448pp, hardback, £25
Reviewed by Jessica Mann
In 1917 the city once known as St Petersburg, later to be named Leningrad, was called Petrograd. It was the home, temporary or permanent, of a large number of foreigners many of whom kept records of what was happening in diaries and letters. Helen Rappaport has unearthed numerous contemporary accounts of that dramatic year and tells its story with lavish quotations from eye-witnesses, ranging from the seven year old Isaiah Berlin to the American Ambassador’s valet, a semi-literate black man from the deep South; from an American woman journalist to the imposing grande dame who was the British Ambassador’s wife. This is scrupulously researched history, liberally scattered with quotations and written in an easy, elegant style that would carry the reader along even if the story were less exciting.
After three years of war, at the beginning of 1917 Petrograd was overflowing with refugees from the fighting on the Eastern Front. Food had become a serious problem. For most people it was so dreadfully scarce that wherever there was a shop, there was a long, silent queue of miserable women. But at the beginning of the year there was still plenty to eat, to smoke or to drink for privileged foreigners, even if it meant their having one maid whose only task was to stand in queues for milk or bread.
It was on February 23rd – International Women’s Day – that the working women of Petrograd, about 90,000 by the afternoon, downed tools and joined together to march in protest against bread shortages. The next day huge crowds gathered and marched, on the 25th a general strike was in operation, by 27th the army had begun to mutiny. Rappaport allows a chapter a day for this part of the story. It is exciting even though readers know the outcome, and sad, because they do. There might have been a moment when the hopes for a new beginning for Russia could have been realized. Instead, within a few months foreigners had become well aware that they ‘were all sitting on a bomb just waiting for someone to touch a match to it.’ Life had become very cheap, and people who had led highly protected lives were confronted with atrocities. In the unlikely surroundings of a weekly sewing circle in the British Embassy, ladies capped each other’s horror stories. They had seen decapitated bodies, people burnt alive, bodies hacked to pieces. It had become risky to go out in respectable clothes, so English and American ladies shaved the fur from their coat collars and scoured shops for threadbare dresses.
By the end of the year many of the expatriates had gone home. The British Embassy was left with a skeleton staff of ‘last-ditchers’ who were supposed to look after the several hundred British subjects (mostly women, many of them governesses) who were still there. Those who remained were reluctant witnesses to barbarity. ‘I cannot tell you all the brutalities, the fierce excesses, that are ravaging Russia end to end, and more ruthlessly than any invading army…robbery, plunder and the cruellest forms of murder are grown a part of the very atmosphere we live in.’
‘A whole world has gone topsy turvy” said an American diplomat.
To make of this sad story – a (or perhaps the) twentieth-century tragedy – and to make of an academic work, full of foot notes and references , a book too fascinating to put down unfinished is a major achievement. Helen Rappaport should win prizes.