Monday, February 19, 2007

Book review: Russia in the Shadows

Note: Again a reposting of a book review that I have already posted at Readerville.com. I post it ehre, because it's a review of an interesting work by H.G. Wells that most won't have heard about. It's also a great example of why taking things at face value, or worse, making the most positive spin on something, is dangerous.

H.G. Wells: Russia in the Shadows

Not on of Wells' most know books. In fact it seems to be pretty rare, and there appears to have been only one printing in the UK and one in the US. My book doesn't contain a printing year, but it must have been published in either 1920 or 1921. It's a fairly short book, 153 pages and 8 pages with photos.

It is about a visit H.G. Wells made to Russia in 1920, more exactly to St. Petersburg and Moscow. The purpose of this trip is to get an impression of Russia after the Bolshevik had taken over.

Wells starts the book thus:

In January 1914 I visited Petersburg and Moscow for a couple of weeks; in September 1920 I was asked to repeat this visit by Mr. Kamenev1, of the Russian Trade Delegation in London.


This wasn't a unique things. Others British intellectuals had been there before Wells.
H.G. Wells wanted to make his own impressions of how Russia were, and wrote:

In Petersburg did not stay at the Hotel International, to which foreign visistors are usually sent, but with my old friend, Maxim Gorky2. The guide and interpreter assigned to assist us was a lady I had met in Russia in 1914, the niece of a former Ambassador to London.


While the guide might have been neutral (or even perhasp unfriendly to the Communists), his friend was hardly the best person to give Wells the most unbiased view of the qualities of the new goverment. That Wells isn't aware of this, shows in this passage:

Gorky's position in Russia is a quite extraordinary and personal one. He is no more of a communist3 than I am, and I have heard him argue with the utmost freedom in his flat against the exstremist positions with such men as Bokaiev4, recently the head of the Extraordinary Commission in Petersburg, and Zalutsky, one of the rising leaders of the Communist party. It was a very reassuring display of free speech, for Gorky did not so much argue as denounce - and this in front of two deeply interested English enquireres.


Wells then tells about what the Communist goverment is doing for the arts and the science, and dwells on all the well known Russians he meets: Shalypin5, Monachof, Oldenburg the Orientalist, Karpinsky the geologist6, Pavloff7, Radloff8, Bielopolsky9, Manuchin and Galzounov10

Wells doesn't say that the Communists are doing everything well, but he says that given the situation, they are the best choice for Russia, and they might stop a collapse of Russia which could threathen the whole of Europe. He also says that some of the Russian leaders have visions:

[T]here were other more liberal minds in this new Russian world, minds which, given an opportunity, will build and will probably build well. Among men of such constructive force I could quote such names as Lenin himself, who has developed wonderfully since the days of his exile, and who has recently written powerfully against the extravagances of his own extremists; Trotsky11, who has never been an extremist, and who is a man of very great organising ability; Lunacharsky12, the Minister of Education, Rikoff13, the head of the Department of People's Economy; [...] These are names that occur to me; it is by no means an exhaustive list of the statesmanlike elements in the Bolshevik Goverment.


Now it's easy to be snarky of H.G. Wells, he was there pre-Stalin after all, but I must say that it's a long time since I've last seen such a blatant white-wash as this book. While H.G. Wells was critical of Marxism, there is no doubt that he was over-whelmed by Lenin, and he lays the majority of the blame for the situation in Russia on the Tsar regime - not a unvalid view, except for the fact that he ignores the killings being committed in the name of the revolution, or blame it on a few extremists.

The book is interesting as a historical document, if nothing else, then because all the politicans he meets either are totally unknowns these days (which might be because of Wells alternative spelling of their names), or was killed by Stalin in the years 1936-1939, if they still were alive at that time. Stalin wasn't mentioned at all. There are also a few pictures of Lenin in the book, which I haven't seen elsewhere.

I wouldn't pay the $50 I've seen it cost at abe.com though.

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1Lev Kamenev (1883-1936), one of the most powerful communists, until he fell out with Stalin. Expelled from the party (twice), was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and finally in 1936 tried for treason and shot.

2Penname of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov/Aleksey Maximovich Pyeshkov (1868 - 1836). He was a whole-hearted supporter of the Soviet regime, though he fell out with the regime and lived in exile from 1921-1929.

3Wells calls himself an Evolutionary Collectivist.

4Almost certainly Ivan Bakayev (1887-1936), a powerful comminist, who fell out with Stalin, was expelled from the party in 1927, and was accused of treason and executed in 1936.

5Probably Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin (1873-1938) who later left Russia.

6Alexander Petrovich Karpinsky (1846-1936)

7Ivan Petrovich Pavlov (1849-1936), who was awarded the Nobel prize for medicine in 1904.

8Perhaps V.V. Radlov (1837-1918), a Russian turkologist, considered to be the founder of the field.

9Probably Aristarkh Apollonovich Belopolsky (1854-1934), a Russian astrophysicist.

10Aleksandr Konstantionvich Glazunov (1865-1936), Russian composer who emigrated to Paris in 1927 or 1928.

11Leon Trotsky, alias of Lev Davidovich Bronstein (1879-1940). Exiled to Central Asia in 1927, expulsion from Russia on 1929, sentenced to death in absence in 1937, and assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.

12Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933) - died of natural causes.

13Alexei Rykov (1881-1938), convicted of treason and executed in 1938.

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