Russia at a turning point
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.