Rus­sian revo­lu­tion still re­ver­ber­ates — right into the White House

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - HIS­TORY RE­VIEW BY CHARLES KING Charles King is the au­thor of “Mid­night at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Mod­ern Is­tan­bul” and other books. He is a pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional af­fairs and gov­ern­ment at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity.

What do you do when your coun­try is taken over by mad­men? Elena Nabokova told the valet and cook to pack the trunks and the dachs­hund, place the jew­els in a tal­cum case, and pre­pare a knap­sack of caviar sand­wiches. She soon fled the cap­i­tal city, Pet­ro­grad, along with her hus­band and chil­dren. They headed south, first for the last re­doubt of re­sis­tance in Crimea and then into per­ma­nent ex­ile across the Black Sea and the Mediter­ranean. Years later her son, Vladimir Nabokov, could still re­mem­ber the ma­chine guns rat­tling on shore and the cargo of dried fruit on the rick­ety Greek ship that fer­ried them to safety, one of many that car­ried Rus­sian refugees to­ward re­built lives in Europe and the United States.

The Rus­sian revo­lu­tion of 1917 — as Voltaire once quipped of the Holy Ro­man Em­pire — was none of the above. It took place within a mul­ti­eth­nic and multi-con­fes­sional em­pire, among peo­ple who called them­selves Poles, Jews, Ukraini­ans, Ge­or­gians, Tatars, Mus­lims and Bud­dhists, in ad­di­tion to Rus­sians. It un­folded not ac­cord­ing to a pre­set rev­o­lu­tion­ary plan but rather through a se­ries of mis­steps, ac­ci­dents and twists of for­tune, start­ing be­fore that fate­ful year and ex­tend­ing long after it. It was not one event but sev­eral, from the win­ter­time col­lapse of the monar­chy, through a sum­mer’s flir­ta­tion with rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary rule, to­ward an au­tumn coup by a mi­nor­ity party that had the good sense to name it­self “the ma­jori­tar­i­ans,” or in lit­eral Rus­sian, Bol­she­viks.

This spring marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the revo­lu­tion’s open­ing salvos. In Rus­sia, the re­ac­tion has been muted. The Putin gov­ern­ment has had dif­fi­culty fig­ur­ing out whether it is an oc­ca­sion to lament, cel­e­brate or just ig­nore. But his­to­ri­ans have found it an op­por­tu­nity to take stock of the long arc of change that brought about the even­tual Bol­she­vik vic­tory. As three new books show, the revo­lu­tion was lo­cal in its ori­gins but global in its ef­fects — a toc­sin that her­alded not just the birth of a new coun­try, the Soviet Union, but also a new way of think­ing about the re­la­tion­ships be­tween pol­i­tics, the state and or­di­nary peo­ple.

In its wake came a long civil war and the whole­sale re­fash­ion­ing of so­ci­ety by an over­bear­ing state. What­ever co­her­ence it later had was a prod­uct of Soviet his­to­ri­ans, who re­cast the Bol­she­vik takeover as the nec­es­sary out­come of im­pe­rial de­cline, vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship, and the re­volt of work­ers and peas­ants against the ex­ploit­ing classes. Our men­tal images are still a prod­uct of for­eign sym­pa­thiz­ers such as the Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist John Reed or Soviet film­mak­ers such as Sergei Eisen­stein. When you see black-and-white film footage of surg­ing crowds and saber-wield­ing Cos­sacks, those are fic­tional set pieces later crafted by Eisen­stein, not on-the-spot doc­u­men­taries.

The fact of the revo­lu­tion’s suc­cess — the fall of the Ro­manov dy­nasty, the tram­pling of po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents on the right and the left, the birth of an en­tirely new coun­try built on a rad­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of cre­ative de­struc­tion — pro­vided a tem­plate for more than a cen­tury of po­lit­i­cal change, from China to Cuba, An­gola to Viet­nam. To­day the idea of a com­mit­ted rev­o­lu­tion­ary van­guard will­ing to lob a grenade to bring down a de­crepit es­tab­lish­ment con­tin­ues to in­spire dis­rupters and change agents of all stripes. Even Stephen Ban­non, Pres­i­dent Trump’s chief strate­gist, has re­port­edly de­scribed him­self not as a na­tion­al­ist or a pop­ulist but as a Lenin­ist.

For much of the 1920s and early 1930s, the Bol­she­vik gov­ern­ment was con­sid­ered by the great pow­ers to be a kind of anti-state — a phi­los­o­phy-with-bay­o­nets that threat­ened global or­der. Teenagers, in­tel­lec­tu­als, la­bor union­ists and im­mi­grants were thought to be par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to its an­i­mat­ing ide­ol­ogy, which is why West­ern gov­ern­ments in­vested heav­ily in in­sti­tu­tions of do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance, such as the FBI and Bri­tain’s MI5. Im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tions fell into place as gov­ern­ments worked to halt the sup­posed in­flux of ter­ror­ists, ag­i­ta­tors and the self-rad­i­cal­ized. Coun­ter­ing vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism meant root­ing out hid­den Bol­she­viks.

Even­tu­ally, though, the fears sub­sided. One by one, West­ern pow­ers nor­mal­ized re­la­tions with the regime they pre­vi­ously de­nounced as the an­tithe­sis of civ­i­liza­tion. Even the old fire­brand Leon Trot­sky con­tem­plated re­set­tling in the United States. His visa ap­pli­ca­tion, from 1933, listed his rea­son for travel as a de­sire to tour Civil War bat­tle­fields. He planned to write a play on the sub­ject, he told a friend, which he reck­oned would be a smash at the box of­fice. “I would ar­range my life in the United States in a man­ner cal­cu­lated to cause as lit­tle ru­mor and sen­sa­tion as pos­si­ble,” he promised the State Depart­ment. The visa was never granted.

Of course, as Rus­sians cel­e­brated the new year in mid-Jan­uary 1917, no one knew that all of this was yet to come. The em­pire’s old-style cal­en­dar placed it chrono­log­i­cally be­hind the rest of Europe, but there was no rea­son to think it was any less sta­ble than the other great pow­ers. Ev­ery­body was pur­su­ing ter­ror­ists, putting down food ri­ots, and bomb­ing, shoot­ing and gassing one an­other’s armies, just as they had been do­ing since the sum­mer of 1914.

By March (still Fe­bru­ary in Rus­sia), dis­af­fected crowds had grown larger in Pet­ro­grad. Sol­diers had stopped try­ing to dis­perse them. In the chaos, elected par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and un­elected so­cial­ists stepped in to form al­ter­na­tive gov­ern­ments, which emerged as ri­val power cen­ters when Czar Ni­cholas II gave up the throne on the night of March 15-16. It was an ab­di­ca­tion, how­ever, not yet a revo­lu­tion. The doc­u­ment was signed non­cha­lantly in pen­cil, as Will Englund of The Wash­ing­ton Post points out in his de­tailed, fast-paced ac­count of that fate­ful spring, “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revo­lu­tion.” What fol­lowed was con­fu­sion and a cer­tain sense of re­lief, both in Rus­sia and abroad. Among other things, the next month Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wilson an­nounced the U.S. en­try into the war against Ger­many.

Englund deftly in­ter­twines the Rus­sian story with the Amer­i­can one, in an event­ful month that launched Amer­ica into the world and sig­naled Rus­sia’s tem­po­rary re­treat from it. But the causal con­nec­tions are opaque. “March 1917” is a re­mark­able por­trait of two coun­tries on the cusp of change, but their en­try and exit were ul­ti­mately mi­nor driv­ers of the near-term mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal out­comes across Europe and beyond.

Not all his­tory-writ­ing needs causes and ef­fects. Evo­ca­tion is a le­git­i­mate, maybe even the most hon­est, way of mak­ing sense of the past. Helen Rap­pa­port’s “Caught in the Revo­lu­tion” is an en­light­en­ing cav­al­cade of peo­ple on the move — run­ning across the frosty paving stones in Pet­ro­grad, ar­riv­ing on a steam train, wav­ing good­bye from a mil­i­tary trans­port, all caught up in the un­cer­tain trans­for­ma­tion of the world’s largest coun­try. It is a re­minder of the fact that out­siders of all sorts rushed to cover the events in the fal­ter­ing em­pire, from the suf­fragette Em­me­line Pankhurst to the un­sung Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Bessie Beatty. It is a cat­a­logue of wit­nesses pulled from an ex­haus­tive read­ing of Euro­pean and Amer­i­can mem­oirs and on-the-spot re­port­ing, and a tes­ta­ment to the supremely bad fore­cast­ing of for­eign­ers ea­ger to make sense of the mo­ments they were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.

If you were a Rus­sian, though, the pe­riod from March to Novem­ber 1917 could be like hav­ing your head in a vise. The French would later coin the phrase “drôle de guerre” — the funny, or phony, war — for a sim­i­lar pe­riod after 1939: an on­go­ing con­flict but not much news of it, po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty, a dys­func­tional gov­ern­ment, and the sense that some­thing — but what? — was in the off­ing.

Cather­ine Mer­ri­dale picks up one ab­sorb­ing episode from that spring in “Lenin on the Train”: the eight-day jour­ney by Vladimir Lenin and other rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in a sec­ond­class train car­riage from Zurich to Pet­ro­grad. A prod­uct of co­op­er­a­tion among Ger­man in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives and Rus­sian so­cial­ist ex­iles, the trip marked the re­turn home­ward of the per­son who would lead the Bol­she­vik coup that au­tumn. The trans­for­ma­tion of Rus­sian so­ci­ety be­gan nearly as soon as the car­riage creaked away from the plat­form. Lenin in­sisted on no smok­ing in the cor­ri­dors and de­vised a sys­tem of tick­ets to man­age or­derly ac­cess to the only toi­let.

Vast amounts of money flowed east to sup­port pro­pa­ganda against the war. How­ever, the ex­tent of Ger­man di­rect fi­nanc­ing of the Bol­she­viks is still a mat­ter of spec­u­la­tion, Mer­ri­dale con­cludes. Some of Lenin’s sup­port, she points out, prob­a­bly came from a com­pli­cated scheme for war prof­i­teer­ing, in­clud­ing the il­licit sale of con­doms and lead pen­cils.

As Lenin knew, rev­o­lu­tion­ary par­ties must change the terms of pub­lic de­bate, not just present them­selves as one more al­ter­na­tive in an over­crowded field. Mass pol­i­tics re­quires mass pro­pa­ganda, which is why mod­ern rev­o­lu­tions be­gin by seiz­ing the means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not by build­ing bar­ri­cades or oc­cu­py­ing an ar­se­nal. Ig­nore pol­i­tics as usual, make al­liances of con­ve­nience where you must, cast away old al­lies when they are no longer of use. And if you want to al­ter a coun­try’s for­eign pol­icy, find a way of trans­form­ing its do­mes­tic pol­i­tics — a sealed train, full of zeal­ous agents of change, that can be sent hurtling down the track to be­come some­one else’s prob­lem. Rus­sia’s year of revo­lu­tion cre­ated a recipe for up­end­ing a gov­ern­ment. But it also made a play­book for build­ing one: a style of state be­hav­ior, even a kind of anti-pol­i­tics, that re­mains with us to­day.


Fac­tory and of­fice work­ers, above, un­dergo mil­i­tary train­ing in Pet­ro­grad, Rus­sia, in Oc­to­ber 1917. Czar Ni­cholas II ab­di­cated in March 1917, end­ing the reign of the monar­chy.


CAUGHT IN THE REVO­LU­TION Pet­ro­grad, Rus­sia, 1917 — A World on the Edge By Helen Rap­pa­port St. Martin’s. 430 pp. $27.99

MARCH 1917 On the Brink of War and Revo­lu­tion By Will Englund Nor­ton. 387 pp. $27.95

LENIN ON THE TRAIN By Cather­ine Mer­ri­dale Metropoli­tan. 354 pp. $30

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