Book Review — Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport is a first-hand account of the revolutions in Russia. Rappaport attended Leeds University with the intention of joining the Foreign Office. She changed her mind and became an actress. She, later, became a full-time writer in 1998 and has written several books on Russian history and Victorian history. Her work on Lenin caused a stir when she proposed that he died of syphilis rather than a stroke.

Rappaport wrote the very successful The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandria in 2014. Her clear and narrative style writing makes for good reading and she is not hesitant to document her work. Caught in the Revolution is composed of first-hand accounts from the British and American diplomatic communities as well as the business community. The foreign communities present their personal experiences of the revolution in the streets of Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg but changed to lose the German name), Since 1914 the German community had left with the outbreak of war and Russian alliance with France.

Life in Petrograd had declined since the start of the war. The lines for bread had grown to five hour waits in the sub-zero temperatures. White bread had steadily been turning grayer as additives started replacing the flour. The Russian government tried to assure the population that there was no shortage of flour and that any shortage was a result of hoarding. The people were losing faith in the government. Prices were rising and shortages in other goods were growing. Despite the shortages seen on the streets and citizens in rags, the elites, however, still lived well and had the opera and other upper-class entertainment including champagne.

Violence in the streets came and grew almost by accident. It was slow in escalating, but the bread shortage was the major reason for the unrest. The First World War was taking its toll on the front and at home. The people’s bread was being used to feed horses at the front. There was no talk of revolution at the start of the protests. The cossacks were called out to put down the unrest in the streets, however, they did not act against the crowds. Normally, the cossacks would have brutally put down the unrest. When they didn’t, a woman asked why weren’t they attacking. A cossack replied, “We are hungry too.” The military slowly started to defect. It was the police that attacked the crowds viciously, even resorting to indiscriminate machine gunning of the crowds from rooftops. The police even resorted to dressing in cossack and military uniforms to give the illusion of military support for the Czar.

The Nicholas abdicated and the Kerensky faction moved to join the various factions in forming a provisional government that took over governing the nation. Kerensky served as Minister of Justice (ended the death penalty) and Minister of War. He didn’t follow the will of the people and continued to fight the disastrous war on the Eastern Front. Lenin and Trotsky took most of Kerensky’s early popular support and the second revolution that year began.

Rappaport first-hand accounts of what was happening in the streets of Petrograd add much to the history of the Russian revolutions. Personal descriptions of the fighting in the streets and even the speeches of Lenin add an important feel to the revolution. Most of the first-hand accounts came from US and British citizens who were not fighting for one side or another. They offer an unbiased look at the fall of one the great powers of Europe. Excellent reading.

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