“Every pickpocket who takes a wallet from some heedless passer-by can now say that he’s a follower of Lenin.”
“Why not? Lenin takes somebody else’s house, a pickpocket takes somebody else’s wallet. The only difference is one of scale. After all, great ships need deep waters.” (Teffi)
Welcome to 2017, a year to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s perhaps then not surprising that the ever innovative Pushkin Press should mark the occasion with a very special book: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Editor Boris Dralyuk concentrated his selections on the period between February 1917 and late 1919 with the aim “to steep the reader in its tumult-to recreate that heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as events unfolded.”
The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle
A Distant Voice:
Wake Me Tomorrow
Of Dragons and Men
Blue Banners and Scarlet Sails
One of the important aspects of this collection is that these pieces were not written with hindsight; they were written at a very specific moment of history, capturing the transient feelings of those times. Not only does this collection gather together the most important creative voices of the period, but each section gives a short bio of the writers–along with their fate (so few lived to old age.) I had intended to write a short description of what happened to each writer before I came to this review but the editor did this in the book, and shows, effectively how writers of such amazing talent were killed or displaced–an entire generation swept off the map.
I won’t review every piece–some given the outcome of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war are extremely painful–but instead I’ll say that by far my favourite is Kuprin’s story (perhaps not too surprising since I loved The Duel.) Kuprin’s tale Sasha and Yasha: An Old Story is an incredibly moving piece in which we are left to wonder what happened to the characters whose photographs are in an old album:
It feels like none of it ever existed: the glorious army, the extraordinary soldiers, the heroic officers, our dear, good, carefree comfortable Russian life… The old album’s pages tremble in my hand as I turn them.
Teffi presents a frightening picture of Russian society with her vicious little story The Guillotine, and in her piece, A Few Words About Lenin (1917), she presents an unflattering portrait of the man and his ideology.
He sensed nothing, predicted nothing. He knew nothing but what he’d been stuffed with: the history of socialism
Yefim Zozulya’s story, The Story of Ak and Humanity augurs the Red Terror yet to come with the commodification of the individual.
Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours.
I loved Alexander Grin’s story, The Soul’s Pendulum, a story in which a man sees the revolution as one of history’s “exhilarating and magnificent upheavals.” Valentin Kataev’s story The Drum focuses on a group of cadets–one in particular whose greatest concern in life is getting some extra time with his sweetheart, but everything changes when the news arrives that the Tsar has abdicated. On the other side of the political equation, Bolshevik Alexander Serafimovich’s story How He Died is also incredibly moving even though it’s initially heavy-handed. This is a wonderful collection that provides many pointers for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Russian literature, but readers are best advised to come to the book with some idea of the history of the period.