Revolutions don’t just happen. They are in fact product of profound societal stress; the status quo is too much of a powerful force even in the most unjust of countries to be eschewed lightly in favor of a great leap into the unknown. And there was no ‘modern’ country more unjust than Tsarist Russia. The calcification of a once-great empire, the folly of a dynasty that had lost its connection with its land and its history and any sense of noblesse oblige, as were the Romanovs and their last hapless emperor Nicholas II. But not even this figure, alone, was enough to spark revolution; thick and rich in the winter palace eating caviar while his serfs worked bent and aggrieved in the fields. It was in fact the great war that brought on revolution – a war that ended the old ways in all of Europe, and Russia was no exception. The fact that Nicholas doubled down on serfdom while the rest of his peers across the continent were liberalizing their stranglehold on their people was his own special madness; the hands of Rasputin, the hemophilia of his son and heir. No not even in this was unleashed the madness. It was the war that did it; sending serf/slaves to fight and die against the Kaizer’s Germany armies, a war that also ended that monarch’s rule, along with the Ottomans. Everything was changing, why should Russia be any different?
That is what Alexei Tolstoy’s three-part epic ‘Ordeal’ is about. The start of the war, the death of the Tzar, the murder of the mad monk, the fighting first against the Germans but then the Russian Civil War into which the country was plunged – the White Armies against the Red Armies with the Anarchist Greens throw in there. The disintegration of a massive empire after hundreds of years of corruption ending in an orgy of violence that gave way to the stale totalitarianism of communism. It is a grand story; those of us in the west often think that one day Lenin wandered into St. Petersburg, grabbed the Tzar and his family and lined them up in front of the shooting range and that was it. In point of fact the Russian Civil war was begun not by the Bolsheviks but by the Constituent Assembly, the Mensheviks and resulted in more than one interim government and an almost-return of the Whites to power; five years of mayhem until Lenin and Stalin prevailed. And it could have gone many different ways. Had the French or British intervened – had the Mensheviks’ more rational reformations prevailed, had assassination attempts on Lenin been successful history would have turned out very differently. Nothing is written beforehand – that is the lesson with which one enters into the commitment of reading Alexei Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
Alexei, the nephew of the great novelist Leo, member of a great noble family that began with Andrey who moved to Moscow to serve in the court of Vasily II in the 1400s at the very beginning, before even St. Petersburg was built, and witnessed the entirety of Imperial Russia’s 600 year story. A family that still exists, Nikolai and Artemy and Vladimir who are still active in Russia today. Alexei was a monarchist, a supporter of the Whites, an exile first in Paris and then in Berlin where he grew disaffected by the Russian refugee-elites and returned to become one of the greatest voices of the Reds. Life is strange that way, and there is no accounting for how it will turn out.
No, revolutions do not simply happen for if there is one thing that people can be counted upon to consider it is their own welfare. The moral hazard for those living day-to-day attempting to raise their families and hold the ends together is zero, every decision is existential. If they feel, even just hope, that their lives are improving – or that there is somebody fighting for them – they will be patient, keeping their heads down and plowing forward. The tremendous discipline of men and women raising a family, juxtaposed against those whose moral hazard is complete and who, in the Gramscian sense, seek to foment radical change secure in the utopian belief that the violence will not reach them – people like Alexei Tolstoy who only survived by becoming a mouthpiece of revolution, selling his tremendous talent to the perpetuation of a great evil.
Today Lenin is dead, Stalin is dead. What is left over are broken down statues abandoned under the trees growing around them and the lessons acquired from a time of great turmoil and preserved as if in amber by the tremendous talent of Alexei Tolstoy and his compatriots. It is up to us, then, to learn from those lessons as we seek to build the worlds for our children and our children’s children. You can start by reading ‘Ordeal’.