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 

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