Edited by Pete Ayrton

Harbour Books. 364 pages. £15.00. ISBN 9781-905128-31-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

When the Revolution erupted in Russia in 1917, first of all in February, and then later in November when the Bolsheviks seized power from the Provisional Government, hopes ran high that a new society would be born out of the confusion and chaos.  It wasn’t only in Russia itself that people looked to the future. Around the world, revolutionaries and sympathisers decided that they wanted to go to Moscow or Petrograd to either participate in activities, or observe them in one way or another.

Some accounts are reasonably well-known. John Reed, the American journalist, wrote a book. Ten Days that Shook the World, that is still in print, its blow-by-blow narrative giving a vivid picture of at least some of the events in Petrograd (as it still was when he got there and before it became Leningrad). Read today, Reed’s prose re-creates some of the excitement as soldiers, sailors, and armed civilians (Red Guards) struggled to take over the city. It was, in fact, a less violent affair than had been predicted, many garrison troops being either inclined to follow the Bolsheviks, or unwilling to put up much of a fight against them.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that a revolutionary party making promises of sweeping reforms in the heat of the moment – all power to the Soviets, land to the peasants, factories to the workers –might well find them difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice, especially when faced with major economic, social, and military problems. Russia had been fighting a bitter war against Germany for over three years, soldiers and civilians were utterly disillusioned, the economy was in a mess, people were starving. And when hostilities with Germany were brought to an end, a civil war broke out, and various countries – Britain, America, France, Japan - attempted to intervene, ostensibly to stop armaments supplied to Russia from falling into German hands, but really to encourage the overthrow of the struggling Bolshevik government.

It might have been expected that, once the situation settled down, if not to complete normality then at least a semblance of it, emergency restrictions would be lifted. This was not the case, and there was a growing suspicion in some quarters that the Bolsheviks were not interested in any system that allowed the mass of people to take control of their own lives. Would all those pledges about passing power to the people really be honoured?  Dictatorship of the Proletariat was, in fact, more likely to be Dictatorship of the Party.  Boris Souvarine had noticed this as early as November, 1917, and it was something that the anarchist, Bakunin, debating with Marx many years earlier, had suggested would happen.

For many of those who initially supported the Bolsheviks, a turning point came in 1921, when the naval garrison at Kronstadt mutinied in support of striking workers, and demanded that the early promises of the revolution should be put into effect. The uprising was brutally suppressed by Trotsky and the Red Army. Victor Serge was one of those who had begun to realise that an authoritarian state was in the process of being established under Lenin’s direction. Serge was also “racked by the contrast between the stated theory and the reality, by the growth of intolerance and servility among many officials and their drive towards privilege”. In his Memoirs of a Revolutionary he recalled visiting the People’s Commissar for Food, and being told about the excellent Soviet “system of rationing and supply”. He was then shown “beautifully drawn diagrams from which the ghastly famine and the immense black market had vanished without trace”.

There were other signs that all was not going well. In 1921, Alexandra Kollontai and Alexander Shlyapnikov, leaders in the Workers’ Opposition group, attempted to push for, among other things, greater autonomy for trade unions. They were dismissed by Lenin as anarcho-syndicalists, and as such were a threat to Bolshevik control of the economy. Both were sidelined into work that took them away from the centres of power. Kollontai did survive and died in 1952, but Shlyapnikov was eliminated during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. Kollontai, a fighter for “the liberation of women,” is represented in the anthology with an excerpt from her novel, Love of Worker Bees.

Some of what Kollontai was up against as a feminist was amusingly portrayed by the satirist, Mikhail Zoshchenko, in a sketch called “Domestic Bliss”. The husband welcomes the fact that his wife is no longer weighed down with domestic duties because they now eat in the communal canteen: “Let the woman know freedom……She’s got the same rights as me”. And, he adds, when she gets home from work she has time to sew, do the laundry, and darn his socks. He also suggests that she should consider taking in orders for sewing. When the narrator says that she might want to just sit and relax and read the paper, like her husband does, he replies, “What do you mean not sew? She’s a woman”.

Zoshchenko belonged to a literary group called the Serapion Brothers, whose aim was to “make literature that was sympathetic to the aims of the Revolution but free from interference by the Communist Party”. He was a very popular writer, his work exploiting the absurdities and contradictions of life in Russia in anecdotes that used a casual, conversational style to tell his stories. His popularity didn’t save him from falling foul of Bolshevik bureaucracy, however, when he wrote a children’s story in which a monkey escapes from its cage at a Zoo, “spends a day observing Soviet life and willingly returns to its cage”. Zoshchenko somehow survived until 1958, but “died in poverty, ostracised and deprived of work and his workers’ ration card”.

It has to be admitted that a lot of the writing in the anthology does focus on the growing sense of doubt and disillusionment about what the Bolsheviks got up to once they had established control. From this point of view it needs to be noted that the sub-title of the book, Writing from Russia 1917, is slightly misleading. Much of the contents relate to works produced some years after 1917, when the writers, many by then living outside the Soviet Union, had reflected on the corruption of the initial aims of the Revolution.

Nina Berberova, for example, was never popular with the Bolsheviks, and in 1922 her name was on a list of intellectuals that Lenin wanted expelled from Russia. “The Destruction of the Intelligentsia”, from her autobiography, The Italics are Mine, is a sad litany of the writers and intellectuals destroyed by the imposition of Bolshevik rules and regulations about what could be said or written: “Could we at that time foresee the death of Mandelstam on a heap of refuse, the end of Babel, the suicides of Essenin and Mayakovsky, party politics in literature aimed at destroying two if not three generations? Could we foresee twenty years of silence on Akhmatova’s part? The destruction of Pasternak? The end of Gorky?”.

Berberova says “Of course not” in reply to her question about whether or not what happened could have been foreseen. But Emma Goldman, admittedly also looking back on her experiences, seems to have had her suspicions quite early, according to her account of a meeting with an enthusiastic John Reed. His glib explanation and excuse for the execution of five hundred prisoners considered to be “counter-revolutionaries” appalled her, to which he replied: “you are a little confused by the Revolution in action because you have dealt with it only in theory……you’ll come to see in its true light everything that seems so puzzling now”. She called the executions a “counter-revolutionary outrage”.

The black Jamaican writer, Claude McKay, also had his doubts when he visited Russia in 1922/23, though they perhaps had more to do with his reluctance to let the Communist Party interfere with his interests and ambitions as a writer than with his awareness of the route the Party was following. McKay was given a warm welcome, but refused to play the role of a revolutionary black activist who would assure his hosts that a revolution was imminent in America: “I told Zinoviev that I came to Russia as a writer not as an agitator. When his messenger interpreted what I said, Zinoviev’s preacher face turned mean”. And McKay was “disgusted” by the behaviour of American delegates, “deliberately telling lies about conditions in America”. They were painting pictures of starving and oppressed workers ready to rise in revolt if given a lead by the Communist Party. It was a travesty of the truth.

Another black writer, Langston Hughes, was in Russia ten years later, 1932/33, when Stalin had taken over and socialist realism was the dominant literary style. He later recorded a conversation he’d had with Arthur Koestler, then still a staunch member of the Communist Party. Koestler asked him why he hadn’t joined the Party, and Hughes replied: “I told him that what I had heard concerning the Party indicated that it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept. I did not believe political directives could be successfully applied to creative writing”. Hughes, who carried a collection of jazz records with him, was amused by the reactions of Party officials who referred to it as “decadent bourgeois music”, adhering to Party policy in public, even though they liked to listen to it in private

As a kind of contrast to all the writers who were either disillusioned, or resented attempts to co-opt them into becoming hacks for the Party, Pete Ayrton includes work by Ilya Ehrenburg, who he says, “is viewed with suspicion in the West”, primarily for having survived for fifty years in Soviet Russia. It’s as if the only Russian writers we’re prepared to admire are those who were shot, or sent to the camps, or got into some sort of trouble with the authorities. The excerpt from Ehrenburg’s People, Years, Life seems innocuous enough not to arouse hostility to his work in general. Perhaps it’s time for a re-appraisal of books like The Fall of Paris and The Thaw?

There is so much more than I could refer to from the anthology. Isaac Babel’s 1920 diary excerpts race along, piling up details and painting quick pictures of pogroms and war, death and destruction. Babel, hounded and harassed, later claimed to have created a “new literary genre, the genre of silence”. He was arrested “for treacherous anti-Soviet activities”, interrogated, and shot in 1940.

As a contrast, the sober accounts of their experiences by Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Bruce Lockhart seem almost politely British. All three functioned as agents (spies), with Ransome’s role never clearly identified. He was sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, and may have worked for them as well as MI6. H.G. Wells (alert to the fact that what he was being shown wasn’t what he wanted to see), Bertrand Russell (not unsympathetic, but wary), Walter Benjamin, all make an appearance, as do Louise Bryant, John Reed’s lover and companion in Russia, Theodore Dreiser, and Trotsky. Dreiser’s view of Soviet education policy was hardly positive: “(it is) little more than a weapon or machine for the inculcation of the theories of Marx – a means for assuring the stability of the State and for creating a type of human being who will fit in with and continue the theories of Marx”.  

Revolution! Writing from Russia 1917 is a splendid collection and offers a wide-ranging survey of how writers, both Russian, and from elsewhere, viewed events and developments in 1917 and afterwards. As I pointed out earlier, many of them seem to have had doubts or become disillusioned  as events unfolded. What they had to say is of importance in understanding why the Revolution became corrupted.

Pete Ayrton has provided a useful introduction and informative notes on the writers concerned.