Charles King is the author of “Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul” and other books. He is professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.
What do you do when your country is taken over by madmen? Elena Nabokova told the valet and cook to pack the trunks and the dachshund, place the jewels in a talcum case, and prepare a knapsack of caviar sandwiches. She soon fled the capital city, Petrograd, along with her husband and children. They headed south, first for the last redoubt of resistance in Crimea and then into permanent exile across the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Years later her son, Vladimir Nabokov, could still remember the machine guns rattling on shore and the cargo of dried fruit on the rickety Greek ship that ferried them to safety, one of many that carried Russian refugees toward rebuilt lives in Europe and the United States.
The Russian revolution of 1917 — as Voltaire once quipped of the Holy Roman Empire — was none of the above. It took place within a multiethnic and multi-confessional empire, among people who called themselves Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Georgians, Tatars, Muslims and Buddhists, in addition to Russians. It unfolded not according to a preset revolutionary plan but rather through a series of missteps, accidents and twists of fortune, starting before that fateful year and extending long after it. It was not one event but several, from the wintertime collapse of the monarchy, through a summer’s flirtation with representative government and military rule, toward an autumn coup by a minority party that had the good sense to name itself “the majoritarians,” or in literal Russian, Bolsheviks.
This spring marks the 100th anniversary of the revolution’s opening salvos. In Russia, the reaction has been muted. The Putin government has had difficulty figuring out whether it is an occasion to lament, celebrate or just ignore. But historians have found it an opportunity to take stock of the long arc of change that brought about the eventual Bolshevik victory. As three new books show, the revolution was local in its origins but global in its effects — a tocsin that heralded not just the birth of a new country, the Soviet Union, but also a new way of thinking about the relationships between politics, the state and ordinary people.
In its wake came a long civil war and the wholesale refashioning of society by an overbearing state. Whatever coherence it later had was a product of Soviet historians, who recast the Bolshevik takeover as the necessary outcome of imperial decline, visionary leadership, and the revolt of workers and peasants against the exploiting classes. Our mental images are still a product of foreign sympathizers such as the American journalist John Reed or Soviet filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. When you see black-and-white film footage of surging crowds and saber-wielding Cossacks, those are fictional set pieces later crafted by Eisenstein, not on-the-spot documentaries.
The fact of the revolution’s success — the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the trampling of political opponents on the right and the left, the birth of an entirely new country built on a radical philosophy of creative destruction — provided a template for more than a century of political change, from China to Cuba, Angola to Vietnam. Today the idea of a committed revolutionary vanguard willing to lob a grenade to bring down a decrepit establishment continues to inspire disrupters and change agents of all stripes. Even Stephen Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, has reportedly described himself not as a nationalist or a populist but as a Leninist.
For much of the 1920s and early 1930s, the Bolshevik government was considered by the great powers to be a kind of anti-state — a philosophy-with-bayonets that threatened global order. Teenagers, intellectuals, labor unionists and immigrants were thought to be particularly susceptible to its animating ideology, which is why Western governments invested heavily in institutions of domestic surveillance, such as the FBI and Britain’s MI5. Immigration restrictions fell into place as governments worked to halt the supposed influx of terrorists, agitators and the self-radicalized. Countering violent extremism meant rooting out hidden Bolsheviks.
Eventually, though, the fears subsided. One by one, Western powers normalized relations with the regime they previously denounced as the antithesis of civilization. Even the old firebrand Leon Trotsky contemplated resettling in the United States. His visa application, from 1933, listed his reason for travel as a desire to tour Civil War battlefields. He planned to write a play on the subject, he told a friend, which he reckoned would be a smash at the box office. “I would arrange my life in the United States in a manner calculated to cause as little rumor and sensation as possible,” he promised the State Department. The visa was never granted.
Of course, as Russians celebrated the new year in mid-January 1917, no one knew that all of this was yet to come. The empire’s old-style calendar placed it chronologically behind the rest of Europe, but there was no reason to think it was any less stable than the other great powers. Everybody was pursuing terrorists, putting down food riots, and bombing, shooting and gassing one another’s armies, just as they had been doing since the summer of 1914.
By March (still February in Russia), disaffected crowds had grown larger in Petrograd. Soldiers had stopped trying to disperse them. In the chaos, elected parliamentarians and unelected socialists stepped in to form alternative governments, which emerged as rival power centers when Czar Nicholas II gave up the throne on the night of March 15-16. It was an abdication, however, not yet a revolution. The document was signed nonchalantly in pencil, as Will Englund of The Washington Post points out in his detailed, fast-paced account of that fateful spring, “March 1917: On the Brink of War and Revolution.” What followed was confusion and a certain sense of relief, both in Russia and abroad. Among other things, the next month President Woodrow Wilson announced the U.S. entry into the war against Germany.
Englund deftly intertwines the Russian story with the American one, in an eventful month that launched America into the world and signaled Russia’s temporary retreat from it. But the causal connections are opaque. “March 1917” is a remarkable portrait of two countries on the cusp of change, but their entry and exit were ultimately minor drivers of the near-term military and political outcomes across Europe and beyond.
Not all history-writing needs causes and effects. Evocation is a legitimate, maybe even the most honest, way of making sense of the past. Helen Rappaport’s “Caught in the Revolution” is an enlightening cavalcade of people on the move — running across the frosty paving stones in Petrograd, arriving on a steam train, waving goodbye from a military transport, all caught up in the uncertain transformation of the world’s largest country. It is a reminder of the fact that outsiders of all sorts rushed to cover the events in the faltering empire, from the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst to the unsung American journalist Bessie Beatty. It is a catalogue of witnesses pulled from an exhaustive reading of European and American memoirs and on-the-spot reporting, and a testament to the supremely bad forecasting of foreigners eager to make sense of the moments they were experiencing.
If you were a Russian, though, the period from March to November 1917 could be like having your head in a vise. The French would later coin the phrase “drôle de guerre” — the funny, or phony, war — for a similar period after 1939: an ongoing conflict but not much news of it, political uncertainty, a dysfunctional government, and the sense that something — but what? — was in the offing.
Catherine Merridale picks up one absorbing episode from that spring in “Lenin on the Train”: the eight-day journey by Vladimir Lenin and other revolutionaries in a second-class train carriage from Zurich to Petrograd. A product of cooperation among German intelligence operatives and Russian socialist exiles, the trip marked the return homeward of the person who would lead the Bolshevik coup that autumn. The transformation of Russian society began nearly as soon as the carriage creaked away from the platform. Lenin insisted on no smoking in the corridors and devised a system of tickets to manage orderly access to the only toilet.
Vast amounts of money flowed east to support propaganda against the war. However, the extent of German direct financing of the Bolsheviks is still a matter of speculation, Merridale concludes. Some of Lenin’s support, she points out, probably came from a complicated scheme for war profiteering, including the illicit sale of condoms and lead pencils.
As Lenin knew, revolutionary parties must change the terms of public debate, not just present themselves as one more alternative in an overcrowded field. Mass politics requires mass propaganda, which is why modern revolutions begin by seizing the means of communication, not by building barricades or occupying an arsenal. Ignore politics as usual, make alliances of convenience where you must, cast away old allies when they are no longer of use. And if you want to alter a country’s foreign policy, find a way of transforming its domestic politics — a sealed train, full of zealous agents of change, that can be sent hurtling down the track to become someone else’s problem. Russia’s year of revolution created a recipe for upending a government. But it also made a playbook for building one: a style of state behavior, even a kind of anti-politics, that remains with us today.
By Will Englund
Norton. 387 pp. $27.95
By Helen Rappaport
St. Martin’s. 430 pp. $27.99
By Catherine Merridale
Metropolitan. 354 pp. $30