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Thursday 6 October 2016

Review: Helen Rappaport, Caught in the Revolution, Petrograd 1917

Living capital cities are always full of foreigners and always have been. Occasionally, a sclerotic regime has tried to keep them out – of Lhasa, for example – but most regimes need them as diplomats, bankers, businessmen, engineers, skilled technicians, doctors, translators, chefs, nannies, tutors, entertainers …

St Petersburg and Petrograd (as it was from 1914) was full of foreigners – indeed, bringing in foreigners had been government policy from the time of Peter the Great. All that the outbreak of World War One did was to empty the city of Germans (except for the spies) and replenish their ranks with additional Allied personnel. So when Petrograd led Russia into Revolution, not just once but twice in 1917, there were plenty of foreigners around to observe what went on and Helen Rappaport bases herself on the records left by a relatively small cast of American, British and French foreigners in Petrograd. She has produced a highly readable book though rather unbalanced. Foreigners from neutral countries – and there were many in the First World War including Russia’s near- neighbours Denmark and Sweden – were well-represented in Russia working for Red Cross or similar relief organisations and they may have had a different perspective on events in Russia to those involved in the Allied cause. There were also at least some more working class foreigners than those to be found here. Rappaport offers a view from the middle and upper classes.

She has researched thoroughly and I think that her narrative of the February Revolution which brought down the unloved and unmourned Romanovs is very strong. For those at the time this was the Revolution and what came after in October was a coup.

But her lack of sympathy for the Bolsheviks does lead to some carelessness. She produces “property is theft” as a “favourite Marxist dictum” (page 308) when of course it is the catch-phrase of a nineteenth century French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Lenin in 1917 did not speak of property as theft but urged the expropriation of the expropriators using the more striking phrase “Loot the looters!” In an economy and administration which had literally ground to a halt, the call to loot the looters was about the only means available to the government to bring about any kind of redistribution of wealth, whether from landlord to peasant or private owner to state. Even then, it could not solve the problem of hunger which bulks large in Rappaport’s narrative. The Romanovs could not feed Petrograd, the Provisional Government could not, nor could the Bolsheviks. Many starved and between 1917 – 21 the population plunged as those who could, left.

Again, she makes another small slip, saying that the Bolsheviks finally adopted the Western calendar on 13 February 1918, instantly adding 13 days (page 326). In fact, in Bolshevik controlled areas, 31 January 1918 was followed by 14 February which would otherwise have been 1 February. I have a postcard from a Danish traveller in Siberia writing home on the 14th to say cheerfully that for the first time it’s the same date in both Russia and Denmark.

I do think there is more material around than Rappaport has discovered and she recognises this in soliciting access to fresh sources (page 340). There is, for example, material written on the back of postcards  since Russia’s postal service did function right through 1917 almost without interruption – even in Petrograd and even if unreliable. Lots of mail did not arrive at its destination and  lots was delayed. Between the collapse of Imperial mail censorship and the imposition of Bolshevik censorship, there was a space in which people probably felt much freer to write about what they saw and what they were thinking, though the legacy of censorship probably still cast its shadow

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