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Reading the Revolution

Sean Sheehan

Metahistory, by Hayden White, Johns Hopkins University Press, 480 pp, £22, ISBN: 978-1421415604
The Russian Revolution 1905-1921, by Mark D Steinberg, Oxford, 400 pp, £19.99, ISBN 978-0199227624
Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928, by SA Smith, Oxford, 472 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198734826
A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner, Pluto Press, 304 pp, £12, ISBN: 978- 0745399034
 October, by China Miéville, Verso, 384 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1784782771
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, by Natalia Murray and John Miller, Royal Academy of Arts, 336 pp, £26, ISBN: 978-1910350447
Petrograd 1917: Witnesses to the Russian Revolution, by John Pinfold, Bodleian Library, 304 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1851244607
Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, ed Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, The British Library, 224 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0712356787

A plethora of print has appeared this year in response to the centenary of the Russian Revolution but, before delving into the many new books on the subject, it pays to bear in mind another birthday book: the fortieth anniversary edition of Hayden White’s Metahistory. In this seminal work “the past” is a construct, a set of politically and socially determined discursive practices mediated by language, ideology and aesthetics. For Hayden White, the two discourses of literature and history may be seen as ontological cousins; the writing of history, besides being based on empirical research, is seen to crucially engage with and depend on the imaginative faculty. The consanguinity is very close: “The differences between a history and a fictional account of reality are matters of degree rather than of kind.” Facts do not speak for themselves – “the documentary record does not figure forth an unambiguous image of the structure of events attested in them” – and the historian has to prefigure what set of events will count as knowledgeable. For White, this is a poetic act and is “constitutive of the structure” that will be offered as an explanation for what happened and why.

Plot, taken as a temporal ordering of events and driven by a compulsion for narrativity, is common to fiction and historiography and in both cases is usually understood to involve causal links and a consideration of motives. For White, the work of the historian in arranging events and sorting them into a hierarchy of meanings involves an essentially literary dimension.

Although historical facts themselves are not invented, they are constructed in so far as their meaning and significance is shaped into a set, a completed story, and White explains this by way of three approaches: emplotment, argument and ideology. The intricacies of the taxonomy need not detain us but his distinction between the aesthetic nature of emplotment and the cognitive quality of argument and ideology is illuminating. Emplotment is White’s term for the developmental story that emerges from the way events are framed, forming an aesthetic that is different in kind from the intellectual and philosophical orientations that characterise the other two modes, argument and ideology. The possibility of a different story emerging from the same events induces epistemological anxiety and invites charges of relativism. Choices are made about what is worth writing about and what unrolls is a narrative chain of events that we call history but which is also a story shaped aesthetically and cognitively by the author. Each fact does not possess its own precisely determinate atomic weight: they can be enlarged or shrunk, take on huge or minimal significance, depending on how – temporal succession notwithstanding – they are joined up. This is something that may be shaped by literary and political choices on the part of the author – conscious and unconscious –and the facts themselves may be affected by the way they are written about.

A virtue of Steinberg’s The Russian Revolution: 1905-1921 is that his crisply written study acknowledges – without naming White – the issues raised in Metahistory, and he is frank in stating his admiration “for those who fought for something better in life” while admitting that “history tends to bring disappointment, or worse”. His book brings authentic perspectives to light in the form of contemporary newspapers and first-person reports and he homes in on the class abyss that fuelled the traumatic course of events between February and October 1917. He notes how the word “bourgeois” was transplanted into Russian as burzhui and used imprecisely for industrialists, aristocrats, rich peasants, officers in the army; it became a term of moral judgement and was absorbed into the vocabulary calling for a social and cultural revolution and not merely a political change of power.

Smith’s study, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928, beginning earlier and ending later than Steinberg’s, maintains the steady pose of the professional historian and he keeps his sympathies to himself. His laudable aim is to link “human agency and the power of ideas” with “the deeper structuring forces of geopolitics, empire, economy, and culture”. He sees the success of the Bolsheviks in October as due primarily to the moderates’ unwillingness to end the war and the chord that radicals struck with people’s desire for deep changes in society. The civil war that followed October, with the forces of reaction fully supported by the West, weakened the state and saw the emergence of Stalin and his “revolution from above”. Smith discusses to what extent Bolshevik ideology made Stalinism possible and at times he hovers close to endorsing the view of right-wing academics like Richard Pipes (who served as Reagan’s adviser on Soviet matters in the 1980s) that views one as logically entailing the other. In his conclusion, though, he demurs, pointing out that it is easier to highlight the illusions under which the Bolsheviks laboured than the ideals that inspired them. They were fired, he says, by “the exploitation that lay at the heart of capitalism” – though whether “lay” here is being used in the past tense, meaning that somehow this is no longer the case, or in the sense of a continuous present may be reflective of a mindful equivocation on his part.

Faulkner’s A People’s History of the Russian Revolution communicates no such hedging and his socialist perspective is explicit. He provides an earnest chronicle and the essential background to the February and October revolutions, highlighting key moments and providing a sound introduction for readers not familiar with the course of events. When it comes to February 1917 there is a day-by-day chronicle from the 23rd to the 27th and it is clear the revolution came from below – it happened on the streets and bridges of Petrograd – starting with a women’s march and crucially determined by mutiny in the military ranks; no elite vanguard or cabals, and the middle classes reduced to onlookers: “they watched events unfold from the balcony”, as Ferguson puts it.

If you didn’t know that China Miéville, in the same socialist camp as Ferguson, was primarily a novelist you might come away from his October thinking he was essentially an accomplished and literary-minded historian. His book cannot be faulted on the facts and what makes it an extraordinarily good read is a penetration and evocative prose that is often missing in historiography. The political imbecility of the Russian monarch is reflected in his “placid tsarry eyes” that ignore warnings of a crisis to come; the final act of the revolutionary year of 1905 is an “arcane orthographic revolt” when Moscow printworkers, remunerated per letter, demand payment for punctuation, too; when the architect of October arrives at the Finland station in April a bouquet of flowers is incongruously thrust into his hands but they “dangled half-forgotten from Lenin’s fingers” when he ignores the official reception and roars to the crowd about “imperialist slaughter” in the trenches and the “capitalist pirates”. Miéville’s focus is on the febrile and politically explosive months between February and October: rural insurgency looms; the Bolsheviks start to share Lenin’s prescience as red flags wave (for a while at least) alongside the anarchists’ black ones; a provisional government struggles to rule and Chernov, one of its ministers, finds a fist shaken in his face – “Take power, you son of a bitch, when it’s given to you.” Miéville’s shift into novelistic gear after the street-fighting “July Days” is dictated by a dizzying non-fictional narrative and he provides what is easily the most exciting, empirically based account of those tumultuous months.

Two books successfully impart the enthusiasm and urgency that fuelled the revolutions of February and October: one from the Royal Academy of Arts and the other from the Bodleian Library. The publication occasioned by the outstanding exhibition Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy serves as a telling riposte to the simplistic tragedianism, brought to pop-rock life by the Rolling Stones – “I stuck around St Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change / Killed the Tsar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain” – that pictures the revolution as the work of the devil. The exhibition and the book is stunning testimony to the avant-garde artists inspired by the revolution and the breath-taking range and quality of their work is supplemented by a set of ten learned and enlightening essays. Petrograd 1917 brings together extracts from letters, diaries and memoirs in the Bodleian’s rich collections: the daughter of the British ambassador, an Australian jockey, a governess and a suffragette are only some of those who were in Russia in 1917 and recorded what they saw. Hugh Walpole wrote a novel based on what he experienced, The Secret City, and one of his characters walks through Petrograd’s streets and senses the energy and jubilation released: it was a day when “the world was suddenly Utopia”.

The British Library makes use of its own collection for the Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths exhibition (running until September). The accompanying book is a visual treat but the somewhat bloodless text is disappointing and there is the feeling that some of the five contributors, disinvested from the incendiary import of 1917, have a distaste for what the Bolsheviks so urgently yearned for between February and October of that momentous year. The reader’s attention tends to be drawn away from the bland writing and towards the wealth of illustrations that are the book’s real draw.

October 1917 was an emissary of redemption and utopian possibilities, a manifestation of Adorno’s paradoxical remark in the conclusion to Minima Moralia: there is a need to comprehend impossibility “for the sake of the possible”. The best of the centenary books recognise this as they each tell their own stories, in ways that are shaped by the kind of contours delineated in White’s Metahistory, recognising the importance of the past in understanding what the future will bring.

1/6/2017

Sean Sheehan taught English but is now a full-time writer of non-fiction, dividing his time between London and West Cork. His most recent books are Žižek: A Guide for the Perplexed and Sophocles’ Oedipus: A Reader’s Guide (both published by Bloomsbury, 2012).

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