Book review: Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport offers a thoroughly-researched and absorbing account of the Russian Revoultion. Picture: Contributed
Helen Rappaport offers a thoroughly-researched and absorbing account of the Russian Revoultion. Picture: Contributed
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Helen Rappaport offers a thoroughly-researched and absorbing account of the Russian Revoultion

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport | Hutchinson, 430pp, £25

Recent history in the Middle East has reminded us that regimes can crumble and collapse quickly, overwhelmed by a revolution. Few in European history have done so as abruptly and devastatingly as Imperial Russia. The great French Revolution was slow in comparison; there were three years between the storming of the Bastille and the end of the monarchy. In 1917 there was barely a fortnight between the February Revolution in Petrograd and the abdication of the Tsar.

Helen Rappaport, whose previous books include The Last Days of the Romanovs, now offers a thoroughly-researched and absorbing account of the year 1917 in the words of eye-witnesses – diplomats, journalists, photographers, bankers, doctors, nurses, charity workers, art dealers, spies, and the US ambassador’s chauffeur-valet, an engaging and resourceful African-American. Some were concerned with high politics and the need to keep Russia in the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, others with the more basic problem of feeding themselves at a time when even grand hotels might only have cabbage soup to offer.

The account of the February Revolution is vivid and frightening. Described at the time as a “benign Revolution” – like first accounts of the Arab Spring – it was actually violent and brutal, as mobs ran riot and revenge was taken on the hated police and anyone suspected of being a Government spy. Rappaport remarks that it could have been even more horrible, but for the ban on the production of vodka introduced on the outbreak of war in 1914.

Nevertheless the late winter and spring of 1917 were a time of optimism and happiness such as, arguably, the Russian People would not experience again for the next 70 years, a brief hour when freedom seemed a reality and the future bright. It didn’t last of course. The Provisional Government set up by the Duma (Parliament) lacked authority and was very soon in conflict with the Workers’ Soviets and threatened by mutinous soldiers and sailors. Freedom lasted a mere nine months, till the October Revolution – really a Bolshevik coup d’etat – snuffed it out.

Rappaport’s evidence suggests this might have been averted if Kerensky, the nearest thing to a strong man in the Provisional Government, had been more decisive (and less conceited). He might have arrested Lenin and Trotsky and the other leading Bolsheviks, missing more than one good opportunity to do so.

Yet what might have saved the February Revolution and given its liberal optimism a chance would have been a complete change of policy – that is, an Armistice on the Eastern Front and Russia’s withdrawal from the unpopular war.

This, of course, was what Russia’s allies – Britain, France and the USA, represented in Petrograd by admirable ambassadors – were eager to prevent, while Kerensky and his colleagues were all committed to the prosecution of the war. Lenin on the other hand, whose return from exile to Russia had been facilitated by the Germans, and who was regarded by many as a German agent, was determined to end the war. Objectively – to use that favourite Soviet term – he was indeed a German agent or, from the German point of view what he himself would call, with reference to Soviet sympathisers in the West, a “useful idiot”.

On its own terms this book offers a compelling picture of life in Petrograd in this momentous and often terrible year. I learned a lot from it, and am grateful to the author for providing so much information that was new to me. One gets a wonderful picture of the extraordinary and beautiful city that is now once again St Petersburg, and a keen sense of the really grotesque inequality that has always existed there. (There’s a finely dramatic and also comic account of the raiding of the Tsarist wine-cellars in the Winter Palace.) I say “on its own terms” for two reasons. First, the eyewitnesses of the year of revolution are almost all foreigners; there are few Russian voices to be heard. Second, the account is partial because almost entirely restricted to what was happening in the capital. This is fair enough because the decisive events took place there. All the same, one would like to know how news from Petrograd was received in Moscow and the provinces. This criticism may be unfair, however. Helen Rappaport has done what she set out to do, and done it excellently.

• Helen Rappaport, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 23 August