Russia, revolution and me

On the 4 1/2 hour train ride from Leningradsky Station in Moscow to Moskovskaya Station in Saint Petersburg last Thursday, I continued re-reading Edmund Wilson, To the Finland Station.
Lenin's train. From Canadian Military History
I've now got close to the end of this history of revolutionary thought from Michelet to the 1917 revolution, and the arrival of Lenin and other exiles at the Finland Station in Petrograd (as the city was then known), which we plan to see tomorrow. Meanwhile, while visiting museums (the Hermitage, Museum of Russian Art) and monuments and churches and walking all over the central city in this great heat, I've been reflecting on what this visit means for me and what I've defined as my life projects.

The most immediate of those projects is completing my novel about the Paris Commune. Wilson is little help there; his too-brief summary is not only mistaken in some details, but treats the whole adventure with detached bemusement. But Wilson and this Russia visit both help me understand better the larger and longer-lasting context of that adventure. More important, they have led me to understand this novel in larger terms. What I really aim to do is understand all of social change, the revolutionary impulse, how it gets mobilized, its splits and contradictions, and especially the conflicts ensuing upon initial victory. The Paris Commune of the spring of 1871 is but one essential chapter. It inspired Lenin and all the other Russian revolutionaries, which is one reason it is essential. The other is that it was a tightly condensed laboratory experience that suggests almost all that can, or has, happened, not only in Russia 1917-1920, but also Mexico 1910 and after, Cuba 1956 (landing of the Granma) and on, and so on. I don't know how much of all this I'll be able to complete before that great, final deadline, but the whole picture, however dimly, will be in my mind as I continue.

So I see these questions as parts of two life projects: 1, to write fiction that helps me and my readers enter these processes emotionally, and 2, to analyze them as the sociologist I was trained to be.

And finally there is a much smaller, less ambitious project: for over 50 years I've wanted to learn Russian, and now I'm doing it. I've begun working through the originals, with the help of the translations, in a bilingual edition of Osip Mandelstam's verse, and loving it. This trip has been the great stimulus.

1 comment:

Peter de Lissovoy said...

Gef, these have been great glimpses of the deeper, broader Russia beyond current western news fixations. Excellent also how your trip has stimluated your thinking on your current writing project(s). Looking forward to more on your idea. And Wilson's book which I have always intended to red. How about Trotsky's book? How about John Reed's book? Okay, write some more now about your trip. We're waiting . . .