Off The Shelf: Seasons Change

Bas-relief depicting Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin on a dam of the Kirov Reservoir in Kyrgyzstan. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)
Some observations about the Russian Revolution, and about Sean McMeekin’s new revisionist history of it.

Editor’s NoteEvery week, Michael Brendan Dougherty writes an “Off the Shelf” column sharing casual observations on the books he’s reading and the passing scene.

From vacation rentals to the intensive-care unit. That’s been the transition from summer to September for the family. When I should have been sending a printed manuscript to my editor, I was in the family car, making circles in a hospital parking lot, so my kids could get their nap in, while my wife supported her family inside. To kill time, I listened to podcasts, popped down to Wendy’s in case my daughter woke up to a need for chicken nuggets. She didn’t, so I ate them. I stopped to email and send messages to Catholic friends who are trying to get the scoops on what Pope Francis knew.

Smartphones make life ridiculous in this way, with their deranging simulation of multi-tasking. One minute I’m listening to my colleague Jonah talk about a long-distance drive on his podcast, while I keep the kids lulled in the land of nod. Meanwhile I’m handling occasional gripes about uncomprehending heart specialists in the building I’m circling, and sending messages to priests who assist members of the Roman Curia. They are telling me what they can tell me without violating the Pontifical Secret, which is not much. Jonah makes me laugh, and I try to remind myself that we need to get my daughter down to bed as early as possible, to help her mood as she makes a tough adjustment to a new school routine.

When I need a break from worrying about my daughter, from collating information about a pope who my sources assure me (but cannot prove to me) knowingly rehabilitated a predator archbishop, or cursing over doctors who rotate into a grave situation they barely understand, I put on the new Dierks Bentley album. Big, hopeful, well-crafted Nashville pop country songs, that I’m still ashamed to admit move me.

Luckily, in the midst of all this, I assigned myself the utterly light reading of Sean McMeekin’s blockbuster revisionist history, The Russian Revolution. Actually, I’m not even kidding. Compared with the history books I was reading in earlier editions of this column, the death counts in this one were much lower. Fewer long descriptions of mass torture; Stalin is not yet in full flower in this volume, which follows in the tradition of Richard Pipes’s history of the same. McMeekin’s book, however, does more to locate Lenin’s success as due to the assistance and wishes of Germany.

I was raised in an era where Communism was largely detested and laughed at even on the left. By the time I got to Bard College (where McMeekin teaches now), the presence at the school of an Alger Hiss Chair of Social Science was kind of a joke among the politically aware on campus. In fact, I still have a hard time taking McMeekin’s conclusory warnings against radical socialism and Communism seriously precisely because it all seemed so obviously discredited in my life, even in places that vestigially venerated Alger Hiss. Still, I’m grateful for McMeekin’s work, which corrects the dim and entirely incomplete picture of the Russian Revolution given to me in my high-school education.

McMeekin is very helpful in making observations about the state of pre-revolutionary Russia:

The strength and also the weakness of autocracy was that there were few intermediary institutions between the tsar and his subjects to absorb and dampen popular frustrations. Labor unions were illegal. There was no national parliament to focus the government’s attention on social problems. In the brief era of liberal concessions that had followed Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Tsar Alexander II had allowed the creation of small provincial assemblies known as zemstvos in 1864, but their power had been substantially curtailed by his more conservative successor, Alexander III, in 1890, when the zemstvo councils were subordinated to regional governors appointed by the tsar.

Pre-revolutionary Russia was also shocked by its embarrassing showing in a war with Japan in 1905, a conflict that began in divergent interests and could even be said to have made a permanent mark on Tsar Nicholas II, in the form of a three-and-a-half-inch scar, given to him in all the way back in 1891 when a Japanese police escort lunged at him with his saber.

McMeekin’s introduction states that Russia trailed Europe in almost every significant way. What Jonah Goldberg calls “the Miracle” in his Suicide of the West — the complex interaction of religious convictions, social attitudes, and legal structures that made the Western world such an engine of productivity, and such a suitable theater for rational political argument — seems to have been slower coming to Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century, McMeekin informs us, 80 percent of Russian people were still peasants, and the agricultural production of Russia was half the European norm. The life of the Russian nation in many ways made the glittering, Francophone glories of the court at St. Petersburg look like a gilded obscenity. Onto this stage enters the debauch of world war.

So much of the tin-eared, and frankly hokey, 20th-century propaganda for Communism literally strikes me as not credible. John Reed was paid 1 million rubles to write his account of the Bolshevik Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, in which he practically deified Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. And, when you look at it, it is hard to believe how anyone could have accepted its claims. But it becomes slightly easier to accept that they were accepted if you connect the gratitude and the hope so many people felt for the Bolshevik Revolution to the horrors and disillusionment of the First World War, in which Europe’s rulers had exhausted and bled their people with their own stupid propaganda.

If the Bolsheviks could be said to have any kind of democratic legitimacy among Russians and the Russian army, it was in their willingness to bring an end to a war that was now detested. The Bolshevik government’s publication of the secret negotiations at the end of World War I hammered home the utter cynicism of the imperial powers, and put even Woodrow Wilson on the defensive. Lenin was also correct about the nature of the Russian Empire as a “prison house of nations,” and his efforts to set up more-robust national administrations within what would become the Soviet Union may have ultimately led to the undoing of the project, but it also arguably did quell the kind of national revolutions that would more quickly undo the British Empire.

While French, British, and American liberals hailed the February Revolution, believing it to be the outworking of inevitable historical forces that would bring Russia into line with democratic allies, the German reaction was to emphasize the disorder it brought to Moscow, and to keep funding sedition.

Lenin was able to make extensive use of German money to continue pressing for a much more radical settlement. Writes McMeekin:

Lenin, however, had an ace to play: German money. For the first month after its inaugural postrevolutionary issue on March 12, 1917, Pravda had been publishing its editorials in limited runs out of a government-owned printing works on the Moika Canal. After Lenin’s arrival, the Bolsheviks purchased a private printing press on Suvorovsky Prospekt for 250,000 rubles (equal to $125,000 then or some $12.5 million today) after promising the owner that they would retain the experienced staff at full pay (an expense of more than 30,000 rubles monthly, the current equivalent of $1.5 million, or $18 million per year). This last stipulation was critical to overcome the owner’s reluctance, as he was suspicious as to how a shadowy group styling itself the “workers’ printing collective” had that kind of ready cash on hand.

The Bolsheviks could now print propaganda in virtually unlimited quantities. The circulation of Pravda quickly ratcheted up to eighty-five thousand. On April 15, the party launched a new broadsheet, Soldatskaia Pravda, addressed to soldiers in the Petrograd garrison. It had an initial circulation of 50,000, then 75,000.

It was with this German-funded propaganda machine that Lenin could put forward his lines, ones in which Marxist theory allowed him to sidestep what would otherwise look like baldly treasonous talk. He pitted the soldiers of all the combatants’ armies on the same side, against their venal rulers. He played up the idea that armed men fraternized across national lines, and there “the Russian and German soldiers, the proletarians and peasants of both countries dressed in soldiers’ uniforms, have proved to the whole world that intuitively the classes oppressed by the capitalists have discovered the right road to the cessation of the butchery of peoples.”

But what comes across as McMeekin narrates the utter ineptitude of the government created by the February Revolution is the sheer dumb luck of the Bolsheviks. Every break seems to go their way from June 1917 onward. And here it is worth quoting McMeekin’s conclusory survey at length. Because one of the largest lessons to be taken from his look at the Russian Revolution is that the war effort itself created not just the disaffection that made the Bolshevik Revolution possible but the tools by which they could consolidate their power afterward in the face of mounting popular backlash.

The most critical mistake of the tsarist government was the decision to go to war in 1914, a decision warmly applauded by Russian liberals and pan-Slavists but lamented by conservative monarchists. For this reason, it is hard to fault Nicholas II for refusing to take liberal advice during the war, to surrender power to ambitious politicians who had already shown poor judgment. Strange as it may seem to modern sensibilities that the tsar preferred the counsel of the peasant faith healer Rasputin to that of elected Duma leaders such as Rodzianko, the fact is that, had he listened to Rasputin instead of Rodzianko in 1914, he might have died peacefully on his throne instead of being butchered by the Bolsheviks in July 1918.

But his most ominous conclusion is this:

Lenin’s genius lay in recognizing the opportunity presented to socialist maximalizers by armies mobilized in wartime. Once modern states had armed huge masses of men to fight their foreign opponents, it was a simple task to propagandize them into unleashing their most atavistic impulses against their social betters at home instead, combining jealousy with bloodlust in mass looting campaigns. In retrospect the shocking thing is not that this happened in wartime Russia in 1917 but that Lenin’s insight about turning “imperialist war” into civil war had never occurred to anyone before.

One wonders if America partly blundered by assisting Russia during the famine of 1921, even as Lenin denounced Hoover’s relief efforts and mild demands for the release of prisoners as a capitalist plot “to revenge themselves on the Soviet Republic. They are preparing new plans for intervention and counter-revolutionary conspiracies.” The ability of America to feed a hungry Bolshevik Russia also enabled that regime to loot the Orthodox Church for much-needed cash. Lenin’s instruction was to “confiscate church valuables with the most rabid and merciless energy.”

There are several more Russia books in the pile, waiting for me in the next couple of weeks. And I do hope for more reading time. My manuscript, such as it is, did make it to my editor for review. And my father-in-law seems to be recovering slowly this week, edging away from the more precarious moments over the weekend and into the start of the new week.

August has given us the last blast of hot and wet weather. New York City this summer smelled more like hot garbage than I can ever remember, so I’m grateful for the coming of the only tolerable season in this place. Until next week, comrades.


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