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‘I have gone where you did not want me to go’ (Lenin) @VersoBooks

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Such enthusiastic bedlam might seem a nightmare, or a strange, faltering carnival, depending on one’s perspective.

First up, before attempting to discuss this book, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast. I’ve read a good number of books about the Russian Revolution over the years since first studying the subject at Grammar School (I mean REALLY a lot!) and this one of the best – if not *the* best. Yes, it’s that good. And this is going to be a very personal response, rather than anything approaching a formal review…

“October” is published by the left-wing imprint Verso Books, and I hesitated initially before buying it. Having read so much on the subject, would I find anything for me in yet another work on the great upheaval of 100 years ago? Nevertheless, I *did* pick up an e-book version when it was on offer earlier in the year (damn you, Verso, with your constant money-off emails!); and what tipped me into reading it, as the anniversary approached, was Mieville’s appearance in that execrable documentary on BBC2 that I moaned about here. Along with Tariq Ali, he came across as a voice of sanity, and as I have been becoming heartily sick of right-wing revisionist readings of those cataclysmic events, I decided that this was the time to read the book. And that was most definitely the right decision.

From the very first paragraphs Mieville hooks you; his writing, as he debunks the myths about the founding of St. Petersburg, is just marvellous. Immediately, you sense that Mieville is bringing his novelist’s sensibilities to the telling of a history and the results are stunning.

After providing a succinct background of the Russian nation, Mieville takes you into the heart of his story, with a series of chapters devoted to each month between the February and October revolutions. There’s no point me relating the story, as the author does this so well, but basically the monarchy falls at the beginning of the book, with a variety of provisional governments attempting to rule alongside, or in opposition to, the soviets and myriad other groups with an interest in bringing democracy to Russia. And there are endless meetings, discussions, talks about having talks until you despair a little and wish someone would get on with seizing power!

Political activism through passive–aggressive dinner parties.

By the second, rather bloodless revolution at the end of the book, the in-fighting and dissension amongst political groups, added to lack of food and the failure of those temporarily in charge to end the ruinous first world war, led to the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the first socialist state in the world. Mieville touches on the aftermath, but most reading this book will know how the 20th century panned out for Russians. The search for freedom and utopia would certainly go horribly wrong…

‘The man of the future in Russia’, says Alexander Herzen at the start of the 1850s, ‘is the peasant.’ Development being slow, with no meaningful liberal movement in sight, the narodniks look beyond the cities to rural revolution. In the Russian peasant commune, the mir, they see a glimmer, a foundation for an agrarian socialism. Dreaming their own better places, thousands of young radicals ‘go to the people’, to learn from, work with, raise the consciousnesses of a suspicious peasantry.

So – what makes this book stand out so much from the many others I’ve read? Well, a number of things, actually. There are other books that are more detailed, more politically involved, perhaps even more analytical, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that brought events to life so vividly. Drawing on a vast range of material, which he uses to bring the story truly to life, he renders complex events with incredible clarity and sheer narrative drive – this is writing so good that it gives you shivers as you read it. Mieville has a wonderful way of delivering snappy one-liners that cut right to heart of the matter at hand, and his narrative makes sense of the dizzying array of political groupings. Even though I knew what was coming, Mieville’s narrative was nail-biting; and as history can be dull, this was a considerable achievement!

3 a.m. Kerensky, who only a few hours earlier had claimed to be ready to face down any challenge, tore back, distraught, to General Staff headquarters, to hear a litany of strategic points falling. Loyalist morale pitched. Worse, though, quickly came. At 3:30 a.m., a dark presence cut the shadowed Neva. Masts and wires and three looming smokestacks, great jutting guns. Out of the gloom came the armoured ship Aurora, making for the city’s heart.

“October” also reminds us that the revolution was the result of a combination of factors – the push for reform by the revolutionaries, and perhaps more importantly a populace that had had enough of war and poverty. Mieville says everything that needs to be said about the Russian Revolutions, and much more eloquently than I possibly can.

Gone was the obsequiousness of 1905. Citizens across the empire waged what Richard Stites called a ‘war on signs’, the destruction of tsarist symbols: portraits, statues, eagles. Revolutionary fever infected unlikely patients.

Yes, there was iconoclasm; in the more modern definition of the word, literally ‘image breaking’, and applied to all representations of power in public space and not just religious ones. When you’ve been downtrodden for years and you come across the symbols of that repression what more visceral reaction is there likely to be than the need to destroy those symbols?

It was endgame at the Winter Palace. Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

Whilst decrying the violence that took place, Mieville recognises the urgent need for change and the crippling inequality which was perpetuated by an ineffectual regime. And he’s not blind to the faults that existed within the various revolutionary groups, refusing to be drawn into hagiography and acknowledging that no one person was responsible for what happened and that often events led with revolutionaries following.

To be a radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. ‘To patiently explain.’ How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.

What’s also refreshing is that Mieville strips away the layers of dismissal that have been applied to the Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and not only attempts to get back the state of mind that recognises that change was essential and inevitable, but also refuses to judge those events by what came afterwards.

Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin. Today, any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, moustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state – the -ism that bears his name. There have been decades of debate about the aetiology of Stalinism, volumes of stories about the man’s brutality and that of his regime. They cast shadows backwards from what would come.

With the horrors that came after the revolutions and the fall of the monarchy, it’s easy to forget just how radical a change took place in Russia; what had been a feudal, autocratic country, which failed drastically to fit into the parameters defined by Marxists of a place that could host a revolution, actually *had* one and needed to be dragged, screaming into the modern world. The expectation of a world revolution was a mistaken one, leaving Russia isolated in its attempt at socialism. The incompetence of the Romanovs is quite clear and Mieville nails the ineffectual Nicholas II beautifully:

He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu.

And later:

The tsar paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.

Running through the books are masterly portraits of the protagonists, and Mieville is always fair in his portrayal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky appear in all their complex and contradictory glory, and the latter comes across as a powerful and crucial contributor to the success of the uprising. The narrative always comes back to Lenin, however, and although the revolution was in fact an often ramshackle and random affair, there is the sense that events would not have finally succeeded without Lenin’s vision and drive. Mieville also acknowledges that it is very hard to look at 1917 without hindsight and a knowledge of what would come later (and he includes some lovely little nods to other great authors…)

And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.

Fittingly, I finished “October” as the anniversary dawned, and as I was composing my post on this truly magisterial work I was watching the revolution unfold ‘live’ on a fascinating iPad app which drew on, and provided, much of the same material as the book (yes, it’s taken me that long to pull my thoughts together…) I found it impossible not to be caught up in the emotion and the excitement of it all while I was reading “October” and whatever your political colour, this book will give you a marvellous insight into the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries.

The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.

There are a lot of quotes in this post, I realise, but I could have pulled out so many more – the writing is that good and Mieville’s take on events so necessary. What makes this book particularly vital is its acknowledgement that change was, and still could be, possible; and that we should not accept inequality and corruption but should strive for a better world. In a year when the world seems to be getting madder and madder, and the lunatics really *do* seem to have taken over the asylum, we need to be reminded that we can and should still dream of a utopia and an alternative. Read this book.

*****

There are a number of videos and interviews with Mieville available online which a quick search will bring up. They are making fascinating watching and reading as I start to explore them…. 🙂

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We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery… We want space and light…

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Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again. October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.

(“October” by China Mieville; Verso Books 2017)

Documentaries – A Coda…. :(

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“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.

Problems:

  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today that I wanted to share with you, and it’s of a wonderful chunky volume of stories which has been involving me for a few weeks.

“Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” is a landmark collection from Penguin. Skilfully collected, edited, annotated and mostly translated by the talented Bryan Karetnyk, it collects together a wonderful array of works by authors who were exiled from their homeland by the Russian Revolution and the Civil War 100 years ago.

Translator and all-round clever person Bryan Karetnyk

Some authors are well-known (Nabokov, Bunin), some recently rediscovered (Teffi, Gaito Gazdanov) but many new to me and newly translated and quite marvellous.

You can read my review here – and I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.

Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

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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…

Dispatches from the Revolution

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by Boris Dralyuk

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

dralyuk-2013-1

Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

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