Six weeks in Russia, 1919

Arthur Ransome

Why I looked at this book

When we learn about revolutions it often looks like there was a sudden change from one regime to another. I doubt that it is really like that, presumably people's day to day lives continue as before, and they may well not see the change at the time as anything like a big as history makes it. Arthur Ransome was in the thick of things, so I'm hoping that this book will show how things played out following the Russian revolution. There's also the question of whether there were things that could have happened differently and led to a less autocratic society. Since Ransome is best known for his children's stories, I'm also hoping that this book will be an entertaining read.

First impressions

The sample doesn't get on to the actual work, just the introduction by Paul Foot, but that has plenty of useful information. It seems that Ransome did see the revolution as something huge, and certainly sympathised with its aims. The introduction mentions later works Ransome wrote on the progress of the revolution, but these seem harder to get hold of. This is a shame, as it would have been very interesting to see whether Ransome was disillusioned by how things turned out. It would be good if a publisher could put these related works into one volume. I'll just have to be content with Ransome's view of these six weeks.

Main review

The start of the book is fairly predictable coming from someone with Marxist leanings. It's Bourgeoisie this, Bourgeoisie that, which is a bit rich coming from someone who identified himself as one of the bourgeoisie, and was later criticised for writing about middle class life. You can see the link though, the 'Swallows and Amazons' series (and indeed many children's books) tell of children getting away from a middle class existence and doing things for themselves whilst the rise of the Soviets represented workers throwing off middle class control and running things for themselves. After all the bourgeoisie stuff there's rather a lot about finding food and accommodation in war torn Russia, which I didn't find that interesting.

Later on the book became more interesting, as it dealt with what was happening in Russia and how people were implementing the revolution. I did feel at times that it would be useful to have read a more standard historical account of what was happening. My understanding gathered from this book (although I may have got the wrong end of the stick) is that the soviets weren't supposed to be main government, but had more of an advisory function. The constituent assembly was the elected body, but Lenin used the power of the soviets to overthrow it. Ransome claims that the democratically elected constituent assembly did not give the best leadership, as the populace would just vote unconsciously. I can't help wondering whether his fellow bourgeoisie in England used the same sort of argument against universal suffrage.

What was most interesting was the way people dealt with the problems of the new economy. There was a shortage of soap. Those returning from abroad would want to set up a commission to look into it. Factories would then grind to standstill because there was always someone taking inventory and the like. There's one example in the book that Ransome found rather amusing, but I find less so. The ex-owner of a factory tried to fit in to modified circumstances, making his workforce the owners of the factory, but was still arrested (and presumably the factory stopped producing), until 60000 roubles was paid out of the business's money. When businesses were taken over by the workforce there were generally quite a few motives for the way things were done. There was the idea of worker empowerment, but there was also the need to increase production. Also, the central government needed to raise money for its activities. Then there's taking revenge on the ex-owners for past injustices. I would think that this should have been last on this list of priorities, but somehow it tended to rise to the top, so it's hardly surprising that the economy was in chaos.
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