Saturday, June 24, 2017

Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time

Svetlana Alexievich writes in Secondhand Time that she looks for those moments in everyday life that are in the process of becoming literature.  In truth, I didn't need the nobel prize winner's description of her craft to explain that her carefully selected interviews frequently demonstrate that ordinary people are capable of expressing themselves in beautiful, poetic, and timeless ways.  Again and again, Second Time reveals that average men and women can tell a stories that can compete with the great works of Russian literature in terms of their impact on the human heart.  In fact, some of the testimonies or oral histories that Alexievich records might seem almost too perfectly expressed to work in a modern drama.  Critics would no doubt applaud the poetic or prophetic power of the characters' monologues, but then go on to critique the playwrights' overly stylized or mannered lines.  Critics would accept the lines from Sophocles, Shakespeare, or perhaps even Racine, but never from Williams, O'Neil, or Mamet.  Alexievich gives us the tragedy of the banal and shows that even quotidian life--at least in Russia--is worthy of every once of eloquence contained within human speech.

Alexievich's book of seemingly random snippets of memory is truly literary, but it does also serve as the unofficial or secret history of the Soviet Union.  Free from official history, Secondhand Time allows readers to come to see the Soviet Union in all of its complexity.  For ordinary Soviet cities, the Soviet Union was both a murderous empire and a land of optimism, transnational solidarity, intellectualism, and stability.  

Secondhand Time reveals a Janus-faced Soviet experience in which men and women were both stifled by authoritarianism and comforted by communist ideals.  Secondhand Time isn't really about causality, but it does help to explain the deep disenchantment felt by so many Soviet citizens who were introduced to capitalism, and the West, in such a brutal way.  As bad as the Soviet Union may have been, even many enthusiastic supporters of reform would come to miss the stability it at least sometimes provided its citizens.  

Secondhand Time offers us a nuanced explanation of Soviet nostalgia by approaching the Soviet experience from an almost dialectical perspective in which ordinary people's positive and negative memories collide with one another to create a sort of new and transcendent historical synthesis of contradictory concepts.  The Soviet state oppressed people, but it also gave them ideals and an almost religious sense of meaning.  In its absence, formally Soviet citizens came to realize that they had lost a great deal, including superpower status, interethnic peace, relative equality, full employment, and shared rites related to World War II and communist education.  

The specific stories that make up this wonderfully moving book are largely centered on tragedy.   Taken from almost every phase of the Soviet experiment, these tragedies include gulag experiences, Civil War atrocities, World War II battles, Stalin's Great Terror, ethnic wars, military hazing, Afghanistan, and--above all--post-communist economic chaos.  But each tale of tragedy reveals some element of happiness.  After all, tragedy perhaps only really makes sense in the context of displaced happiness.  In a sense, happiness a kind of natural frame for the artwork of despair and disaster.  In fact, tragedy even helps you to finally realize what happiness (or the absence of tragedy) really looks like.

Secondhand Time shows us that Soviet citizens may have often been critical of their former government, but they also came to depend on it.  The Soviet government was never perfect, but it did give its citizens rituals, rites of passage, collective experiences, a sacred calendar of communist and national holidays, and a philosophy to oppose to some of the more exploitative aspects of capitalism and materialism.   The Soviet Union made some people feel safe, powerful, dignified, connected, and important.  But even those who hated communism, and eventually protested against it, often gained something even in the act of opposing its ideology.  Soviet citizens who opposed the government, however discretely, participated in a meaningful counter culture of books, jokes, ideas, poems, and songs.  Once the empire collapsed, the intelligentsia was surprised to discover that their world too quickly dissolved.  Into the vacuum stepped Russian mobsters, political strongman, thieves, conmen, speculators, businesspeople, etc.  One telling story describes how people with doctorates were forced to sell jars of cigarette butts to survive. As it turned out, in the post-Soviet world, dissidents were given even less political or creative space than they had previously occupied.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Platonov's Soul

In the translator's introduction to Andrei Platonov's novella, Soul, Robert Chandler makes the bold claim that Platonov will one day become known as Russia's greatest prose stylist, the analog to Pushkin's role in the world of Russian poetry.  The claim is bold but I read Chandler's introduction only after I had completed the work itself and come to the same conclusion.  In the past couple of years, I have encountered several of Platonov's works almost haphazardly, but each time my appreciation for the Soviet author has deepened immeasurably.  Only several weeks ago I read several of Platonov's plays.  This time I was left wondering why Platonov hadn't received more credit as a forerunner to many of the twentieth century's many other brilliant European modernists.  The plays were funny, sardonic, and strangely futuristic.  They also seemed to capture the essential absurdity of Soviet ideology and language while somehow indicting the whole of modern European civilization.

Even so, I left the plays thinking that perhaps Platonov was a wonderfully talented niche writer who, sadly, hadn't been productive enough, or free enough, to really make his mark in modern letters.  I had read the Foundation Pit and been deeply impressed by the author's intentionally elliptical style, which somehow reminded me of Joseph Conrad, who always wanted to tell you something about the limits of language.  But again, I thought the work was perhaps too short to justify any grandiloquent claims on the author's behalf.  Platonov could have been a major writer, I thought, if only he had lived in a society that recognized and encouraged his talent, or if only he had a more human subject matter than Soviet bureaucratic violence.  I suppose deep down I thought that socialist realism had killed genius in Soviet Russia, or that the scale of violence in Russia permitted no truly humane literary treatments of Soviet life.

At any rate, with all this in mind, Platonov's Soul came as a shock to me.  The short novel is a depiction of a lonely Soviet hero in search of his mother, his wandering Central Asian nation, and meaning itself.  The work is overwhelming tragic.  In fact, I think I have never read a sadder book.  Soul does have something to say about Soviet life.  It mentions Stalin from time to time, and always juxtaposes Moscow's modernity with the almost neolithic life of his wandering kind fold in Central Asia.  In a sense, the book could perhaps be seen as replicating a kind of postcolonial logic, with Communist Russians representing progress, and his protagonist's "nation" of misfit individuals from desperate ethnicities representing a primitive past.  However, Platonov's empathy for his protagonist and all of his characters is almost supernatural.  Someone once said that Tolstoy was such a brilliant novelist because he had so much empathy he could basically cry for the fate of a horse he encountered.

The quote applies to Tolstoy but also points to why Platonov was also a truly brilliant novelist.  Platonov not only affords us the opportunity of understanding his desperately poor and downtrodden characters, he does this by forcing us over and over again to get to know and feel the sad plight of all living things, including many dozens of animals.  I thought of the Tolstoy quote many times as Platonov forced me to think deeply, and feel deeply, about a long series of animals in the desolate landscape, including birds of prey, dogs, and sheep.  In fact, it's almost impossible not to cry when Platonov describes the inner life of a camel his protagonist encounters.  The author's extended interest in animals is no accidental literary device.  The point of the repeated exercise in uncanny empathy must be that he intends all of his readers to understand life at his deepest, most primordial, almost animalistic level:  we live, we suffer, and we die.  Soul is a deep meditation on the nature of suffering, but somehow it isn't really merely tragic.  In fact, I would say that Platonov wants us to suffer so much with his characters that we somehow come through with him to the other side, and see that joy is somehow the other side of tragedy, that life itself is too profound to be treated in any simple or one-dimensional way.

The translator tells us that Platonov was full of ironies or dichotomies, and that his secularism was strangely religious.  This seems to be an apt description of his project in Soul, to make us look at ordinary life through the eye of a Jesus, Muhammad, or Buddha.  There is no sharp distinction between life and death Platonov seems to say, or even between different people, or perhaps between people and animals.  We exist.  We are connected.  Platonov's says the same thing in almost a hundred different but equally profoundly novel ways, but his description of people who are essentially dead already ultimately makes the point that there really isn't all that much difference between being dead and being alive:  even in a Soviet Russia--or perhaps especially in a Soviet Russia--everything is, and remains, Soul.

The Revolution in the Netherlands

I have just spent two weeks in the Netherlands.  I went there as part of an international exchange program.  The trip had very little to do with revolutionary history, but I can of course never stop thinking about the Russian Revolution or Russian history in general.  This being so, I read Platonov's excellent novella, Soul, while there, thought about Peter the Great's sojourns in the lowlands, and attended an exhibit on the Russian Revolution at Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum.

The exhibit was excellent, although it emphasized the fate of the royal family and slightly deemphasized social forces.  The exhibit included photographs, artwork, sculptures, propaganda pieces, and royal household artifacts.  Overall, the exhibit made the story of the Russian Revolution into a morality tale about the czar's stupidity, and perhaps martyrdom.  The gift shop reemphasized the theme of victimhood, since the museum goer could purchase mugs and magnets that depicted royal family members but no revolutionaries were on display.  This is probably appropriate.  The exhibit told the story of a family who were ultimately murdered.  However, the story of the Revolution should probably transcend the story of the last monarch, as compelling as that story may be.  At any rate, the exhibit showed the tsar's movement from international playboy, to groom, to father, to reluctant ruler, to oppressive despot, to bungling war leader, to private citizen, to victim.  The exhibit also made the interesting point that the tsar had used his lovely children as fashion icons in order to reinforce the glamour and prestige of his autocratic power.  The massacre at Khodynyka Fields in 1896 is represented. Rasputin makes his appearance.  The czar's confinement homes are there.

This exhibit was a reasonably emotional experience for me, as its promoters no doubt intended it to me.  The previous day I had also thought about revolution though.  I arrived in Amsterdam in the midst of soccer mania, with me walking the streets just as Amsterdam's soccer club went to war with Manchester United in Stockholm for the European championship.  As game time arrived, the city began to fill up.  I started to think that this city frenzy resembled the revolutionary impulse on some level.  Helen Rapport's recent book on Revolution describes revolutionary excitement in this way:  as a swirling chaos of excitement.  As the game began, people were everywhere, and policy were present in large numbers.  Although the crowds ultimately remained friendly, and turned morose rather than violent as Manchester emerged victorious, one knew that revolutions often begin in similar ways.  The crowds grow, and although the city has a center, nobody can be certain where, exactly, the center of the crowd will be at any moment.  That night in Amsterdam fireworks went off from time to time, scaring people momentarily, but turning easily to merriment when the sound was identified.  This recurring sound again made me think of revolution, with moving crowd members never quite certain whether a noise might be violence or merriment.  In a revolutionary crowd, each stare between crowd members is both social compact and masculine challenge.  In fact, part of the reason revolutions may sometimes break out is that swirling crowds are, perhaps, sometimes both too masculine and too young.  Although the Russian Revolution was set off by female marchers, the Amsterdam crowd youth and masculinity seemed to make it especially threatening.  Young men marched in large groups, angrily singing their soccer war anthems, expecting others to join in (defying others to avoid joining in?).  At one point I was in the Rijksmuseum quietly observing the masterpieces, when the raucous crowds outside began shouting soccer chants.  I couldn't help but think this was the bourgeois notables must have experienced in St. Petersburg, as they attended the theatre or ate dinner at a cafe, even as the mobs began to ebb and flow around town.

Tarqi Ali's The Dilemmas of Lenin

For more than a decade I’ve been reading about the Russian Revolution, but, with some element of irony, I have to confess that I have seldom read many modern Marxist accounts of the event.  This deficiency was somewhat remedied by my recent encounter with Tariq Ali’s new book, The Dilemmas of Lenin, which approaches the Revolution and Lenin’s biography from an unapologetically Marxist point of view.  Ali’s book provided me with an excellent framework for judging the Russian revolutionary tradition on its own terms.  Ali’s Lenin almost always makes the right decisions about politics.  According to Ali, Lenin was rightly appalled both by colonial rapaciousness and the First World War and therefore made a series of decisions to make no compromises in the struggle to take power from both autocratic and liberal Russia.  On a human level, Ali’s Lenin is extremely sympathetic.  While he may well have been polemical, his style of politics was born of personal pain (i.e., the execution of his older brother) and rendered necessary the brutality of the system he opposed. 
            The downside of Ali’s description of Lenin is that it never completely leaves behind the hagiographic Soviet tradition he pretends to reject.  For Ali thinks Lenin was right on almost every theoretical and tactical decision he ever made.  To be sure, Lenin was a strategist of undeniable genius.  Lenin created the conditions for the victory of the Bolsheviks in fratricidal socialist conflict.   He helped to turn Russian radicals away from individual acts of terror and toward organized resistance to autocracy.  He pushed the Bolsheviks to successfully seize power in October.  He correctly realized that the Brest-Litovsk Treaty would guarantee the survival of the Revolution. He worked with Trotsky and others to organize the Bolsheviks for civil war.  He used the NEP interlude to give the Soviet economy some breathing space.  And he even seems to have made some relatively prescient predictions about Stalin and Soviet bureaucracy at the end of his life.  In terms of theory, Ali thinks Lenin also deserves praise. Ali thinks Lenin made valuable contributions to Marxist Theory, especially in terms of strengthening Hobson’s argument about the links between colonialism and capitalism.  
            Ali’s take on Lenin is extremely persuasive.  His well-informed, readable book will help overturn many stereotypes about the man that are driven more by the results of Stalinism than by Lenin’s real personal characteristics.  While Lenin’s political decisions may have had disastrous consequences for Russia, this does not necessarily mean that Lenin wasn’t a richly human figure.  Contrary to many historical accounts, Lenin loved at least one woman deeply (i.e., his mistress), listened to music, read poetry (he preferred Pushkin to Mayakovski), empathized with the suffering of others, maintained lasting friendships, and sometimes admitted wrongdoing.  Ali’s book also helps non-Marxists acknowledge that Lenin’s October Revolution wasn’t a coup d’etat as it is frequently portrayed.  Although the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t democratic, Bolsheviks had a great deal of concentrated support in Russia’s largest two cities, and their party appealed to Russian workers for a variety of very good reasons, including their support for immediate peace with the Central Powers.
            To sum up, Ali’s book helped me to see Lenin as so many of his supporters must have seen him, not as a brutal sectarian but as a practical man who wanted to be sure a revolution finally actually succeeded in both taking and maintaining power.  Indeed, even some of Lenin's most controversial decisions may make more sense when the socialist alternatives are examined in more detail.  Most importantly, if most European socialists were actively supporting nationalist governments at war, what obligation did a convinced Marxist have to include them in their counsels? Could any reasonable socialist have expected a communist government to be worse for people than the previous regimes had been?  Lenin was also naturally concerned that the Russian Revolution would succumb to counterrevolution just as the Paris Commune had done.  For this reason, a socialist might be forgiven for going to extraordinary measures to defend whatever revolutionary advances had been made.  In any event, Ali's book places Lenin firmly within a long radical tradition, and places his decisions within a global context.  For better or worse, the third Russian Revolution of the twentieth century was the first successful socialist revolution in the world.
             Ali doesn’t deal directly with Stalinism at all, and implies that only the Civil War led the Bolshevik Party to jettison civil rights and healthy intra-party debates.  Unconvincingly, Ali seems to think that if only Trotsky had bested Stalin after Lenin’s death, all might have been well in Soviet politics.  (What is more, he make the unconvincing traditional Marxist argument that fascism is merely liberal capitalism seeking to defend itself from communism).  Although Lenin the man may be partly forgiven for not anticipating that Soviet terror could or would actually exceed liberal European bellicosity, his milieu’s disastrous disregard for democratic and liberal civil rights traditions deserves extended comment. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Platonov Quotes from Two Plays

In my previous post, I touched upon Platonov's plays within the context of the Russian war on boredom.  Plotanov's two plays, The Hurdy-Gurdy and Fourteen Little Red Huts also contain themes related to Soviet ideology, propaganda, verbal savagery, and impending violence.  As a playwright, Platonov's greatest virtue may be his strikingly funny turns of phrase.  One sometimes thinks that Oscar Wilde might have written lines that resemble Platonov's one liners if he had been forced to describe human interactions in the inhuman age of Soviet man-made famine.  Here are just a few of the quotes that I thought captured Platonov's ability to capture the absurd nature of Soviet modernity. Probably, most literary critics would compare Platonov's plays with Beckett and other absurdists,because the absurd dialogue usually occurs in rather fantastically abstract social situations. But the insistently clever and almost inevitably paradoxical nature of every line reminds me of Wilde.

Sample quotes:

Miud:  What was if my heart starts to ache for some reason?
Aloysha:  Doesn't matter.  It will be cut out of you, to save it from torment.

Miud:  Aloysha, I've gotten bored of living in the world.
Alyosha:  Never mind.  Soon there will be socialism--then everyone will rejoice.

Aloysha:  As soon as socialism sets in, I will invent you all over again, from square one--and you will be the child of the whole international proletariat.

Alosha:  Sabotage on the part of Nature, Miud.
Miud:  Is Nature a Fascist?

Miud:  Waiting is boring.

Serena:  We want to be with you.  We love your whole bitter fate!

Stervetsen:  Here you have a shock-working psyche.  Enthusiasm is visibly located on every citizen's face.

Stervetsen:  And you--just give us the gift of your superstructure!   What do you need it for?  You have the base, after all--so you can live for the time being on the foundation.

Shchoev:  Where on earth can these bastard birds have sprung from?  Everything was so quiet and consistent with the Plan, the entire apparatus had adopted the Party line for the organization of fleshy crayfish deeps-and now in come the birds!  Try and procure them!

Shchoev:  I myself am a human being.

Shchoev:  Boredom...a tender, decent youth it can lead to developmental complications.

Shchoev:  Oh Yevsei, Yevsei, food is really just a social convention, nothing more!

Yevsei:  No comrade, we procure only uncultured animals.  We love hardships.

Stervetsen:  Nothing should be left untried.  The whole world is only an experiment.

Serena:  Papa!  Are these locusts?  Are they eating saboteur insects?

Alyosha:  You're an uncollectivized egotist!

Shchoev:  All animals, Yevsei, love one another.  But what we need isn't love, it's the Party line.

First female office worker:  Comrade Shchoev, please, let me go off duty now!  I've already spent a whole evening being joyful.

Serena: Papa, where do they keep their superstructure?

Shchoev:  What we need now is containers and packaging, not spirit.

Shchoev:  Do you imagine we keep our superstructure heaped up in a barn somewhere like bales of hay?

Shchoev:  It's all the same.  Once you enter our periphery, you no longer posses a personality.

Stervetsen:  But is your soul really manufactured like some industrial product?
Shchoev:  Our soul is the superstructure, you idiot!  The superstructure rising over the interrelationships of stuff! Of course we manufacture it.

Stervetsen:  ...your hears...are shock workers of joy hammering in your chests.

Shchoev:  O Lord, Lord, if only you truly existed!

Miud:  Aloysha, I'm bored here, I'm all in tears.  Let's get away from here and move on to socialism.

Miud:  All I care about is fulfilling the Five-Year Plan within four years.

Miud:  Don't cry Aloysha.  Just close your eyes tight and I will lead you to socialism as if you were blind.

--Chastise yourselves on your days off!

Yevsei: You are a gift of God--but there is no God...

State collective farm agent:  I am chasing birds and fish back into the economy!  But what's up with you?

Stervetsen:  Deceivers, grasping self-servers, eulogizers of the status quo, impetuous drifters...

Shchoev:  Friendly elements represent the greatest danger, Yevsei.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Boredom in Goncharov, Boym, Chekhov, and Platonov

Boredom is surely one of the most important motifs in both late Russian and Soviet literary history. One thinks immediately of Ivan Goncharov's treatise on the subject of boredom, Oblomov, where his protagonist can't usually think of anything compelling enough to make him leave his room or even rise from his bed.  The theme of boredom is perhaps most exquisitely manifested by Anton Chekhov, whose plays seem filled with superfluous characters bemoaning their existential fate as well as their economic fate as representatives of obsolete classes.  Svetlana Boym's brilliant book, Common Places:  Mythologies of Everyday Life, depicts boredom as one of the central tragedies of Russian culture.  Boym's argument is that Russians mourn banal existence and all too often seem to prefer extraordinary events to what they see as the tragedy of quotidian life.

Chekhov's Three Sisters seems to capture this predilection.  As, for example, when Masha and Vershinin try to decide how best to suffer the banality of small town life.  "To speak three languages in this town is not an accomplishment, " mourns Masha.  "It is a deformity."  Vershinin has only a slightly more optimistic view of the situation.  He believes that in the very distant future things will be better. "In two, three hundred years... life on earth will have become unutterably beautiful.  Men need such a life.  We do not have it, but we dream of it.  We anticipate it.  We wait.  We wonder.  We prepare for it."  More than this, Vershinin's view of the present is that it should perhaps be thought about as a rough draft for a better life.  Irina also complains, although it's not entirely clear whether her lament is a class-based complaint or an existential one.  One suspects it is a mixture, or that the aristocratic life somehow symbolizes the more general human condition.  "And if one does not work...that's why we are unhappy. Isn't it?  Because we have nothing to do.  We are born of people who despise work."

For Chekhov's characters, the melancholy of the present can only be redeemed by the splendor of the future, although his characters rarely seem certain about the extent to which that future will actually come about.  "Can we not day dream, as it were, of what life will be in a hundred  years?" Vershinin asks Tuzenbach.  Tuzenbach begins optimistically.  "People will move in hot air balloons.  Fashions will change. We will see the discovery and development of the Sixth Sense."  But then Tuzenbach sours even on this idyll.  "But life...Life will remain the same. Dark. Full of mysteries.  Dark. Difficult.  Unhappy.  In a thousand years, too."  Vershinin retains his enthusiasm for the future.  He can bear the sorrowful present only if life will change in the future.  "At some time...Life will have changed.  How can we think that it will not--as it is changing now?  ..a happy life--a life of betterment."

Chekhov's attitude toward everyday life, and toward boredom in particular, sometimes seems to anticipate the Russian Revolution.  Although we know Chekhov could not have predicated the revolution, we can see in the revolutionary impulse some desire to transcend everyday existence in favor of a radically different future.  As it turned out, the Soviet future was worse than the Old Regime's dreary present, much worse.  For this reason, it's interesting to pair Platonov's brilliantly absurd plays about the Soviet experience with Chekhov's more naturalistic treatment of turn-of-the-century Russian hope of radical transformation.  For Platonov, post-revolutionary communist life remains supremely boring, although that boredom has become almost ideologically necessary to the Soviet state's continued existence.

In both Fourteen Little Red Huts and the Hurdy-Gurdy, Soviet citizens are supremely bored, but boredom (made more vicious by the presence of man-made famine) in the present seems to consolidate one's faith in the Soviet future.  Hurdy-Gurdy opens with the theme of boredom as Miud says to Aloysha, "I've gotten bored of living in the world," and Aloysha replies:  "Never mind.  Soon there will be socialism--then everyone will rejoice."

In fact, Aloysha's retort shows that the Soviet state seems to have finally harnessed Russia's unending (and therefore tedious?) problem with boredom.  When Serena in the Hurdy-Gurdy asks Aloysha later in the play, "Why do you look so bored on your face?" Alyosha's reply is once again ideologically sound.  "Because I'm always yearning for socialism...."  Of course, Alyosha's faith in the future is perhaps no less fragile than Chekhov's Vershinin's faith in the future was.  When Serena shows even a hint of doubt about Aloysha's faith by asking, "And will it be wonderful?"  Aloysha logically replies:  "For a question like that I could kill you. Can't you see?"

In fact, the Soviet Union's principle contribution to humanity may be its putative solution to boredom. In Fourteen Little Red Huts, we see that Communism has solved the problem of suffering in the present by actually turning suffering into a positive virtue.  Thus Bos says "That's good--suffer! Suffering's splendid.  I'm reminding you, so you don't forget."  Communism also provides citizens with a road-map to the future that justifies the present.   With Marx and the Party Line, Soviet citizens "can see right through humanity to the whole of fate!"  In the end, Platonov shows us that the Soviet state has developed a number of different solutions to the problem of time, which is in the end another way of labeling the problem of boredom.  The Soviet state has discovered tools for defeating time.  For instance, the Soviet state has five year plans that can be completed in four years, and shock workers who can do the work of multiple days in a single day.

The Soviet Union has also shown Russian citizens that they do not need to even create the future, as Chekhov's characters suggested.  Rather, they can do what Platonov's Bos suggests, which is precisely nothing.  This is because the Communists had showed him that it's okay to "languish without motion amid the historical current." There's a paradox here, but Platonov suggests that Soviet citizens can defeat boredom in two equally absurd ways.  First, they can work twice as hard to speed up time, and second, they can do nothing and drift in the current of the proletarian future.  Bos sums up the paradox of Soviet boredom this way:  "I'm bored of you all with your youth and enthusiasm, your capacity for work, and your faith in the future.  You stand at the beginning, but I already know the end.  We can't understand each other."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Helen Rappaport's Caught in the Revolution

Helen Raaport's new book, Caught in the Revolution, is an excellent compendium of foreigner eye-witness accounts of both the February and October revolutions in Russia.  It is exhaustively researched, and well-written.  The book also helps readers to get a vivid sense of how events seem to have unfolded at the time.  In other words, it miraculously gives the reader a general sense of chronology even as it teaches us that the revolutionary events felt disordered or unpredictable at the time.  Perhaps the book's greatest strength is that it gives us a sense of the paradoxes of revolution. On the one hand, St. Petersburg was extraordinarily violent and dangerous as the Romanovs disappeared from the scene.  On the other hand, people continued to go about their ordinary business in many respects, even attending theatrical performances in some of the most hectic moments of political chaos.  And while Rappaport shows us that the revolution continuously surprised people, she also demonstrates that many observers already sensed that Russia was headed toward some form of catastrophe.

Rappaport's foreigners may not have understood everything that they witnessed, but they certainly add something to our understanding of what a revolution looks or feels like.  Rappaport relies heavily on the accounts of British, French, and American diplomats and journalists, but captures a number of other different perspectives as well.  Generally speaking, these eye witnesses are biases against the Bolshevik takeover, with the notable exception of Reed and Bryant.  Again, it's the paradoxes of the book that struck me most. For Rappaport reveals that Lenin and Trotsky and their ilk were marginal players in the much wider drama of a society in collapse.  But her sources also show that in such a descent into disorder only a group such as Lenin's would have made any sense to many Russians, who no doubt couldn't believe that the country was still at war when it could no longer feed itself or make its factories run.

I read Rappaport's book directly after finishing Smith's excellent investigation of Rasputin.  The two books work well with one another.  Reading Smith's book one gets a clear sense that the Russian political order was incredibly fragile as it entered the first world war.  Ironically, Smith shows us that Rasputin was not exactly Russia's problem.  In fact, he was a much more sympathetic character than is often portrayed.  Yet the fact that both Nicholas II and Alexandra were so heavily dependent on a a man like Rasputin reminds us that autocracy was no longer viable as Russia moved forward into the twentieth century.  This dependence had serious political consequences, but is also symptomatic of the old regime's brittle nature.  Even the monarch's relatives and fellow aristocrats became critics. Rapapport revisits the final days of the Romanov dynasty, but then suggests that the Provisional Government inherited at least some of the problems of the Romanovs, and never really stood much of a chance of securing legitimacy in such chaotic conditions.  Continuing the war was certainly the government's worst mistake of course.  One would like to see a closer investigation of why the Provisional Government was unable to consider leaving that war.