How Should the Story of Revolution Be Told?

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.

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

Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Length: 464 pages
Author: Helen Rappaport
Price: $27.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-02

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.