Caught in the Revolution

by Helen Rappaport, Hutchinson, £25

Helen Rappaport, author of many studies on Russian history, has subtitled her book Petrograd 1917. By confining herself to one city and a single year, she turns the start of the chaos and violence of the Russian Revolution into a dramatic and absorbing narrative.

Deliberately avoiding the classic account, Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed, she uses the reports of other journalists, as well as the dispatches of diplomats, and the memoirs of British nurses and other Westerners, who looked on in curiosity, fascination and then horror at what was taking place before their eyes.

St Petersburg, later re-styled Petrograd, experienced its first “revolution” in February 1917, with massive strikes of factory workers, peasants, students and teachers. Significantly, the Cossacks, traditional upholders of autocracy, refused to fire on the crowds. Mutiny among soldiers in the army followed, along with the random murders of policemen by the mob.

There was a false lull in the weeks that followed, as the Tsar abdicated and a provisional government was established. Then Lenin, leader of the Bolsheviks, who had returned from exile in April, came back with a vengeance, to kindle in earnest what came to be known as the October Revolution.

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