Posts Tagged 'revolution'

“More out of books than out of real life”

This quote, from Russian Menshevik Lydia Dan, is one of the epigraphs to my work in progress (one of them), a novel about Russian and Ukrainian revolutionaries.

Lydia Dan, a nice girl from a nice upper middle class family of Russian Jewish intellectuals, ended up touring Moscow factories agitating for workers rights among people she had barely a common language with, staying the night with prostitutes to avoid being picked up by the secret police, marrying not just one but two revolutionaries, losing her child, choosing the wrong side (Trotsky’s Mensheviks over Lenin’s Bolsheviks), and living long enough to see a revolution she dedicated her life to, turn distinctly sour and bitter.

“As people we were much more out of books than out of real life,” Dan says, in an extended interview with Leopold Haimson published in The Making of Three Russian Revolutionaries. She means that in her young days, she and her fellow idealists who sat up or walked the streets all night discussing the revolution to come, had seen nothing of ‘real life’. They got their world view from reading Marx and Chernyshevsky and Gorky; the first time Dan actually met a real-life prostitute all she could think about were scenes she had read in Maupassant. They were so busy theorizing about the revolution, and inhabiting its weird, underground, anti-social existence of ideas, that they did not know how to hold down a job, pay a bill, mend a coat, look after a baby…

For me, writing about such people a century later, the quote has a second meaning. Dan and her fellow revolutionaries seem to me like characters out of books: utterly recognisable in their loves and hates and idiocies and heroics, but larger than life, more vivid and interesting, coming from a complete and absorbing world that exists safely between the pages. In other words, fictional.

These last few months in Ukraine, I’ve met the contemporary reincarnation of Dan and her fellow revolutionaries. They are here in all their guises: the ones who made bombs and picked up guns, the ones who wrote heartfelt tracts or disseminated poisonously attractive lies, the ones who looked after the poor and the dispossessed, the ones who spied and betrayed, the ones who were ready to die for ‘the people’ and the ones who killed, robbed and tortured people in the name of making a profit.

Again and again, I keep coming across characters who are straight from 1917.

It’s all amazing, amazing material for my novel, of course. But I realise that maybe I am more like Dan than I thought. My ideas for that novel came more out of reading, than from experience: I thought those revolutionaries were safely between the pages. It is terrifying to realise that the people who are now tearing a country I love to pieces, or trying desperately to hold it together, are in fact, much more out of real life than out of books.

This piece also appears on ABBA today


Not my phrase, though I wish it were:

‘If the US is the melting pot of cultures, then Putin’s Russia is the melting pot of ideologies’



My day yesterday, driving way too fast around Gorlivka near Donetsk with the original armed Russian revolutionary in a commandeered police car with smashed windows shot out by ‘fascists’… condensed into a sensible news article.  

I’ll wrote up the more crazy personal version here soon.

Lenin in London

He has disappearing from much of Ukraine, his statues toppled by gleeful or angry crowds. But London doesn’t mind remembering that Lenin was here.

lenin in london

36 Tavistock Place

Of course, he didn’t stir up a revolution in England – he found the proletariat too torpid.

The Barricades that Jack Built

I remember when the new paving bricks were laid all along the wide pavements of Kiev’s main street, Kreschatyk; over most of Maidan Nezalezhnosti; up Institutska and Bohdana Kmelnitskoho, spreading like a sort of monotonous grey skin disease over the whole of downtown Kiev and then out to the suburbs.

Nobody liked them much; they were ugly and, worse, impractical (slippery in the rain, cracking in the frost). Why were they being laid absolutely everywhere, replacing pavements that seemed perfectly adequate already? Obvious, people joked; because they’re made in the factory owned by Jack the Kiev mayor’s son. Or is it Jack the president’s nephew?

Later that stopped being a joke, and was repeated as fact.

I don’t know if it’s actually true about the factory owner or not. I’m not sure it matters. What matters is that everyone joked about what they assumed was true, because that’s the way everything worked in Ukraine – favours, nepotism, bribes, backhanders: endemic corruption. Someone somewhere had to be making lots of dishonestly acquired money from paving most of Kiev.

Whatever factory they came from, Ukrainians colonised those acres of ugly grey bricks. Grandmothers sold cottage garden peonies or single cigarettes from upturned crates set out on them. Kids covered them in chalked pictures and chewing gum. Pensioners knelt on them to beg; well-dressed young people walked over them and felt European.

Then demonstrators dug them up and built barricades out of them. Activists threw them at riot police.

Over last weekend, they’ve been built into monuments for the dead, holders for candles, shelves for sheaves of flowers.

Photo by M. Bibik

I still don’t know who Jack is in this case; who it is that made those bricks that paved the city that built the barricades that honour the dead who died so that no Jack would make a dishonest fortune selling the bricks that paved the city…

Maybe it doesn’t matter, so long as in future, no one in Ukraine makes jokes about the country being paved by corruption as the only way to bear knowing it’s true.

This is fact

I’ve been reading and writing (one novel finished, the next one in the planning stages) about Russian revolutionaries for so long now, I sometimes have difficulty remembering what is fact and what is fiction.

So it’s extraordinary to walk the blind, stuffy corridors of the Trubetskoy Bastion prison in St Petersburg, and peer into cells where all these people who’ve been locked away in my imagination were really incarcerated. Peter Kropotkin, Boris Savinkov, Vera Figner, Lev Trotsky; so where’s Dmitry Suvorov – ? Oh no, idiot, I made him up, didn’t I…

But the lesson I learn from this experience is that the old truism is utterly true: fact really is stranger and more terrible than any fiction.

What else can I make of it, the various incarnations of Russia’s main prison for political offenders in the Petropavlovsky Fortress, from Peter I’s son to the Decembrists to the Narodniki and SRs and Bolsheviks to the enemies of the revolution? It is such a bizarre mixture of inhumanity and repression and bureaucracy and chaos and idiocy and human error.

In Tsarist times the prisoners were isolated in separate cells, banned from communicating with each other or even the guards. They all did communicate though, by tapping out messages (on the beds, the walls, using spoons, cups, buttons) in an alphabet that they all knew. “The struggle for tapping is the direct struggle for existence,” wrote revolutionary Vera Figner.

The prisoners’ alphabet

Punishment in special cells (up to seven days alone in total darkness and cold) was mainly for attempts to communicate with other prisoners or the outside world. For tapping – three days. For writing notes in books – two days. For writing notes in the bible – four days.

The books and bibles came from the prison library. The only occupation permitted prisoners was, incredibly, reading. Didn’t the Tsarist regime realise the dangers of the written word – how else did they think revolutionary ideas spread? Books in the prison library all had to pass the censor. Nevertheless prison officers regularly found ‘morally dangerous’ works there by Gorky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Zola, Engels, Marx’s Capital…

While locked up in his cell the anarchist Kropotkin wrote up his seminal research into the origins of the ice age. Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects, in which he developed his theory of permanent revolution. Prisoners went mad, set themselves alight with gasoline from the lamps, died of TB and typhoid, were sent off to be hanged, to be incarcerated for years in the Shlissenburg fortress, to exile in Siberia where they met up with other revolutionaries and frequently escaped to Europe – Siberia a sort of vastly inefficient get-out clause for the government, a way of solving the problem of dissidents without in fact solving it at all.

After the February 1917 revolution, the cells briefly filled up with Tsarist ministers. The prison bureaucracy began to break down. Following the October revolution, they were joined by provisional government ministers and deputies, by white army officers, cadet mutineers, monarchists… In March 1918 the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police, took over. For three years ‘Enemies of the revolution’ were packed twenty to a cell. There was no prison regime anymore, just whatever brutality the guards wanted to practice. No food, no bedding, no exercise, no books. No rules.

“Opening the window of our flat on Lakhtinsky street in the nights of 1918–1919, we could hear irregular shooting and short bursts of machine gun fire from the direction of the Petropavlovksy fortress”, wrote the academic Dmitry Likhachev. The identities and fates of the 500-600 prisoners during this time are mostly unknown. No one kept records, not like those exhaustive Tsarist lists that form the basis of today’s Bastion museum exhibits. All there is is a handful of names recalled by the few survivors.

The other lesson the Trubetskoy Bastion teaches. That this is the way (must it be?) of tyranny and revolution; in fact, in fiction.


God and the State, Russian style (part II)

Spas na Krovi – the Church of the Saviour on the Blood – was built on the spot in St Petersburg where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

With its domes outside like brightly coloured twirls of ice-cream, and glittering mosaics covering every inch of wallspace inside that isn’t covered in polished marble, it’s as gaudy as the cloth of gold Lord Frederic Hamilton recalls as the only notable thing about the Tsar’s funeral.

In the later Soviet era, the building was used to store props from the Maly Opera Theatre. Appropriately, since the whole building looks like some over-the-top and faintly ridiculous piece of stage scenery. The scrolloping shrine over the cobblestones where the Tsar was blown up was once carved of marbles and jaspers from Siberia and the Caucasus. The top section is now an imitation, painted pasteboard, because the original got destroyed by some careless theatrical Communist…

(Or  played the part of an especially heavy and expensive prop in some long-forgotten Soviet-realist opera)

Alexander II got a gigantic overblown church as gravestone. His assassins got a gallows. In one of his books, Frederic Hamilton describes how he watched them being driven to their execution in open tumbrels, accompanied by brass bands playing incessantly loud and inappropriately cheerful marches. This was supposed to prevent them from addressing the crowds and inciting further revolutionary violence.

They considered themselves martyrs to the cause. The Tsar, meanwhile, was by implication joining the ranks of Christian martyrs depicted on the walls of Spas na Krovi.

The cause carried on; six years later to the day, a group of young revolutionists tried to assassinate Alexander II’s successor, Alexander III. They were arrested before they even got the bombs out of their pockets. The bombs they’d made were so amateur they would not have gone off anyway. One of them was Lenin’s older brother Alexander.

More than fifty years and the  revolution later, when the city had a name neither the assassinated Tsar nor hanged Alexander Ulyanov could possibly have guessed, during the siege of Leningrad the memorial church was used as a morgue for all the nameless dead.

On this Sunday morning the church is full of a different kind of worshipper than the Spaso-Preobrazhensky up the road. Tourists at the altar of history and luxury. I drift around from tour group to tour group, listening to the guides.

One of them is telling the stories behind the biblical scenes depicted in the huge wall mosaics. Her middle-aged Russian flock, deprived of religion through years of Communism, listen as dutifully as Sunday-school children.

Another describes the expensive and painstaking process by which the smalti glass mosaic tiles were made. A third is explaining why there are blank spaces on the iconostasis – the icons and decorations disappeared sometime during the Soviet era, when the church was looted by the heroic revolutionary proletariat/by dishonest amoral opportunists (delete as appropriate).

“And why hasn’t the museum returned these icons, you ask,” the guide says fiercely ( no one has asked). “Because we don’t know where they are, that’s why! They were stolen, these treasures of the Russian empire, and never returned, and maybe some rich person has them now in some private collection…”  she purses her lips and scowls, it’s clearly a personal affront, this theft of her heritage of gold-framed icons and crosses carved of rock crystal.

From high mosaic domes the sad-eyed saints and virgins look down at Putin’s citizens enjoying the splendours of Imperial Russia. The revolutionaries might never have existed. Light falls in through the high windows in pale, dusty blades. Outside, St Petersburg hums with sun and Sunday, the homeless and the impoverished grandmothers line up with their plastic cups and pathetic begging notices, while inside in gilt and smalti Jesus is feeding the five thousand.

All photos from 

Dreaming the revolution

Shushenskoye, in south Siberia, is where Lenin lived in exile between 1897 and 1900. Devoted Nadezhda Krupskaya came to join him, mother in tow, and married him here.

It’s hard to sympathise with revolutionary fervour repressed by a brutal totalitarian regime when you see where they lived. Large light airy rooms in a house with a pillared porch and a vine-covered arbour and flowers in the yard (sweet peas and pansies and marigolds – the same flowers still carefully planted and tended by museum staff). Inside, a desk, a bookcase, a samovar, a hunting rifle. They were even paid a monthly government pension to live here.

Here Lenin read his revolutionary books and wrote his revolutionary tracts, and Krupskaya worked as his secretary and tended the flowers, while her mother kept house for them, and all around the stable-owners and traders and beekeepers and prison officials – kulaks, rich peasants – lived as their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers had lived, snug as bugs in their flammable wooden houses, little knowing what spark burned in their midst.

Lenin’s room. Photo by Sayana Mongush

They are so lovely, these wooden houses (whole streets of them carefully preserved in Shushenkoye museum). So neat and cosy and perfectly designed for long cold Siberian winters;  the bunk above the stove and the fat brass samovar and the scrubbed wooden table under the icons, geraniums in the windows of the parlour, the sewing machine in the corner, birch-bark boxes and carved wooden spoons on the shelves with the teapot and the saucers for raspberry varenya. Outside the horses munched hay in long wooden barns; the families heated themselves to boiling point and sweated and scrubbed themselves with bunches of birch twigs in the banya. Even the poor peasant’s tiny one-room hut is bright and clean, with its flowered cotton curtains and the baby’s cradle hanging from the ceiling.

I have a whole imaginary picture of Shushenskoye in 1898, packed with romantic exiles, Decemberists and Narodniki and Polish nationalists with curling moustaches and old-fashioned aristocratic pronunciation, sitting round the samovar excitedly discussing poetry and art and war and revolution in French, full of the latest news from Petersburg (only four months late), while outside the thick soft snow falls, falls, falls, and the bears roam, and the wild unwashed Tuvans and Khakhassians beat their shamans’ drums round the ova on the hill; deep in the taiga the Old Believers study the bloodlines recorded on the front page of the family bible to see whom their sons and daughters may safely marry; in the snug one-room izbushka Masha and Vanya are curled up on the stove sucking their fingers as they listen to Uncle Petya’s stories…

And at the end of the street in his warm study sits Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will soon become Lenin; that new breed of revolutionary, not romantic at all, cold-bloodedly planning the wholesale destruction of this Siberian fairytale.

But I suppose in truth it was not like this at all, and it must have been hard enough to be sent away from urban industrial intellectual revolutionary St Petersburg to this remote backwater where the men drink and beat their wives, the streets are knee-deep in mud and the houses crawl with flies; the rich peasants exploit the poor ones, the village administration locks up whom it likes in the stockaded prison; in her unbearably cramped one room hut the woman worn out with bearing eighteen children knows she will never ever have anything nice for herself, never escape from this one room, and she sits unable to think, unable to do anything but mindlessly rock the cradle where the baby sucks on a rag soaked in pig fat and home-made vodka, the sores blooming round its mouth like a ring of roses…

And I have a whole other imaginary picture of Lenin and Krupskaya forced to attend the festival I went to in Shushenkoye, supposedly to celebrate the ecology and biodiversity of the Yenisei river and protect it from some unspecified environmental threat.

A dreary gathering on a concrete embankment of the Yenisei, adorned with graffiti and broken glass, in the rain. The ensemble of large Soviet matrons in their fifties, gamely smiling under stiff dyed and permed hairdos, knowing they look ridiculous in their turquoise satin gowns and headdresses hung with plastic pearls, singing (out of tune) songs about the water and the birch trees and friendship and smiling children and and United Are We by the Mighty Yenisei, all the cheap rubbishy sentimental rhymes that are so easy to make in Russian, here made up by the local bard, Vladimir Vladimirovich or whatever his name is, Vladimir Ilyich, and I think the original Vladimir Ilyich would absolutely hate it, the petty bourgeois self-satisfaction and aspiration thinly laid over a pit of deep anxiety and despair, the meaningless slogans, the cheap imitation of real culture, real tradition –

but it is all his fault, this ensemble, this scruffy concrete embankment, the crappy slogans (Children of One River, whatever that means, an annual ecological festival approved – of course – by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin himself, tsar nebesny), the dresses made of cheap synthetic fabric from China, the dark-eyed children from the children’s home dutifully reciting rubbish poetry; orphans, abandoned – all this is the result of the revolution, this is what it made of Siberia.

Photo by Sayana Mongush

Just outside Shushenkoye is Lenin’s shalash, the birch-branch bender where he spent a few hours once when out hunting. As children, a Russian friend tells me, we believed this was where Lenin lived, poor Lenin, persecuted and sentenced to freeze his arse off for years in a birch-branch shelter in the middle of the taiga. We didn’t realise that really he was living in bourgeois comfort in town and went off hunting bears now and then for fun, like some rich oligarch.

Shushenkoye airport, where once plane-loads of pilgrims arrived to pay their respects at Lenin’s shalash, stands overgrown and abandoned now. In the museum, the visitors want to be photographed next to the samovar, carrying the milk pails, with the woman dressed up in traditional Russian costume selling painted wooden spoons.

No one takes a photo of Lenin’s statue. No one buys a Lenin mug.

How we make history

I picked out The Vanished Pomps of Yesterday, while clearing a friend’s bookshelves, just to laugh at the title.

It turned out to be the 1919 memoirs of Lord Frederic Hamilton, a British diplomat stationed in, amongst other places, St Petersburg around 1880.

I’m writing a novel about Russian revolutionaries in the lead up to 1905 and 1917. The 1870s and 80s were a key period in Russia. This was the time of the Narodnik revolt, when peasants were encouraged to oppose the government by middle-class sympathisers, and were brutally punished; of the formation of both Narodnaya Volya, the first revolutionary terrorist organisation, and the Okhranka, the Russian secret police force which was supposed to repress revolutionary activity but was from the outset implicated in terrorist violence. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by Narodnaya Volya. I eagerly grabbed The Vanished Pomps to read.

Unfortunately, Hamilton is not at all interested in revolution.

He was in St Petersburg when Alexander II was assassinated. He tells us that the bombs were painted white, to look like snowballs, and that “Lady Dufferin… had heard the explosion of the bomb, and seen the wounded horses led past, and was terribly upset in consequence.” The next thing we know is that she has recovered enough to watch the funeral procession (“like so many things in Russia, it was spoilt by lack of attention to details”) and to attend, along with Hamilton, the funeral, where “… the only detail of the funeral which struck me was the perfectly splendid pall of cloth of gold.”

Alexander II on his death bed, by K.E.Makovsky

For six months after the assassination, social life in St Petersburg stopped, Hamilton notes. (All civil liberties were curtailed, and police repression massively stepped up, which he notes not at all). He plunges into a long description of all the fun things he nevertheless managed to get up to: mostly shooting and fishing parties on the Gulf of Finland. “It will be seen that in one way or another there was no lack of amusement to be found around Petrograd, even during the entire cessation of Court and social entertainments”, he informs us after ten pages of sporting larks. Phew, what a relief!

Hamilton’s longest comment on terrorism and police involves a ball given by the French ambassador for the newly crowned Nicholas II (“of unfortunate memory”). Just before the ball began, the Okhranka searched the embassy for a bomb thought to have been hidden in a flower pot. “They made a frightful hash of things and not only ruined the elaborate decorations but so managed to cover the polished floors with earth that the rooms looked like ploughed fields, dancing was rendered impossible, and poor Madame de Montebello was in tears. As the guests arrived, the police had to be smuggled out through back passages. This was one of the little amenities of life in a bomb-ridden land.”

The only reason factories (the revolution was largely fomented among factory workers in Moscow and St Petersburg) are mentioned at all is because their wealthy, often foreign owners attend the same clubs as Hamilton does. Peasants are there to provide a picturesque backdrop to his bear-hunting expeditions. Politically-active members of the intelligentsia feature once, when he derides ‘Madame O’ for lack of political acuity in criticising the current regime. “Poor dreamy, emotional, hopelessly unpractical Russia! Madame O–’s theories have been put into effect now, and we all know how appalling the result has been.”

Hamilton and his circle of aristocrats, diplomats and wealthy industrialists remind me of Marie Antoinette eating cake. Of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. How can he not have been aware of or interested in what was going on? He was there, in communication with ministers and emperors, watching history being made  – and all he noticed was shooting, fishing, dressing, dancing, eating, drinking. And, two years after the revolution of 1917, when his book was published, that’s all he wants to tell us about. It’s frankly infuriating. It makes you think they deserve what they got, those blinkered posh twits.

But then again, how many of us are aware at the time of what the future will prove to be significant? And, perhaps more relevantly, how many of us want to be aware? If someone from the future were to pick up a UK newspaper from today, what might she conclude? That we were mostly blinkered twits led by blinkered posh twits, too interested in the latest TV series or fashion or banker’s bonus to want to notice that our society is falling apart.

It’s pretty obvious from the book’s title where Hamilton’s sympathies and interests lie. And yet I feel I can glean something from it for a novel about revolution. The detail about the bombs being painted to look like snowballs, for instance, or the gleam of the cloth of gold covering Alexander II’s coffin: it is touches like this which make a historical novel come alive.

And the overall tone of the book invokes in me a dim echo of what those revolutionaries must have felt like: what gave them their fervour, made them mad.

(The only thing Wikipedia really has to note about Lord Frederic Hamilton is that he introduced skiing to Canada. Enough said.)

What counts as entertainment

Coming up the escalator from the Underground I had my head stuck in Maxim Gorky’s 1913 memoir My Childhood. Putting the book away and walking out into Christmas shopping in central London was too much like teleporting to a different planet.

A minute ago I’d been in a bare dark house where all children are beaten and men are violent, drunken murderers, where the only entertainment is torturing stray cats or beggars, where a boy has to steal from his mother to buy himself a school book. Now I was surrounded by mountains of unnecessary stuff, clothing and toys and films and furniture, so much choice, so much variety, most of it intended to entertain and distract us from what Gorky knew life is really like.

People passing by were arguing about the presents they’d bought or not bought; about the amount of money they’d spent and whether they could afford it. Complaining about there being too much stuff, too much clutter, too much choice getting in the way of what they’d really like out of life.

Socialist worker posters pasted outside the Underground pronounced that Capitalism is Dead.

Gorky survived the vicious, starved landscape of his childhood to become an intellectual leader of the Russian revolution. He wrote in My Childhood:

‘A long time afterwards I understood that Russian people, through the poverty and barrenness of their lives, love to entertain themselves with grief, they play at it like children, and are rarely ashamed to be unhappy. In their endless daily toil grief is a holiday and fire is fun; on an empty face even a scratch is an adornment…’

Gorky understood his poor like no one else. I wonder what he would make of our rich. The people he grew up among had nothing to divert them but their own misery. If he were writing today, I suspect he would only really be successful if he transformed My Childhood into a misery memoir…

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