Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

Nineteen Seventeen

with 2 comments

One of the more unlikely books in my collection is a 1916 textbook for the teaching of the Russian language in English schools. It is of interest because of the selection of useful words and phrases that the English traveller in Tsarist Russia might need. This book tells us that the Russian word for ‘footman’ is ‘lackey’. And the phrases that are presented for translation exercise paint a very telling picture:

“Where were you yesterday?” “Yesterday, I was on Mr. K’s estate.” “Was Miss N there?” “No, she was at the Princess D’s.”
“They wash all their children with cold water.”
“They demand money from my brother, but he does not want to give them it.”
“How many children have you?” “We have no children, all our children are dead.”
“Why did your son not go to the school to-day?” “Because he has no boots.”
“Your footman broke all our china.”
“I should never be able to speak with two thousand peasants.”

Some phrases sound like exchanges in an interrogation:

“Who are these gentlemen?” “I do not know, but I think they are foreigners.”
“They say they saw your mother in the town.”
“What are you busy with?” “Who told you that I am busy?”
“Where did you see my wife?”
“He was asking this gentleman about the details of your case.”

If this Kafka-eque picture gets too much, it is useful to know how to say: “Death will liberate us from all our trouble and worry.”

And the book has this useful and prophetic phrase: “This is the year 1917.”

I was reminded about this because the centenary of the October Revolution has spurred some attention in the media and some recent books on the subject have become quite widely discussed. I’ve been reading China Miéville’s October, which I was looking forward to because a) Miéville is a writer I admire, and b) he identifies very clearly with the Left. As a leftist writer, Miéville’s position might be assumed to be uncritical; but this is not the case. Reviewers have generally welcomed his book, whilst having some criticisms about the form, or the style. Perhaps the most critical reviews have come from those further to the Left than the author, who take him to task for not being sufficiently dedicated to the Cause, or for not addressing issues which they believe he should have done and which are on their personal list of bogeys, but which are actually well outside the remit of the book.


Miéville’s aim was not to attempt any historical or political assessment of the October Revolution and its place in world history or politics; rather, his aim was to place the story and events of October 1917 before a wider readership and recount that story for those who have heard of it but may not have looked in detail at Revolutionary Petrograd before. After a short piece of historical scene-setting, he recounts the story of the October Revolution on a month-by-month basis, starting with the abdication of the Tsar in February and ending with the overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in October and the subsequent establishment of Soviet rule under the leadership of V.I. Lenin.

The book is written in a lively, novelistic style, though some level of background knowledge is helpful. I was broadly familiar with the events of October and the broad chronology of the year from books like John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world and films like Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917 (though it should be noted that there was more damage done to the Winter Palace during the filming of October than there ever was during the actual revolution). And my To Be Read pile includes a number of histories of the October Revolution and afterwards, from a range of writers on all sides of the debate, from Leon Trotsky and Tariq Ali to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and  Richard Pipes. But Miéville’s book is perhaps the most detailed account of pure events that has been assembled from contemporary accounts by a writer with some degree of overview of and insight into the various factions and fractions involved.

For this is perhaps the first key observation: that in February 1917, none of the three leading personalities that the world thinks of when you say the words “Russian Revolution” – Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin – were even in the country. Instead, there were a range of players whose names are now mere footnotes to history. And the Bolsheviks – often thought of as a minority who manipulated events and who were responsible for the overthrow of the Tsar – were actually one of a number of different political groupings who were not always ahead of events as the year unfolded. The vast majority of those groupings were of different degrees of Left-ness; even Aleksander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government eventually overthrown in October, and the figure most ridiculed and derided in later Soviet accounts and in Eisenstein’s film in particular, was from a specific faction of one of Russia’s Socialist parties.

And secondly: this was not a revolution that sprang out of a small group of conspirators. From the very beginning in February, revolution was in the air and the Leftist political parties had mass membership amongst workers, peasants and soldiers. It was the very fact that Tsarist Russia was a highly militarised society, with regiments and garrisons in towns and cities giving large numbers of the population comparatively easy access to weapons that enabled an armed insurrection to become a likely outcome.

There is also a popular misconception that the Bolsheviks had a grand strategy, an over-arching Plan to seize power. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly all the way up to the final insurrection at the end of October, Lenin, the Bolshevik Central Committee and their Military Organisation and its successors were reacting to events and certainly were not in control of them. From the very outset and his return to Russia via the famous “sealed train” in April, Lenin in particular had no idea what sort of situation he was walking into. The state of communications meant that whilst in exile, he was out of touch with events and had no way of gauging how things were happening on the ground day by day, no capacity for judging the reaction of the proletariat masses on the streets. He had to improvise; indeed, when Lenin stepped off the train in the Finland Station, he was half expecting to be arrested and imprisoned if not executed. And the counter-Revolution in July was a massive setback for the Bolsheviks that they were not expected to survive. Lenin had to go into hiding again, and all the way up to the eve of the revolution he had various encounters with the authorities where he could have been arrested had he simply been recognised.

If Lenin had any plan, it was to hope that a revolution in Russia would trigger revolutions across the rest of Europe; he felt that the historical moment had arrived where the route to Communism and thence to full socialism was open to all of Europe’s workers. In the event, Russia remained the only successful revolution; the later revolutions in Germany and Hungary in 1919 were short-lived, even though the German revolution did lead to the Weimar Republic.

With our post-Cold War perspective, we find it difficult to understand the attractions that socialism held for the mass of people. But in 1917-20, conditions in eastern Europe were harsh; the war had taken its toll on societies and Russia in particular was struggling to emerge from feudalism and absolute monarchical rule. Marxism had seized the imagination of both its adherents and opponents; for many, it represented a new way of looking at society which held out hope of alleviating the harsh conditions of the time, whilst for the Establishments of many nations, Marxism represented an existential threat to the established order of things. And Marxism set great store on organisation, education and democratic participation – all exciting concepts to working people around the world. The coming socialist utopia seemed just that: a promise that tomorrow would be materially and tangibly better than today.

For a brief window in time, the October revolution promised these things to the people of Russia. Not only was the Bolshevik ideology new, but it drew in new thinkers on a range of subjects and it used new directions in film, art and popular culture to appear fresh and exciting. Constructivism led to dynamic forms appearing as posters in the popular environment; at last, art and education would be open to all and available to all. Bringing Russian involvement in the war to an end promised peace; and the aim of building the new socialist state meant that working people could look forward to a brighter future. Indeed, the new state drew on Russian thinkers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, pioneer of spaceflight theory, and the emergent technologies of radio, film and aviation to promise a world of wonders.

Of course, it didn’t last. But Miéville’s thesis, which he suggests in the epilogue to October, is that the Civil War and the involvement of hostile interventionist foreign troops set the new Soviet state on the road towards repression and tyranny in the name of security. Lenin did not necessarily lead to Stalin; but Stalin’s reaction to the Civil War, his paranoia, his feud with Trotsky and the creation of a bureaucracy loyal to Stalin as a consequence did lead to the totalitarian state that the Soviet Union became. It took time; for many, the optimistic dream of the socialist future faded slowly and indeed had a brief rebirth and blossoming in the 1950s during the Khrushchev era as the planned economy briefly started to provide Soviet citizens with the material prosperity they had long been promised.

Indeed, the dream lasted far longer than it possibly had a right to, even at the height of Stalin’s terror. There are anecdotes of inmates of the gulags crying when the news of Stalin’s death broke in 1953; earlier, there was the case of the aircraft designer, Vladimir Petlyakov. Petlyakov was a successful aircraft designer working in the Tupolev design bureau; but in 1937 he was arrested along with Tupolev and many other engineers on trumped-up charges of sabotage and espionage. After two years in prison, he was moved to a “special labour camp”, one of a number of establishments run by the NKVD for high-achieving professionals, where he was tasked with designing a high-altitude fighter aircraft. This he successfully and, one gathers, enthusiastically did. Perhaps a more notable case was Sergei Korolev, the Soviet Union’s ‘Chief Designer of Rockets’, who was arrested in 1938 in part of the purges at the Central Jet Propulsion Research Institute; in Korolev’s case, he had actually been diverting official funds away from authorised projects to fund his own research on rockets. After six years in prison, Korolev was pulled out of incarceration to bring his knowledge to bear on material captured from the Germans. Within a few years, he was leading Russian rocketry research along different paths to the Germans but with enough backing from the State to deliver world-beating leads in launching Sputnik I (1957) and Vostok-1, which wrote Yuri Gagarin into history as the first man in space (1961). These achievements made Korolev such a high-value individual to the state that his identity was a closely-guarded secret until after his death in 1966.

And then there was the case of the composer, Dmitri Shostakovich. Born in 1906 in Petrograd, he was without any doubt a child of the Revolution; yet in later years he fell foul of Stalin, especially because of Stalin’s fairly simplistic tastes in music, and only narrowly escaped being taken to the Gulag because his chief NKVD accuser was himself arrested and purged the night before he was due to arrest Shostakovich! Yet Shostakovich was happy to write pieces celebrating the iconic events of Soviet history and never considered leaving Russia even though he was lauded and would have been made very welcome in the West, where he had a number of friends in the musical community.

These cases, and many others, show that the dream that the October Revolution offered remained attractive to so many Russians even when the reality clearly fell short. These people were patriots; they wanted to work for the greater glory of Russia, despite what the leadership had done to them. Certainly, they wished for a better, more benevolent government; but it should be one that arose out of the country of itself, rather than being imposed from abroad. Many felt that the Soviet route to socialism was what made their country unique; and many Russians of the older generation look back with nostalgia to the Communist era because of the certainty, simplicity and comradeship that it offered, all the system’s faults notwithstanding. (You only have to consider the vast repository of Soviet-era jokes about the contemporary scene to appreciate this: one of my favourites is “Under capitalism, man exploits his fellow man; under Communism, it’s the other way around.”) That generation see the new market economy and consumerism as Western imports; in part, the popularity of Vladimir Putin is that he is aiming to redress the balance in favour of some specifically Russian virtues – love of country, Russian culture and a strong leader.

And as I said, for a period in the 1950s, the Russian economy was outperforming many other Western economies. As with most things, the facts are usually more complex than the shouty stuff on both sides implies.

What October and some of the other books I’ve mentioned tell us is that in the early years of the 20th Century, the time was right for some sort of overthrow, somewhere, of the Old Order. When a society gets thrown up in the air by a revolution, no-one can tell how and where the pieces will land; and all political events have unintended consequences. Had Lenin been arrested at any stage during 1917 – and this could have happened on at least three different occasions – it is possible that the October Revolution might not have happened, or it might have fizzled out in the way that the German Revolution did two years later. But when an idea’s time has come, that idea will take form, if not in one place then in another. The American novelist Eugene Byrne, working with British writer Kim Newman, wrote a series of stories set in an alternate history where the Bolshevik Revolution never happened in Russia, but instead was sparked off in the USA by Eugene Debs.

Many people say that the Communist experiment was never followed through to its conclusion, or that full socialism has never properly been tried. Be that as it may, we cannot change the history we have; the important thing is to learn from it. But if we only ever accept one interpretation of that history, we aren’t learning from it at all, simply deluding ourselves that our world-view is the one and only True Account. And that puts us at risk from others who have drawn different conclusions or have a different viewpoint. No ideas should ever be off the table.


Some other recommended reading:

Edmund Wilson: To the Finland Station

John Reed: Ten days that shook the world

Francis Spufford: Red Plenty

Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman: Back in the USSA

(And for anyone puzzled by the two pictures above, captioned ‘Lenin in Shropshire’, that statue can now be seen at the Cold War Museum at RAF Cosford – which is, indeed, in Shropshire.)



Written by robertday154

October 22, 2017 at 11:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Interesting and erudite. Kerensky’s daughter lived in Southport when I was a boy. I tried posting on WordPress, but couldn’t get past the URL box. It kept demanding one, despite the autocomplete having already inserted mine.

    Keep up the good work. Have you read ‘White Eagle, Red Star’, the story of the Russo-Polish war that followed the First World War? In communist times, I knew the Polish Scientific Attache and he was surprised to see it when he came round for dinner one night, as the subject didn’t arise in communist era Polish education, presumably because the Russians were defeated.

    Peter Ellis

    October 23, 2017 at 9:02 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: