Blood and Bias: The Russian Revolution from the Outsider’s Perspective

Literature, Visual Culture and Film Studies Master’s student Michael Keerdo-Dawson introduces British historian Helen Rappaport’s book Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd 1917.

Violence of the Revolution

Near the middle of Helen Rappaport’s history of the Russian Revolution, coming after the Czar had been deposed but before the Bolsheviks took over, we are given British Lithographer Henry Keeling’s recollections of a vivid scene: a woman on a tramcar accused a well-dressed young man of having stolen her purse, which contained fifty roubles. The young man protested his innocence, even offering to give the woman fifty roubles out of his own pocket rather than be declared a thief. Unfortunately, for the accused and the accuser, vigilantes, defending the integrity of the revolution, were present.

These vigilantes felt the well-dressed young man had been protesting too much so they took him off the tram and shot him. After conducting a search of the man’s body, no purse was found. They returned to the tram and asked the woman to make a more careful search of her person; she did and found the purse had fallen through a hole in her pocket and into the lining of her coat. Aware of the injustice they had just committed on behalf of this woman, the vigilantes took the only course they felt was left them – they escorted her off the tram and shot her, too. The scene is memorable not just for the violent brutality of the act but also for its empty pointlessness. It leaves one cold thinking about what human beings are capable of under the wrong circumstances – a thought that can just as easily be applied to the whole of this bloody chapter in Russia’s history.

Rappaport’s book, which marked the centenary of the events depicted along with a number of other entries on the same subject in the crowded field of popular history, is distinguished by the perspective and limited location. While Dominic Lieven’s new book, Towards the Flame, chronicles the events leading up to the revolution in the form of a classical tragedy and Catherine Merridale’s history, Lenin on the Train, chooses to focus on Bolshevik leader’s journey from Switzerland to Russia (both books making natural prequels to Caught in the Revolution), Rappaport confines her story to Petrograd, the then capital and arguably the epicentre of the revolution. This is not an uncommon technique for popular history books, Merridale’s Red Fortress, for example, told the entire history of Russia from the restricted perspective of the Kremlin, but Rappaport also adds two additional limitations, restricting the sources drawn on to the foreigners who were residing in the city at the time and focusing almost exclusively on the events of 1917 – no earlier, no later. Unlike, say, Diana Preston’s The Boxer Rebellion, which recounts the events of China’s war on foreigners and similarly restricts its location and perspective out of necessity (scant accounts from the Chinese perspective being available), Rapport chooses to keep the outsider’s perspective deliberately, and the result is a fascinating, if naturally imbalanced, illumination of not just the revolution but also the outsiders who witnessed the great upheaval.

Rappaport’s subjects are certainly not free from bias; some of the book’s central characters are British, French, and American ambassadors and dignitaries whose perspectives on the world warp their reflections and commentaries on the Russian Revolution in predictable ways. The British ambassador, George Buchanan (arguably the book’s protagonist), is of particular interest; an austere old-Etonian who, when we meet him, is deeply troubled by the precarious position of the Czar, and later, after Nicholas II has abdicated, is equally troubled by the similarly precarious position of Kerensky’s provisional government when faced with the usurping Bolsheviks. Shortly before both men lost power Buchanan gave them unsolicited counsel to avert their respective impending disasters, and on both occasions, the advice fell on deaf ears. Buchanan has no love loss for the Bolsheviks, who, from the foreigner’s perspectives, come off worst of all; the feelings of disdain of the expatriate and émigré community in Petrogard being all too clear, a disdain brought about not just by the threat the Bolsheviks posed to their lives but also the threat they posed to their status and the status quo. Indeed, there is something chilling in the imbalanced privilege afforded to the foreigners before the revolution and even after it; characters in this tale often avoid murderous ends because they identified themselves as French or British or American; they were only really threatened once Lenin and Trosky came to power in the October Revolution – their discriminating ire did not give a jot about diplomatic immunity, viewing Russia a launching pad for a global revolution which would just as soon see the bourgeoisie in France, Britain, and America burnt in the same class-war borne conflagration.

Here we find a contradiction in Rappaport’s book (one which is never satisfactorily reconciled) as she draws on primarily derogatory accounts of the Bolsheviks and yet describes the expatriate’s lavish lifestyles in great detail, contrasting the opulence of the palace receptions and trips to the ballet with the starvation and bread-queues in the streets, thereby adding to the case of the Bolsheviks’ revolution. The disparity between the lives of the foreigners and the lives of the locals is disquieting, and the events of 1917, in hindsight, seem inevitable. Even while the convulsions of revolutionary violence pan out, Rappaport’s diplomats and journalists, bankers and military attachés, still enjoy relative privilege and comfort, worrying and complaining about missing their favourite delicacies and luxuries while thousands around them starve to death.

They did, of course, a great deal of humanitarian work, too (opening hospitals for wounded war veterans, for example), but Rappaport paints them as sympathetically as she paints the Bolsheviks prejudiciously. Even this one-sidedness can’t prevent the foreigners from appearing as symptoms of the same illness which brought about the end of the Romanov dynasty and the beginning of over seventy years of Soviet rule. The blame for which the chroniclers within Caught in the Revolution direct towards the inexpediency of Nicholas II rather than social imbalance brought about by imperialism and exacerbated by World War I. One cannot help but see a parallel between indifference to the plight of the proletariat and the circumstances that brought about the revolution to begin with. This indifference, had the circumstances been equally dire in other parts of the world, could have lead to a similar class war between the haves and the have-nots everywhere.

Caught in the Revolution is not for the faint-hearted. The book is brimming with gruesome details of murder and mayhem which at first are shocking, particularly, during the routing and slaughter of the Czarist police: a women hacking up the bodies of the dead officers, one trying to pull off an officer’s face with her bare fingers, thirty or forty policemen pushed through a hole in the ice and drowned like rats, police officers tied to their divans and immolated, others torn limb from limb. The same mob violence was not limited to the police, a General in the Russian army, lynched because he complained that his men weren’t showing him the proper respect, one of the few experts in artillery in Russia, the writer adds, demonstrating how much damage Russia was doing to herself.

In other places, the contrast between the barbarity of the events and tolerance for violence is palpable, a memorable example being a Russian-Estonian nobleman, killed in front of his wife while a pair of sweethearts sit chatting away on a parapet a few hundred yards away as if nothing out of the ordinary were going on. ‘Crazy people killing each other just like we swat flies at home’, one witness comments. The price of human life had fallen to such an extent that the average person was inoculated against the sight of death. The reader too, becomes almost immune to the barbarism, the terrifying cumulative effect of which leaves one exhausted by the brutal and empty pointlessness of it all; a disaster which could have been averted by much overdue social reforms that demonstrates, quite clearly, what human beings are capable of under the right circumstances, as recounted for us by the benefactors of those circumstances who were only protected at that time by the place of their births.

Author: Michael Keerdo-Dawson

The international Master’s programme Literature, Visual Culture and Film Studies (LVF) has launched a collaboration with the literary festival HeadRead to offer its students an opportunity for field-related practice. The students will participate in the organisation of the festival, conduct interviews with the guest authors, and introduce their work. This year’s guests to the festival include Vladimir Sorokin, A. J. Finn, Michel Faber, Helen Rappaport, Domenico Starnone and many others.

More about HeadRead here.