Of lice, peasants and freedom: Arthur Ransome on the Russian Revolution

Some of the best materials on the Russian Revolution remain those works written at the time, especially those that capture the mood in a way that all-knowing historians pretend to do afterwards. Arthur Ransome’s two little books, Russia in 1919 and The Crisis in Russia, are great examples. He lived in Petrograd from 1903, so pretty much saw it all. He had access to the inner circles of Bolshevik leadership, attending meetings of the executive committee, interviewing the likes of Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and so on, and he was part of worker meetings and experienced every day life during the best and worst times.

Translator, folklorist, journalist, Ransome is listed in a Who’s Who at the time as a lover of ‘walking, smoking, fairy tales’. Even more: ‘It is, perhaps, his intimacy with the last named that enables him to distinguish between myth and fact and that makes his activity as an observer and recorder so valuable in a day of bewilderment and betrayal’.

A few snippets:

There was the feeling, from which we could never escape, of the creative effort of the revolution. There was the thing that distinguishes the creative from other artists, the living, vivifying expression of something hitherto hidden in the consciousness of humanity. If this book were to be an accurate record of my impressions, all the drudgery, gossip, quarrels, arguments, events and experiences it contains would have to be set against a background of that extraordinary vitality which obstinately persists in Moscow in these dark days of discomfort, disillusion, pestilence, starvation and unwanted war (Russia in 1919, p. vi-vii, in the midst of the ‘civil’ war, which included 160,000 troops from a dozen countries invading the USSR).

On the train to Moscow:

At last I tried to sleep, but the atmosphere of the carriage, of smoke, babies, stale clothes, and the peculiar smell of the Russian peasantry which no one who has known it can forget, made sleep impossible. But I travelled fairly comfortably, resolutely shutting my ears to the talk … and shifting from one bone to the another as each ached in turn from contact with the plank on which I lay (Russia in 1919, p. 10).

A discussion with Lenin:

More than ever, Lenin struck me as a happy man. Walking home from the Kremlin, I tried to think of any other man of his calibre who had a similar joyous temperament. I could think of none. This little, bald-headed, wrinkled man, who tilts his chair this way and that, laughing over one thing or another, ready at any minute to give serious advice to any who interrupt him to ask for it, advice so well reasoned that it is to his followers far more compelling than any command, every one of his wrinkles is a wrinkle of laughter, not of worry. I think the reason must be that he is the first great leader who utterly discounts the value of his own personality. He is quite without personal ambition. More than that, he believes, as a Marxist, in the movement of the masses which, with or without him, would still move. His whole faith is in the elemental forces that move people, his faith in himself is merely his belief that he justly estimates the direction of those forces. He does not believe that any man could make or stop the revolution which he thinks is inevitable. If the Russian revolution fails, according to him, it fails only temporarily, and because of forces beyond any man’s control. He is consequently free with a freedom no other great man has ever had. It is not so much what he says that inspires confidence in him. It is this sensible freedom, this obvious detachment. With his philosophy he cannot for a moment believe that one man’s mistake might ruin it all. He is, for himself at any rate, the exponent, not the cause, of the events that will be for ever linked with his name (Russia in 1919, p. 56).

Precautions against typhus:

The car seemed very clean, but, as an additional precaution, we began by rubbing turpentine on our necks and wrists and ankles for the discouragement of lice, now generally known as ‘Semashki’ from the name of Semashko, the Commissar of Public Health, who wages unceasing war for their destruction as the carriers of typhus germs. I rubbed the turpentine so energetically in to my neck that it burnt like a collar of fire, and for a long time I was unable to get to sleep (The Crisis in Russia, p. 26).

Trade unions:

When I was in Moscow in the spring of this year the Russian Trades Unions received a telegram from the Trades Union Congress at Amsterdam, a telegram which admirable illustrated the impossibility of separating judgement of the present position of the Unions from judgements of the Russian revolution as a whole. It encouraged the Unions ‘in their struggle’ and promised support in that struggle. The Communists immediately asked ‘What struggle? Against the capitalist system in Russia which does not exist? Or against capitalist systems outside Russia?’ (The Crisis in Russia, p. 36).

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Definitions of communism

The first task that confronts us here is to clean up Moscow, to put an end to the filth and state of neglect into which it has sunk.

Only when we have solved the problem of grain shall we have a socialist foundation.

Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice!

Coal is the bread of socialist industry.

Electrification based on the Soviet system will mean the complete success of the foundations of communism in our country.

The age of steam is the age of the bourgeoisie, the age of electricity is the age of socialism.

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 30, pp. 184, 224, 334, 368, 414.

Who said Lenin didn’t have a sense of humour?

The lice that almost defeated socialism

Volume 30 of Lenin’s Collected Works: what a read it has been so far! At one level, it is an extraordinary narrative that draws you in, giving you the proverbial never-ending book. At another level, it has blown away many caricatures and preconceptions concerning Lenin. One would have to be the sectarian Lenin, brooking no rival and eliminating them at the slightest provocation. Not at all, Lenin struggles between what I call ecumenism and sectarianism, voicing now one, now the other position – so I will need to call on a complex dialectic to deal with it all.

However, the best find of late is the lice. Lice!? Not on me, mind you.

Let me set the scene. It is late 1919, two years after the revolution. The place has faced six years of perpetual war, first in WWI and then in the ‘civil’ war. Of course it wasn’t ‘civil’ at all: the British, French, Americans, Canadians, Japanese et al thought they could topple the fledgling and weakened communist republic. They failed, so they sent arms, money, supplies and troops to old guard generals in the north, south, east and west – Kolchak, Yudenich, Denikin, Churchill et al (Churchill predicted he would have Moscow by Christmas of 1918). The lesson: any socialist state that wants to delink from the global capitalist system will be attacked, brutally and consistently, dubbed ‘terrorist’, a threat to civilisation, un-democratic, dictatorial and so on and on. It will also need to make sure it is well protected – the necessary evil of what is called ‘war communism’.

But defeat the lot of them the Soviets did, especially with the genius of Trotsky. So by the end of the 1919, they can finally turn to reconstruction. Three key issues have been dogging them: food, since the blockade had attempted to starve the Russians; fuel, since the same enemies had grabbed the coalfields and tried to freeze them to death. Pecisely on these issues does the question of the transition from old to new turn: how do you construct a completely different system of production, distribution and consumption in the midst of the old system.

But what about the lice? They are the third key issue for the tension between old and new. Here is Lenin at the seventh congress of Soviets in December 1919:

Comrades, we must concentrate everything on this problem. Either the lice will defeat socialism, or socialism will defeat the lice! (Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 228)

Why lice? Easy: they spread typhus. Typhus was sweeping through a hungry, cold but  increasingly victorious Red Army and population. The outcome is now history, albeit less known than it should: socialism did defeat the lice, or at least those lice.

No wonder Lenin could proclaim, ‘it really is a miracle!’