Friday, June 2, 2017

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.

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