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19 February 2017 @ 11:15 am
Review of Russia in Revolution, 1890-1928 by S A Smith, pub. OUP 2017  
Smith begins by pointing out that the Russian Revolution, like the French one in its day, polarised opinion and is still hard to talk about in a non-partisan way. He has gone to great trouble to present the events of 1890-1928 in a dispassionate, neutral way as far as possible so as to avoid being pigeonholed as a partisan of one or another side.

For the most part, I think this works well. He does give a very clear and detailed account of events and conditions, of how these led to revolution and how, inevitably, they also led to said revolution veering off-course. It's pretty easy to read, except when it occasionally gets bogged down in undeniably necessary statistics. But one result of this approach is that the drama of the story, to some extent, goes missing and key players do not emerge as personalities as strongly as they might - if by the end we know that Lenin was a charismatic speaker, or Trotsky a haughty man who couldn't unbend, this is because we have been told so rather than because we have seen it in action, so to speak. One might say it is unfair to criticise the book on these grounds, since it has stated its factual, dispassionate remit, but charismatic personalities do have a bearing on events, and one reason, alongside those he suggests, that revolution happened in Russia but not in Britain or Germany may well be that the leaders who could have fired it were missing in those countries.

It's also perhaps not completely consistent about this approach. During the civil war that followed 1917, there were several independent warlords leading bands of more-or-less thugs about the countryside supporting sometimes Whites, sometimes Reds and more often only their own interests. Some indulged in vicious atrocities, and he names several, but one name he doesn't mention in that context is the anarchist Makhno, who according to accounts I've seen, some of them eyewitness, was as rabid a sadist as any, shooting total strangers through train windows for the fun of it. He mentions Makhno several times, but never imputes these acts to him, so that one might read this book and imagine him better than his ilk.

I'd also have liked rather more, in the chapter "Society and Culture", on the amazing literary flowering of the 1920s, among young writers (especially in Odessa) who might have been excused for thinking of nothing but where the next log of wood for the stove was coming from. On the other hand, it was gratifying that he dealt with the changing position of women more fully than many might have done.

My principal source of information on that time up to now was the 6-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived through it and describes it so vividly that one might be there. This is a different approach, and for those desiring a thorough, dispassionate overview, there couldn't be a better. I'd recommend reading it in conjunction with such an account as Paustovsky's, to get something of the "in that dawn" feeling , the heady sense of being alive in interesting and extremely dangerous times.