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.

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