Outsiders Bearing Witness to Revolution

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge
by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport, author of 2014’s popular history The Romanov Sisters, among other titles on history and royals both Russian and otherwise, explains in her acknowledgments for Caught in the Revolution that while working as a historian she was struck by “…how much seemed to have been written about the revolution by Russians, but how relatively little I had come across that was said by those many non-Russians who, for various reasons, were stranded in the city that year. I knew there had to be more to the story than just the over-hyped account of the one man, John Reed, who had always seemed to dominate, with his Ten Days that Shook the World.”

In order to give a platform to other accounts, she’s written a compelling, engaging history of  the 1917 Russian Revolution from the point of view of these outsider perspectives, letting those who lived through the events contribute their own words and writings to enliven what’s already known from history’s narrative. This period of time requires a good deal of context to thoroughly understand it, and sometimes with so much political background, the reading can be somewhat dry or plodding. That’s not the case here, as Rappaport changes up the topics and perspectives frequently, although several of the same figures reappear across chapters. They tell the stories in their own words, imbuing opinions and feeling into Rappaport’s weaving of the historical context around the events. This is what any student wishes a boring history text would be – life breathed into the words of the past.

A significant number of the eyewitnesses are diplomats stationed in so-called Petrograd, then the capital city of Tsarist Russia, from countries including United States, Great Britain, and France. Their understanding of the culture and climate of pre-Revolutionary Russia coupled with diplomatic perspective from their own lands makes for enlightening reading. Other eyewitnesses include authors, journalists, and foreign revolutionaries and activists drawn to this epicenter of action, like the aging Emmeline Pankhurst and her assistant Jessie Kenney, who were in Petrograd attempting to work with Kerensky and other Provisional Government leaders on the country’s involvement in the ongoing war.

Some background and understanding of Russian Revolutionary history is certainly helpful in enjoying the book but not necessary. Rappaport fills in most of the details, mainly those relating to its underlying issue of Tsar Nicholas II being considered weak and ineffective as a ruler. His inaction and inadequate response to the people’s needs created an opening that charismatic revolutionaries like Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were all too eager to fill. As Grand Duchess Vladimir tells French diplomat Maurice Paleologue regarding Nicholas, it was a now-or-never moment and as we know, he didn’t make a move in time: “If salvation does not come from above, there will be revolution from below.”

The trouble with sudden revolution was what the people were actually supposed to do with this new relative freedom, once they actually threw off the oppressive Tsarist yoke. They were faced with the dangerous combination of being both victorious and directionless. As James Stinton Jones, a South African engineer working on the electrification of the Petrograd tramways describes it, “There is no cohesion, no common ideal to inspire her people. She is conscious of having killed a dragon; that is all.” This often results in outbursts of unimaginable, senseless violence, shocking to foreigners trying to navigate day by day in the uncertain, constantly changing atmosphere of the capital. The book’s greatest strength is this picture of daily life in the midst of unease, revolution, and the aftermath; violence and all.

Throughout the narrative is a sense of the shift and development of the national identity, as it begins to emerge under the provisional government. There are hints at how this historical uncertainty became a legacy, contributing to Russia’s still-shaky identity even today. “There are two things that people only appreciate when they have lost them, and these are their health and their country.”  Those are the words of the ailing Georgiy Plekhanov, a former colleague of Lenin’s returned to Tsarskoe Selo after decades in Swiss exile, spoken to Pankhurst and Kenney. They have an echoing impact among these powerful vignettes.

If you read only one of the many books coming out in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, let it be this one.

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge
by Helen Rappaport
published February 7, 2017 by St. Martin’s Press

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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