I spent the lasts month’s of the Carter administration and the first three years of the Regan administration studying the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Tzarist Russia. All turned out to be a fascinating preparation for our world today. I was a continent away, in Malawi, when the Berlin Wall came down. I was devastated to be totally away from television that week. Back then, only rich expatriates and high ranking members of the government had satellite dishes for t.v. in Malawi. I heard it all on the shortwave BBC World Service.
This fall marks the 100th Anniversary of the October [or November for those on the Western calendar] Revolution in St. Petersburg (aka Petrograd, aka Leningrad). Yes, you read that right. St. Petersburg–not Moscow. Moscow rose to prominence after the revolution, The last few years have given us a wealth of re-tellings of the first World War. Now it is on to the newly retold downfall of Nicholas II and the Romanov dynasty, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Russian Civil War and, finally, (though not all in one year) the birth of the Soviet Union as we knew it until the Regan years. Lenin image credit.
Helen Rapport’s Caught in the Revolution is a grand tale. The speed and violence of change is caught so vividly that I found myself breathless–as though I had been chased by the very mobs who took over. Unlike most Americas, I had a very good understanding of all that went into this revolution. It’s memorable moments are as well known to me as our own Boston Tea Party or the convening of the first Continental Congress. But hearing Rapport’s words made it all new and exciting again.
For me the good was hearing it told thru the eyes of the outsiders of the “old order”–the diplomats accredited to the court of the Tzar, the American bankers and businessmen brought in to try to hasten the pace of modernization and keep the Russian army fighting the war. Taken from letters and diaries the accounts of the country’s growing discontent with the war, of the new round of bread riots, of the killing of the despised Rasputin, the mutinies of the soldiers and sailors and the return of Trotsky and Lenin were made so real.
This is not an academic historian’s account of the times. This is a layman’s history, written to be read and savored.
There isn’t really anything “bad” here. There is “bad” in the culture being remembered. Everyone trying to keep the alcohol out of the hands of the mobs so that looting, pillaging and raping would be kept to a minimum was a very sad harbinger of what occurred in, especially, Berlin at the end of World War II when Soviet soldiers were set loose on the conquered country.
I did not shed tears over the losses the diplomats suffered in terms of priceless antiques lost. All could have sent their household goods home at the start. I also really couldn’t lament that the revolutionaries took the Tzar’s priceless wine cellar apart. Or that others poured out wine everywhere to keep the mobs less drunk. The senseless destruction of property of, priceless records and libraries that were wantonly burned or destroyed was awful. What moved me most was the senseless violence–the rage–of a people held down for far too long.
Their brutality–taught them in part by the Tzar’s Cossacks and his secret police it must be said, was almost too much for me at times. I did not condone, but understood the symbolism of Nicholas being sent into exile. Killing HIM was very logical to the people in charge. He had killed so many–or rather so many had been killed by a stroke of his pen or in his name. His beloved wife wrote her own death warrant by keeping the monk Rasputin around. But killing his children? No. Senseless.
That said, there isn’t much here to help Americans really understand what went wrong with Tzarist Russia. As Americans we used to be fine-tuned to avoid totalitarian or absolute dictatorship regimes. Today, obviously, we cannot take for granted that all Americans have come of age knowing anything what-so-ever about them.
I wish she had given a bit more on the various causes of discontent and how it got so out-of-hand. I also wish even more had been said about how the peasants and workers were used by the Intellectuals of the movement and the differences between Lenin and Trotsky, as well as how violence became the watchword of what should have been a peaceful life after the revolution. The secrecy of the new regime, which intensified after Lenin’s death–that was not what they signed up for, those workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors, for once again they were virtual prisoners. The Church and all morality were cast out–yet Russian was a very Christian nation. In World War II, Stalin would allow the church back somewhat to keep the people fighting the war. Photo: Wikipedia
But, this is a layman’s history–a book club history in the best sense of that genre.
Internationale from REDS
When your book club selects this–and many will and should–don’t be afraid to dig deeper. Let someone read classics such as Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie for the problems in Nicholas’ life. Let someone read Richard Pipes or Alexander Rabinovich–deeper historical accounts. And let someone read the nearest competitor to this–John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World which gives an American Socialist’s perspective. That one is a book club book for all times. I couldn’t put it down, stayed away over 30 hours to read and “live” it in 1983. It is the book the movie Reds came from.
And, if you book club is a women’s club especially (but men are welcome to hear it all, too) be sure to assign someone to read on Nadezhda Krupskaya–Lenin’s wife and other Soviet women who tried to re-write the world women lived in for the better.
Big Complaint on the Audio Version
The reader was mind-numbingly DULL. It is a tribute to the prose of this book that even read in a near monotone I finished the book. The reader did such a disservice to this work.
Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport