Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Ewbank
Reviewed by John Ewbank
Summary: A thrilling account of the Russian Revolution, told through the eyes of a colourful cast of foreigners who found themselves living through it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0091958954

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Few cities have experienced a year more dramatic than Petrograd in 1917. The city, now known as St Petersburg, went through two revolutions: the first a popular uprising that brought down the Romanov dynasty, the second a Bolshevik coup that ultimately led to the formation of the Soviet Union. At the time, Petrograd was home to a large expatriate community, including diplomats, journalists, and businessmen. Many kept diaries or wrote letters home, vividly describing the chaos unfolding at their doorstep. In Caught in the Revolution, Helen Rappaport draws on this material to give a gripping first-hand account of the Russian Revolution, as told by those who lived through it.

The great strength of the book is its varied and colourful cast. There's the redoubtable Sir George Buchanan, the British Ambassador, who insisted on taking his daily walk to the foreign ministry even when gun battles were raging in the streets; intrepid journalists like Florence Harper and Donald Thompson, who continued reporting despite the increasing hardships and dangers; and Phil Jordan, the African American valet, cook, and chauffeur to the American Ambassador, David Francis. Familiar figures also make an appearance, notably Emmeline Pankhurst who came to Petrograd to give the Russian women 'the benefit of her experience' and Arthur Ransome, who was working as a journalist.

Another interesting aspect is the differing attitudes of people to the revolution. The predominantly upper-class diplomatic corps lamented the fall of Romanov Russia, feeling that their way of life was under threat. Others rejoiced that the oppressive Tsarist regime had collapsed, naively imagining that an era of justice and equality would follow. Often hope turned to despair as law and order broke down, food became short, and the Bolsheviks eventually took power, establishing a regime even more ruthless and oppressive than the Romanovs.

A telling anecdote can often be more enlightening than pages of text, and Caught in the Revolution is filled with them: the Russian aristocracy dressing up in their finest clothes to watch the ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, even as the revolution raged around them; soldiers tearing the Romanov insignia from government buildings and hurling them into the river Neva; and children staggering under the weight of magnums of champagne looted from the Winter Palace. These accounts give a real insight into the terror, elation, and uncertainty of living through a revolution.

I thoroughly enjoyed Caught in the Revolution and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history. It manages to be both a serious historical work and a gripping read filled with memorable characters. Helen Rappaport deserved much credit for tracking down the accounts of those involved, many of which were previously unpublished.

For more on Russian history, we would recommend Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith.

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