BookBlast reviews Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917, edited by Pete Ayrton
“The city is destroyed, plundered. A very interesting city. Polish culture. An ancient, rich Jewish colony. These frightening bazaars, dwarfs in hooded coats, hoods and side-locks, the aged, a school street, ninety-six synagogues, all half-destroyed, and stories – American soldiers were here, oranges, cloth, thoroughfare, wire, deforestation and wasteland, endless barren land. Nothing to eat, no hope, war, everyone is equally bad, equally foreign, hostile, inhuman, before life was traditionally peaceful” – from Isaac Babel’s 1920 Diary in which he describes his experiences with the Cossack cavalry during the Polish-Soviet war.
To actually feel what it was like to be caught up in the most momentous event of the 20th century, and to walk in the shoes of those who either stayed and wrote under the increasingly tricky conditions of censorship, or fled to become émigrés pining for a lost world, or visited from abroad wanting to see revolution in action . . . read Pete Ayrton’s anthology Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917. Of all the books marking this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution, this is the one to go for.
Ayrton’s wide-ranging, vivid and eclectic selection of writings brings alive the idealistic immensity and massive chaos of the February revolution in Petrograd which heralded the beginning of the end of autocratic Tzarist rule . . . Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizure of power in October from the fledgling democratic government . . . the brutal and messy process leading up to the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922 . . . and the realities of daily life at a time of tumultuous change. By 1934 the hope and excitement of the early revolutionary years were evaporating as the darkness of the Great Terror gathered, and a famine swept the country leaving almost 4 million dead.
The Bolsheviks “abolished classes of society, planned people’s theatres, reformed the marriage laws and even the spelling . . .” writes American feminist and journalist, Louise Bryant. Property in people’s garrets became people’s property and churches were plundered. The position of women improved and they were given the right to vote.
Foreign eyewitnesses included Somerset Maugham who went to Russia as a spy (Kropotkin’s daughter with whom he had an affair, and the assassin Boris Savinkov, were invaluable sources) . . . Arthur Ransome who went as a foreign correspondent . . . John Reed, the journalist and writer who chronicled the Russian Revolution in his book Ten Days That Shook the World which inspired the superb film, Reds, produced and directed by Warren Beatty . . . diplomat and ace of spies, Robert Bruce Lockhart, (the father of my part-Malay late godmother, Isobel de Crempien), who described Nicholas II being a “man of all the domestic virtues, but of no vices and no will-power” . . . H. G. Wells who visited Maxim Gorky in 1914 and interviewed Stalin on his last (third) trip in 1924 . . . philosopher and pacifist, Bertrand Russell . . . member of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes, who sailed in 1932 with 22 other black actors and activists to make a film, Black and White – his detailed description of feasting in Turkmenistan to the strains of gypsy flamenco captures a disappeared way of life.
James Bond’s adventures created by Ian Fleming pale into petit-bourgeois conventionality next to those of adventurer Lockhart’s on the front line of politics and intrigue, “The Anarchists had appropriated the finest houses in Moscow. On the Povarskaia, where the rich merchants lived, we entered house after house. The filth was indescribable. Broken bottles littered the floors, the magnificent ceilings were perforated with bullet-holes. Wine stains and human excrement blotched the Aubusson carpets. Priceless pictures had been slashed to strips. The dead still lay where they had fallen. They included officers in guards’ uniform, students – young boys of twenty – and men who belonged obviously to the criminal class and whom the Revolution had released from prison. In the luxurious drawing-room of the House Gracheva, the Anarchists had been surprised in the middle of an orgy. The long table which had supported the feast had been overturned, and broken plates, glasses, champagne bottles, made unsavoury islands in a pool of blood and spilt wine. On the floor lay a young woman, face downwards. Peters turned her over. Her hair was dishevelled. She had been shot through the neck, and the blood had congealed in a sinister purple clump. She could not have been more than twenty. Peters shrugged his shoulders. ‘Prostitutka,’ he said.”
Ayrton’s superb literary and political snapshots emphasise the surreal, dark comedy of chaos and grotesque horror show of human behaviour under extreme conditions. Edith Sollohub, the daughter of a Russian diplomat and professor, avoids having to share her apartment with strangers by registering people who have recently died in the building as her tenants, so her apartment is filled with dead souls . . . an American businessmen refuses to leave Petrograd without his washing and gets caught up in a riot . . . a Russian countess works as a courier using a birch-wood sledge and is followed by a pack of hungry mongrel dogs as she delivers rotting horse meat . . . a member of the intelligentsia scrubs a ship’s deck in her silver shoes . . . the blockade of the port of Odessa results in mutiny and near famine and everyone gazes at a sea empty of ships . . . a Cossack father on the side of pro-Tsarist Whites kills not one but both sons who opt for Lenin’s Reds, his ‘excuse’ being, “I’m a family man, I’ve seven mouths to feed.”
Teffi – the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – was a fearless survivor who grew up in 1870s Russia and left for Paris in 1919 never to return. (Her collection Rasputin and Other Ironies is published by Pushkin Press and is well worth reading.) She describes Rasputin as being “a hardened sinner and a man of prayer, a shape-shifter with the name of God on his lips. They called him cunning.” She retained her belief in socialism, but lost faith in its agents, “Leninists, Bolsheviks, anarchists and communists, thugs, registered housebreakers – what a muddle! What a Satanic vinaigrette!” Her superb, grim humour is underpinned by wit and shrewd observation unlike the juvenile, slapstick humour of the surprisingly bad film, The Death of Stalin.
In the 1920s artists were free to write what they liked about daily life – problems with bureaucracy, overcrowding, communal living, which furniture would sell well to pay for food etc. Three members of The Serapion Brothers group of writers feature in the collection: the satirists Mikhail Zoshchenko, Lev Lunts and Marietta Sheginian. Zoshchenko sourced stories from letters sent to newspapers by workers and peasants as they moved in to town from the provinces. The satirical magazine Crocodile to which he contributed had a circulation of 700,000 in 1925. His books sold in the millions, but in the 1930s he fell foul of the censor.
As people moved into town and big apartments were divided up, communal life became a living hell, exemplified by Zoshchenko’s story, Crisis. A man from the provinces ends up living on the Moscow streets for many weeks until he is offered a bathroom fit for royalty. “I’m not a fish, I don’t require diving facilities,” he protests, as he agrees to pay the fixed rent of 30 roubles. He acquires a young wife and they have a baby. The coming and going of the 32 tenants to have baths becomes problematic, but nothing doing, if he makes trouble he’ll be given a beating. Then his mother in law arrives . . . and her brother . . .
The entertaining and illuminating pieces gathered together in this book are an important reminder of how the explosion of mass democracy that was Lenin’s revolution, and the totalitarian dictatorship and mass murder that was Stalinism, are very different strands of socialism. They should not be conflated. Stalin was not Lenin’s successor.
“I did not believe that political directives could be successfully applied to creative writing,” writes Langston Hughes, highlighting one of the tragedies illuminated by this superb collection which is essential reading, not just for book lovers and historians, but for those curious about life and love and humanity – and what it is that makes people tick.
In the years following any revolution, repression generally follows the initial euphoria, as the new leaders take measures to prevent challenges to the new regime, beginning with eliminating political opposition, and then its detractors – particularly those who are articulate and skilled at delivering intellectual criticism. Censorship, the suppression of dissidents, and the denial of human rights are tools of mass control.
Nina Berberova’s piece about destruction of the intelligentsia is illustrative of how ideology can be used to conceal the facts of domination and oppression, “I see that destruction of the intelligentsia came not in a straight path but in a tortuous one, through a period of brief flowering; that the way was not simple through that flowering, that some people at the same time both flowered and perished, and made others perish, without being themselves aware of it; that a little later there would be hundreds of sacrifices and later still tens of thousands: from Trotsky through Vororsky, Pilniak, the formalists and fellow travellers to the futurists and young workers and peasant poets who bloomed to the very end of the twenties, serving the new regime wholeheartedly . . . Destruction came not personally to each one who was being destroyed, but as a group destruction of a whole profession, carefully planned . . .”
2017 is not only the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but the year the 45th president of the United States, and leader of the global alt-right revolution, entered the White House. He routinely attacks the “disgusting and corrupt media” as he tries to substitute propaganda for news.
A century on, the Russian revolutionary movement should be an inspiration and a catalyst, uniting millions to protest against Trump, Brexit, and creeping fascism . . . coalescing into a mass movement for radical change. But this has not happened. What a terrible failure of the fractured Left. It is a missed opportunity that resonates with all the tragicomedy of a play by the founder of modern Russian literature, Alexander Pushkin.
Ayrton’s revolutionary all-stars include: Leon Trotsky, John Reed, Louis Bryant, Athur Ransome, Robert Bruce Lockhart, Edith Sollohub, Konstantin Paustovsky, Dmitry Furmanov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Somerset Maugham, Teffi, Isaac Babel, H. G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Lev Lunts, Marietta Sheginian, Alexandra Kollontai, Vera Inber, Nina Berberova, Ilya Ehrenberg, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Victor Serge, Panaït Istrati, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Victor Ardov, Walter Benjamin, Theodore Dreiser, Ilf and Petrov.
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