This morning I have been reading more of Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the Train, and completed the chapter on the events of the February 1917 Russian Revolution. The revolt was driven by war, hunger and political decay, and was precipitated by protests on International Women’s Day, which had begun only a few years before on the initiative of Clara Zetkin. The revolt began from below and in ways unplanned for and unwanted by all political leaders, including the most steely Bolsheviks.
Merridale quotes from Nikolai Sukhanov’s memoir of the events, The Russian Revolution 1917, A Personal Record, which she later notes is the most vivid and involving of the persoanl accounts of the Revolution.
One quote from Sukhanov struck me as resonant of our own times, as we try to make sense of world-shaping events that appear to be outside any one person’s control or anyone one institution’s domain. Sukhanov described the mood of people, perhaps especially the intellectuals and political leaders, on the eve of the February Revolution, where noone among the elites had any clear plans for change, any clear vision for the unfolding of events, and no positive direction for extracting the country from its morass of war, hunger and demoralisation.
“Everyone was dreaming, ruminating, full of foreboding, feeling his way.”Nikolai Sukhanov, quoted by Merridale, Lenin on the Train, p. 97
Does this not feel a lot like us today? Do we all not feel the world is unfolding in surprising directions, and among our more difficult tasks is to feel our own way through these events? That at least is how I feel.
This blog and my podcast, the Burning Archive, are my own attempt to make sense of the unfurling world crisis of our times – with its four vectors of rivalry between great states, social fragmentation, political disorder and cultural decay.
And, maybe, I am a little bit like Sukhanov too. An insightful distempered witness to events that will chew me up and spit me out.
Sukhanov was a Menshevik and witnessed many of the key events of the Revolution from their centre stage and from Gorky’s apartment. In February 1917 he became one of the founding members of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. He opposed the Provisional Government’s decision to continue the war, and refused to ally with the Bolsheviks, committing himself instead to editing key journals and writing what became a seven-volume memoir of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Displaced into minor roles, he also later opposed Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization policies. In 1930 he was arrested and tried as part of the 1931 Menshevik show trial. He was sentenced to exile in Siberia, and in 1937 accused of being an anti-Soviet spy working for Nazi Germany. He was executed in 1940.
In the Great Global Conflict to come – has it indeed already arrived? – let us hope I can give my testimony, but not suffer the worst of Sukhanov’s fate.