Monday, December 16, 2013
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“WITNESSES OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION” by Harvey Pitcher (first published 1994; revised edition 2001)
Isn’t hindsight a lovely faculty? You can look back on the dreams and hopes and predictions of people nearly 100 years ago and you can see just how dead wrong they were about so many things. And then you’re tempted to feel superior. Surely you wouldn’t make the same mistakes in their circumstances, would you?
I found plenty of opportunities for that smug exercise of hindsight when I first read Harvey Pitcher’s Witnesses of the Russian Revolution twelve years ago.
A revised edition of the book Pitcher produced in the early 1990s, Witnesses of the Russian Revolution is a compendium, with commentary, of all the things that foreign journalists were writing about the two Russian revolutions (February and October 1917) while they were actually in progress - and not years later, when greater perspective was possible, but also when myth-making was well under way.
So we are treated to newspaper accounts of the chaotic downfall of tsarism in February and March, the shaky existence of the Provisional Government, the dominance of Kerensky, the manoeuvres of foreign diplomats to keep Russia fighting in the European war, the failed Bolshevik attempt to seize power in the “July Days”, the failed right-wing coup of Kornilov, the Bolshevik coup in October/November and (after democratic elections had been held), the Bolshevik closure of the Constituent Assembly, establishment of a dictatorship and stamping-out of anything resembling democracy.
The book chronicles what the likes of Arthur Ransome and Morgan Philips Price and the New Zealander Harold Williams sent to their British and American newspapers from Moscow and Petrograd in 1917. Some of these journalists were surprising beasts. Ransome is now best known for his delightful, and delightfully English middle-class, series of children’s books Swallows and Amazons. But in 1917 he was a dedicated and idealistic left-winger who cheered the revolution on and later married one of Trotsky’s secretaries. By contrast, Williams was opposed to the Bolsheviks from the first, realizing (correctly as it turned out) that, once in control, they would establish a dictatorship rather than sharing power with other left-wing parties.
Naturally some heroic revolutionary myths come tumbling down as one reads this book and sees how things were reported, before they were air-bushed in later propaganda and mythology.
Numerous film documentaries would have us believe that Lenin’s return to the Finland Station was a great popular catharsis, like the storming of the Winter Palace. In fact at the time when Lenin returned, hardly anybody noticed, apart from a small band of his hard-core Bolshevik supporters. There was no major popular demonstration and no gaping crowds to listen to the man’s words of wisdom.
As for the so-called “storming” of the Winter Palace, it really is a fiction, promoted by the unreliable journalism of the American radical John Reed in his colourful, but often mendacious, book Ten Days That Shook the World, and by the film “reconstruction” which Sergei Eisenstein organised for his film October, made ten years after the event. Bolsheviks walked into the place virtually unopposed, with scarcely a shot fired. The Provisional Government had already collapsed along with its military strong points. This is one of those places where the legend still seems unable to be dislodged, however, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Too many millions of people have seen Eisenstein’s fiction (hordes of heroic armed proletarians rushing in against volleys of gunfire) for it to be removed from the collective psyche. Look up Orlando Figes’ masterly history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, and you will discover that the Winter Palace suffered more damage from Eisenstein’s film crew than it did from the historical event they were supposedly reconstructing.
Our smug hindsight comes most into play when we read the silly despatches of Robert Wilton, the London Times correspondent who kept trying to promote the Russian war effort when it had clearly collapsed, and then tried to make a hero of the reactionary General Kornilov. Or the equally undiscerning despatches of Arthur Ransome, who fondly imagined that Lenin would form a nice coalition government with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Or Harold Williams clinging to his belief that the middle-class Kadets, who had already been overwhelmed by the February Revolution, were going to somehow revive and lead a government.
What most surprises in this compendium is the way Alexander Kerensky was popularly conceived of as the strong socialist centrist who would save Russia. It is simply not true, as many subsequent history books claim, that Kerensky was seen as a theatrical, bungling poser from the first. In 1917 itself, even his enemies respected him, he had a strong and effective oratorical style and a much larger popular following that Lenin ever did.
And then, just when our smug hindsight is getting out of hand in reading this book, something draws us up short. There was, for example, the hard-headed British military attaché Alfred Knox, who actually counted the guns and gave a realistic assessment of Russia’s fighting capacity in the war when more idealistic journalists were still applauding the revolution of brotherly love. Or the peasant interviewed by the American correspondent Ernest Poole at the end of 1917. With fearful accuracy, the peasant predicted that the new Bolshevik government would be quite willing to starve the peasants in order to feed the small urban working class that supported it. The peasant understood that years of civil war and terror would follow. Sadly, he was dead right.
In their predictions, these two people were more prescient than any of the theorising editorials that are quoted.
Journalists are sometimes prone to patting themselves on the back and referring to their news stories as “the first draft of history”. In reality, the real historian’s task is much more exacting than the journalist’s, involving more extensive combing of archives and comparison of sources. But journalism – even factually inaccurate journalism – can give us a strong sense of what people were feeling and believing at a given time. Witnesses of the Russian Revolution is one of those books that forcefully remind us of this.
Interesting footnote: When Harvey Pitcher was first putting this book together in the 1990s, the post-Soviet Russian government was still very shaky, and there was still the possibility of a coup to reimpose Communism. When Pitcher discusses how Kerensky dealt with various crises in 1917, he therefore often makes comparisons with how Gorbachev and Yeltsin and others dealt with similar threats after 1989-90. Journalism is highly topical, but history books are also written in specific historical circumstances, and they too have their freight of topicality. In this case, however, the comparisons add to the piquancy of Pitcher’s interpretations.