A dramatic narrative account of the Russian Revolution is appalling and riveting at the same time
Next year will be the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Doubtless it will produce much coverage in books and articles, even though no member of a western-style democracy would wish to celebrate the event, any more than a Catholic would want to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year.
These thoughts have been prompted by Helen Rappaport’s book Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917. By concentrating on the city where the Revolution first began, and only describing the year it all blew up, she manages to make the reader feel part of those frenzied days and weeks through a judicious selection of eye-witness accounts. She deliberately avoids John Reed’s classic Ten Days That Shook the World, preferring to quote from lesser well-known western journalists, as well as diplomats, British nurses and others.
The result is a dramatic narrative, appalling and riveting at the same time. With the benefit of hindsight the reader, knowing what is to come, notes the initially incorrect judgement of Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador who, when Lenin returned to Russia in April 1917 on the famous sealed train (an event discussed on Radio 4 on Monday) dismissed him as one of yet another “fresh batch of anarchists from abroad.”
Actually, these anarchists had the one element necessary for victory: total belief in their cause alongside the ferocity necessary to secure it; as a journalist observed, Lenin, only just returned from exile, “provided violence with a doctrine.” The young Isaiah Berlin, aged seven, out walking with his parents, saw a policeman dragged to his death. “It infected me with a permanent horror of any kind of violence”, he later wrote.
More tragic was the way that women flocked to the Bolsheviks’ banner. The US consul North Winship saw a parade of factory girls waving “a huge black banner, with a white skull and crossbones…There was something loathsome about it” he commented.
One understands the implacable opposition towards atheistic Communism by the Church when one reads the verdict of the French ambassador on Lenin and his henchmen: quoting from the opera Boris Godunov, he wrote “Weep my holy Russia, weep! For thou art entering into darkness.”
The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, although proud to call itself socialist, has nothing in common with the Bolsheviks, busy implementing their own brand of Soviet socialism in Russia in 1917. Nonetheless, I wonder how the Party will acknowledge the centenary of the Russian Revolution next year?