Sunday, 11 November 2012

russia in 1919 [arthur ransome]

Arthur Ransome became famous for his books about kids larking about on boats, books which I read as a child, as did generations of British children. The vividness of the childhood adventures these book captured are what made them work and perhaps it comes as no surprise to learn that Ransome’s own life was not short of an adventure or two.

This book recounts a visit to Moscow in the early Spring of 1919, following on from another visit he’d made in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. The book, which the author describes in his own introduction as “quite dull”, paints an insiders portrait of the way in which the Bolsheviks consolidated power as Moscow itself gradually got back to its feet. Russia is still hamstrung by the aggression of the allies. Somewhat frustratingly, Ransome manages to arrange a meeting with some British POWs, but never writes it up. Instead he goes into detail about the political scene at the time. In pre-Stalinist days, there was still considerable scope for independent political parties, albeit from the left. Before the purges all kinds of groups sought to shape the revolution in their own image, even if Ransome makes it clear that the Bolsheviks are likely to remain the dominant force. His accounts of his conversations with Lenin, a ‘happy’ revolutionary leader, are fascinating and insightful, revealing Lenin as a gnomic figure well aware of his position in history.

Elsewhere there are insights into life in that brave new dawn. One figure comments on the shortage of spoons as evidence that things are not getting any better. But the theatres of Moscow are full and Ransome creates a portrait of an impoverished but vibrant city, full of restless political activity, even though it is distressingly cold. He talks to people who have accepted their change in status with a surprising degree of equanimity, as people’s homes are co-opted and redistributed. The world has changed and people change with it.

Ransomse does all he can to remain even-handed. His scepticism regarding Lenin’s belief that the British revolution is imminent will prove astute. However, there appears to be a quiet admiration for the scale of the revolutionary project. As though the writer is conscious of his luck in being able to witness one of the most remarkable experiments in human political history.

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