2081 America by Way of 1917 Russia. Part 2: A People’s Tragedy
If one could time travel to a St. Petersburg street in 1905, and ask a random revolutionary peasant, fresh to the city from the countryside, “What are you fighting for?” It is doubtful he would say, “We are seeking to create a peasant revolt, so as to establish Socialism. Which will be followed some years later by a revolt against us by the proletariat to then establish a glorious communist utopia that history will call the blessed fruit of the Great Russian Revolution.”
Instead, his answer might be something along the lines of, “Those other guys are major assholes!”
Through the bitter mistress of political hindsight, we know that people often find themselves in, seemingly unconnected, events that eventually lead to certain and devastating outcomes. Outcomes that often succeed in concealing themselves until the revelatory moment when altruistic masks are torn away; and the true shape of the reality they’ve revolted for comes into focus. This usually takes the shape of a metaphorical, and sometimes literal, boot on their neck.
Starting earnestly in 1917, the Russian revolution was such a series of events. It evolved over the Christian monarchy of Tsarist Russia over a period of 20 years and turned into it living hell for decades afterwards. It would lead to estimates of over 25 million deaths and impose a political system so devoid of humanity that planned starvation was civic policy. But in the years from 1905 to 1917, no one imagined the horror that awaited their future generations.
By this reasoning if America, from 2012 to 2020, was also in the middle of a Communist revolution, the average, well-meaning protestor might not be able to discern the shape of the future they’re ushering in. In both cases, the totality of the political system that their revolutionary passions paved the way for; remained, and remains, far outside anyone’s immediate grasp.
Inspired by the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution came from the minds of a small group of internationalists and disgruntled Russian rich kids who become intoxicated with the socialist writings of Karl Marx. They sought to bring the Russian peasantry and by extension, the nation into the 20th century by showing them the wise tenets of Marx and Engels. That the revolutionaries had to first teach the peasants to read before immediately asking them grasp Marxist concepts should have been a massive red flag, but their hubris blinded them from reality.
The modern American far left still secretly believes in the same Marxist tenets from 100 years ago and their challenges look almost identical. In America, without a vanguard of disenfranchised inner city blacks tearing down the old structure, their utopia doesn’t get formed because everyone else has a job. The comparison here of American inner city blacks to revolutionary Russian peasants is based solely on the captive social power both groups held, and hold, in the contexts of their nations.
It is also the natural deduction for why the modern far left is so keen to promise inner city blacks symbolic victories to their demands of transformative change. The view of these blacks as peasants is seen in the far left’s condescending treatment of them. Woe to those blacks when they learn what Marx really thought of black people. But again, it is the hubris of the modern far left to think that technology and carefully curated buzz words can cross this divide.
In 1905 Russia, this group, who came to be known as the Bolshevicks, gathered international support from German communists and Wall Street. They set out to free the Russian peasantry from Tsarist rule and as per the script of inciting social revolutions, the Bolsheviks exploited the real grievances of Russian peasants and turned them into a violent revolutionary fervor that tore society apart.
Orlando Figes “A People’s Tragedy’, is a powerful accounting of Russia during the revolutionary years. There are other good books on the subject; focusing on different periods of Leninist/Stalinist Russia, but for the 40,000 foot view of the entire affair, Figes served my purpose as someone who knew nothing about it.
But a curious thing repeatedly happened as I read it. There were several descriptions of events and social mantras that bared an unsettling similarity to current American and increasingly global, events.
These paralogous events described a “totalitarian tiptoe” towards soviet style Communism that, it appeared, no one saw coming. If modern American Leftist are also engaged in a “totalitarian tip-toe” towards Communism, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 turned it into a sprint.
In reading Figes’ massive, but engaging tomb, at several moments I paused and thought, “Wow! You could place this paragraph under a modern image and see the same thing happening.”
So I did that. What follows are some of the examples I found.
“Prince M.I Khilkov, a ‘scion of one of Russia’s oldest aristocratic families’, who worked for a number of years as an engine driver in South America and as a shipwright in Liverpool before becoming Russia’s Minister of Communications.” -pg 37, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“After 1917 there were many shell-shocked Christians who argued that the revolution had been caused by the decline of the Church’s influence. There was no doubt that the social revolution was closely connected with the secularization of society, and to a large extant dependent on it.” -pg 64 A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“The peasants considered stealing from a rich man, especially by the poor, a much less serious offense than stealing from a man who could barely feed himself and his family.” -pg 101, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“Any stupidity we [peasants] uttered would be met with condescending approval. [by Liberal Bolshevicks]” -pg 117, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“There was, however, an obvious dogmatism in the outlook of many such workers, which could easily be mistaken for religious zealotry. It manifested itself in that air of disdain which many workers, having reached the uplands of Marxist understanding, showed towards those who had not yet ascended to such heights.” -pg 120, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“If only, they thought, they could bring about the people’s liberation, then their own original sin — that of being born into privilege — would be redeemed.” -pg127, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
For all too many of these high-born revolutionaries, the main attraction of ‘the cause’ lay not so much in the satisfaction which they might derive from seeing people’s lives improved, as in their own romantic search for a sense of ‘wholeness’ which might give higher meaning to their own lives and end their alienation from the world. -pg 128, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“It’s leaders sought to liberate ‘the people’ according to their own abstract notions of Truth and Justice. But if people were unwilling to be led in that direction, or become too chaotic to control, then they would have to be forced to be free.” -pg 129, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“Not all violence in the cities was the result of the growing militancy of the labour movement. There was a marked increase in all forms of violence, from muggings and murders to riots and vandalism, as law and order broke down. Indeed, as the police withdrew from the scene, so the public added to the violence by forming groups of vigilantes and lynching criminals in the streets.” — pg 188, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“For the extreme Rightists this was to be the start of the street war against the revolutionaries. Several Rightist groups had been established since the start of 1905.” -pg 196, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“In the Presnia district, for example, the centre of the textile industry and home of the most militant workers, there was certainly no thought of marching on the centre. Instead the rebels turned Presnia into a workers republic, with its own police and a revolutionary council, which in many ways anticipated the future system of the soviets.” -pg 200, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“Even Gorky, the self-proclaimed champion of the common man, expressed his deepest fears forcefully. ‘You are right 666 times over,’ he wrote to a literary friend in July 1905, ‘[the revolution] is giving birth to real barbarians, just like those that ravaged Rome.” -pg 208, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“ ’More and more’, Gorky wrote to a friend in November 1915, ‘people are behaving like animals and madmen. They spread rumours and this creates an atmosphere of universal fear which poisons even the intelligent’. Among the propertied classes there was a great feeling that Russia was on the brink of a terrible catastrophe, a violent social explosion, against which the government was totally unprepared to defend them.” -pg-283, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“The point of these rumours was not their truth or untruth, but their power to mobilize an angry public against the dynasty. In a revolutionary crisis it is perception and beliefs that count rather than realities.” -pg 285, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“The mobs presented a strange, almost grotesque appearances…….Here would be a hooligan with an officer’s sword fastened over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; there was a small boy with a large butcher’s knife on his shoulder.” -pg 320, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“Too many people are falsely according a revolutionary character to what in fact is no more than a lack of discipline and organization on the part of the crowd….There is much more here of an absurd than a heroic nature.” -pg 322, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“The revolution was accompanied by the nationwide destruction of all signs and symbols of imperial power. During the February Days the crowds in Petrograd tore down the imperial double-headed eagles which hung from many buildings (sometimes even blowing them up with explosives); removed imperial signs from shopfronts and streets; smashed tsarist statues; took our portraits of the tsars from government buildings.” -pg 348, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
“This point bears emphasizing for one of the most basic misconceptions of the Russian Revolution is that the Bolshevicks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the party itself. The October insurrection was a coup d’etat, actively supported by a small minority of the population.” -pg 601, A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes
In closing, the idea of a “totalitarian tip-toe” towards Communism is not a new one. Despite the cliché, it looks as though history does truly repeat itself.
“The only reason we fail to see the full horror of the life we lead, so contradictory to human nature, is because all the horrors in the midst of which we quietly live have crept in so gradually that we have failed to notice them.”
-Leo Tolstoy, The Law of Love and the Law of Violence.
[Sergio Monteiro lives in Asia with his wife and is the author of two books. His first book, Other American Dreams, dealt with the migrant crisis of North Africa and Europe and was compared to the writing of Portuguese novelist, Jose Saramango. His latest work, Enoch’sMuse, follows the life of Enoch, a biblical figure, and is available on Amazon and select bookstores. Enoch’sMuse was selected as a finalist in the 2017 Proverse Prize for Unpublished Fiction, Non-Fiction or Poetry and has been compared to Mary Renault’s, The King Must Die.]
- Silvio Borges Graciano — Administrator, Macau Literary Festival.