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!