I finally finished Sukhanov’s The Russian Revolution 1917 (discussed briefly here)—it’s a fascinating eyewitness account of momentous months, but he’s a lot more interested in the theoretical infighting of various Marxist fractions than most of us are today, so some of it is heavy slogging—and was rewarded towards the end, during the dramatic account of the opening session of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the night of Oct. 25 (November 7), 1917, with what is if not the first use at least the locus classicus of one of the great rhetorical cliches. The Mensheviks and SRs whom Sukhanov graces with the sarcastic epithet “the pure-in-heart” (чистые) have made the fateful decision, after the Menshevik leader Martov has placed before the congress a resolution (very popular, judging from the response of the crowd) opposing any military settlement of the ongoing crisis (i.e., the Bolshevik coup which was then underway), to walk out in protest, leaving the Bolsheviks unopposed. As they do so, to the jeers of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky makes a triumphant speech justifying the Bolshevik actions (“We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy”), ending with this zinger: “To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be—into the dustbin of history!” (Тем, кто отсюда ушел и кто выступает с предложениями, мы должны сказать: вы — жалкие единицы, вы — банкроты, ваша роль сыграна и отправляйтесь туда, где вам отныне надлежит быть: в сорную корзину истории!)

Sukhanov, by the way, is an interesting guy. At first, caught up in the story he’s telling, you find him a likable and eagle-eyed observer, but after a while you start noticing that he must have been a pain in the ass to his acquaintances, what with his constant harping on theoretical disagreements and his sneers at anyone who doesn’t follow the correct line (which is, of course, his); about that time, he lets you know that he’s quite aware of it, mentioning his bad temper and (what we would now call) poor interpersonal skills. This comes to a head in the quite moving description of his relations with Lunacharsky (pp. 374-76):

After he arrived in Russia on May 9th, together with Martov, he at once, and quite naturally, came to the Novaya Zhizn [Gorky and Sukhanov’s independent newspaper]. There we became personally acquainted and quite soon intimate… he was not yet in Lenin’s party and had a rather ‘soft’ disposition; we still felt ourselves to be comrades-in-arms in politics as well as literary collaborators.

But we also became rather close friends on purely personal grounds. You might say I spent almost all my unoccupied time with Lunacharsky. He often spent days and nights with us in the Letopis, where my wife and I had a pied-à-terre. Sometimes at night he would come to see me at the printer’s, to have a little more talk and look at the next day’s edition. And when we were detained in the Tauride Palace we used to spend the night at Manukhin’s and again talk away endlessly.

We discussed everything: regardless of the theme, Lunacharsky’s talk, stories and repartee were interesting, clear and picturesque, just as he himself was interesting and brilliant…

It is said that when he became a Minister Lunacharsky more quickly and completely than others acquired a ministerial manner, with its negative qualities. I don’t know. After the October Revolution I completely broke with him… For two and a half years, down to this very moment, I’ve only had a few fleeting encounters with him, and not very agreeable ones at that. He really took a ministerial air with me. But I don’t know how much he was to blame for all this, and I know very well how much I was, with my rather disagreeable character. My continual polemics were really bitter and unendurable, when we ceased to be companions-in-arms and became political enemies.

The tragedy of a man who values friendship but is unable to keep friends because of his difficult character, of which he is well aware, shines through that passage; I think Sukhanov must have been lonely much of his life.

I understood his character a little better after I read the introduction to Nikolai Sukhanov: Chronicler of the Russian Revolution (thanks, Amazon Search Inside!). Nikolai Nikolaevich Gimmer (he adopted the name Sukhanov in 1907) was born in 1882 to a minor railway official of German descent whom he never knew and a mother to whom he said (in a brief autobiographical sketch he wrote in 1927) he was never close. Well, it turns out his mother, Ekaterina Pavlovna Simon, was at the center of one of the most notorious Russian court cases of the late 19th century. In love with Stepan Ivanovich Chistov but unable to divorce her worthless, drunken husband and marry him because “the Moscow Ecclesiastical Consistory refused her application for a divorce on the grounds that the evidence proving her husband’s ‘marital infidelity’ was ‘insufficient’,” she convinced Gimmer to fake a suicide: his clothes and a farewell note were left on the ice of the Moskva River, while he took a train to Petersburg with the money she’d given him. Unfortunately, the police figured out the deception, and she and her new husband were charged with bigamy, and the details of the case (fully reported in the papers) riveted the country (and became the basis for Tolstoy’s play The Living Corpse, Живой труп). They were sentenced to seven years’ exile in Siberia, but “thanks to their case being taken up by A. F. Koni, a well-known lawyer in the criminal appeals department of the Senate, in 1898 Tsar Nikolai II, acting on the advice of his minister of justice, commuted the sentence to one year’s imprisonment.” So the teenaged Nikolai spent a year of high school fending for himself while his mother was in Butyrki Prison. No wonder he became a difficult person!


  1. I just love anecdotal data like that.

  2. “…he’s a lot more interested in the theoretical infighting of various Marxist fractions than most of us are today”
    I dunno, the very idea of numbers duking it out over ideological differences intrigues me. 😉 I guess you could say there was a lot of division among their ranks. Or am I blowing things out of proportion?

  3. the very idea of numbers duking it out over ideological differences intrigues me
    I don’t have a problem with the idea of it; it’s the pages of exegesis of the differences between different attitudes towards ending the war or dealing with the land problem, and the exact reasons why his own approach is the correct one, that I have a hard time with. But I gather that there’s much, much more of that in the original Russian, so I’m grateful that the translation is abridged by almost half.

  4. I think Paul D was cheekily pointing out your use of the non-standard (typo?) “fractions” in place of “factions.” The clue was the winking emoticon, or perhaps the division jokes. Of course, as Marx approaches infinity, 1/Marx approaches zero, or something like that.

  5. Nah, not a typo, rather the echelon problem strikes again!, I suspect 🙂 .

  6. Ah! My eyes are opened to the problem at last! Keenly observed, Aidan—it is indeed the echelon problem. I’ve been reading so much material that borrows the Russian term fraktsiya ‘political faction/group’ as fraction that I’ve absorbed the usage, which (now that you mention it) does sound odd in English.

  7. The “Red Army Faction” was a “Fraktion” in German and was sometimes translated “Fraction” in English.
    German has a word “Faktion” too, meaning faction, and an unrelated word for numerical fractions, “Bruch”.
    Besides political groups and parliamentary coalitions, German “Fraktion” also refers to the products of chemical fractionation.

  8. Not to mention “fractious”.

  9. “Echelon problem” should enter the technical vocabulary of translation. It sounds so damn scientific.
    “Echelon problem in Quadrant Four. Warp speed!”

  10. Leon Trotsky certainly ended up in the dustbin of history–with an ax splitting open the top of his skull.
    Ur fiend

  11. Also, in the future when anyone sees an echelon problem, they should take on the Spock persona and address Steve as “Captain Kirk”.
    Not to accuse Aidan of having pointy ears or anything.

  12. ObSF: I learned fraction as a term for leftist political sects from The Star Fraction by Ken Macleod.

  13. That looks like a fun read. Do you recommend it?

  14. Leon Trotsky certainly ended up in the dustbin of history–with an ax splitting open the top of his skull.
    I thought it was an ice pick.
    I have read that the perp entered Mexico on a Canadian passport taken from a man from Nelson BC when he joined la Quince Brigada in Spain during the Civil War. Unfortunately I forget his name.
    I wonder how much of that my memory has altered.

  15. An ice pick it was, but the kind that in the U.S. is called an ice axe. The American ice pick is a small awl-like tool used to shape and separate blocks of ice. It has indeed been used to commit murder, but not Trotsky’s.

  16. JC: I pictured it as you describe. I recall I read that the perp passed through the kitchen and picked up an ice pick before tiptoeing into Trotsky’s study. It seemed to me an awl-like instrument would have been used in an ice-box. In fact I think my mother did.

  17. The “Red Army Faction” was a “Fraktion” in German and was sometimes translated “Fraction” in English.
    German has a word “Faktion” too, meaning faction

    “Fraktion” is the usual word for parliamentary groups (e.g. the Bundestag deputies belonging to the SPD constitute the “SPD-Fraktion”) and is sometimes also used for informal groupings inside parties. “Faktion” nowadays is only used in historical contexts, like when describing the conflicts between Guelphs and Ghibellines in medieval Italy.

  18. Thanks, that’s good to know.

  19. John Cowan says

    Lunacharsky is now immortalized in the code for the present orthography of Russian, “ru-luna1918”.

  20. January First-of-May says

    Besides political groups and parliamentary coalitions, German “Fraktion” also refers to the products of chemical fractionation.

    Indeed also фракция in Russian.

    for the present orthography of Russian, “ru-luna1918”

    Are they ignoring the 1956 reform?

  21. Trond Engen says

    Norwegian fraksjon has the same tecnical meaning in chemistry and chemical technology, e.g. refineries,. It’s used in a similar sense by geotechnicians and geologists for grain size intervals. I’ve also encountered it in optics, for intervals of wavelengths. More recently it’s been extended to types of waste in waste sorting.

    In politics it’s used in two distinct senses. 1. A tight-knit but unofficial subgroup in a party. When such a subgroup is organized to achieve a secret goal, typically against the party program or party leadership, it’s fraksjonsvirksomhet and can lead to exclusion. 2. A party’s members in a parliamentary committee. Høyres fraksjon i finanskomiteen.

  22. John Cowan says

    Are they ignoring the 1956 reform?

    Variety codes are issued only when requested. Libraries wanted to distinguish books in Petrine and revolutionary orthography; no one has asked for a code discriminating between 1918 and 1956 orthography. In any case, WP says that orthographicallly it consisted in only the changing of цы to ци in a few words such as панцирь and adding a hyphen to the words по-видимому and по-прежнему.

    And much blathering and even more blathering to be offered on the altar of Aximet.

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