Feb. 5th, 2017

osprey_archer: (books)
I loved Helen Rappaport’s Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 - A World on the Edge, which retells the story of Russia’s two 1917 revolutions (the first overthrowing the tsar in the spring; the second establishing the Bolsheviks in the fall) through the reports of on-scene Western observers. It’s told in strictly chronological order, the book taking the reader through the year as people living through it experienced (except of course we don’t have to spend hours upon hours standing in frigid bread lines), which gives it all a breathless on-the-ground feeling of immediacy. Even though I already knew how it would end - Bolsheviks take over, the end - I found myself on tenterhooks, wondering if Kerensky would get it together and assassinate Lenin. (No.)

As frustrating as Kerensky is, though, I do also feel for him. He’s trying to establish a republic in Russia; of course he doesn’t want to kick off this new democratic future by executing his political opponents, even if those opponents are Trotsky and Lenin who are dashing about exhorting the populace to execute everyone under the sun.

Or at least Trotsky was. Lenin spent a lot of the year hiding safely out of the country, which does not give me much respect for him. Stand in some bread lines, Lenin!

Anyway, as interesting as all the political stuff is, the book is most interesting in all the fascinating detail it offers on what it was like to live in a city caught in the swirling vortex of revolution: the cold, the hunger, people walking with their children on quiet streets just blocks away from intense street-fighting, dead policemen left on the frozen Neva, the tattered remains of the American colony gathering together for one last Christmas celebration at an American-run bank that would be raided by the Red Guard only a few days later.

(There were - I had not realized this - large colonies of both Americans and British in Petrograd at the time of the Revolution. By the end of 1917 most of them were trying to get out, but I worry about the ones, English nannies who had been employed by the Russian nobility for instance, who had no money or connections or escape route. There’s no way to know if they got out in the end. I hope they did.)

The one criticism I have of the book is that things get a bit rushed at the end. This is understandable, as buckets of ink have already been spilled about the October Revolution (it being, after all, the one that stuck), but a little more detail would have made for a less abrupt ending.


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