How Should the Story of Revolution Be Told?

by Hans Rollman

19 April 2017

UK scholar Helen Rappaport combines thorough scholarship with the stylistic grace of a novelist, and the result is a riveting tale of the Russian Revolution that’s difficult to put down.
 
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Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge

Helen Rappaport

(St. Martin's Press)
US: Feb 2017

As the centenary of the Russian Revolution unfolds, its treatment in literary and historical discourse intensifies. Its latest generation of chroniclers have a daunting task, as they struggle to find something new to say about one of the most fraught and heavily debated events of the past century; one that’s already produced countless books and studies, both favourable and opposed to the guiding principles of that Revolution.

Caught in the Revolution is UK scholar Helen Rappaport’s contribution to the flood of works on the topic. It tells the story of the Revolution from the perspective of foreign observers: diplomatic staff, bank tellers, journalists, nurses and others who found themselves caught in the middle of the historic events in 1917 Petrograd. Drawing on diary and correspondence excerpts from these American, British and French observers she chronicles what the Revolution looked like to western observers who lived through it. Beginning in the dying days of the Tsarist Romanov dynasty, she weaves their stories together through the protests of early 1917 and February Revolution (which saw the Tsar abdicate and a provisional government formed), the intensified organizing of the Bolsheviks under Lenin and their efforts to destabilize the provisional government that summer, and the Bolsheviks’ final seizure of power in the October Revolution.

The chronicle is a riveting one, full of suspense, action, horror. The reader feels the tension in the streets as the hours pass and the slowly gathering storm takes shape; feels the nerve-wracking terror of armed gangs roaming the streets and storming the hotels and palaces. The ex-pats often had much less warning than their Russian neighbours about what was coming; two American bank employees were in the middle of trying to move apartments when their carriages got swept up in the masses storming toward the Winter Palace as the Bolsheviks began their final assault. Rappaport combines thorough scholarship with the stylistic grace of a novelist, and the result is a riveting tale that’s difficult to put down.

But the book is notable also for what is omitted. The revolution, as observed by ex-pat eyewitnesses, comes across as a chaotic orgy of spontaneous violence. There is nothing here of the very deliberate organizing which went on for months beforehand; the tireless meetings and strategizing among the revolution’s political leadership; nor the years of planning and practice that preceded 1917. Take the revolt of the army during the February revolution, for example. From an eyewitness perspective, it appears as though Russia’s soldiers simply decided, out of the chivalrous goodness of their hearts, to disobey orders to shoot civilians and instead turned on their own officers. No doubt some did. But this telling of the tale eschews the intense organizing work that revolutionary organizers did among the military beforehand, sowing the seeds of doubt and question among the rank and file which contributed in no small way toward propelling them onto the side of the proletariat in the heat of the moment.

It would be as though the story of the US Civil War was told from the perspective of a family of immigrants living in the woods, who didn’t speak English and whose only knowledge of the Civil War came from observing the wandering bands of soldiers slaughtering each other, with no knowledge of slavery, the Confederate States and the Union, or anything else. Granted, some of the diplomatic staff whose reminiscences Rappaport draws on had a stronger understanding of the different forces at play, but even they were woefully uninformed about Bolshevik and other revolutionary organizations. They’re predominantly upper-class liberals who are appalled that one day their maids refuse to clean their rooms and they can no longer get cakes at their preferred teahouses.

Although there is a sprinkling of diversity (a handful of socialist journalists; several women; and the only known chronicle of the revolution from an African-American eyewitness), in this telling too, all the heroes are westerners. Cool British officers calm down drunken crowds of ferocious Russians, suavely saving ex-pat women and children from mob violence. This telling of the tale dispossesses the Russians of their own revolution. Ferocious and primitive Russians are observed and depicted through a dispassionate, horrified and often disgusted western gaze. Far more time is spent dwelling on efforts to keep alcohol out of the hands of revolutionary gangs than is spent on chronicling the political struggles, gains and losses of the Revolution. Rappaport’s observers are full of scorn for the uneducated peasant masses, and her chronicle shares their disdainful stories and anecdotes.

Rappaport’s sympathies clearly lie with the liberals and the westerners who lamented the country’s slide into Bolshevik revolution. She attempts to weave a mostly objective telling, but those sympathies do periodically slip out. And although the final part of the story is told mostly from the perspective of American journalists whose sympathies lay with the Bolsheviks, it is again the mere fact of telling the story through non-Russian voices that renders it awkwardly partial. Granted, the tale is told with such an exciting narrative pace that it’s easy to forget the one-sided nature of the account, but that’s what renders it even more questionable. What would it be like to hear the story of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, or the Gulf War, told only from American and British ex-pat perspectives?

But on the other hand, perhaps this is the way revolutions ought to be told. All too often the telling of revolutions becomes sanitized, condensed into power politics. Caught in the Revolution depicts an all too real and—in the history books at least—often overlooked dimension of even the most carefully planned and orchestrated revolutionary and historical moments: the descent into uncontrolled violence and savagery.

What were the fates of the young cadets and members of the women’s battalion left to defend the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks? What happened on the streets during those interminable hours of violence before one side or the other gained the upper hand during street battles? History documents the numbers of civilians killed during protests, but sterile numbers omit the horrendous and pointless brutality of the violence. Rappaport’s foreign observers convey the fear and terror in much better measure. As they struggle to make it home from work through the heart of an unexpected street protest, her observers witness machine gun fire—from which side no one knows or cares—indiscriminately mowing down proponents of both sides, and chronicle the terrifying chaos for what it really was: pointless, savage, murderous violence. Despite its shortcomings, there’s an undeniable and important truth to this side of the tale, as well.

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge

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