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The best books on Revolutionary Russia

recommended by Roland Chambers

The Russian revolution was the beginning of the modern age, says the award-winning author. He tells us what Solzhenitsyn imagined Lenin was like, and about the children’s author who led a double life as a spy in Bolshevik Russia

Roland Chambers

Roland Chambers is a prize-winning author. His biography The Last Englishman is about the early life of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome’s controversial double life as a journalist and spy in revolutionary Russia. It won the Biographers’ Club Best First Biography award and a Jerwood Award from the Royal Society of Literature

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Roland Chambers

Roland Chambers is a prize-winning author. His biography The Last Englishman is about the early life of Swallows and Amazons author Arthur Ransome’s controversial double life as a journalist and spy in revolutionary Russia. It won the Biographers’ Club Best First Biography award and a Jerwood Award from the Royal Society of Literature

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Much of the drama in your biography of Arthur Ransome – who is probably best known as author of the children’s book Swallows and Amazons – takes place in revolutionary Russia. How did you stumble on his extraordinary story?

In 2002, there was a bundle of papers released by the British public archives which showed that Ransome had been a spy for the British intelligence services during the Russian revolution. I thought this was fascinating. Although I hadn’t been one of Ransome’s biggest fans when I was a child, I saw a man who had completely reinvented himself through his children’s books, becoming one of the safest pairs of hands in the whole of literature – the quintessential Englishman. So it was a surprise to me and many people that Ransome was a spy. Most people thought he just sailed boats in the Lake District. The idea that he was one of the most controversial British correspondents writing out of Russia during the revolution was just not generally known.

Can you tell us more about Ransome’s time in Russia?

In 1913 Ransome ran away from a disastrous first marriage. He wanted to go to Russia to write fairy tales, but instead he got caught up in World War I and started to write for the Daily News, a radical left-wing British newspaper. He started by backing the reformist right of Russian politics, but after the tsar lost power in the first revolution in February 1917, he moved progressively to the left. Why? Because the power was moving progressively to the left, and Ransome was a pragmatist. Having demonised Lenin and the Bolsheviks, along with most of his colleagues in the press, he became – a rare thing amongst his peers – an avid apologist of the Bolshevik cause.
He fell in love with Trotsky’s secretary, whom he eventually married, and his closest friend was Karl Radek, the Bolshevik propaganda chief. He spent the next seven years until Lenin’s death in 1924 writing pro-Bolshevik propaganda, either in the form of articles published in the Western press or political pamphlets published through the Bolshevik bureau of international propaganda. After Lenin died, and Ransome’s wife finally gave him a divorce, he returned to England with his lover, Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, and joined the Royal Cruising Club, becoming the man most people recognise today – the most English of Englishmen.

While writing these pro-Bolshevik articles, he was also working with British intelligence. How did that work?

In 1918, there was an Allied invasion of Russia to try and get rid of the Bolshevik government. Ransome found himself in an impossible situation. He was friendly with the British diplomats and journalists that remained in Russia, but he was also friendly with the Bolsheviks. He wanted to remain friends with both sides and, while it was a sensible thing to try, it wasn’t an easy thing to accomplish. Not without cutting a few corners.
As the situation worsened in Russia, he decided to get out. He escaped to neutral Sweden where he was recruited by the British secret service. They wanted him because he had unrivalled access to the Bolshevik leadership, though many among them were suspicious of his real allegiance. In any case, Ransome went back into Russia following the end of the war as a British agent, and came out again in the spring of 1919 with lots of information for the British authorities and a pro-Bolshevik political pamphlet, Six Weeks in Russia, which is the first of the books on my list.
Within weeks of its publication, however, Ransome was back in Russia to rescue his lover, Evgenia, from the civil war – a very daring business, which relied heavily on his contacts in every quarter. He got her out of Moscow and for the next five years he lived with her in a kind of limbo in the Baltic States, working as Russian correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, providing information to the British intelligence services but also helping out the Bolshevik intelligence service, the Cheka, now and then. So in terms of his affiliation to one or other country, he looks like a double agent. But Ransome didn’t think of himself that way. He thought of himself as a peace broker, or at worst a sort of freelance private eye. He was good at telling himself stories.

Let’s hear from the man himself. Please tell us more about Six Weeks in Russia in 1919.

There are only a couple of well-known eyewitness accounts of the revolution. The best known is probably John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook The World, but I’ve gone with Ransome’s book because Ransome is my man, and because whereas Reed’s book is a highly imaginative view of the 1917 revolution, Ransome’s is an equally stylised version of the revolution a little way down the road.
Ransome’s book is a literal account of the six weeks he spent in Russia in early 1919. In the 18 months since the Bolsheviks seized power, the West had become, if possible, even more disenchanted with their government. The Bolsheviks had made a separate peace with Germany, then launched a terror against their own people, and of course they were fighting the white armies in the Russian civil war, who were being covertly supported by Britain and others. So the book is Ransome’s first-hand account of what it was to be like in Petrograd and Moscow during a period when almost all Western observers had left the country. Most had left because it was dangerous, but also because the Bolsheviks wouldn’t speak to anybody who wasn’t sympathetic to them.
Ransome had astonishing access to the Bolshevik leadership, and yet he was officially employed and paid by the British secret services. The book reads in what I would term a typically “Ransomian” way. In terms of content, it’s a deliberately domestic, almost trivial book. He wants to paint the Bolshevik leaders as peaceful, orderly men and women. The first thing he talks about is coming to Petrograd, and how there is no one on the streets because everybody is just getting on with things. He says that there were hardly any people carrying guns any longer, because they didn’t need to be armed. Then he goes to Moscow, where the Bolshevik government was now based, and is put up in the main hotel where many of the Bolshevik leaders were now living. He talks to a number of senior characters within the Bolshevik party as if they were friends of his, which they kind of were. But at the same time he says he is completely objective, writing from the point of view of someone simply wandering through.
I think this domesticity makes the book particularly fascinating. He describes the insides of people’s apartments. He writes about having a cup of tea with a senior official, or interviewing Lenin. What he seeks to communicate is how utterly determined the Bolsheviks were as a military power, and that there was no point in trying to get rid of them. But he also wants to communicate that they are real and in many ways likable people – because the Bolsheviks had been so demonised in the West that they were no longer thought of as real people at all. Ransome is trying to bring the Bolsheviks into British and Allied sitting rooms as the sort of government that should be allowed to take its place at the Paris peace conference, which was convened by the Allied powers to set the peace terms for Germany following the 1918 armistice. But, of course, the Allies had no intention of extending such an invitation. The Bolsheviks remained international pariahs. All the same, when he published it in England it sold like hot cakes, because Lenin didn’t have horns and cloven hooves in it.

Let’s move onto your next choice by Orlando Figes, who caused an uproar after confessing that he anonymously posted reviews on Amazon trashing his rivals.

If one is talking of him as a man rather than as an author, Figes possibly the least popular historian walking the earth today, because of the disgrace that he brought on himself so publicly over the Amazon debacle. At one point he actually got his wife to say she did it. Having said that, I think he’s a brilliant historian and it’s a great shame that these personal spats, which became so poisonous, have so tarnished his reputation. I think that A People’s Tragedy is the most readable and illuminating history of the Russian revolution to be written, using material that only became available to historians following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Its scope is immense.

He says the revolution actually began in 1891 and ended in 1924.

That’s right, though he wasn’t the first. According to Figes it starts with the great famine of 1891, which led to a lot of popular dissatisfaction and reforms, and ends in 1924 with the death of Lenin and the start of Stalin’s reign.
Figes is basically a social historian. He’s interested in how historical events of the magnitude of the Russian revolution developed out of a number of different social trends. One of the great things about this book is that he combines a number of general theses about the revolution with personal narratives. He chooses five very different characters: Prince Lvov, who was the prime minister in the provisional government that was formed after the February revolution in 1917; General Brusilov, the tsar’s most gifted general who later joined the Red Army; Dmitri Oskin, a peasant soldier; the author Maxim Gorky; and Sergei Semenov, a reforming peasant leader. These personal narratives allow him to look at this period from all points of view – the grand political perspective, the grassroots perspective, a literary perspective, a military perspective.
Figes is fantastically good at synthesising huge amounts of information without getting bogged down, and because his understanding of the revolution is sociological he doesn’t really blame anybody – or rather, he doesn’t ally himself with a particular political cause. He obviously intensely dislikes Lenin and the Bolsheviks, but he’s equally sceptical of the monarchists. He’s excellent on the almost incredible delusions of the tsar and his household, chiefly Rasputin. When it comes to assessing a character like [Alexander] Kerensky – who championed the middle way between Lvov’s and Lenin’s governments – he’s very good at using him as a way of focusing on the all-embracing disaster that hit the country. Kerensky, the revolution’s second prime minister, was crushed by the impossibility of appeasing a starving, terrified population while continuing to prosecute a war. Only Lenin, who took power in November, had either the courage or ruthlessness to grasp the opportunity that presented itself. He won the people over with three simple ideas – land, peace and bread.

It’s a substantial book. Does he have an engaging writing style?

I think one of the reasons why Figes has made many enemies is that he has the egotism and sensitivity of a Trotsky. He’s a very good dramatic writer and has a terrific ear for a story, though in my view some of his later work lays the story on a bit thick.

Tell us about your next choice.

The Debate on Soviet Power is important because the sheer scale of the revolution made it difficult to get at the principle players and what they were up to. Of course, the revolution came out of World War I, but in some ways its political and cultural significance exceeded the war. It was the most important political event of the 20th century – the beginning of the modern age.
The problem with that kind of massive, seismic event is that it becomes impossible to get outside of. Instead, you get a lot of ethical generalisations that say more about their authors than about the events they seek to describe. But this book is very special. It is a selection of minutes of the meetings of the Soviet Central Committees – the country’s governing executive and legislative bodies – in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik takeover. So this book gives you an ear against the door at a time when the Bolsheviks were trying to work out what to do in the very first weeks and months of power.
What it shows you – and I think this is crucially important – is that Lenin always advocated violence and political dictatorship as the vehicles of revolution. I could have chosen a pamphlet that Lenin wrote in 1903 called What Is To Be Done?, in which Lenin sets out his view on political violence. He’s absolutely for it – political violence is essential in his view. He also believed that the revolution needed to be led by a political vanguard, and of course he intended to lead that vanguard. And as leader, he would embrace political violence as an answer to the violence used to oppress the masses. This was always his philosophy, and it comes through clearly in the conversations recorded in this book.
One of the first things Lenin did when he seized power was to permit [Communist revolutionary] Felix Dzerzhinsky to form the Cheka, the precursor of the KGB. He closes down the opposition press. He outlaws rival political parties. He prepares for the liquidation of the Constituent Assembly, originally intended as the parliament of Russian democracy. A lot of people argue wishfully that the Bolshevik revolution was a democratic revolution, and that decisions went through the Soviet Congress where the Bolsheviks had a majority. But the way they came to that majority was high handed to say the least, and this book shows you just how they consolidated their power.

Let’s stick with Lenin, and look at what Solzhenitsyn has to say about him in Lenin in Zurich.

I chose this book because it’s a work of fiction, and fiction is sometimes better at giving you a sense of the man than fact. Lenin, though a historical figure, is also a mythical figure. For many, he was not really a human being. His statue was in every town in the Soviet Union. He became a cult. Whether you love him or hate him he’s a sort of god, and as such he’s very difficult to recover through purely historical materials. What Solzhenitsyn has done is rescue Lenin from that weirdly effacing fame. Of course it isn’t the real Lenin he gives you, but it’s the sense of a real human being, written by a man who had thought about Lenin a great deal.
The book is set in Zurich, where Lenin lived in exile for most of the First World War. Solzhenitsyn concentrates on Lenin in the way a miniature portrait artist might concentrate on a subject. He describes him eating an egg on a train with his mother, who dotes on him, and his wife, who’s a little scared of him, and how the little flecks of yolk get into the corners of his mouth, but nobody dares tell him. He describes how all the pencils in his pocket are always very sharp, and how every morning he methodically cleans his desk before he starts work. Solzhenitsyn does the very deft job, that any writer of fiction needs to do, of building up a personality from details and little actions that show you that inside their mind is a real person with an imagination ticking over, feeling its way through the world, plotting what’s to happen next.

This book has also been described as a “non-book”, more a collection of random chapters than a complete story.

Solzhenitsyn had a way of writing in what he called “narrative knots” – significant dramatic moments that he would sometimes work up into a full-blown story and sometimes not. This book is a series of little moments during the course of the war, each picturing Lenin in a different situation. Sometimes he dreams about his lover, Inessa Armand, and regrets that he doesn’t talk to her much. In one episode he terrorises his mother for failing to pack the right things in his suitcase. Another time he sits with visiting revolutionaries in his flat in Zurich above a butcher, with the window open to let in the smell of sausages.
What these collective moments show is a man who is deeply entrenched in his own habits of mind. It also shows a rather boring man, someone who badly needs routine, so much so that outside of that routine he barely exists. And yet the miracle is that when the revolution happens – a revolution that Lenin was not expecting in his own lifetime – this routine-orientated, quarrelsome man steps into a supremely significant historical role without turning a hair. It just came completely naturally to him. The same was also true for Leon Trotsky, who at the time of the Bolshevik coup still owed money on his sofa in New York.

That’s the perfect segue to your final book choice, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Tell us more.

I chose this book because almost everything that people read about the Russian revolution is written by Westerners, partly because the official histories written under Stalin were incredibly boring and predictable. That all changed when the archives opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but there’s a gap all the same, which Trotsky tried to fill.
Trotsky’s history of the revolution is obviously a work of propaganda. It’s not a reliable history at all. But it is a history written by one of the great movers in the revolution itself. Trotsky was the man who basically led the November putsch, and headed up the negotiations with Germany that took Russia out of the First World War. He then became minister for war, and turned out to be a brilliant general. So all-in-all an astonishing character, and also, handily, a terrific writer. Within the party his nickname was “the Pen”. His history of the revolution is essentially a justification of his role in it and of his political views, which came into direct conflict with those of Stalin. Trotsky believed, as everybody had at first believed, that social revolution meant international revolution – a global class war. Stalin betrayed that view with the introduction of [the political theory] Socialism in One Country, which effectively turned Russia into an enormous prison camp.

When did Trotsky write this book?

Just after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929. Stalin was busy shaping the historical record in Russia, and Trotsky understood he needed to write a separate history of the revolution himself. He did so to champion what he considered to be the original object of the revolution, and also to confer on himself an authenticity that Stalin wanted to take away. But it’s a mistake, I believe, to think of Trotsky as a martyr or a saint. Like Lenin, he advocated violence and dictatorship, though he came to it later to the game. And like Lenin, he was both vain and dishonest, not least because while thinking of revolution in the conventionally Marxist way as the inevitable consequence of economic conditions, he went out of his way to manipulate those conditions. Why else hijack a revolution, or write a book when you’re thrown off the train? Why not just let the thing run its course?
When Trotsky mentions himself in his history, he does so in the third person, like Caesar. It’s a book that pretends analytic detachment, but is, in fact, a colossal vanity mirror in which Trotsky examines his life’s work as he wishes others to examine it. But it is, I think, a much better read than the Russian lady at the London Library who first lent it to me was prepared to admit. The proof is that Trotsky has in some ways had the last laugh. Because although Stalin defeated and eventually murdered him, Trotsky remains the Christ of the Russian Revolution. Stalin is Lucifer, Lenin is God and Trotsky is his exiled son. In terms of propagating this view, this history-cum-autobiography was a very successful piece of work.

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