Book Review — 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution

1917 by Various

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution edited by Borris Dralyuk is a collection of Russian writing from the start of the revolution. Dralyuk is the Executive Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a literary translator and holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for a number of years. He has also taught at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Through the 1930s to the fall of the Soviet Union, many writers both inside and exiled from the Soviet Union wrote about the system. Solzhenitsyn’s We Never Make Mistakes, Ayn Rand’s We the Living, Katayev’s Time, Forward, and Babel’s Red Cavalry all tell of the Soviet state after it had been established. There is plenty of literature both pro and anti-Soviet written after the state had been created. Dralyuk, however, chooses stories and poetry from 1917 and the Russian Civil War.

Many people do not realize that there were years of civil war between the abdication of Nicholas II and the establishment of the Soviet Union. There is little doubt that the people of Russia wanted change. Flair ups of revolt were a regular part of late Czarist Russia — Alexander II’s Assassination, 1905 Revolution, resistance to WWI. The people wanted change. They demanded change, but the change they found was not what most wanted. Russia was a country where the majority of the population was uneducated. When the Bolsheviks took power in 1917 38% of the male population was literate and only 12.5% of the female population was literate. Russia was a very backward country at the time and the thought of revolution from below seems very improbable.

The poetry and prose reflect this. One writer tells of a street revolutionary yelling to the crowd not to allow “Ann Exations” back into the country. The writer, Teffi, explains the speaker believed annexation was a woman. Likewise, an old woman prays for the ‘reactionary hydra” who might raise its head again. The descriptions of the “Wine Riots” show the level of the common person in Russia. It might seem unbelievable but then too almost 1,400 people died in a stampede for free beer at the coronation of Nicholas II. What many expect is hyperbole was reality in Russia. When hyperbole is used it seems to be something from one’s wildest imagination. Teffi also writes a story called “Guillotine”, dedicated to Trotsky, tells of Russians facing the guillotine in typical Russian fashion, complaining while standing in line and fighting their way to the front.

Not everyone was against the revolution. Mikhail Gerasimov shows the hope of revolution — “Fed by the dream of Communism I stoked the furnace with new power, intoxicated by its rhythm, I forged iron flowers.” Mayakovsky writes of the glories of the revolution. Another writes that among the peasants and soldiers the conversion from Orthodox Christianity to socialism and atheism was as easy as splashing fresh water on themselves in a bath house — a new baptism and new faith easily accepted.

Russia is a country that one writer called “Cain’s land” rather than the favored Abel’s land. Dralyuk captures this aspect of Russia by putting together a collection literature encompassing both sides of the Russian Civil War and the chaos that ensued. It is easy to look back at history and write about it. Here writers and poets wrote something akin to live reporting the civil war. Many times we look back at history and wonder, “What were they thinking?” Dralyuk actually shows us what the people were thinking. Perhaps one of the most famous writers to grow out of the period describes the chaos that became Russia. “And so, while over there in the West resounds with the clatter of the machines of creation, our country resounds end to end with the clattering of machine guns.” ~ Mikhail Bulgakov

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