On its 100th anniversary, a collection of brief, pointed writings from eyewitnesses to the Bolshevik Revolution.
British publisher and editor Ayrton, who has edited two previous historical collections (No Pasarán!: Writings from the Spanish Civil War, 2016, etc.), assembles another fine, readable anthology of primary sources. This one gives a solid sense of the enormous hope and ultimate disappointment that the Russian Revolution instilled in eyewitnesses, from Leon Trotsky to Theodore Dreiser. Ayrton presents these selections more or less chronologically, with a mix of foreign witnesses (e.g., H.G. Wells, John Reed, and Louise Bryant), Russian writers who stayed in the Soviet Union under increasingly dire, censorious conditions (among others, Isaac Babel and Ilya Ehrenburg), and Russian émigré writers who left before 1925, such as Teffi and Nina Berberova. Many of the selections are extracts from memoirs published later. One example is Trotsky’s My Life, in which he recounts the extraordinary moment when he announced to the Petrograd Soviet the dissolution of the provisional government; later the same evening, he and Lenin, returned from four months of exile, are resting on a makeshift pallet on the floor of an empty meeting hall, “body and soul…relaxing like over-taut strings.” Arthur Ransome’s diary entries from Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 give a good sense of the shifting precarious political winds, while, in The Russian Countess, Edith Sollohub describes the (rather lucky) help she received at the hands of her father’s former coachman, who was elevated to Communist House Commandant. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman became bitterly disillusioned with Soviet Communism after the Kronstadt Uprising of 1921, and many writers wrestle with the new social order, such as “social realist” author Dmitry Furmanov, in his epic Chapaev. Times were rapidly changing, indeed, as delineated in popular Soviet writer Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “Electrification,” in which the fashionable illumination of Soviet Russia only seems to reveal how shabby their lives really were.
Compelling, timely extracts to spur deeper exploration.