Thursday, March 16, 2017

Caught in the Revolution

Caught in the Revolution. Helen Rappaport. 2017. 464 pages. [Source: Review copy]

From the prologue: Petrograd was a brooding, beleaguered city that last desperate winter before the revolution broke; a snowbound city of ice-locked canals and looming squares.

Premise/plot: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport uses primary sources--first-hand accounts of men and women who were witnesses--to piece together the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

The prologue, I believe, gives a background focusing on the December and January leading up to the February Revolution. It introduces readers to the key witnesses as well: the English Ambassador (Sir George Buchanan), the American Ambassador (David Rowland Francis), the French Ambassador (Maurice Paléologue), newspaper reporters and photographers from various countries, women nurses working at a war hospital, etc.

What was the city like BEFORE the revolution? How had two years of war changed the city? Were there indicators of trouble ahead? What was the general mood of the city? And how much of that mood related directly to class?

Chapter one begins in February and recounts the days leading up to the Revolution. Most of the book focuses on 1917, concentrating on the two revolutions--February and October. In between there is an interim government of sorts. But essentially the entire year is a MESS politically, economically. No law. No order. No justice. Most people starving AND freezing. A collision of strong ideas, horrible weather, and desperation. The last chapter is Postscript. It serves as a conclusion. Readers learn what happened Russia...and what happened next to all the many, many key witnesses we've spent time getting to know. In some cases, Rappaport was simply unable to find out what happened to various reporters after the war, after they returned home. But she also lists what books were written and published about the Revolution by these witnesses.

My thoughts: This book is fascinating. Also intense and compelling. It describes nearly every level of society. Sometimes the book is very graphic in terms of violence. What including ALL those primary accounts does is give modern readers a sense of being there, of experiencing what it was like day by day, night by night. Sights. Sounds. Smells.

One thing that struck me was how different people reacted. For example, for some people the early days were a mere inconvenience. The 'revolution' to them meant a longer detour to their party destination. They were still having parties and balls and get-togethers. They were still attending ballets and operas. They were still carrying on as if nothing at all of importance was happening.

Of course, that wasn't the typical reaction. This book is a treat for readers.

From the grandest mansion to the shivering bread queues, one topic of conversation prevailed: the Empress’s relationship with Grigory Rasputin. Against all the objections of the imperial family, Nicholas and Alexandra had stubbornly refused to remove him from his favoured position, and had made matters worse by appointing a series of increasingly reactionary ministers. With Nicholas away at army HQ, Alexandra was left alone, alienated from the Russian court and most of her relatives, and relying ever more heavily on their ‘friend’.
By February the daily consignment of flour to Petrograd had dropped to just twenty-one wagonloads, instead of the normal 120 needed.What white bread there was ‘had become greyer and greyer until it was uneatable’, due to excessive adulteration. Official mismanagement, corruption and wastage of supplies were prodigious, made worse by a crippled rail network that was unable to transport food efficiently from the provinces –where it was still plentiful –to the cities that most needed it. People were incensed to discover that, due to the hikes in the price of oats and hay, much of the black bread –the staple diet of the poor –was being fed to the capital’s 80,000 horses to keep them alive: ‘every horse was eating up the black bread allowance of ten men’
For fully three weeks the average daily temperature had been -13.44 degrees Centigrade and there had been heavy falls of snow. Walking on the Liteiny Prospekt on the morning of 22 February, Paléologue was struck by ‘the sinister expression on the faces of the poor folk’ who had been standing wearily all night waiting for bread.The public mood was shifting from stoicism to anger; many women were spending forty hours or more a week like this and, in indignation, some of them had thrown stones at the bakers’ windows that day.
Hundreds of them –peasants, factory workers, students, nurses, teachers, wives whose husbands were at the front, and even a few ladies from the upper classes –came out onto the streets. Although some carried banners with traditional suffrage slogans, such as ‘Hail, women fighters for freedom’ and ‘A place for women in the Constituent Assembly’, others bore improvised placards referring to the food crisis: ‘Increase rations for soldiers’ families’, or even more openly revolutionary calls for an end to the war –and the monarchy. But food was, fundamentally, what they all called out for that day: ‘There is no bread,’ they shouted as they marched, ‘our husbands have no work.’
A few of the women began singing the Marseillaise. ‘It was a queer Russian version that one couldn’t quite recognize at first,’ recalled Harper. ‘I have heard the “Marseillaise” sung many times, but that day for the first time I heard it sung as it should be.’ This was because, she asserted, ‘the people there were of the same classes and were singing it for the same reason as the French who first sang it over a hundred years ago.’14 As the crowd moved off, heading for the Nevsky, ‘a tram came swinging round the corner’. They forced it to stop, took the control handle and ‘threw it away in a snowbank’. The same happened to a second, third and fourth tram, ‘until the blocked cars extended all the way along the Sadovaya to the Nevsky Prospekt’.15 One tram full of wounded soldiers in the care of nurses even joined in, as the crowd, now numbering about five hundred, surged forward, still singing the Marseillaise, the women holding boldly to the centre of the Nevsky as the men took to the pavements.
So long as they only asked for bread, the Cossacks told the marchers, they would not be on the receiving end of gunfire. There were, inevitably, many agents provocateurs in their midst, eager to turn the protest into a violent one, but for the most part the crowd remained ‘good tempered’, as Arthur Ransome noted in that day’s despatch to the Daily News. He hoped there would be no serious conflict.‘The general character of excitement,’ he concluded was, for now, ‘vague and artificial’ and without political focus.
Throughout the night of the 24th there were occasional volleys of firing; and yet, astonishingly, the social life of the city continued. The Alexandrinsky Theatre was packed that evening for a performance of Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Indeed, the audience had been ‘in a lively humour at this satire on the political weaknesses of the mid-nineteenth century’. Few seemed willing to believe that a ‘greater drama was at that moment unfolding in real life throughout the capital’.
It seemed as though the whole city was out of doors that morning, and on foot –for there were no trams or cabs. People seemed determined to get to church as usual or simply enjoy the fine weather for a promenade along the Nevsky. Couples were pushing their babies in prams, just like any ordinary Sunday; children were skating on the ice rink in the Admiralty Gardens.
Right in front of their eyes they had seen a little girl hit in the throat by gunfire, and a well-dressed woman standing near them had collapsed with a scream as her knee was shattered by a bullet. After crawling back out into the street, Thompson and Harper were once more thrown to the ground by rifle fire coming from the police on the Anichkov Bridge. All around people lay dead and dying in the snow –Thompson counted twelve dead soldiers, Harper noted far more women and children than men: thirty dead in all. The two reporters lay there in the snow for more than an hour, numb with cold, but too frightened to move. Harper ‘had a vague idea that I was freezing to death’; she wanted to cry. And then the ambulances appeared and started collecting the dead and wounded and they decided this was fortuitous: they could pretend they were wounded and be picked up and taken to safety.
At the House of Preliminary Detention on Shpalernaya, 958 prisoners were set free; others from the Litovsky prison near the Mariinsky Theatre were liberated the following day. All of the political prisoners were cheered; those who had been imprisoned for a criminal offence in some cases ‘were thrashed and told they would forfeit their lives if they were caught again’. There were, however, some prisoners who could not be reached, as Bousfield Swan Lombard noted,‘because in many cases the inmates of prisons were locked in underground cells and in the confusion the keys were lost’; with the prisons then being set on fire, ‘most of them were roasted alive before it was possible to liberate them’. Those who did emerge had ‘hardly anything on, in the way of clothes’. The crowd took pity on these ‘wrecks of humanity’ and they were ‘accommodated with the most amazing assortment of garments. Little men were dressed up in very long trousers and an enormous man might be seen struggling into a coat and waistcoat much too small.’
It became a common sight to see policemen being attacked and finished off out of hand –shot, bayoneted, clubbed to death –on the street, their dead bodies left untouched. ‘Food for the dogs,’ some Russians called it. ‘There was no hope for them unless they surrendered,’ recalled Dr Joseph Clare, ‘and even then not much hope, for I know a place where thirty or forty policemen were pushed through a hole in the ice without as much as a stunning tap on the head –drowned like rats.’
Philip Chadbourn had become fearful for the safety of his wife and three-week-old baby son and had gratefully accepted an offer to stay with friends on the French Embankment.But there were no cabs to be had;Esther Chadbourn was still weak, and two friends had to assist her in walking into the city, with her husband leading the way with the baby in his arms. As they emerged into the street, his wife took one look at the crowds and the barricades and field artillery and her nerves totally gave way.‘Each time a shot rang out,’ Philip remembered, ‘she would call ahead to me, “Don’t let them kill my baby, my baby!”, while passers-by stopped and stared at her, their eyes full of tears.’ Once safely installed in their friends’ house, the couple ‘watched the progress of the revolution from the front windows’ commanding the quayside, as one continual procession of motor cars roared past, loudly tooting their horns. On the streets it was the same jubilant crowds as the previous day, trashing the police stations and ‘throwing armfuls of records out of windows onto blazing street bonfires’ with a ‘righteous zest’.
Luckily the cold had preserved the many un-coffined bodies she saw, but it had also left them in grotesque, contorted positions. Along three sides of the shack, Harper saw piles of rigid, muddy and blood-soaked bodies that had been thrown in ‘as they had been picked up’, some doubled up, others outstretched –men, women and children. Next to that shack was another, and then another with even more. In a big shed opposite she found another 150 bodies piled up. People were pulling at them, searching for loved ones, trying to identify them. ‘One in the uniform of the police was beyond recognition,’ she noted, ‘he had literally been beaten to a pulp.’ Very few of the corpses had any boots on –for these were a valuable commodity in wartime and were the first things to be stolen from the dead. With so many to be buried, coffins were scarce and so, once people identified their dead, they would pin a note on them, giving the name and asking for money to help bury them. People visiting these makeshift morgues would throw a few kopeks on the corpses. It was only later, visiting another hospital morgue where the bodies had been properly washed and laid out like wax figures, that Harper finally took in the grim horror of so many deaths.
Throughout the ‘July Days’, as they became known, Donald Thompson had been out with his camera and tripod, sometimes on foot, but often racing up and down the streets in a hired car with the ‘camera sticking up in the tonneau’, looking ‘not unlike a new kind of gun’, as Florence Harper recalled.‘In fact it looked so dangerous that it gave us a clear passage up the Nevsky.’ With reckless abandon, Thompson had set up his camera at every opportunity ‘and proceeded to crank’. But late that afternoon he had witnessed a final, sickening demonstration of mob savagery reminiscent of the February days, which he did not record on film. Out at the Tauride Palace he had seen three revolutionists dressed as sailors fire from a motor car on a group of officers on the steps of the building, after which they had driven away at speed, only to be stopped soon afterwards by a motor truck that blocked the road. The men had been dragged from the car and promptly lynched by the crowd that had gathered. It was a new kind of savagery that he hadn’t seen before: ‘they stretched them up to the cross arm of a telegraph pole, and didn’t tie their hands. Then they drew them off the ground about three feet. All three of them as they were hanging tried to hold on to each other, but the mob knocked their hands away and they slowly strangled to death.’ Hardly the most comforting story with which to conclude a letter to his wife Dot, back home in Kansas.
© 2017 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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