Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Harrison E. Salisbury, a veteran American newspaperman, has had a deep interest in things Russian ever since World War II. He first went to Russia in 1944, as a correspondent for United Press. After 1949, he served for many years as the New York Times correspondent in Moscow. Among his books on Russia are: The 900 Days, a gripping account of the German siege of Leningrad in 1941-1944; two novels with a Russian setting, The Northern Palmyra Affair and The Gates of Hell; and Black Night, White Snow, a lengthy history of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. Salisbury’s latest book, Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930, is a shorter account of the Russian revolutionary period, written for a popular audience. Salisbury’s principal sources are: the correspondence of Czar Nicholas II, the memoirs of Russian participants in the 1917 revolution, and the diaries of non-Russian observers of the revolutionary events.

Russia in Revolution begins with a word portrait of the young Czar, Nicholas II. He is shown relaxing with his family in the fall of 1905, oblivious of the storm signals of coming revolution. Backed by his strong-willed wife, Czarina Alexandra, he was unwilling to yield one iota of his absolute power. He was blind to the abysmal poverty of the Russian masses.

This Russia of unyielding monarchical autocracy, Salisbury shows, had given birth to an equally unyielding tradition, among the Russian intellectuals, of violent opposition to the existing Czarist order. Despising Russian society as corrupt and evil, they dreamed of its thorough destruction and replacement by a new and better one. For many such intellectuals, the deterministic philosophy of Marxism provided a comforting faith in the inevitability of ultimate victory. It was within this milieu of intellectual Marxism that Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Nikolai Lenin, founded the Bolshevik group in 1903.

Salisbury proceeds to tell the story of the first unsuccessful Russian revolution, of 1905. This series of spontaneous outbursts in town and country began in January in St. Petersburg (later Petrograd), when police massacred an unarmed crowd demonstrating for better working conditions. By October, the wave of strikes and violence had forced the Czar to grant Russia its first Constitution, establishing a Parliament (Duma) with strictly limited powers. It was not until December that the Czar’s troops, acting with great brutality, finally quelled the uprising. Further repression was carried out under the direction of Peter Arkadevich Stolypin, appointed Premier in 1906.

Stolypin, Salisbury believes, was the ablest premier Czar Nicholas ever had. While sternly repressing the revolutionary movement, Stolypin tried to create a strong agricultural middle class by aiding the more ambitious among the peasantry. Unfortunately for Czarism, Stolypin died of an assassin’s bullet on September 1, 1911.

After Stolypin’s death, the dissolute monk Gregory Rasputin consolidated his influence over the Imperial Court. He had gained his power over the Czarina through his seemingly miraculous power to mitigate the hemophilia of her son, the little Czarevich. The scandal of Rasputin’s influence, Salisbury implies, tarnished the reputation of the Imperial family even among those loyal to Czarism.

In the summer of 1914, Russia became involved in World War I, which pitted her armies against those of Germany, Turkey, and Austria-Hungary. The Russian Army scored some successes at first, but soon began to suffer serious reverses at the hands of the Germans. The war turned into a grim struggle of attrition.

The poor showing of the Russian Army, Salisbury shows, created a dangerous mood of discontent among the nobility. It was rumored that it was Rasputin’s influence which was responsible for the incompetence and corruption which so hampered the government’s prosecution of the war. In November, 1916, therefore, the young aristocrat Felix Yusupov, together with several fellow conspirators, assassinated the notorious monk and dumped his body into Malaya Nevka, a tributary of the Neva.

Despite the assassination of Rasputin, the war continued to go badly. The Germans continued to occupy...

(The entire section is 1747 words.)

Russia in Revolution, 1900-1930 Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Library Journal. CII, December 1, 1978, p. 2421.

Publisher’s Weekly. CCXIV, August 28, 1978, p. 378.