“Revolution!- highly improbable! Revolution! -everyone knew this was only a dream- a dream of generations and long laborious decades…I repeated after them mechanically:
‘Yes, the beginning of the revolution.'”
This is a very, very good book.
Sukhanov was a Marxist journalist in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, and when the revolution began, he became part of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and spent several months at the heart of the revolution. This account is abridged from his over-two-thousand-page, as-yet-untranslated account, Notes on the Revolution. It still runs to 668 pages, and is consistently interesting through all of them. And consistently sarcastic, as he has a low opinion both of the liberals and their socialist allies like Kerensky (whom he really has it in for), and of the Bolsheviks. Even when he clearly admires a person, such as the Menshevik leader Martov, he still has an almost too keen eye for their weak points. This all makes him an excellent observer.
“Miliukov began to speak animatedly, and apparently with complete sincerity.
‘And for that matter- you surely don’t think we are really carrying on some kind of bourgeois class policy of our own, that we are taking a definite line of some kind! Nothing of the sort. We are simply compelled to see to it that everything doesn’t go to pieces once and for all…’
Miliukov, recognized by Europe as the head of Russian imperialism….one of the inspirers of the World War, the Russian Foreign Minister…Miliukov, a highly cultivated man, a great scholar and a professor- didn’t know he was speaking prose!”
[A reference to Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman. “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”]
On the other hand, he can be quite condescending toward a long list of people- women, soldiers, peasants, the liberal intelligentsia, the Socialist Revolutionaries (at the time, the largest political party in Russia). This is grating, and it is amusing in light of the general condescension toward women that his wife was letting the Bolsheviks hold important meetings in their flat without his knowledge.
He has a very keen eye for detail- are the trams running? What was the weather like? Who was trying to get hold of whom on the telephone? Where could a person snatch a few hours of sleep in the midst of momentous events? (Answer: in a gallery of the White Hall, on a fur coast laid out on the floor.) Reading his account, you feel as if you are living through the events, or at the very least receiving detailed letters from a regular correspondent as they go on.
It helped my enjoyment of the book that the main points of his analysis hold up quite well, though the book was written in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s – that World War One was a catastrophe and that those liberals and socialists who wanted to continue it were criminally irresponsible, and that the Bolsheviks, while right on the war, were lying about everything else and using the slogan “All power to the Soviets” to seize absolute power for their Central Committee. However, sometimes it is very hard to understand what he means by socialism or what kind of program he supported, as he tends to assume the reader knows what he means by “Marxist” and “anarchist” in reference to different policies.
There are a number of hilarious anecdotes in the book, whether in his descriptions of the hypocrisy and stupidity of various politicians, the habits of the local anarchist group, or the confusion that can occur in a revolution. For example, the story of how the Menshevik Dan convinces a pro-Bolshevik regiment to defend the Mensheviks and SR’s (then the majority in the Soviet) during the July Days, when the soldiers had come to overthrow these groups.
“The regiment, of its own free will, had performed a difficult march to defend the revolution? Splendid! The revolution, in the person of the central organ of the Soviet, was really in danger….And Dan personally, with the cooperation of the officers of the ‘insurrectionary’ regiment, posted some of these mutinous soldiers as sentries…for the defense of those against whom the insurrection was aimed. Yes, such things happen in history!”
My only regret about this book is that the rest of it is untranslated. It was really a fascinating and highly educational read. When it came out, even those who disagreed with its point of view (the Communists, for example, since it quite openly points out their dictatorial qualities) acknowledged its importance. If you’re interested in the Russian Revolution, it’s a must read. Otherwise, it’s a good guide to any author writing about a revolution, showing the day-by-day improvisation of the people who suddenly find themselves in charge, the machinations of politicians, and the shifting mood in the street. Absolutely full of telling details.
“‘Let’s sit down at the table,’ said the Ministers, and sat down, in order to look like busy statesmen.”