GRR.

In my journey through Russian history, I’ve finally gotten up to 1917 (having spent two months on Solzhenitsyn’s November 1916—not a great novel, but a great portrait of a country on the verge of revolution). Imagine my delight when I discovered there was a book called A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution that allegedly answered to the following description:

Much has been written about the key figures—Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, and the rest—while the various political movements have been relentlessly analyzed. Yet there is another side to it, a more human story. What was life like for a peasant or a manual worker in Petrograd or Moscow in 1917? How much did a tram driver, his wife, or a common soldier know or understand about Bolshevism? What was the price of a loaf of bread or a pair of boots? Who kept the power stations running, the telephone exchanges, bakeries, farms, and hospitals working? These are just some of the details historian Roy Bainton brings to life, not through memoirs of politicians and philosophers, but in the memories of ordinary working people. As witnessed on the streets of Petrograd, Bainton brings us the indelible events of the most momentous year in Russian history.

That sounded like just the ticket: I had plenty of serious histories and analyses, but a man-on-the-street perspective would provide an invaluable counterpoint. Thanks to the magic of the internet, a few clicks on Saturday brought the book to my door yesterday, and I tore open the package with high anticipation. Today, having read the first few chapters, I am filled with disappointment verging on rage, and I’m afraid I’m going to share it with you.
The author, Roy Bainton, according to the bio in the book “served in the Merchant Navy and has travelled around the world three times. He has written extensively for newspapers and magazines and has been a regular contributor to Radio 4.” So not a historian, then, but so what? As long as he put together a good collection of reminiscences, he could be a professional ping-pong player for all I cared. I wasn’t fazed by hitting a mistake on the very first page of the introduction: “I had paused at a pavement bar on Nachilnaya Street on Vasilievskiy Island for a much-needed cold beer.” Hey, it’s Nalichnaya, not “Nachilnaya,” but he’s just a reporter, took sloppy notes, so what? It’s just the introduction; wait’ll he gets to the good stuff! The introduction goes on too long and is full of cliches and potted history (“Russia’s twentieth-century past is not the golden age socialists had hoped for. Within a few short years of Lenin’s death, the blunt, expedient weapons of terror, mass arrest and imprisonment… a new historical zenith in organized cruelty… a dull, monochrome lifestyle… a giant slap in the face for the hopeful proletariat of 1917…”), but doubtless the publishers demanded a historical summary; wait’ll he gets to the good stuff! Then I hit Chapter 1 and realized there wasn’t going to be any good stuff. Or, more precisely, the good stuff, the actual reminiscences, were occasional tidbits plunked into the great doughy mass of his horrible journalistic prose and his appalling misunderstanding of Russia and its history. For some reason he felt the need to try to make this your one-stop shopping source for the year 1917 instead of a valuable supplement to real histories, ignoring the fact that he was as unqualified to write history as I am to play professional ping-pong. So we get tosh about Rasputin’s murder (“That it should have come not at the hands of some ragamuffin revolutionary but those of Prince Felix Yusupov—an Oxford-educated transvestite in possession of an immense fortune… The Browning revolver which pumped that fatal bullet into the mad mystic was the starting pistol of the revolution…”) and Petrograd (“Yet, this was still a city of contrasts…”) and politics (“Revolution was the loftier aim among the intelligentsia who led the more radical elements in the plethora of political organizations which met daily in Petrograd…”) that would be barely acceptable in a Sunday-supplement travel piece but is ludicrously inappropriate to a supposed book of history. But there was worse to come. On page 33 I hit the following farrago:

The Duma, struggling against all the odds to form some semblance of a government, was still dominated by argumentative factions of titled landowners, assorted gentry and political opportunists. Frequently, on the impulse of Alexandra, they had been dismissed on the smallest whim and replaced with even greater incompetents. A bizarre example was the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov, a man whose sanity was in some doubt…

This man can’t even tell the difference between the Duma and the cabinet of ministers! For my American readers, the above paragraph would be parallel to one that said “The Congress, struggling against all odds to [bla bla bla]… Frequently… they had been dismissed… A bizarre example was the Secretary of State…” I find it difficult to conceive of the depth of ignorance needed to write that paragraph. Bainton apparently skimmed through a few (probably popular and inaccurate) histories and cobbled together his hastily scribbled notes with as much alliteration and cliche as he could jam in, every once in a while remembering to toss in a paragraph or two of what I got the book for, memories which stand out from the surrounding dough by their vivid immediacy: “One night the servants were screaming in our kitchen. My father rushed in and found a demented working man brandishing a knife—he wanted to kill Father. A furious fight followed…” and then it’s back to “Revolution was in the air…”
And to make matters worse, the book I set aside to read this one was Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky was a thug and a butcher, but he was a superb reporter who could cut to the heart of whatever he was describing:

The expectant period, which has lasted almost three days, during which it was possible for the main mass of the garrison to keep up friendly neutrality toward the insurrection, has come to an end. “Shoot the enemy!” the monarchy commands. “Don’t shoot your brothers and sisters!” cry the workers. And not only that: “Come with us!” Thus in the streets and squares, by the bridges, at the barrack-gates, is waged a ceaseless struggle now dramatic, now unnoticeable—but always a desperate struggle, for the heart of the soldier. In this struggle, in these sharp contacts between working men and women and the soldiers, under the steady crackling of rifles and machine-guns, the fate of the government, of the war, of the country, is being decided…
The worker looked thirstily and commandingly into the eyes of the soldier, and the soldier anxiously and diffidently looked away. This meant that, in a way, the soldier could no longer answer for himself. The worker approached the soldier more boldly. The soldier sullenly, but without hostility—guiltily rather—refused to answer. Or sometimes—now more and more often—he answered with pretended severity in order to conceal how anxiously his heart was beating in his breast. Thus the change was accomplished. The soldier was clearly shaking off his soldiery. In doing so he could not immediately recognise himself. The authorities said that the revolution intoxicated the soldier. To the soldier it seemed, on the contrary, that he was sobering up from the opium of the barracks. Thus the decisive day was prepared—the 27th of February.

He not only tells you what was happening, he makes you understand the psychology of everyone involved. I highly recommend both that book and his The Balkan Wars 1912-1913, one of the best pieces of reportage I’ve ever read. If only he’d stuck to writing and left politics alone!

Comments

  1. Great post. This interested me because I was born and raised in Belarus.

  2. The Browning revolver which pumped that fatal bullet into the mad mystic was the starting pistol of the revolution
    It was a dark and stormy night, indeed.
    Bleh.

  3. Hat: I was intrigued to see this book had two Amazon reviews, both awarding it 5 stars. One of the reviewers had 30 pages of reviews, of books on a wide range of subjects. As far as I could make out, before my eyes glazed over, he had awarded 5 stars to every book on all 30 pages. Not sure what that proves though…

  4. That’s what drives me nuts. I can accept the fact that bad books get written and published, but why do people rave about them? I had a very similar experience with Simon Winchester’s book on the OED.

  5. As I understand, the fatal bullet was not fatal.
    “After checking to be sure the monk was dead, Felix and his cohort celebrated with a few rounds of non-poisoned wine, then returned to fetch the body for disposal.
    Alas, this just wasn’t Felix’s night.
    The dead Rasputin sprang up from the floor when his body was disturbed and attempted to strangle the prince….”

    Apparently Russian revolvers were not at all efficient. Scott Martens (of “Pedantry” blog) told the story of his Mennonite great-grandfather, who was shot something like nine times by anarchists (possibly affiliated with Makhno), but lived for two or three days afterwards.
    I had a similiar but less intense experience with “Sons of the Conquerors”, about the Turkish nations. There’s a scattering of errors and a glib pop-journalistic flavor. From the bio I deduced that the author probably flunked out of the Oxbridge school he attended. The book’s still worth reading, but it disappointed me.

  6. Coming from your OED review, I’d suggest that the word “emetizer” be used to designate little tidbits that prepare you for the fact that what you’re eating will eventuially make you puke, or (used metaphorically in book reviews) hurl your book against the opposite wall: “I encountered a small emetizer already on the first page of the introduction: ‘I had paused at a pavement bar on Nachilnaya Street on Vasilievskiy Island for a much-needed cold beer.’”

  7. Apparently Russian revolvers were not at all efficient. Scott Martens (of “Pedantry” blog) told the story of his Mennonite great-grandfather, who was shot something like nine times by anarchists (possibly affiliated with Makhno), but lived for two or three days afterwards.
    A sort of Mennonite 50 Cent (also shot, in the line of business, nine times, which depending on your taste in music was either nine times too many or one time too few).

  8. Ajay: I’ll go with one time too few.

  9. Have you tried “Entertaining in Tsarist Russia”? It might be backtracking (seems you’re pursuing this chronologically) to take in its entirety, but it sounds like just the quixotic take on the period that you require.

  10. George Negus is a television journalist of at least some repute for a public broadcaster in Australia.
    So before flying somewhere I bought his The World from Islam at the airport and proceeded to be absolutely shocked at the vacuity of everything written within.
    I should have judged the book by its cover on this occasion, for its contents were commensurately naff.
    Here’s a classic quote:

    we in the West might get further by attempting at least to talk them around, not by berating and haranguing them jingoistically about how superior our Western non-Muslim values are.

    And here is for your enjoyment one of the most thoroughly deserved, excoriating reviews I’ve ever read: http://www.aijac.org.au/review/2004/295/books295.html.

  11. dan: No, I’m definitely interested in earlier stuff as well, and that looks great — thanks!
    Antonios: Ouch. Yes, the cover is definitely revelatory: “Dude! Look over there — camels!!

  12. You may already have done so, but if not, please consider reading the last story in “Ashenden – The British Agent” – Somerset Maugham, based on his mission to Moscow in 1917 to provide assistance to the Kerensky government.

  13. I have not; I’ll have to look for it.

  14. Ashenden is a book that I would strongly recommend. One of the best pieces about World War I espionage, matched only by Sir Compton Mackenzie.

  15. I can’t believe it. I have read something LH haven’t!
    Ashenden is a great book. Although – in tone, maybe – it neighbors in my head with Berlin Stories

  16. If people are getting paid for writing this sort of crap, maybe I’m in the wrong business. :)

  17. Fitzroy Cyclonic says:

    Just like to echo… what was that? I said, ‘echo’ the comment about The OED book by Winchester-fella. Very badly written I remember thinking at the time. *Very irritatingly badly written*.
    Came across one of the numerous people who had given it a good review (TLS in this case), and said, ‘Wotchu do that for then?’ and he said ‘Mervellous book, mervellous book, you are only a prole I AM A REVIEWER’ well he didn’t, but in his TONE OF VOICE he did. But then, he also went on about TS Eliot being the first ‘sampler’ in the rap sense. Pfui!
    I countered this by wittily getting very drunk, being rude to him and about him and his heroes and then losing my brolly.
    He also had long hair.

  18. Quite.

  19. George Negus! My God, he was one of the most vacuous TV presenters ever to clutter the (already mediocre) Australian airwaves. I doubt that few people could match the way he manages to consistently deliver sententious and dramatic phrases without a modicum of content. Whenever I see him I want to throw the TV out the window.

  20. Marnanel: It’s not that simple, alas; as Gore Vidal said, for a book to be a best-seller it is not enough for it to be bad.

  21. Huh. I was just about to type a response to Marnanel, and there it was verbatim, six years before. Do I repeat myself? I certainly do repeat myself. I am large, I contain multitudes of memetic copies.

  22. Trotsky was a thug and a butcher
    To paraphrase Cardinal Manning’s letter to Gladstone, if you refer to his forcible suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion I can understand it. If you refer to any other acts of his I am not conscious of them, and would desire to know what they may be.

  23. I’m too busy with other things (like compiling the next installment of Languagehat’s Greatest Hits!) to do any detailed spadework, so I’ll just quote Robert Conquest’s summary: “[Trotsky] had shown himself no less ruthless than Stalin. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, he had ordered executions on a greater scale than Stalin or anyone else.” But I’m not singling him out especially; so were they all, all thugs and butchers.

  24. Just to be an eensy-weensy bit pedantic, the paragraph about Dumas and governments is a bit mixed up, but it’s not quite that bad. The point is that ‘government’ does mean ‘cabinet’ in Westminster democracies. So the offending paragraph actually meant:
    “The Duma, struggling against all the odds to form some semblance of a cabinet, was still dominated by argumentative factions of titled landowners, assorted gentry and political opportunists. Frequently, on the impulse of Alexandra, they had been dismissed on the smallest whim and replaced with even greater incompetents. A bizarre example was the Minister of the Interior, Alexander Protopopov, a man whose sanity was in some doubt.”
    No, I didn’t say it was good. The problem is the ‘they’ in the second sentence, which is horribly vague in the way you point out (i.e., mixing up Congresses and Cabinets), but if you clarify the pronoun (‘they=governments’) it actually makes sense. Not that I’m arguing that this is a good book or that this is a well written paragraph, but it’s just sloppy, not necessarily ignorant (well, maybe, but he could be given the benefit of the doubt).

  25. Yeah, the Cameron Government corresponds to the Obama Administration, except that the latter consists of more people because it reaches further down the reports-to tree.

  26. The point is that ‘government’ does mean ‘cabinet’ in Westminster democracies.
    Yes, I know that, but the point is that the Duma had nothing to do with the cabinet. To quote Orlando Figes (from his excellent A People’s Tragedy): “The government (the Council of Ministers) was appointed exclusively by the Tsar, while the Duma had a veto over its bills. But there was no effective parliamentary sanction against the abuses of the executive, which remained subordinate to the crown (as in the German system) rather than to parliament (as in the English).” If you read the paragraph with this in mind, I think you’ll find it completely incoherent and not just sloppy.

  27. My apologies. With that knowledge under my belt, I would say that your characterisation “can’t even tell the difference between the Duma and the cabinet of ministers” is too mild to convey just how incoherent this guy’s understanding is.

  28. Can anyone tell me if there’s a US equivalent of the British civil service? There doesn’t seem to be one; does that mean the work is done by permanent officials of different departments that have no common hierarchy or that the work is simply unnecessary?

  29. There is something called the civil service in the US, but it may be a very different system.

  30. Crown: There certainly is, and has been since 1871. Indeed, the characterizations of H.M. Civil Service and the U.S. Civil Service sound very similar:

    The term civil servant in the United Kingdom does not include all public sector employees; although there is no fixed legal definition, the term is usually defined as “a servant of the Crown working in a civil capacity who is not the holder of a political (or judicial) office; the holder of certain other offices in respect of whose tenure of office special provision has been made; [or] a servant of the Crown in a personal capacity paid from the Civil List”. As such, the civil service does not include government ministers (who are politically appointed), members of the British Armed Forces, police officers, local government officials, members of the National Health Service (NHS), or staff of the Royal Household. As of 2007, there are approximately 532,000 (499,000 full-time equivalent) civil servants in the Home Civil Service.

    And in Leftpondia:

    The Federal Civil Service is defined as “all appointive positions in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, except positions in the uniformed services.” In the early 19th century, government jobs were held at the pleasure of the president — a person could be fired at any time. The spoils system meant that jobs were used to support the political parties. This was changed in slow stages by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and subsequent laws. By 1909, almost two-thirds of the U.S. federal work force was appointed based on merit, that is, qualifications measured by tests. Certain senior civil service positions, including some heads of diplomatic missions and executive agencies are filled by political appointees.

    Of course, our local governments are separate sovereignties with their own civil services, with the exceptions of the District of Columbia and the few remaining U.S. territories. And while your political folks at the top of the departmental hierarchies are M.P.s and their assistants, and so not civil servants, ours are direct Presidential appointees and technically are civil servants — but only technically: the division between the political and the professional members of departments is just as sharp here.

  31. Arrrgh!

    For “1971″ read “1871″!

    A whole different story!

  32. I fixed it, since it does indeed materially affect the effect of your comment. (I vaguely remember thinking at the time “1971? That seems awfully recent…)

  33. Also, you missed a trick by starting out with “Arrrgh!” instead of “Grr!”

  34. Eh, I thought about using “Grr!”, but it didn’t seem as appropriate somehow when the mistake was mine in the first place. Anyway, thanks for the fixup.

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