Reviewed by Rob Spence
We seem to have a glut of popular historians at the moment. Simon Schama, Tom Holland, Peter Frankopan, Lara Feigel, Mary Beard are among the names that spring to mind of writers whose academic rigour is matched by their ability to write a gripping narrative that holds the reader like the best fiction. To that list, I would add Helen Rappaport, whose previous books have reflected her two major areas of interest, Victorian Britain and early twentieth-century Russia. Her new book focuses on one of the most dramatic, and far-reaching events of the last century, the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917.
I was reminded of Lara Feigel’s book The Bitter Taste of Victory, which I reviewed here earlier this year, as the opening chapters painted an arresting picture of a society divided by food, and the lack of it. In Feigel’s book, the starving and dying population of post-war Berlin look on at the excesses of the victors like urchins at a sweet-shop window. In Rappaport’s book, it is the peasants of Petrograd, denied basic foodstuffs by a combination of wartime conditions and the chronically corrupt distribution system, who are left to gaze with longing as the diplomats and high-rollers of Petrograd live it up in decadent style. This account is excellent on the way in which the revolution was originally fomented amongst the ordinary people of the city, and driven mainly by hunger.
What distinguishes this book from others on the topic, and a characteristic it shares with Feigel’s, is its use of first-hand accounts by a wide range of sources, from diplomats such as the Dutch ambassador Willem Oudendijk, to journalists such as Arthur Ransome, suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, the actress Paulette Pax, the spy Robert Lockhart, the novelist Somerset Maugham, Phil Jordan, the African-American servant to the US ambassador, various members of the Russian aristocracy, English volunteer nurses, and a host of others. Combining their observations with her own penetrating analysis of the events, and weaving the whole into a coherent and absorbing account of the revolution, Rappaport engages the reader from the start and presents us with a narrative that by turns enthralls and repels, but which is always fascinating. Petrograd’s pre-war boom, making it the centre of commerce and a magnet for industrialists and entrepreneurs, had been badly hit by the privations of war, and yet the expat community continued almost as if nothing had changed. Rappaport’s use of first-hand material, and of newly discovered archive sources, paints a compelling picture of the descent into chaos that paved the way for the October revolution.
One element that surprised me in Rappaport’s account is her demonstration that the February uprising which led to the Tsar’s abdication was a good deal more brutal than many histories admit. She uses a series of eye-witness statements, especially those of American journalist Florence Harper and photographer Donald Thompson to show that the death-count was much higher than official figures would suggest, and that the violence shockingly barbaric, with severed heads on poles being paraded, people being thrown from roofs, and policemen being pushed under the ice of the frozen Neva river.
The role of women in the initial rebellion is also emphasised, marching to support their striking menfolk, and challenging the authorities in the streets. Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrival, in June, was at the behest of a British government desperate to keep Russia in the war. Pankhurst also wanted to meet the remarkable Maria Bochkareva , the leader of the Petrograd Women’s Death Battalion. Bochkareva, a peasant girl turned national heroine, who had fought at the front, and who had raised her army to wage war even where the men were afraid to go. Her remarkable story is given full attention by Rappaport, backed up with the first-hand testimony that is such a feature of this book.
As the year wears on, and Petrograd sinks further into anarchy, the chronicle darkens, and becomes a distressing litany of appalling atrocities. Through it all, the foreign community remain remarkably upbeat, though increasingly wary of the way they are perceived by the locals. When Lenin and his Bolsheviks arrive to push forward for their ultimate victory, the foreign community begin their retreat, and the personal accounts focus on the arbitrary and sometimes violent dispossessions that took place in the frantic last months of 1917, with some poignant memoirs of a final Christmas.
Rappaport concludes her book with a chapter on the ‘Forgotten Voices of Petrograd, ’ in which she considers the afterlife of some of her sources, and also the people who she was not able to identify, including the newspaper correspondents without bylines. In many cases, these people fade away after their time in Petrograd, taking their stories with them.
This book will, no doubt, be followed by many others as the centenary of the revolution approaches. It will be surprising if any match this one for originality, vividness and a visceral sense of excitement. The volume is well-produced, with a series of startling photographs adding a welcome visual dimension to the narrative. If you want a meticulous, detailed, wonderfully comprehensive history of one of the modern world’s most momentous events, this is where to go.
Rob Spence writes about books and other things at robspence.org.uk
Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, 1917 (Hutchinson, 2016). 978-0091958954, 430pp., hardback.
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