Rus­sia at a turning point

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By Martin Rubin Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

W.W. Nor­ton, $27.95, 387 pages, il­lus­trated

Much as I de­plore the trend within the academy to­wards ever more mi­cro­courses deal­ing with a sub-sec­tion of a sub­ject, when it comes to books hon­ing in on such slices of his­tory, I feel en­tirely dif­fer­ently. Af­ter all, is it too much to ask that if a col­lege course does not quite leave stu­dents see­ing life steadily and whole (in the words of Matthew Arnold), it should at least give them some con­text and not re­sult in them not know­ing, say, who came first, Jack­son or Lin­coln?

But with so many books tak­ing a sweep­ing view of a big, hy­dra-headed topic like World War I, there is great virtue in a book like this which bores deep into a piv­otal month out of its four dozen plus other ones.

Pulitzer, Polk, and Over­seas Press Club Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist Will Englund, who now lives in Bal­ti­more, has spent a dozen years re­port­ing from Rus­sia and so brings great ex­per­tise to his sub­ject. For if his epony­mous month was just another slog to get through for most of the com­bat­ants, for Rus­sia it was a turning point, with the first of two rev­o­lu­tions which saw a rel­a­tively demo­cratic gov­ern­ment un­der Alexan­der Keren­sky re­place Czarist rule, only six months later to have another im­pos­ing the iron heel of Com­mu­nism un­der V.I Lenin.

For the United States, poised on the brink of en­ter­ing the war against Ger­many, which had just brought back un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare, not hav­ing an au­to­cratic Rus­sia as an ally made tak­ing the fate­ful leap eas­ier.

So it is not sur­pris­ing to see the fa­mil­iar vis­ages of Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son and Czar Ni­cholas II on the cover of a book aptly subti­tled “On the Brink of War and Revo­lu­tion.” But as is so of­ten the case, it would be a mis­take to judge a book by its cover. Al­though Mr. Englund cer­tainly does jus­tice to these two men so of­ten por­trayed else­where, for most read­ers the chief strength of his study of that month which proved so fate­ful in dif­fer­ent ways for both men is its high­lights of rel­a­tively lit­tle-known in­ci­dents which took place then.

It is fas­ci­nat­ing that in late March, mere weeks af­ter Keren­sky was in­stalled in Pet­ro­grad’s Win­ter Palace, al­ready “in Zurich, Vladimir Lenin was ne­go­ti­at­ing with the Ger­mans to ar­range pas­sage on the in­fa­mous ‘sealed train’ that would take him back across en­emy ter­ri­tory to Rus­sia af­ter a decade in ex­ile.”

Lenin’s tri­umphant ar­rival at the Rus­sian cap­i­tal’s Fin­land Sta­tion the next month is fa­mous. How many read­ers will know that his co­hort in es­tab­lish­ing Com­mu­nist rule, Leon Trot­sky, be­gan an equally omi­nous but much less renowned jour­ney at the end of March 1917?

I knew that Trot­sky was liv­ing in the United States, but I did not know un­til I read this book that “On March 27, Leon Trot­sky and his wife and two sons sailed from New York….head­ing to the coun­try of revo­lu­tion. But at Hal­i­fax, Nova Sco­tia, Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties took them and other Rus­sian trav­el­ers off the ship…They sent him to a pris­oner-of-war camp….The camp com­man­dant, a Colonel Mor­ris…told Trot­sky that he posed a danger to the new Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. Trot­sky replied that he had re­ceived a visa from that gov­ern­ment while he was in New York. Mor­ris an­swered back, ‘You are dan­ger­ous to the Al­lies in gen­eral.’”

If only the hap­less Keren­sky had pos­sessed sim­i­lar good sense and judg­ment, but, we learn, “af­ter he had in­ter­vened, the Bri­tish let Trot­sky con­tinue on his way to Rus­sia and the revo­lu­tion.”

So al­though his­tory has damned Keren­sky for al­low­ing one viper into his bo­som on that train across en­emy Ger­man ter­ri­tory and neu­tral Scan­di­navia, thanks to Mr. Englund we re­al­ize that he brought another equally dan­ger­ous threat to his own rule and Rus­sia’s con­tin­ued place among the Al­lies. With­out the Red Army, ruth­lessly but bril­liantly led by Trot­sky, could Com­mu­nist rule have been es­tab­lished in Rus­sia?

One of the most in­trigu­ing ben­e­fits of a book on a mi­cro-topic like this one is its ex­po­sure of mis­judg­ments. Not all of them were as cat­a­strophic as Keren­sky’s, but it is still sad to read ban­ner head­lines like this:

“On March 19, The Evening Ledger in Philadel­phia pro­claimed: ‘RUS­SIA FREES JEWS; AN­CIENT PALE SMASHED. Great Re­joic­ing Reigns as Age-Long Per­se­cu­tion Ends.’”

With hind­sight of course, we see the folly of rush­ing to judg­ment like this or a mis­sion­ary just re­turned from Rus­sia re­joic­ing at “the tremen­dous growth of democ­racy” there.

Trag­i­cally, anti-Semitism and other forms of tyran­ni­cal re­pres­sion would con­tinue to flour­ish in Rus­sia for many more decades in the post-Czarist po­lit­i­cal and so­cial soil that was equally fer­tile for the growth of such poi­sons. But a book like “March 1917” al­lows us to view the world from its hope­ful — some­times hope­lessly naive — viewpoint, even if we can­not quite shut off the lens of hind­sight.

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