November 15, 2017

 Being There — John Reed Covers the 1917 Russian Revolution in “Ten Days That Shook the World”

By Stuart Mitchner

So, with the crash of artillery, in the dark, with hatred, and fear, and reckless daring, new Russia was being born.

John Reed (1887-1920)

Here he is again, George Kennan, our Hodge Road landlord in the 1980s. It can’t be helped. When the overriding subject of the hour is Russia, Kennan is always there. If he were alive today, he would be the guest of choice on cable and network news, whether the subject were Russian “meddling,” or the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, or even the admirable Fox series The Americans with its bizarre bromances — FBI agent Stan and his neighbor Philip, a Russian spy, and Stan and the KGB’s Oleg, who have bonded in spite of themselves over love of the same Russian woman. 

It’s just as well the so-called “Father of Containment” didn’t live to witness the nightmare buddy movie of the masterful Putin and the slavish Trump. If you want to see and hear the polar opposite of both men, watch George Kennan being interviewed by Robert MacNeil on YouTube or read his memoirs.

John Reed

In his prize-winning book Russia Leaves the War (1956), Kennan pays tribute to John Reed’s on-the-scene narrative of the Russian Revolution in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919): “Reed’s account of the events of that time rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, its command of detail” and will be “remembered when all others are forgotten.”

Reed begins by calling his book “a slice of intensified history — history as I saw it.” Russia in 1917 is “a nation in ferment and disintegration” where “hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organizations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets.” Russia “was learning to read, and reading — politics, economics, history — because the people wanted to know.” The Revolution inspired, as Reed puts it, “a frenzy of expression.” Every day during the first six months, “tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature” were produced, “saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable.” Reed sees it all as a magnificent positive because “it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts — but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky.”

Writers Who Were There

Looking for some contrast to Reed’s enthusiasm, I read 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press 2016), a paperback anthology selected and edited by Boris Dralyuk, and dedicated to his grandmother, “who was a two-year-old girl … when the Bolsheviks seized power” and who “outlived the Soviet Union by 21 years.”

Here’s an example of Reed’s Petrograd (today’s St. Petersburg): “We came out into the cold, nervous night, murmurous with obscure armies on the move, electric with patrols. From across the river, where loomed the darker mass of Peter-Paul, came a hoarse shout …. It was now after three in the morning. On the Nevsky all the street-lights were again shining, the cannon gone, and the only signs of war were Red Guards and soldiers squatting around fires. The city was quiet — probably never so quiet in its history; on that night not a single hold-up occurred, not a single robbery.”

In 1917, poet Anna Akhmatova (1899-1966) is passionately present: “Peter’s city, once so grand,/knew not who took her,/but passed — a drunken harlot —/hand to hand.”

Dated 9 November 1917, “Now,” a poem by Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), pictures a city where the streets are “slippery and vile,” “our guardians and warriors/have all retreated,” and “We’re all a bunch of homeless curs.” In Alexander Blok’s (1880-1921) “The Twelve,” a long poem that surges and swaggers on the page, “The city’s silent, not a sound/Above the Nevsky tower —/There’s no police around —/Roam without wine, my brothers!”

Mikhail Kuzmin’s “Russian Revolution” moves from “People huddled in a gloomy crowd” and lines such as “The news is ever gayer,/like a flock of doves”  to the wishful thought “we’re building a new house./Will there be space for all of us?” In fact there was no space for Kuzmin (1872-1936) and his lover, Yury Yurkun (1895-1938). According to Dralyuk’s commentary, after Stalin came to power, homosexual activity was outlawed, Yurkun was arrested, continually harrassed, and forced to become a police informant. Two years after Kuzmin died of pneumonia during the purges, his partner was arrested and executed.

Reed’s Heroics

You can sense the passion that went into the writing of Ten Days reflected in passages describing “Men literally out of themselves, living prodigies of sleeplessness and work — men unshaven, filthy, with burning eyes, who drove upon their fixed purpose full speed on engines of exaltation. So much they had to do, so much!” So much Reed had to do in so little time — a matter of weeks according to Heroes I Have Known (1942) by his friend and editor Max Eastman, who recalls encountering him one day in Sheridan Square: Reed was “gaunt, unshaven, greasy-skinned, a stark sleepless half-crazy look” on his face.” Eastman sees a literary hero: “Not so many feats can be found in American literature to surpass what he did there in those two or three weeks in that little room” with “papers in a half-known tongue, piled clear up to the ceiling, and a small dog-eared dictionary, and a memory, and a determination to get it right, and a gorgeous imagination to paint it when he got it.” What struck Eastman most of all was “the unqualified, concentrated joy in his mad eyes that morning. He was doing what he was made to do, writing a great book.”

On This Date

According to the preface to Vasily Rozanov’s “The Apocalypse of Our Time” in 1917, it was on November 15 that Rozanov (1856-1919) began writing and distributing a series of pamphlets with that title. Calling himself “the Underground Man” after Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from the Underground, Razumov spent the last year of his life working on the project, one of the most compelling prose documents in Dralyuk’s anthology. While Reed was describing the events leading to the formation of the Soviet Union, Razumov was writing of “great voids” into which “everything was falling … thrones, classes, ranks, labour, wealth”: “Everything has been undermined, everyone has been undermined. Everyone is perishing, everything is perishing.”

Buried in the Kremlin

John Reed died of typhus a year after Ten Days was published. Lenin himself wrote the introduction to the 1922 edition, which he “unreservedly recommended to the workers of the world” for its “truthful and most vivid exposition of the events so significant to the comprehension of what really is the Proletarian Revolution.”

Reed was given a state funeral and buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. If any one passage seals his claim to such an honor, it’s the one excerpted below describing the massive “Brotherhood Grave” that hundreds of soldiers and workers were digging on Red Square for the burial of 500 coffins:

“Late in the night we went through the empty streets and under the Iberian Gate to the great Red Square in front of the Kremlin. The church of Vasili Blazheiny loomed fantastic, its bright-coloured, convoluted and blazoned cupolas vague in the darkness …. Along one side of the square the dark towers and walls of the Kremlin stood up. On the high walls flickered redly the light of hidden flames; voices reached us across the immense place, and the sound of picks and shovels …. Mountains of dirt and rock were piled high near the base of the wall. Climbing these we looked down into two massive pits, ten or fifteen feet deep and fifty yards long, where hundreds of soldiers and workers were digging in the light of huge fires …. No one spoke. Overhead the night was thick with stars …. As we left, the workers in the pit, exhausted and running with sweat in spite of the cold, began to climb wearily out. Across the Red Square a dark knot of men came hurrying. They swarmed into the pits, picked up the tools and began digging, digging, without a word …. So, all the long night volunteers of the People relieved each other, never halting in their driving speed, and the cold light of the dawn laid bare the great Square, white with snow, and the yawning brown pits of the Brotherhood Grave, quite finished.”

After describing the red banners of the funeral procession “bearing words of hope and brotherhood and stupendous prophecies, against a background of fifty thousand people,” Reed writes, “I suddenly realized that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die ….”

Imagine the author reading those sentences had he lived into the Stalinist era. In Memoirs 1925-1950, George Kennan sees “the phenomenon of Stalinism at the apogee of its horror. But no one, of course, could have been fully prepared for … the cynicism, shamelessness, and contempt for humanity” that defined “the Russia of the purges,” where Ten Days That Shook the World was banned until after Stalin’s death in 1953.