Archive for November, 2017

Review: Tsereteli – a Democrat in the Russian Revolution, by W.H. Roobol

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

If the Bolsheviks had never seized power a century ago this month, probably the most famous Georgian of the twentieth century would have been Irakli Tsereteli.

Tsereteli was one of the leading figures in the Russian Social Democratic Party, and like his fellow Georgian Karlo Chkheidze, he wound up spending 1917 in Petrograd rather than Tiflis. Appointed to the provisional government led by Alexander Kerensky as one of handful of socialist ministers, where he first served as minister of posts and telegraphs, Tsereteli struggled to sustain the revolution under the pressure of the world war.

After the Bolsheviks staged their coup d’etat, he returned to Georgia and played a key role in their diplomacy, especially in keeping up contact with the leaders of the Second International.

He survived long enough in exile to see the death of Stalin and the beginning of the “thaw” in the Soviet Union, though not the renewal of Georgian independence. Sadly, this biography of him, the only one in English, has been out of print for decades.

Review: Aseff the Spy, Russian Terrorist and Police Stool, by Boris Ivanovich Nicolaevsky

Wednesday, November 22nd, 2017

History doesn’t get better than this. Nicolaevsky was one of the great socialist historians, author of a terrific biography of Karl Marx, and participant in the 1917 revolution in Russia.

In this book, written some years after he was deported from the USSR, he reveals the true story of the most successful “mole” ever planted by the tsarist police in the ranks of the Russian revolutionary movement. Ievno Azef (the preferred spelling today) rose in the ranks of the Socialist Revolutionary Party in the years leading up to the first world war, eventually becoming the head of its feared “Combat Organisation”. In that role, he both betrayed revolutionaries to the police while at the same time carrying out successful acts of terror, including the murder of members of the extended royal family.

Nicolaevsky describes Azef’s double life in breathless prose, and his telling of the story compares favourably with anything John LeCarrè or Graham Greene ever wrote.

Upon his exposure by the “revolutionary bloodhound” Vladimir Burtsev, leaders of his party continued to insist on Azef’s innocence. This was a pattern of behaviour also displayed by the Bolsheviks, when Lenin defended their own Okhrana “mole” Roman Malinovsky, head of their Duma faction, certain of his innocence. (Malinovsky, unlike Azef, eventually faced revolutionary justice.) Decades later, Trotsky’s insistence that Stalin could not have been a tsarist police spy echoed these earlier views.

Menshevik Georgia: Online debate with Workers Liberty

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Last week, the British left newspaper Solidarity published this review of my book. Today, they published my rebuttal:

Paul Vernadsky in his review of my book, The Experiment: Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-21, is right to highlight the importance of this period for today. And he comes to the heart of our disagreement at the very end of his essay when he refers to the idea that “an impoverished, backward society cannot skip historical stages.” He calls this “Menshevik dogma”. No, Paul, that’s not “Menshevik dogma”. That’s Marxism.

But leaving aside whether that’s more Martov or Marx, that phrase has proven to be absolutely true. The last century showed us many examples of attempts by revolutionaries – sometimes, but not always, well-meaning ones – to skip historical stages. (Think of China, all of Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba.) In every single case, without exception, the result of skipping historical stages – mainly, skipping democracy – was the nightmare of totalitarianism.

Paul’s main charge against the Georgian Mensheviks is that they “could have remained part of Soviet Russia,” but chose not to. He makes this point several times in his short piece, chiding the Georgians for ignoring “the alternative of remaining with Bolshevik Russia.” This is a very basic historic error: Georgia was never part of Soviet Russia. Georgia had been part of the Russian empire, and remained very loosely connected to Russia during the months of the Provisional Government, but when the Bolsheviks seized power in November 1917, the Georgians – like many other parts of the empire – rejected their rule.

Had they taken Paul’s advice anyway, and voluntarily joined what later became known as the “happy family of Soviet peoples” three years before they were forced to by the Red Army, how would that have benefited anyone in Georgia? For three short years the Georgians benefited from a largely free political system, had powerful trade unions independent of the state, and enjoyed the benefits of an agrarian reform that managed to avert the famines that were destroying Russia. Does anyone seriously believe that the earlier arrival of the Cheka, led in Georgia by the sadistic Lavrenty Beria, would have been a good thing?

(Paul describes that invasion in 1921 as a ‘mistake’, but it was not. It was a crime, a premeditated one, and Stalin and cronies were the culprits.)

Paul’s over-reliance on Trotsky’s worst book – the one he wrote to justify the invasion of Georgia – means that he neglects to mention what we can now learn from the archives, things that Trotsky would not have known in 1921. For example, the fact that the Georgians came extremely close to a shooting war with the British Royal Navy, which wanted to shell Georgian soldiers who resisted the armed provocations by Denikin’s White armies. The main British interest was in toppling Lenin, not in propping up small border states like Georgia, and relations between London and Tiflis were never warm.

Trotsky makes much of the killings of Georgian Bolsheviks, and Paul quotes this uncritically, though the source of the story (a Russophile British journalist) is not entirely credible, and later publications (including Zhordania’s) contest the truth of the story.

Paul makes only the briefest mention of Georgia’s free and independent unions, who get a full chapter in my book, and I understand why. For it is here that Trotsky appears in the worst light, in his campaign to bring unions in Soviet Russia under full state control. Trotsky’s proposals to militarise labour were so outlandish that other Bolshevik leaders, no fans of trade unions themselves, rejected them.

Paul also dismisses the success of Georgia’s independent cooperatives, neglecting the evidence that they were, in fact, gradually coming to dominate whole sections of the economy. This slow transition to a social democratic welfare state may not be as exciting as “war communism” but it also had far fewer innocent victims.

“This was no socialist paradise,” he writes, and he’s right. But the Georgians never claimed to be building a socialist paradise on earth. That was something Trotsky and the Bolsheviks claimed for Russia. The Georgians were much more modest in their aims, more realistic and more humane.

One of the biggest problem with Paul’s argument is that he writes as if it is 1921. The Bolsheviks are on their way to creating a wonderful new society. The Mensheviks have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

But a century has passed, and we now know things we did not know then. We know how the Bolshevik experiment turned out.

And we know that being consigned to the dustbin of history – a fate that Trotsky himself, who coined that unfortunate phrase, would later share with the Mensheviks – was not the worst thing that could happen to a political movement.

Review: The Beria Papers, by Alan Williams

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

To anyone who has seen the recent film on the death of Stalin, the character of Lavrenty Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale, may now be familiar. Though the film was a comedy (of sorts), there was nothing funny about the real Beria. A sadistic murderer, he rose steadily in the ranks of the Soviet secret police, first in his native Georgia, and later promoted by Stalin to head up the nation-wide force. Imagine if Beria had recorded all his crimes, including the very personal ones against young girls, in a private diary. That is not the premise of this book, which is a fictional account of how three adventurers come up with a plan to fake Beria’s diaries to make money. A decade after The Beria Papers was published, the Hitler Diaries appeared and one is forced to wonder if the forger in that case was inspired by this one. As I have taken an interest recently in Soviet and Russian forgeries, I was interested to read this novel, and found it quite appealing, and as regards Beria, well-informed.

Review: Stalin’s Great Secret, by Isaac Don Levine

Wednesday, November 8th, 2017

I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away by saying what the secret was: Stalin was an agent of the tsarist police, the Okhrana, from 1906 until 1912.

Isaac Don Levine, who wrote the first biography of Stalin published in English in 1931, returned to the subject a quarter of a century later, admitting that his mind had changed. Like Trotsky and other biographers of the Soviet dictator, Levine had heard rumours of Stalin’s treason to the revolutionary cause, but had discounted them. There was no documentary proof.

And then after the Second World War, Levine was handed a document which seemed to offer precisely that: proof of Stalin’s employment by the police as a “mole”. There is a gap of a decade between Levine’s receipt of that document — which he was convinced was genuine — and the publication of this book. Levine’s explanation of that gap is not a credible one, and one imagines that he had some lingering doubts that he might have been handed a forgery. (His later silence on this issue, including in his autobiography, lead me to suspect precisely that.)

Most historians and critics were convinced that this was indeed the case, and the infamous “Eremin Letter” may have just been one more forged Russian document, like the better known “Zinoviev letter” from 1924. But there may be more to it than that.

Review: Eyewitness to History: Memoirs and Reflections of a Foreign Correspondent for Half a Century by Isaac Don Levine

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

I first came across Isaac Don Levine while researching the question of whether Stalin had been an agent of the tsarist police — an Okhrana mole inside the Bolshevik Party. Levine published a letter claiming to prove this in Life magazine in 1956, followed by a book, Stalin’s Great Secret. A quarter of a century earlier, he had published the first full length biography of Stalin in English. I was very disappointed to find that in this, his autobiography, he makes no mention of that story, not the article he published nor the book he wrote, both of which were the subjects of controversy.

Instead, he chooses to talk about his other journalistic adventures, including his meetings with Trotsky during the Russian civil war, or Trotsky’s assassin in a Mexican prison years later. Levine found himself at many interesting places and times, including Palestine during the mid-1930s, or in Dallas interviewing Marina Oswald, the widow of John F. Kennedy’s assassin in 1963.

He was accused of sympathies for the Russian regime, but was also a militant anti-Communist, an associate of Whittaker Chambers and Richard Nixon too.

For reasons that are hard to explain — after all, a journalist like Levine should be an expert at telling a story — this should have been a much more interesting book.

100 years ago today …

Tuesday, November 7th, 2017

… the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd.  This video may be worth viewing.


Review: The Vanishing Futurist, by Charlotte Hobson

Wednesday, November 1st, 2017

Charlotte Hobson has written a book that touches on two subjects that interest me enormously: the Russian Revolution and time travel.

Without giving away too much of the plot — and there is a central mystery which is explained on the very first page — suffice it to say that the real time travellers here are the author and reader.

Hobson has managed to get into the mind of a young English woman who finds herself in the Moscow of 1918. That woman founds an urban commune with her friends, and the stories of their struggles to create a new life together remind me of some stories of the early kibbutzim — such as the sharing of clothing.

Hobson doesn’t flinch from describing the reality of Bolshevik Russia — the cold, the hunger, the stifling bureaucracy, the lawlessness of the secret police (the Cheka), all of this happening not in the 1930s under Stalin, but in the first year of Lenin and Trotsky’s rule. She understands all that, but she also gets the excitement and the hope, and the possibilities that the overthrow of the tsarist regime opened up.

An excellent first novel.