberately changing history as it relates to Lenin and Trotsky, in order to justify his own policies – which, by extension, Trotsky believes are out of line with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Revolution.

Again, he often assumes more understanding of the variations between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism than this poor reader has, and it began to feel like those endless nights down the pub in the ’70s when my fellow leftist unionists (usually the men) would start arguing over abstruse points of political ideology and calling each other names, generally after their fifth pint or so. It all seemed rather… trivial, though that feels like an inappropriate word given the many millions of people who have suffered and died under the yoke of these ideologies over decades. But Trotsky’s sycophancy over Lenin, self-aggrandisement, and sarcasm and spite towards Stalin ensured that any lingering affection I may have harboured for the idea of a socialist revolution dissipated long before I reached the end of the book. Power undoubtedly corrupts and I couldn’t quite see that the leadership of the USSR was much improvement over the admittedly hideous Romanovs in the end.

A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. It gets the full five-stars from me, though I freely admit the fifth one may be due purely to the euphoria I felt on finishing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Modern Classics.

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

rrr-challenge-logo-final

Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

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Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge…

Proletariat of the World, Unite!

rrr-challenge-logo

2017 sees the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in nearly a century of Soviet rule in Russia and its satellites and annexed territories, while its aftershocks still reverberate through the world today. It’s a period about which I know very little – I’m more aware of mid-20th century history as it relates to the USSR than I am about the period just before and after the revolution. So I have decided to set myself a little challenge to read myself into this period of history during the centenary year.

lenin-quote-revolutionary-situation

I’m going for a mix of factual and fiction, and since several of these books are monsters in terms of size, my list is pretty short. However, I’ve tried to come up with a selection that will show me the Revolution through the eyes of contemporaries, both supporters and opponents, and also retrospectively, through history, biography and fiction. I’ve also tried to select books that are considered to be amongst the most important written on the subject, even though I expect some of them will be pretty tough going.

george-orwell-quote-revolution

Here’s my initial list (in no particular order), which might be subject to change or additions as I go along…

history-of-the-russian-revolutionHistory of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (history)

Regarded by many as among the most powerful works of history ever written, this book offers an unparalleled account of one of the most pivotal and hotly debated events in world history. This book reveals, from the perspective of one of its central actors, the Russian Revolution’s profoundly democratic, emancipatory character.

animal-farmAnimal Farm by George Orwell (fiction)

“All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

This well-loved tale is, of course, a satire on the Soviet Communist system that still remains a powerful warning despite the changes in world politics since Animal Farm was first published.

memoirs-of-a-revolutionaryMemoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (memoir)

Victor Serge was an anarchist who initially supported the Russian Revolution. He was also a writer of rare integrity, who left behind a remarkable eyewitness record in fiction, journalism, and above all his masterwork, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. In it he tells the story of how the Revolution unfolded, swept up an entire nation, and eventually failed.

blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgewick (fiction)

When writer Arthur Ransome leaves his unhappy marriage in England and moves to Russia to work as a journalist, he has little idea of the violent revolution about to erupt. Unwittingly, he finds himself at its center, tapped by the British to report back on the Bolsheviks even as he becomes dangerously, romantically entangled with Trotsky’s personal secretary.

revolution-trotsky

ten-days-that-shook-the-worldTen Days that Shook the World by John Reed (journalism)

John Reed’s eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. A contemporary journalist writing in the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm, he gives a gripping record of the events in Petrograd in November 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. Reed’s account is the product of passionate involvement and remains an unsurpassed classic of reporting.

doctor-zhivagoDoctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (fiction)

This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it.

a-peoples-tragedyA People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (history)

Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People’s Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of the Revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased.

november-1916November 1916 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (fictionalised history)

The month of November 1916 in Russia was outwardly quiet—the proverbial calm before the storm—but beneath the placid surface, society seethed fiercely.With masterly and moving empathy, through the eyes of both historical and fictional protagonists, Solzhenitsyn unforgettably transports us to that time and place—the last of pre-Soviet Russia.
.

revolution-jfk

the-white-guardThe White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (fiction)

Drawing closely on Bulgakov’s personal experiences of the horrors of civil war, The White Guard takes place in Kiev, 1918, a time of turmoil and suffocating uncertainty as the Bolsheviks, Socialists and Germans fight for control of the city. It tells the story of the Turbins, a once-wealthy Russian family, as they are forced to come to terms with revolution and a new regime.

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

I can’t find an existing one that seems to be accepted as definitive and relatively unbiased, so I’m leaving this blank at the moment in the hopes that a new one may be published during the centenary. However, if anyone knows of a good one, please let me know. (Lenin the Dictator was published during the year, so I went for it.)

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Should be fun! Well… maybe not fun, exactly, but… er… interesting. Or something.

stalin-quote
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If anyone feels like joining in, I’d be more than happy to do an occasional round-up post linking to reviews. Just in case, I’ve drawn up an extensive list of rules, which must be strictly adhered to. Are you ready?

READING THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION CHALLENGE

THE RULES

1. Read whatever you like, whenever you like, if you like. Or watch a film. Or don’t.

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Seriously, my list is history heavy because as you know I enjoy reading heavy history. But it’s not to everyone’s taste, so if you prefer to read entirely fiction, or fiction and some memoirs, or watch movies or documentaries, or anything at all really, then that’s great. I’m also not setting any targets (for you or me) in terms of how many books to read, and no deadlines of any kind. The only “rules” I would suggest are, firstly, that you let me know in the comments if you decide to join in; and, secondly, that, if you do, you tag any relevant WordPress post as RRRchallenge (and for Tweets, #RRRchallenge). That way, I’ll be able to pick up any posts when I do a summary. If you’re not on WordPress or Twitter, then a comment on this or any other post of mine will have the same effect.

churchill-on-lenin

I’m also not restricting the time period. Personally I’m interested in learning more about the period from before the revolution (roughly 1890) up to the 1930s because that’s when I know least about, but if anyone wants to read about Stalin or the post-WW2 period, or the end of the USSR, or even Putin’s Russia, then feel free. And lastly, don’t feel under any pressure to join in at all! I won’t be offended… well, not enough to declare war on you anyway, (though I may sing the Red Flag to you which, frankly, would be worse).

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putin-democracyPEACE, LAND, BREAD!

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

the noise of time“Muddle instead of Music”…

😀 😀 😀

A man stands by the lift in his apartment block in the middle of the night, waiting for the men from the ‘Big House’ to come for him. It is 1936 in the Stalinist USSR, and the man is Shostakovich. The state newspaper Pravda has deemed his latest opera to be “Muddle instead of Music” – a piece designed for the bourgeoisie and therefore not acceptable for a Soviet audience. Now Shostakovich is expecting to be hauled away and grilled about his political beliefs, a dangerous thing for an artist under this brutal regime.

This short novel is a barely fictionalised biography of the composer, focussing on three major episodes in his life each 12 years apart. Shostakovich was eventually brought back into favour and even sent off to represent the regime in the US, but he lived always under the fear that one day he would again be ostracised, or worse. It is clearly well-researched, and is well-written, with Barnes using Shostakovich’s life as a vehicle to muse on the position of artists under totalitarian regimes.

From now on there would be only two types of composer: those who were alive and frightened; and those who were dead.

Barnes looks at questions of bravery and cowardice, compromise and its debilitating effect on artistic freedom, and the blindness of the regime to the subtleties of irony. He shows clearly how an individual knew that any decision he reached might impact severely on his families and friends, and how this made the question of defying the regime more complex than the simple matter of personal bravery it might at first sight seem. One of the more interesting sections discusses the response of people living safely in the West, expecting Soviet artists to be willing martyrs without an understanding of the realities of living in perpetual fear, not just for themselves but for those around them.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Dmitri Shostakovich

…if the plan to take the worker from the coal face and turn him into a composer of symphonies did not exactly come to pass, something of the reverse happened. A composer was expected to increase his output just as a coal miner was, and his music was expected to warm hearts just as a miner’s coal warmed bodies. Bureaucrats assessed musical output as they did other categories of output; there were established norms, and deviations from those norms.

(Am I the only one thinking that coal miners probably didn’t have it too good under Stalin, either? I do get a little tired of artistic narcissism…)

I often find Barnes’ writing cold, and this short book falls into that category. In fact, I found myself questioning whether it could really be defined as a novel at all. It reads more like a series of connected essays based on carefully selected vignettes from the lives of Shostakovich and other composers of the time. It’s interesting enough and certainly readable, but I found it provoked surprisingly little emotional response in me considering the subject matter, nor did it add anything significant to a subject that has been dealt with many times before both fictionally and factually.

Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake. But which people, and who defines them?

Julian Barnes
Julian Barnes

I found myself comparing it to the novella Peredelkino in Ken Kalfus’ collection PU-239 and Other Russian Fantasies, which tells essentially the same story about a writer caught under the restrictions of the Soviet regime. Kalfus’ story addresses the issues just as insightfully, but is much more clearly a fiction, with all the contrasts of light and shade that I felt Barnes’ book lacks.

So, in conclusion, this is an interesting read, but for me it fell between two camps and didn’t quite fit well in either: too cold and unemotional, and a little too polemical, to work fully as a piece of fiction; and without enough depth or detail to be fully satisfying as a factual account of Shostakovich’s life.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

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Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator by Oleg V. Khlevniuk

Khlevniuk jkt ks.inddGood ol’ Uncle Joe…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Josef Stalin’s 24-year reign as the supreme power in the USSR resulted in the deaths of millions of its citizens, either directly, as a result of repression, or indirectly, as a result of the famines created in large part by the policies his government pursued. In this new biography, Oleg V Khlevniuk sets out to sift through the massive quantity of documentation available to historians, including material newly released from the archives, with a view to understanding the dictator – his personality and motivations. Khlevniuk claims that many previous biographies have given inaccurate portrayals of Stalin, either because of lack of information or because the biographers were apologists for the regime, or sometimes because they repeated inaccuracies from earlier sources that have passed into the historical mythology. Despite the huge amount of material, Khlevniuk makes the point that there is still much more not yet released by the Russian government. One bonus for historians is that, because Russia was somewhat backwards technologically, Stalin continued to communicate by letter rather than phone until well into the 1930s.

I give my usual disclaimer that I am not qualified to judge the historical accuracy of the book. It certainly appears well researched and gives a coherent and convincing picture of the period. Khlevniuk has used an unconventional structure that I think works quite well. The main chapters provide a linear history of the period, while between these are short interludes where Khlevniuk tells the story of the Stalin’s last hours as he lay dying, using this as a jumping off point to discuss various aspects of his life, such as his relationships with his family and the other men at the top of the regime, his reading habits, his health issues, how he organised and controlled the security services, etc. These are not just interesting in themselves – they provide much-needed breaks from what might otherwise be a rather dry account of the facts and figures of his time in power.

The young Stalin Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX (3827290a)  Joseph stalin sitting at a table in 1918.  VARIOUS
The young Stalin 1918
Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX

Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Georgia in 1879, Stalin was the son of a cobbler, but had a relatively privileged upbringing and education for someone of his class. As a student, he began to associate with the Bolsheviks, gradually rising to a position of prominence. Although he was initially a moderate, believing in a gradual evolution towards socialism, he was clearly a pragmatist, willing to change his views when politically expedient. So when the Revolution kicked off in 1917, he threw his lot in behind Lenin. During the war he had his first experiences as a military commander, at which he failed badly, and it was at this early period that he first developed his technique of ‘purging’ opponents that he would use with such brutality throughout his life.

After Lenin’s death, Stalin became even more ruthless in pursuit of power, eventually emerging as the de facto head of government, though the Socialist committee structures remained in place. He seems to have been bull-headed, forcing ahead with policies regardless of advice to the contrary, and completely uncaring about the consequences of them to the people. He appeared to hate the rural poor, considering them a ‘dying breed’, and they suffered worst throughout his dictatorship. But he would occasionally do an about-turn if circumstances required, using what we now think of as Orwellian techniques for distorting the past so that his inconsistencies would be hidden. These distortions of course make the later historian’s job more difficult in getting at the real truth, hence the ongoing debates around just how many people were imprisoned or died under the Stalinist regime – debates which may never be fully resolved.

Stalin poster

Khlevniuk looks in some depth at the Great Terror of 1937-8 when Stalin’s purges reached their peak. He tells us that it has been suggested that Stalin must have been going through a period of madness (it’s hard to imagine a completely sane brutal murdering dictator somehow, setting targets for the numbers of people each district must purge). But Khlevniuk suggests that the root of his paranoia lay in fear of the approaching war. Stalin remembered that the upheavals of the previous world war had created the conditions for civil war within Russia and wanted at all costs to avoid a repetition of that in the next. This, he suggests, was also the reason that Stalin tried hard to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. However this led to him being unprepared for the German invasion, and as a result the country suffered massive losses of both men and territory in the first few years of the war, while famine, never far away during Stalin’s experiment in collectivisation, again reared its ugly and devastating head as the war ended.

Khlevniuk gives an overview of Stalin’s relationship with his unlikely war-time allies, Churchill and Roosevelt, and describes his frustration at their delay in opening a second front to relieve some of the pressure on the hard-pressed USSR forces. It was at this time that Stalin was portrayed in the west as Uncle Joe, good ol’ friend and staunch ally, suggesting perhaps that the American and British governments were pretty good at Orwellian propagandising too. Of course, when the war ended, so did this uneasy relationship as the ‘Great’ Powers haggled over spheres of influence and political ideology.

'The Big Three': Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945. NAM 236 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
‘The Big Three’: Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin sit for photographs during the Yalta Conference in February 1945.
WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION

Stalin was to live another eight years after the war ended, during which time he continued his firm grasp on power by periodically purging anyone who looked as if they might be getting too powerful. Khlevniuk paints a picture of Stalin’s somewhat lonely death that would be rather sad if one didn’t feel he deserved it so much. The most powerful men in his government had secret plans already in place for after Stalin’s death, and quickly reversed some of his cruellest policies along with some of his extravagant vanity building projects. A rather pointless life in the end – so much suffering caused for very little permanent legacy. Such is the way of dictatorship, I suppose, and Khlevniuk ends with a timely warning against allowing history to repeat itself in modern Russia.

Oleg Khlevniuk Research Fellow, Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation (1994-present)
Oleg Khlevniuk
Senior Research Fellow, State Archive of the Russian Federation

Overall, this is more a history of the Stalin era than a biography of the man. Despite its considerable length, the scope of the subject matter means that it is necessarily an overview of the period, rarely going into any specific area in great depth. And I found the same about the personalities – while Stalin himself is brought to life to a degree, I didn’t get much of a feeling for the people who surrounded him, while often the suffering of the people seemed reduced to a recital of facts and figures. It’s clearly very well researched and well written, but it veers towards a rather dry, academic telling of the story. I learned a good deal about the time, but in truth rather struggled to maintain my attention. One that I would recommend more perhaps for people with an existing interest in and knowledge of the period rather than for the casual reader like myself.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Yale University Press.

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If you’re interested in how the arts were dealt with in this era, you might enjoy Lady Fancifull’s fabulous post on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, composed at the height of the Terror in 1937. She compares different performances to show how it can be interpreted as either a piece of patriotic triumphalism or as an edgy, almost manic, commentary on the time. Brilliant!

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

the zhivago affair“To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, he knew that its criticism of the Soviet revolution, though mild, would be enough to ensure that the book wouldn’t get past the censors. So he decided to give it to an Italian publisher to be translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR. The Zhivago Affair is billed as the story of that CIA campaign and of the impact it had on the Soviet regime and on Pasternak himself.

Although the CIA campaign is given plenty of space, most of the book really takes the form of a biography of Pasternak. Already a highly regarded poet when he began writing his novel, Pasternak was also already seen as potentially dangerous to the regime and therefore his work was closely monitored, as was the work of most writers. The Soviet regime pampered its authors and intellectuals in comparison to other sectors of society, but punished any disloyalty harshly, with imprisonment in the gulags or even death on occasion. So from the moment it became known that he was writing the novel, Pasternak ran grave risks of bringing retribution down on himself and the people close to him.

Pasternak's dacha in the Soviet Writers' village of Peredelkino
Pasternak’s dacha in the Soviet Writers’ village of Peredelkino

I expected to find that I admired Pasternak – that he was a courageous man standing up for his beliefs against a regime that could crush him. Sadly, I came away from the book feeling that in fact he was an arrogant egoist, who cared little for anyone but himself and had no purpose in writing his book other than self-aggrandisement. Well, I can accept that – writers should not have to serve a higher calling any more than the rest of us, but then they shouldn’t ask for special treatment either – and oh, how Pasternak felt that his amazing, unmatched genius (as he judged it) deserved to be recognised, honoured and lauded! He also felt that he was so special that he shouldn’t be expected to live within commonly accepted standards, so kindly moved his mistress and her family in just down the road from his wife and own family and divided his time happily between them. Happily for him, that is – one felt the wife and mistress weren’t quite so thrilled by the arrangement. But I think his level of self-centeredness is best shown by the fact that when he decided the only way out of the pressure over the book was suicide, he expected his mistress to kill herself along with him. To my amusement, the devoted but almost equally self-centred Ivinskaya was having none of it! And, denied his dramatically artistic and romantic exit, Pasternak decided to live on…

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak

The CIA operation was dogged with incompetence from the outset (no big surprise there, I’m guessing) and also paid scant attention to the problems it may cause for Pasternak inside the USSR. However, they did in the end manage to smuggle some copies of the book in and, although the readership in the USSR was limited, the book became a huge bestseller internationally. This may have provided a level of protection for Pasternak since any severe action against him would have provoked international condemnation; and by the late ’50s and early ’60’s, the Soviet regime cared a bit more about their international standing than they perhaps had a decade or two earlier. However, they did subject Pasternak to a number of restrictions and humiliations that made his life increasingly difficulty – they forced his peers to publicly condemn him and suspend him from the writers’ union, which in turn meant that he couldn’t get work. With no income, he was driven to trying to smuggle the royalties from the sale of the book in Europe into the USSR at great risk to himself and those he involved in the plan. And again Pasternak’s selfishness and egoism can be seen at play here – too afraid to collect the money himself, he gave the task to the young daughter of his mistress, a task which later resulted in her spending time in prison – something Pasternak always managed to avoid for himself.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak's long-term mistress.
Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s long-term mistress.

The book is well written and gives the impression of having been thoroughly researched. Despite my lack of sympathy for Pasternak, I enjoyed the biographical strand more than the CIA story and was glad that Pasternak’s story got more space than the spy stuff. In case I’ve made it seem that the book is very critical of him, I must say that the authors’ interpretation of Pasternak is considerably more sympathetic than my own, while not making any attempt to whitewash the less appealing aspects of his personality and behaviour. Overall, the book gave a clear picture of the difficulties faced by writers trying to operate under a regime of censorship backed up by fear, and some of the more moving moments were when the authors recounted the later thoughts of Pasternak’s peers, regretting how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated into turning away from him at the height of the affair. An interesting and thought-provoking read – recommended.

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Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

autobiography of a corpse“Man is to man a ghost”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

This is a collection of short stories written by surely the most difficult to spell author of all-time, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Writing under the Soviet regime in the early part of last century, most of his work didn’t get past the censors and remained unpublished until the period of Glasnost in the late ’80s. The stories are quirky and imaginative, sometimes fantastical, usually satirical, and often witty; and there are common themes of individual and social identity, reality and abstraction, life and death, space and time. Some of the stories are quite clearly political, concerning the submergence and alienation of the individual under Soviet rule – soul seepage, as he terms it. There is a good deal of word-play in the stories, so the excellent translation by Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov is essential to letting the reader grasp the author’s intention.

“By morning many-hued military flags were hanging over building entrances and gateways. Men with newspapers held up to their eyes were walking down the sidewalks; men with rifles on their shoulders were walking down the roadways. Thus from the very first day newspapers and rifles divided us all into those who would die and those for whom they would die.”

Like most collections, this one is variable – some of the stories are interesting and enjoyable, while in others Krzhizhanovsky lets his philosophising tendencies run away with him, making them overly wordy while not being quite as profound as he presumably intended them to be. However, none of them are less than thought-provoking and they give an insight into the difficulties of plain-speaking in a time of censorship and worse.

There are 11 stories in the collection, plus a short introduction by Adam Thirlwell, giving brief biographical details of the author. There are fairly extensive notes at the back, and in some of the stories these are quite important as the people and institutions the author refers to are often no longer household names – at least, not in my household.

“A philosophizing Not once said, “Being cannot not be without becoming Nothing, while Nothing cannot be without becoming Being.” This is so very reasonable it’s hard to believe that a Not, a nonexistent being, could – in little more than a dozen words – have come so close to the truth.”

© RIA Novosti/TopFoto
© RIA Novosti/TopFoto

The title story sets the scene for much of what is to follow – through the letters of a man written in the three consecutive nights before committing suicide, Krzhizhanovsky introduces his main subject of identity as an individual within, or more often outside, society. The next story takes us straight to the fantastical as a man becomes fascinated by his own image reflected back to him from the eye of his lover – until one day the reflection disappears. We are told the story of this ‘little man’ who finds he has fallen into a space in the lover’s head where the ‘little men’ of all her former lovers are gathered, telling each other the story of their relationship with her. Humorous and quirky, but still with the theme of identity at the fore, we begin to get a feel for how Krzhizhanovsky uses the fantastic as a vehicle for philosophising and satire. This shows through strongly in another story, The Unbitten Elbow, where the author takes a sharply ironic look at politics, celebrity, the media and most of all the tendency of philosophers to try to read meaning into the meaningless – which is in itself ironic, since I felt Krzhizhanovsky wasn’t immune from falling into that trap himself.

“It turned out that the energy of a potential fistfight, if sucked promptly into the pores of a street absorberator, could heat an entire floor for twelve hours. Even without adopting any matrimoniological measures, simply by giving porous double beds to two million “happily married” couples, you could support the work of an enormous sawmill.”

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Overall I enjoyed most of the stories enough that they made up for the over-stuffed ones. I think my favourite is ‘Yellow Coal’ – a satire based on the idea that sources of energy are running out and, in response to a competition, an inventor suggests powering things with human spite – bile, known as yellow coal. This works amazingly well as supplies are inexhaustible, until gradually everyone becomes contented and well-fed… Unfortunately the last story, Postmark: Moscow, was the most incomprehensible to me, since it relied to some extent on the reader getting references to the ideas of many philosophers who were no more than names to me, if that. But even so, it rounded off the recurring theme throughout the book of ‘I’s and ‘Not’s – the alienation of the individual and the disconnect from society. A thought-provoking collection where the best of the stories are highly entertaining and the worst are still quite readable – recommended.

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

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Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies by Ken Kalfus

PU239Personalising the political…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One of the best books of 2013 is Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral, an insightful, subtly humorous and wonderfully written novel in the vein of classic sci-fi. (If you haven’t read it yet, why haven’t you?) I’d never heard of Kalfus before reading it, so am now working my way backwards through his previous stuff…

Kalfus lived in Russia during the period 1994-1998, when his wife was appointed Moscow bureau chief of the Philadelphia Inquirer, allowing him to get to know the country and its people. The result is this collection of six short stories and a novella, all based in the Russia of the USSR era. Overall, he gives us a grey and grim depiction of life under the Soviet regime, but leavened with flashes of humour and a great deal of humanity. His writing has the same spare precision of Equilateral though, perhaps because of the subject matter, with less of the poeticism that was a feature of that book.

The title story, Pu-239, tells of the Soviet nuclear programme, shrouded in secrecy, with little regard for the safety of the workers. A stark tale of the dangers that lurk in an industry that is creaking and broken, Kalfus humanises his story by concentrating on one worker, his loyalty tested to breaking point when he is the victim of an accident in the plant.

stalin-bioAnzhelika shows the life of this 13-year-old living in the time of Stalin and dealing with the sudden return of her father who has been missing, no-one knows where, since the end of the war. We see how she has been indoctrinated to revere, almost worship, Stalin and the regime and how the most human of emotions are corrupted and denied.

Birobidzhan is the story of the setting up of the Jewish Autonomous Region as seen through the lives of Israel, an activist and enthusiast for the project, and Larissa, the woman he hopes will share his journey. This is one of the longer stories, allowing Kalfus to show us the contrast between the hopes of the settlers and the realities of this unwelcoming corner of the USSR, and always the brooding threat of a regime that tolerates no dissent.

Orbit follows Yuri Gagarin on his last evening before he is due to blast off to be the first man in space. We see a man conscious of his own heroism, sure of his destiny. But Kalfus contrasts this with the story of Sergei Korolev, Chief Director of the project – a man who has returned from the horror of the gulags and who understands the price of failure.

gagarin

Budyonnovsk tells the story of the negotiations between the Chechen separatists and Chernomyrdin during the hospital hostage crisis in 1995. For me, this story didn’t work as well as the others, possibly because it must have been written fairly contemporaneously and Kalfus perhaps didn’t tell us enough about the circumstances, believing his readers would remember them – which sadly I didn’t.

Salt is based on a Russian folk-tale – a young man discovers a salt mountain and exchanges this valuable spice for its weight in gold. Light and entertaining on the surface, the story is an allegorical fable on the subject of wealth-creation and the notional value that humanity gives to otherwise worthless commodities.

Ken Kalfus
Ken Kalfus

The book finishes with the novella, Peredelkino. A story of love and betrayal told against the background of the literary world, Kalfus shows the constraints placed on authors forced to ensure that their work stays within the restrictions placed on all artists under the totalitarian state. Kalfus’ musings on the writing process and thoughts on critical reception occasionally felt as if an autobiographical element must be creeping into this one, and while the story over all is both dark and emotional, there are many flashes of humour here too.

In each of the stories Kalfus personalises the political, creating believable characters struggling to find a way to live under the Soviet system. He doesn’t take the easy option of concentrating on dissidents and rebels; instead, he shows us ordinary people, often supporters of the regime, but living under the constant fear of stepping out of line. Some of the stories worked better for me than others, with Peredelkino and Birobidzhan being the stand-outs. But as a collection, these are insightful and thought-provoking, and Kalfus’ precise language and compelling characterisation make them an absorbing read. Highly recommended.

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