Caught in the Revolution

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Helen Rappaport has skilfully woven together the accounts and reports made by more than 80 foreigners who were either visiting or working in Petrograd when, on International Women’s Day 1917, tens of thousands of women walked out on strike and began calling out more textile workers and their male colleagues in the engineering and munitions plants.

Their accounts of the following five days of escalating revolutionary turmoil are fabulous, not because of any political acumen — far from it — but because the revolution itself was fabulous.

Many of these people remained in Petrograd. As a result the book is packed with wonderful detail of the tensions and deprivations out of which February arose, the gradual development of political fervour and confidence, the changing attitudes of the feared Cossacks, the mutinies that swept one barracks after another, the violence of the police and the merciless retribution they received when finally cornered.

Reports of the demonstrations and street fighting are gripping, particularly about the growing tensions and hostility between different sections of the state’s security forces — the army, Cossacks and the police — and between officers and troopers.

There are accounts of how quickly the emblems of Tsarism were torn down to be replaced with billowing red flags, of how, in the days following the February Revolution, not only factory workers began demanding higher wages, but servants and chambermaids began telling their employees they would, for example, “have to shine their own shoes”.

Many of the people Rappaport refers to wrote about the almost simultaneous establishment of the Provisional Government and the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, how the first could do nothing without the permission of the second, how such an arrangement created turmoil and how the determination of the first to continue waging the hated war was creating anger across the city and far beyond.

And within weeks of the February events many began reporting on the activities of the Bolsheviki, whose growing ranks were arising out of the burgeoning anger against war, the continuing deprivation and the demand for land held by hundreds of thousands of the country’s peasant soldiers.

It is here that, not surprisingly, many of the people that populate Rappaport’s book, and sadly Rappaport herself, get carried away with invective against this “dangerous red” and his “bullying Bolsheviks”. But even then, their accounts remain dramatic and gripping, and particularly how, soon after Lenin’s arrival at the Kschessinska Mansion (Smolney followed later) the place became a hive of propagandist activity. As one Canadian journalist reported, “hundreds of typewriters and duplicators worked day and night” running off anti-government proclamations by the thousand.

Unfortunately, after 14 chapters full of anecdotes and reports of these fantastic months, Rappaport’s 15th is dedicated to a diatribe of denunciations of the Bolshevik “coup”, its crackdown on press and political freedom, its bullying arrogance and so on.

That the Bolsheviks had rapidly gained enormous support over the preceding months, that the October Revolution met with little resistance, and that they did what they promised — put in motion moves toward delivering Bread, Peace and Land — are not acknowledged.

But don’t let this stop you reading and enjoying the first 14 chapters.