“I stood here in the crowd a short time ago, and listened,” said Roshchin through his teeth. “Fire and brimstone descends from this balcony and the crowd mops it up. I don’t know any longer who are the strangers in this city – ourselves, or that lot.” He nodded towards the balcony. “Nobody listens to us any longer. We mutter words devoid of sense. When I was coming here I knew I was a Russian. But now I’m here, I feel alien. I don’t understand…”
With those words, uttered by Vadim Petrovich Roshchin, Alexei Tolstoy finished Book I of his masterpiece of the Russian Revolution “Ordeal” (stay tuned for the full review after I finish all of them). But how did Roshchin arrive there, in that place captured so eloquently by Tolstoy; where the character, a soldier from the Tzarist war against the Germans and the Turks returns to Saint Petersburg to find that what he had been fighting for were shades and shadows upon a whitewashed wall – after the lights had been turned out? The answer, in the case of Russia, was found in a confluence of events. Tzar Nicholas the wicked, doubling down on autocracy and feudalism as winds of freedom were blowing all across Europe. An unwinnable war against the Central Powers; a foolish, elitist war – the last of the wars of the nobles fought by the peasants; a war that ended a world order. Inflation, hunger, poverty. The revolution was about these things – and Roshchin? An officer in the Tzarist army and one of the elites.
I recently had a conversation with my wife about this – who is Venezuelan, who has also fled the madness, and has often repeated to me the same reflections as those of Roshchin. “Where did all this evil come from?” To answer her is harder; for it comes not from so great a tribulation as the Russians faced. Envy and bitterness mostly – detonated by a great act of violence. That’s all it took in Venezuela; and yet the revolution still burns, the slow suicide still goes on. A lesson to all of us, I suppose, lest we too look for revenge through the fire and brimstone of balcony speeches.
It is amazing the similarities – in my own two-part “San Porfirio” series about the Venezuelan revolution, the protagonist finds himself on the “Balcony of the People”, it could have been Roshchin’s balcony, addressing the crowds who had finally had enough of revolution:
“Pancho walked forward through the bedroom to emerge onto the balcony of the people. For generations El Comandante had stood on this same spot as he railed against his enemies and proclaimed violence against those who opposed him. The spot still smelled of sulfur, and an evil pall seemed to dim the sunlight; for just a second Pancho hesitated. Then beside him Susana’s ghost appeared, like a black pearl in shimmering obsidian beauty, lending him energy and resolve. Pancho walked forward, the unlikely leader of a new country. He had not won elections, manipulating the mob does not lend legitimacy. He had not overthrown the government through non-violent or violent means. He had not assassinated the leadership. He was standing there because, as it must, everything else had just withered away; to ashes and to dust. He stood because, after the chaos, the violence, the incompetence and the decay all his enemies – all those who had tried to peddle their second-hand ideas for generations – were gone.”