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Book review Writings with a revolutionary spark

MARJORIE MAYO recommends an excellent collection of literary responses to the October Revolution in Russia

Revolution! Writings from Russia, 1917
Edited by Pete Ayrton
(Harbour Books, £15)

THIS lively collection joins the range of publications marking the centenary of the October Revolution, a number of which have already been reviewed in the Morning Star, and readers will be well aware of the debates that continue to surround this most crucial event of the 20th century promising a new world and new ways of living.

The originality of this particular publication lies in its selection of writings, representing the views and reflections of those who were involved during the events of 1917 and subsequent years.

These include extracts from novels that portray the events of the time from the perspectives of fictional characters and a wide range of other responses, from the exhilaration of contemporary activists to the reflections of subsequent visitors, including British spy W Somerset Maugham, author Arthur Ransome — perhaps also a British spy — and philosopher Bertrand Russell.

Included too are the eyewitness accounts of Victor Serge and John Reed, author of Ten Days that Shook the World, episodes from which Sergei Eisenstein drew on in his magnificent film October.

Others are less familiar. Included are a number of Russian writers, some enthusiastically supportive and some, such as the Serapion Brothers group, more reserved in their support of the revolution.

Particularly striking are the extracts that reflect on gender relations and gender equality. Mikhail Zoshchenko addresses the issue of “domestic bliss,” illustrating the need for further progress in these terms.

In his extract, a comrade explains the progress that has been made as a result of eating in the canteen. Now that his wife no longer has to cook for him she has more time to do the laundry and to sew, to which the narrator replies: “Cooking, sewing, what’s the difference? Maybe your wife would like to read that paper of yours? Maybe she doesn’t like sewing?”

“You what?” replies the husband. “What do you mean not sew? She’s a woman!”  

An extract from Alexandra Kollontai’s Love of Worker Bees provokes further reflections on gender equality and sexuality. Far from simply endorsing the notion of free love, Kollontai’s book explores the tensions between different approaches with sensitivity, illustrating different generations’ emotional responses to changing mores.

The writings of foreign visitors illustrate their own tensions, particularly of those supportive of the revolution but also dubious about their own positions as intellectuals.

In his letters, Bertrand Russell wondered whether his criticisms of Bolshevik methods were actually “the fancies of a bourgeois with too much leisure,” reflecting his own position of privilege.

Cherishing his own status as a freelance intellectual, Walter Benjamin expressed similar feelings, for all his sympathy with the revolution. So did the African-America writers Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, who visited in 1922-3 and 1932-3 respectively.

Both were elated by the contrast with the racism that they had experienced in the US but both had reservations, including qualms about the application of political directives to creative writing.

These are just a sample of the issues raised in this highly recommended creative collection. It's a book that you can dip in and out of as you please — an ideal Christmas present.



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