Home

“Art is a mask that covers the face of nature” – a journey back to twenties Moscow with Curzio Malaparte @nyrbclassics

34 Comments

The Kremlin Ball by Curzio Malaparte
Translated from the Italian by Jenny McPhee

Sometimes I find that I read a book that’s so involving, so thought-provoking and which worms its way into my brain so deeply that I actually find it hard to know where to start writing about it. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those books; I’d never heard of it but I knew I wanted to read it the minute I saw the blurb in the NYRB catalogue; and now I’ve finished it, I’m struggling to know where to begin. But let’s try….

Curzio Malaparte was the pseudonym of Kurt Erich Suckert, an Italian journalist and public figure whose life history would make a book in itself. Initially a supporter of Fascism, he fell out of favour with Mussolini, was jailed, worked as a correspondent during WW2 and turned to the left politically after the war. He’s best known for books he wrote based on his time on the Eastern Front, but this work is an unfinished gem which has only just been made available in English, thanks to the sterling work of translator Jenny McPhee. Left unfinished on Malaparte’s death in 1957, it was put together from material abandoned in 1950 and never returned to, and it’s unique and utterly fascinating.

Set in Moscow in 1929, the book is narrated by Malaparte himself – whether a fictionalised version of the author, or meant as kind of autobiography is not clear. Malaparte states in his foreword “everything is true” but whether it is, or whether events and people are filtered through the author’s memory, beliefs and sensibility is, in the end, unimportant. What matters is the message the book is trying to get across.

So we are introduced to Malaparte the narrator, in Russia to research books on Lenin (which he did indeed publish) In Moscow he encounters Society (with a very definite capital S) in a post-Revolutionary Soviet Russia. And despite that revolution, things don’t seem to have changed much for the better; because the rich strata of boyars, nobles and Tsars have been replaced by Soviet boyars, high-ranking functionaries with all the privileges available and Stalin. Malaparte ranges between shocked and amused, watching the nouveau riche of Soviet times disporting themselves at parties and functions, while they dream of a lavish Parisian lifestyle, and noting how little changes in any country after a revolution has taken place and then things settle down again.

I spoke to her of Paris. Of the city’s gray and turquoise colors, of the autumnal pinks, the golden leaves of the maronniers, the horse chestnuts along the Seine, of the mist that rises in the evenings along the river, of the leaves crackling beneath the feet of the passersby, of the Tuileries Gardens.

Often accompanied by a juvenile side-kick, Marika, Malaparte roams Moscow, watching as the city is demolished and rebuilt. He wanders the streets with Bulgakov, ruminating on the lack of religion in the Soviet land; visits Mayakovsky’s room shortly after the poet’s suicide, and laments his loss; drops in on Litvinov and ponders the lack of miracles in Moscow; and always has a cynical eye on the fact that one group of the rich has been replaced by a new group of the rich. He’s unsparing when it comes to his portraits of the elite, pinning them down in beautiful but cruel prose.

Madame Yegorova was a petite brunette, very beautiful, clad in soft flab like a pearl in a velvet case, and, like a pearl, she had a damp, cold listlessness, a savage delicacy, a multishaded gray sheen of indifference, a distracted, distant callousness.

The star of the book, however, is the constantly changing Moscow, being rebuilt around him.The cover image, detail from “New Moscow” by Pimenov, is particularly apt, as it shows a modern, skyscrapered city with shiny new cars and fashions; a new world being dragged out of the old timbered city. Malaparte bemoans this wanton, wholesale destruction, particularly whilst ambling with Bulgakov, but I expect the people who had been dealing with the Moscow housing crisis and living through the privations of the 1920s would have been very, very happy indeed to have a roof over their heads. The vivid descriptions bring to life the changing landscape and Malaparte’s wonderful writing really captures the atmosphere of transition.

The complete Pimenov image

However, underlying all this is his meditation on the state of the revolution and how the communist dream has gone sour. There is a constant sense of doom; a feeling that the revolutionary ideals are in peril and it’s worth bearing in mind that the Great Terror was just around the corner (and in fact there are indications of this starting during the book). Malaparte’s narrator-self is looking back at 1929 from a decade and a half later with the knowledge of what came later, and can see that the executions which have begun are only a hint of what will happen during the 1930s. There is a thread which runs through the book concerning the rotting, mummified corpse of Lenin – indeed the final chapter deals specifically with death under Communist rule – and it’s impossible not to see Lenin’s remains as analogous to the rotting heart of Communism.

All of us in Moscow were united in praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways, but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire: He was master, dictator…

Particularly striking for me (bearing in mind my current sphere of interest….!) were the constant parallels Malaparte drew with the French Revolution. This was another conflict which ended up replacing one elite with another, and also descended into wholesale bloodshed. Malaparte almost seems to imply that any revolution is doomed, and that may well simply be because of greed and human nature. The French conflicts are forever lurking in the background, present in references as wide-ranging as the poetry of Andre Chenier or the prose of Proust.

Malaparte

I have to confess that I found the sections which featured Bulgakov and Mayakovsky (two of my great literary loves) particularly affecting. I’ve no idea whether Malaparte actually met them and whether his encounters are based on anything like fact, but there’s an underlying sadness emanating from both men. Bulgakov looks for Christ in Moscow, while Mayakovsky wrestles with his demons and eventually is defeated. Malaparte is moved to defend him against charges of corruption by his visit to America, lamenting the loss of a great man.

To what, I asked myself, could an intelligent man ever be converted to in America?

“The Kremlin Ball” is a fascinating and unique work. The narrative is fragmentary, although how much of this is because of the unfinished nature of the work is not clear. Characters come and go, their names undergoing subtle variations; there are repetitions of descriptions; and all of this reflects Moscow itself, undergoing changes of its own and in as much of a state of flux as the narrative itself. The writing is often beautiful and evocative, and whether the book is fiction masquerading as memoir, or memoir which has been fictionalised is unclear; but at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much. Malaparte paints a vivid and compelling portrait of a city and its denizens at a point of change, capturing figures who would go on to be statistics in the history books, while pondering on life, revolution and religion. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, and I think a second reading would bring out many more resonances. “The Kremlin Ball” is one of those haunting books which changes your perspective on a time, a place, a thought, a belief; it’s a shame it was never finished, but how lucky we are to have what remains of it.

Review copy kindly provided by the publishers by Emma O’Bryen, for which many thanks!

Advertisements

“Her execution was used as a warning to other politically active women.” #feminism #frenchrevolution #iconoclasm

25 Comments

The Declaration of the Rights of Women by Olympe de Gouges
Translated by Allayne Pullen in association with First Edition Translations Ltd

Observant readers of the Ramblings may have noticed a certain tendency over the last few months towards France, Paris and the various revolutions that have taken place (stirred in with an interest in iconoclasm!) I’ve read (and amassed on the TBR) a number of books on the subject, and all of this is so interesting; however, one thing I’ve been looking for and struggling to find amongst all the revolutionary hyperbole is the female voice. Women were a huge part of the French Revolution: from Théroigne de Méricourt who shamed the men into storming the Tuileries Palace* to the tricoteuses, knitting away beside the guillotine (all that blood really must have messed up their work…) Anyway, as I dug into the subject, looking for what women had written during the period, one name kept coming up – Olympe de Gouges.

The Declaration, atop some heavyweight men…. 🙂

A little more digging revealed a woman with a fascinating history: born in 1748, she started her career as a playwright; however, as France edged closer to revolution, Olympe became more involved in politics, initially taking a strong stance against the slave trade in the French colonies. This mutated in pamphleteering and once the Revolution took hold, she wrote a pioneering feminist work, Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791) challenging male authority and the inequality of the sexes. However, the Revolution was never straightforward and because of her association with a Royalist party she was eventually guillotined in 1793. She had argued that there should be equality for both sexes in every respect and France’s method of execution was to be no exception.

Naturally, I was keen to read Gouges’ work, and I was really happy to find that Ilex Press were bringing out a new edition, and the publisher has been kind enough to provide a review copy. And what a fascinating and inspirational little book it is! The “Declaration” itself is relatively short, so they’ve cleverly decided to enhance it with the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against women (which drew on much of Gouges’ work for its substance) as well as a marvellous series of illustrations and some stirring quotes from writers as wide-ranging as the well-known Woolf, Beauvoir, Shakespeare and Rimbaud, plus a number of names (often French) new to me. These really do bring the book alive and it makes potent reading.

Yes, indeed, gentlemen – you who are such authorities on the internal workings of the soul and the psyche – reading does give women ideas. What sacrilege! How then are we to stem the flow of pleasure that reading brings to women?
Laure Adler and Stefan Bollman
Les femmes qui lisent sont dangereuses (2006)

I’m old enough to remember second wave feminism in the late 1970s – consciousness-raising groups, Spare Rib and Reclaim the Night marches – and the demands we were making then don’t seem that dissimilar to the ones Gouges made or those in the UN resolution. And although we are supposed to have made great strides forward in equality of pay and work conditions and the like, the recent news stories about the gender pay divide as well as the #metoo phenomenon tend to make me think we have not. When a book like Mary Beard’s “Women and Power” strikes such a chord, it’s certain that we are still far away from equality.

Only a man could launch the idea that the happiness of a woman should consist in serving and pleasing a man.
Margaret Fuller
Women in the Nineteenth Century (1843)

Olympe de Gouges’ eventual fate was tragic, particularly bearing in mind her views and her intelligence. 1793 saw the Reign of Terror and a spate of executions spreading across France, and it’s timely to be reminded that so often a revolution is man-made and for men only – as Wikipedia points out, “1793 has been described as a watershed for the construction of women’s place in revolutionary France, and the deconstruction of the Girondin’s Marianne. That year a number of women with a public role in politics were executed, including Madame Roland and Marie-Antoinette. The new Républicaine was the republican mother that nurtured the new citizen. While politically active women were executed the Convention banned all women’s political associations.” It’s a tendency that’s repeated over and over again; after the Russian Revolution, the women who supported it struggled to get their needs and views taken into account; and in the so-called liberated 1960s counter-culture, the women were meant to take a subservient Earth-mother role (which probably sparked much of the second wave of feminism). However, this was particularly galling in the case of the French Revolution, a conflict in which women were very much to the fore.

Colette’s thinking is guided neither by the imperative of the reproduction of the series, nor by the imperative of social stability assured by the couple and the assurances they make. The only constant is her concern with the freeing of the subject ‘woman’, who wishes to attain sensual freedom in order to maintain her curiosity and her creativity, not as part of a couple but in a plurality of connections.
Julia Kristeva
Colette, un génie féminin (2007)

So this book, with its apt subtitled of ‘The original manifesto for justice, equality and freedom’, is a very timely release from Ilex Press: whilst celebrating Gouges and her early declaration of women’s rights, it also acts as an inspirational rallying cry, showing how women (and men!) writers have over the centuries fought against discrimination and inequality. By choosing to enhance Gouges’ words with the extra material, they’ve shown how ground-breaking and yet still relevant her declaration was. The book is so beautifully put together, with its clever and striking original artwork, as well as the eloquent quotations. If you have any interest in feminism, the constant struggles women have had (and are still having) or indeed women’s contributions to the French Revolution, then I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Buy it for your mothers, your sisters, your daughters – and especially your sons, in the hope that it will change a few minds and help change the world…

The Declaration of the Rights of Women: The Original Manifesto for Justice, Equality and Freedom by Olympe de Gouges; published by Ilex Press, ISBN 978-1781575673; hardback; £10

*****

* I picked up this interesting factoid from Professor Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, which I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings (after spending far too long trying to decipher what name he was actually saying…) Théroigne de Méricourt was another complex and interesting woman who aroused much controversy during the revolution, and I may well have to investigate her life further. However, I didn’t want to just reiterate Professor Clay’s rather dramatic sweeping statement without checking, and I haven’t actually been able to substantiate her part in the events of 10th August 1792 (apart from a statement that apparently she was in the thick of the fighting) – but then I’m not an academic and I only have a limited number of books on the subject as you can see from the picture above! So – it sounds good but I can’t actually verify it…. 😉

And as an aside from my aside above, I just noticed that “Tearing up History” is having another re-run on BBC4 on 14th May – so you have no excuse not to have a watch either live or on the iPlayer – fascinating documentary! 🙂

Reclaiming the Streets

21 Comments

Flaneuse by Lauren Elkin

As an inveterate walker (I don’t drive…) I was naturally going to be attracted to a book that covered women and walking; especially one that promised a psychogeographical look, rather than marching around in trainers to get fit! (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course). Lauren Elkin’s book takes the concept of a flaneur (defined as “a man who saunters around observing society”) and applies a specifically female experience to this, creating the idea of a flaneuse – and the idea is fascinating.

Elkin is an American abroad in the world, self-exiled from her country of birth, and her concept of flaneuserie is filtered through her own experience. Using a mixture of memoir, herstory and social commentary, Elkin presents an intriguing look about the limitations placed on women’s lives and how transgressive it is (and still can be) for women to simply wander the streets.

Most of the chapters focus on a specific city (Paris more than once, obviously) taking a look at individual women who’ve made the landscape their own. So of course Virginia Woolf stalks the streets of London; George Sand haunts Paris in the grip of revolution; and Sophie Calle pursues her prey through Venice. The books also references cultural media such as the film “Lost in Translation” which features a very specific situation of a woman left to her own devices in Tokyo, a situation mirrored in Elkin’s own life.

The world is less scary when you have some control over where you go in it.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting read; Elkin wears her erudition lightly but references everything from Marina Warner’s “Monuments and Maidens” through any number of novelists to the situationists and surrealists. She makes important points about the marginalisation of women’s experiences and it’s frightening to be reminded how recently women’s lives were constrained (even by something as essential to them as the clothing they wore).

Sand’s trouser-wearing was in its way an act of revolution; at the very least, it was illegal. In the year 1800, a law had been passed forbidding women to wear them in public. This law is still in effect today, though of course ignored; but even in 1969 an attempt to overturn it failed…A culture struggling to redefine itself against the blood-soaked Place de la Revolution fixated on the female body as a tool for instilling certain values in the heart of the new Republic.

I was reminded when reading Elkin’s book of the “Reclaim the Night” campaign which came into existence in the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism and when I was just discovering the movement; and which is still in existence today. To a certain extent Elkin’s book doesn’t engage with the real issues of violence which can come a woman’s way if she’s out and about in the city; and ignores the streetwalking aspect of women’s lives when women are out there not just for the pleasure of ambling through the streets but as sex workers. It’s perhaps a middle-class conceit to wander the city streets to get to know a location when some of us would like just to be out there safely allowed to get from place to place without being hassled (or worse).

So, much as I enjoyed reading “Flaneuse”, I did have a few issues with it. There is a slight sense of the narrative flagging towards the end of the book and if I’m honest, although I loved the chapter on Martha Gellhorn (because she fascinates me) I felt that it did sit slightly anachronistically alongside the rest of the book. It read more as a case of someone flaneusing the world rather than a city, and the lack of focus tended to dilute the effect of Elkin’s story. Additionally, there were occasions when I would have found an index useful as the book has so many cultural references that there were times I wanted to go back and check them.

What do we see of a revolution after it’s gone? A better, world perhaps. Some changes in the structure of society. But not always – sometimes there’s no change at all.

However, parts of the book were fascinating; particularly the sections on Paris, one of which focused on the various revolutions which have shaken its streets over the centuries. That city is Elkin’s adopted home nowadays and her love for it certainly shone through in her narrative. It was also instructive to be reminded just how radical it can actually be to walk in some cities (mainly American), which seem to have been constructed solely for the use of the car.

…. it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

“Flaneuse” is an interesting book which makes interesting points about women’s presence on the streets. I think it ultimately fails to go far enough in its discussion of the issues they’ve faced in the past and still face now, and whether this was a deliberate decision by the author or not I can’t tell. It’s certainly set me thinking about our relationship to our environment and also appreciate certain freedoms modern women have, compared with Sand and her ilk. However, the more I considered it and let it settle in my brain after I’d read it, the more I ended up feeling that it falls short of its intended aim. With more structure, more historical narrative and more focus on the very real issues women can face while out on the streets attempting to flaneuse, and perhaps a little less personal memoir, the book would have been much stronger. I’ve ended up sounding a bit more negative than I expected here, but I did enjoy reading “Flaneuse”; and if your local library stocks it that might be the best way to check it out and see how it works for you

Time for some bookish confessions…

50 Comments

Yes. Good intentions. Not to buy more books, to read from the stacks and to try to downsize the amount of volumes in the house. Unfortunately, as OH observed a little fretfully recently, even more seem to be arriving on a regular basis (and he hasn’t actually seen all of those that have made their way in…) I seem to be destined to acquire books, however hard I try, so I though I would share the latest fruits of my addiction with you… 🙂

First up, some titles have arrived courtesy of Very Kind Fellow Bloggers:

The very lovely Liz at Adventures in reading, writing and working at home kindly passed on to me the Alexei Sayle autobiographies when she’d read them. I’m looking forward to them very much, as he’s so funny and of course staunchly left-wing, so they should be a fab read.

“Rupture” arrived from Sarah at Hard Book Habit, and I’m also really looking forward to that one, as I haven’t read any Icelandic crime for a while and this one comes highly recommended. So kind!

So I can’t take the blame, can I, when lovely people send me books? Or, indeed, when lovely publishers send me books like these!

The top two titles are ones I’m covering for Shiny New Books and probably should be read next. Then there are a couple of lovely titles from the British Library, which are very exciting – particularly the collection of translated crime shorts. Below them are two titles from the excellent Michael Walmer that sound marvellous; and finally at the bottom an intriguing book from OUP on scent in Victorian literature…

And then – ahem – there are the books I’ve been buying, and here they are:

I should say that this has been over a period of several weeks but even so, it’s not good for the rafters… To be specific:

I bought these two online – “The Cornish Trilogy” because of Kat’s excellent review and because I felt I really should read Robertson Davies; and “Grand Hotel Abyss” because it sounded marvellous and Verso sent one of those rotten emails with substantial discounts (they do this regularly and it’s Very Bad for the TBR!!)

These three are from charity shops. The two on the outside were £1 each so there was no question about picking them up. Patrick Leigh Fermor is a must, and Saramago is an author I want to read. The Orwell was more expensive (thanks, Oxfam) but, hey – it’s Orwell so no contest.

This, of course, was inevitable… Although I picked up a copy of Stevenson’s poems in Edinburgh I wanted more. I’ve been rummaging through bookshelves all week to try to find my copy of “Jekyll” and having failed, I picked up a copy for £1 in a charity shop last weekend. The other two came from an online source, and in particular I was keen to get “New Arabian Nights” after Himadri at The Argumentative Old Git waxed so lyrical about it recently.

And finally – with all my reading around the French Revolution and (shhhh!) iconoclasm recently, I came across recommendations for these two books. Well, they were cheap – although to be honest, it’s not the cost that is ever the issue with book buying, as I tend to go for the bargains. It’s whether I can shoe-horn any more into the house… Ah well – carpe librum, as they say!!

In mitigation, I should direct your attention to the heap waiting to be removed from the house in one way or another (not the Dickens books, I hasten to add – they’re on my Dickens shelf and they’re staying there….):

A Brief Historical Detour… (plus the I-word again!)

26 Comments

A Very Short History of the French Revolution by William Doyle

Yes, I *know* I’m meant to be reading “Crime and Punishment” – and I am getting on really well with it, loving it very much and the end is in sight – but sometimes the book itch gets you and you get distracted, and that’s what’s happened to me here…

You might have noticed that I’ve been a bit absorbed with documentaries and utopias/dystopias and iconoclasm and all that sort of stuff recently at the Ramblings; and although many of my non-fiction interests lean in the direction of Russian history and particularly the Revolution, I have also been drawn towards the French Revolution in all its bloody glory. It’s a subject about which I have a fairly sketchy knowledge (taken no doubt from “A Tale of Two Cities” and watching programmes about the Romantics) and I rather felt that if I was planning to explore it further, particularly the iconoclasm involved, I needed to have a little more of a factual background. Reading “War and Peace” prodded me a bit more in that direction, too, as of course Napoleon is a main player, and so I thought I’d cast around for a good book to widen my knowledge.

That turned out to be a fairly alarming bit of searching and surfing, as a quick look in local bookshops and then online revealed that there is a positive plethora of works about the French Rev, covering umpteen different aspects and viewpoints, and frankly I was a bit over-faced. In the end I decided to plump for something I thought might give me the overview I needed, and that was the OUP’s “A Very Short Introduction….”

And yes it’s short and yes it’s an introduction, so it really was the ideal read to whet my appetite on the subject. In a series of chapters with titles such as ‘Why It Happened’ and What It Started’, Doyle looks at the situation in France pre-revolution and outlines the circumstances that led to the breakdown of the old order in the country, followed by years of war and conflict, and eventually ending up with Napoleon and “War and Peace”! Where this book succeeds, obviously, is in giving a concise overview of what caused the French revolution, what happened and what the consequences were. The conflict was a huge one, the first really modern challenge to the old feudal ways of life, and it gave hope to those who were looking for a rational society, not based on religion or privilege. Many intellectuals were caught up in the turmoil, and as Doyle notes, Wordsworth wrote:

“Not in Utopia, subterranean fields
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us…”

As Doyle goes on to opine, “If the mighty French monarchy, the nobility, and the feudal law from which it justifies its pre-eminence, not to mention the Catholic Church itself, could be challenged and rejected on grounds of rationality, utility and humanity, then nothing was beyond challenge. Dreams of all sorts were achievable.”

Yet the aspirations of the revolutionaries had their flaws: despite the presence of women on the frontline of the fighting, there was nothing in the proposed new laws and constitution to improve their position; and the same applied for those trapped in slavery. However, the revolution *did* change the world quite profoundly, as Doyle reminds us:

“Quite literally, nothing was any longer sacred. All power, all authority, all institutions were now provisional, valid only so long as they could be justified in terms of rationality and utility. In this sense, the French Revolution really did represent the triumph of the Enlightenment, and ushered in the mental world in which we still live.”

One of the most thought-provoking chapters was the final one, in which Doyle explored in depth his view of the legacy of the Revolution, and the changing perceptions of its influence as the world alters around us. Like so much of history, there are shifting interpretations depending on where and when you are at the time you consider it….

For a relative newbie like me, the book filled in plenty of gaps and gave me plenty to think about, but I confess I did come away feeling I wanted more. Doyle is reasonably even-handed in his discussion of the issues although he does lapse a little in his discussion of the legacy; I prefer objectivity in a historian as frankly I get fed up of reading right-wing reworkings of past events. However, because of the necessary brevity of the book I never felt I got to know the personalities of the main movers and shakers, or got the feeling of living through cataclysmic events (which they certainly were). Names like Marat, Danton and particularly Robespierre came across as almost incidental, which is not how I perceive them.

Bouchardon’s statue of Louis XV – which suffered a little at the hands of the Parisians…

 

From what I’ve been picking up lately, it seems there are many differing readings of the French Rev, much as there are of the Russian one, and it can often be your political sympathies which decide how you interpret. For example, getting back to the vexing subject of iconoclasm, Doyle opts to use the word ‘vandal’ when describing the destruction of statues and churches which took place, wholesale, throughout the conflict; the word was resurrected from its ancient use specifically to be coined as a term to describe mob action in France. However, an alternative and intriguing reading’s been put forward (most persuasively by Dr. Richard Clay, as far as I’ve seen) which argues that the statues and religious symbols were perceived as instruments of control by the French people and as such had to be removed to demonstrate that they meant business in their demands for a fairer government. We look at these works in a completely different way with the benefit of hindsight and our modern views on art, but the iconoclasm undertaken by the mob was not just random destruction by a bunch of savages. The revolutionaries, who were in the main ordinary people, didn’t perceive the artworks as aesthetic objects but as symbols of power which had to go.

I’m getting a little off-topic here (because I’m supposed to be reviewing a book, not discussing iconoclasm!) and certainly “A Very Short…” does do what it says on the tin – I did end it feeling that I knew the facts of the French Revolution, which was the intention. So my first proper look at what really could be regarded as the events that created much of the modern world was a fascinating one, aided and abetted by this readable little book. I hadn’t realised quite how radical and wide-ranging the changes the Revolution brought actually were: from the dissolution of the monarchies and the monasteries, dechristianisation, the granting of religious freedom, the crippling of the power of the Catholic Church, the removal of tithes, the crushing of the feudal system – this really was a dramatic and profoundly changing series of events. I’m now very keen to explore more on this subject, and Doyle lists a number of suggested further books in the back, but I still find myself flummoxed by the range of works available – does anyone have any good suggestions of books to move onto next that go into a little more detail and depth on the French Rev?

And in the meantime – onward and upward with “Crime and Punishment”! :))

****

In a weird case of serendipity, I discovered after scheduling this post that the “Tearing Up History” documentary featuring Richard Clay’s arguments was being repeated last night, so there’s an ideal chance for anyone interested in the iconoclastic element to check it out, as it’s currently on the iPlayer here. (*whispers* if you can’t get the iPlayer, look here…..)

 

Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

23 Comments

Petrograd 1917
Compiled, edited and annotated by John Pinfold

There has been such a slew of Russian Revolution anniversary related books released this year that it’s been a bit of a job deciding which ones I wanted to read. However, when I discovered that the Bodleian Library were issuing a kind of anthology of eye-witness accounts of the conflict, that one had to be a must. Actually, calling it an anthology isn’t really doing it justice, and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, if unsettling, books I’ve read this year.

John Pinfold has accessed a vast range of eye-witness accounts of foreigners (English, Australian, even Hungarian) who were living in Petrograd at the time of the 1917 revolutions. Russia was one of the allies in the war against Germany, but the country was struggling. The combined strain of the war, which no-one seemed to want to fight, together with hunger, lack of discipline and a feeble leadership from a weak Tsar, left the country in a prime condition for revolution. The people had suffered centuries of an autocratic ruling system, with little liberty, and had had enough. It took very little to ignite the powder keg, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, leaving an uncertain Provisional Government in charge.

This body, held rather shakily together by Kerensky, clung onto power until the second revolution of the year took place in October and the Bolsheviks seized control. And reading this book, skilfully woven together by Pinfold from all the accounts left behind, you can live through events as if you were there – and a very uncomfortable place it is. The correspondents are varied bunch, ranging from nurses and nannies to businessmen and diplomats; and though their bias is usually inevitably against the revolution, Pinfold very fairly includes extracts from those with opposing views. So there are substantial comments by Maxim Litvinov and Trotsky, as well as some left-wingers who travelled from England to witness and be involved in the changes.

Oh this country, it out nightmares anything that was ever dreamt by the maddest of madmen after a hot supper on the cheesiest of cheese. (Arthur Marshall)

There’s a vibrancy and an immediacy that comes from reading these contemporary reactions to the changes, from witnesses who had no knowledge of what was going to happen. Pinfold presents these chronologically, providing excellent supporting material which gives the background to, and context for, the accounts. So the book opens with the start of WW1 and shows the fragile state of the nation and its monarchy, taking in such important elements as the influence of Rasputin, and goes on to take us through the whole range of revolutionary events with diary entries, letters home and newspaper reports written by the witnesses. The chapters are bookended with two pieces giving a workman’s view of Petrograd in 1914 and one in 1918, and the contrast is a stark one. The population has shrunk drastically, the people are on the point of starvation and the city is falling apart – frankly it often seems a miracle that Russia survived the Revolution and the Civil War which followed it.

Petrograd in 1917

Much of the material is by necessity quite dark; revolution is not pretty and although some elements of the revolting parties conducted themselves well, others did not and there was much violence. Much as I deplore violence of any sort, it’s hard not to understand why the Russian people felt the need to take control of their country and their lives, particularly when you bear in mind how much political repression there had been and how even something like the liberation of the serfs (who were basically slaves) had taken so long to achieve. One commentator, Mabel King, states:

Lenin, the sworn enemy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, with his promises of bread and land, was fast becoming the demi-god of the proletariat, that inarticulate mass of the peasantry held so long in bondage, but now breaking free from all control, and capable of deeds of inexpressible horror.

Having been imprisoned and impoverished for so long, it’s hardly surprising they were feeling a bit violent… So the buildings are destroyed, statues and Romanov emblems torn down, and the necessary acts of iconoclasm allow the revolutionaries to make their mark on a city where access to much has been denied them.

The final days of the Romanovs are covered in detail, including the behind the scenes shenanigans that mean that the UK’s King George V refused to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas a safe haven, condemning the whole of the Russian royal family to a hideous fate. Interesting, however, that the British royals were happy to accept Russian royal jewels – the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara was smuggled out of the country and sold to them by its then aristocratic owner and has been regularly worn by the current queen…

However, not all is totally grim, and some commentators manage some gallows humour, with Julius West reflecting the chaos of the action by quipping “That is the worse of revolutions – they never do keep to the timetable” and later drily commenting “It’s a rummy business. Revolutions are by no means all that they are cracked up to be.”

Pinfold’s narrative is always lucid and even-handed, plus his choices of extract excellent. One in particular stood out, a lengthy entry by V.K. Vitrine, reporter of “The Clarion”, whose analysis of the problems facing those who would rule Russia was very clear-eyed – at one point, during the short rule of the Provisional Government, he states:

The people have had education denied them. Every effort in the direction of political advancement was immediately quenched in a fortress cell or Siberian exile. These very people, continuously denied every vestige of citizenship, are now called upon to rule themselves. They have neither tradition, nor administrative experience, nor cohesion, nor, for the matter of that, any quality for the purpose.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bolsheviks were able to sweep away all resistance and seize power…

“Petrograd 1917” is a beautifully presented book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photos and artwork, as well as containing short biographies of the main commentators. Pinfold has done a wonderful job here, as many of the papers are only available in scholarly institutes and so his book brings much material to the general reader which wouldn’t otherwise be available. This volume is a vital additional to studies of the period as well as being a gripping and fascinating read, and definitely is one of the highlights of a year which is seeing much material published about the cataclysmic upheavals in Russia a century ago.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

****

As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, the subject of iconoclasm (the destruction of symbols or beliefs from previous regimes, usually religious or political) kept turning up; in a rediscovering of one of my favourite songs from a politically aware band from the 1980s, and as an element in an excellent set of documentaries on BBC4 on Utopia, presented by Dr. Richard Clay. The documentaries are probably still up on the iPlayer and I can recommend you tracking them down before they disappear. Clay has a particular interest in iconoclasm and his documentary on this aspect of the French Revolution is floating about and well worth watching too. As for The Redskins, well they obviously understood the importance in tearing down the statues of past leaders…

%d bloggers like this: