Russian Revolutionary Reads

Charlotte Hobson

For first-hand witnesses of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, the shattering events of those years were a story that insisted on being recorded. In the Slavonic section of the London Library, where I did a large part of the research for my novel The Vanishing Futurist, the shelves of memoirs from the period run and run. Russian émigrés, foreigners of all stripes who found themselves in the right spot at the right time and, later, Soviet writers, told and retold the events of those days, circling around the same details, remembering the same moments in a myriad of different ways.

This abundance of primary sources is a gift, of course, for a historical novelist—although when I was researching, it did occasionally feel like a magic porridge pot. The more I read, the more the material seemed to proliferate. Add to that the shelves of essential history, analysis and counter-analysis, and you will perhaps see how I managed to spend over a decade on this novel.

This centenary year seems a good moment to pick out the sparkling gems for recommendation, those accounts whose vividness and subtle handling of the drama and tragedy have stood the test of time. Often they were also those with a surprising comic touch: surreal comedy was as much a part of those anarchic times as cruelty and desperation.

The most glittering of all is, to my mind, Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir of his childhood and youth, Speak, Memory (1951). With affectionate, ironic incredulity he recalls the excesses of life in his highly privileged St Petersburg family; in his studiously uninflected voice he observes the small tragedies in the lives of his inferiors, if not caused then certainly unremarked by his cultured, liberal parents. Above all, however, it is his infinitely refined aesthetic sense, intensified by the almost hallucinatory clarity of exile and grief, that renders these pages unforgettable: his mother’s delicate gesture in the sleigh as she holds her fur muff to her face; his father, tossed in the air by grateful peasants from his estates, his limp, white-suited body framed, silently, through the dining-room windows.

Many other extraordinary accounts emerged from the White Russians who fled the country after the Revolution, for example by the Nobel prize-winning Ivan Bunin, but one that still feels particularly fresh is Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea, by Teffi (1928). Teffi, who was a well-regarded author in Russia before the Revolution—the only author admired by both the Tsar and Lenin, it’s said—fell into almost complete obscurity after her death in Paris in 1952. Recently re-published in English by Pushkin Press, she is now gaining recognition once more for her wonderfully readable, amusing and elliptical style. Here she describes her picaresque journey into exile, swept along with the flotsam and jetsam of an empire.

The Vanishing Futurist spans the period before and after the Revolution, and this not only means two very different ways of life, but also two different modes of expression. Historical fiction is as much a matter of literary ventriloquism as it is research, and I found that memoirs are one of the best routes into the sound and rhythm of the time; the cadences of speech, the vocabulary, and above all, the unquestioned assumptions, so different from our own.

‘After 1917,’ wrote Nina Berberova in The Italics Are Mine (1969), ‘everything from before seemed old.’ The world was being transformed from the ground up: houses, streets, clothes, as well as society, and even the old patterns of speech, seemed unbearably long-winded and reactionary. Brevity, surprising juxtapositions, and single-line paragraphs like bullet points were the hallmarks of the new style. Victor Shklovsky is best known as a proponent of the Formalist school of literary criticism, but I loved his Sentimental Journey: Memoirs 1917-22 (1970) and absorbed a little of his style for the voice of my Futurist hero, Nikita Slavkin.

Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1929), a cycle of short stories about the Soviet-Polish war of 1920, is an extraordinary, literary record of Revolution in action. The author, who was Jewish himself, experienced the brutal advance of the Red Army through the Polish countryside as a reporter attached to Budyonny’s Red Cossacks; in his fictional reimagining of the events, the narrator has become a soldier himself, directly implicated in the raping, pillaging, vandalising and killing of the Jewish inhabitants of the shtetls. In Babel you see the apogee of the ‘new’ style, a Soviet modernism that manages a remarkable balancing act: simultaneously violent and tender, grief-stricken and contemptuous of the Old World in its death throes, proud of and repelled by the New.

In the West, Mikhail Bulgakov is perhaps the most well-known and loved Soviet writer, in particular for the grotesque Moscow of The Master and Margarita (1967) and The Heart of a Dog (1968). The White Guard (1966), his first full-length novel, however, bears few signs of his later fantastical style. The action centres on a Russian family living in Kiev during the Civil War, and contrasts their domestic life with the violent chaos around them. Tender and poignant, it gained a surprising fan in Stalin himself, although you shouldn’t let that put you off.

During Khrushchev’s Thaw in the Fifties and Sixties, several memoirs were published by Soviet writers who for the first time felt free to describe their own Revolutionary experiences. Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life (1964) flows like early Tolstoy, lyrical and rich with the detail of life. A loyal yet vigorously questioning Soviet citizen, the honesty of his account was an inspiration for the younger generation of the Sixties who heard for the first time about the reality of the Revolution, the chaos, horror and dislocation of the Civil War years. The international sensation of the time was, of course, Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago (1957), although few Soviet citizens read it until the late Eighties. Smuggled out and first published in Italian, it enraged the Soviets, especially when Pasternak was then awarded the Nobel Prize. Literary Russians tend to be scathing of the novel itself; ‘a metro romance’ is the phrase I’ve heard several times. To my mind, however, there are unforgettable passages in it: the vast, serene moon on the night of the Tsar’s abdication, the snowy train journeys across the plains, and Zhivago’s glimpse, after several years, of Lara in a small-town reading room, which perfectly encapsulates the eroticism of libraries.

I knew my story contained Revolution, and that it would be told from the point of view of an idealistic believer in the new world that was being born; I knew, too, that the utopian dreams of the Russian Avant-Garde would play a part in it. I struggled, however, with the structure until I discovered the governesses. In the London Library is a book that I’ve not found listed on any other bibliography. Called simply A Governess’s Tale, by Anonymous, it reproduces with very little further context the diary of a governess from 1917 to 1920. Her shoes disintegrate, she is reduced to eating cattle feed, but she remains remarkably stoical, escapes imprisonment (unlike a dozen or so other governesses) and is finally evacuated to Finland. After this encounter, I chased down other governesses: Florence Farmborough, who enrolled as a nurse and finally escaped across Siberia into China (Nurse at the Russian Front, 1914-18); and a whole array of them in Harvey Pitcher’s When Miss Emmie Was in Russia (1977). Again and again I was impressed by these young Englishwomen’s courage and initiative—heroines, all of them; my own Gerty Freely owes them a large debt.

This list would not be complete without some of the later novels that have been set during the Revolution, which I have devoured with delight and not a little envy. My favourite is still Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring (1989), that captures the imminent anticipation in Moscow just before war and Revolution. She is the prose-writer par excellence of hints, nuances, possibilities; also so funny, in her deadpan way. A completely different, and rather unknown novel that I enjoyed hugely is The Red Cabbage Café (1990) by Jonathan Treitel, a perkily surreal tale of life in Soviet Moscow, complete with avant-garde cabarets, metro-building plans and a waxwork impresario. Arthur Koestler’s devastating Darkness at Noon (1965) is the monologue of a true Communist, forced by his own internal logic to denounce himself, to ‘self-criticise’ for the good of the Revolution to which he has devoted his whole life. It seems to me tragically accurate of the thought-processes of so many brave and well-meaning Soviet citizens.

Finally, a couple of more recent titles that have garnered praise: James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love (2005) conjures up the strange bedfellows that the Civil War brought together in Siberia: a battalion of Czech soldiers fighting their way home from the First World War trenches; an Orthodox sect with a taste for castration, as well as psychopathic warlords and the Red Army on the move—so, no shortage of drama! If you add to these The Chosen Maiden (2017) by Eva Stachniak and Sashenka (2008) by Simon Sebag Montefiore, you should have enough reading matter to sit out several revolutions.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: CHARLOTTE HOBSON’S First book, Black Earth City: A Year in the Heart of Russia, won a Somerset Maugham Award. Her debut novel, The Vanishing Futurist (Faber & Faber, 2016) was shortlisted for the 2017 Walter Scott Prize. She lives in Cornwall with her husband, the author Philip Marsden, and their two children.

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