In Times of Upheaval

Interesting details gleaned from Tania: Memories of a Lost World by Tania Alexander (daughter of the infamous Moura Budberg, about whom I have posted before, many times, all the way back to 2006, as part of a story I am once again about to begin revising, after finishing a draft in 2010): during World War I, what was Russian high society doing?

There were no official parties or embassy balls for the duration of the war, but right up to the  October 1917 Revolution it was possible to maintain the outward appearances of social life, and restaurants and gypsy taverns were increasingly patronized in the absence of formal social functions.

And during the Revolution?

What is remarkable is that although the Russian Revolution had already begun, with the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government under Kerensky in March 1917, life at Yendel [the estate where Moura Budberg had grown up] that summer seems to have gone on quite as before. Although perhaps not distinguished as a poem, Dennis Garstin’s account in verse of life at Yendel that summer, and his fond memories of it, show how far it was from the political realities of the day:

At Yendel girls begin the day
In optimistic negligée
Followed hot-footed, after ten,
By the pyjama-radiant men.
… but I’ll be sad
In Petrograd, in Petrograd,
Thinking of many a happy ride
Astride the liniaker…
Or how we danced the good night through
On in hallucination flew
On aeroplanes, and how the Devil
Inspired the maids to go to Reval
Rebreaking tender sailors’ hearts…
Oh God, and I must take a train
And go to Petrograd again,
And while I deal out propaganda
My nicer thoughts will all meander
Back, back to Yendel, oh to be
In Yendel for eternity. 1

The crash came only a few months after this was written.

The establishment of the Provisional Government in March 1917 had in fact had little immediate effect on everyday life in Petrograd. Although there were rumors of uprisings and discontent in the country and no lack of danger signals of what lay in store, life did not change very much. For many of the well-to-do it was hard to believe that there would be a permanent change in society.

By the time my mother returned to Yendel that summer, it was, however, alarmingly clear that this state of affairs could not last. Soviets were being established  within the armed forces and all over Petrograd, and although they were a minority, the power of the Bolsheviks was growing rapidly. In October of that year, Kerensky’s short-lived Liberal Socialist government was overthrown by the Bolsheviks: chaos and civil war spread throughout Russia. Petrograd society at last woke up to the seriousness of events, and realised that its way of life had gone for ever. Many families abandoned their homes and fled the country; many others were arrested by the Bolsheviks and suffered death or exile.

Some of this is, of course, nothing new to us, especially to those who know more of Russian history, but when reading about the Russian Revolution, I seem always to have seen accounts of what was going on either among the leaders of the revolution, or in the streets. I’d never actually come across a description of what high society folk were doing at the time, much less the admission that they were just doing their level best to carry on as if nothing was wrong, and then realized, pretty much at the last minute, that while they’d been playacting, they’d drifted closer and closer to the doom of everything they valued and cared about.

(But, yes, yes, of course. What else would they have done? It seems obvious, once you know, but I hadn’t imagined it. I’d figured on them having been ready for disaster. But when you live a comfortable, pampered life, disaster is something to which you grow unaccustomed, right? So… yeah, it makes sense.)

The irony here is that the people who probably had the resources to steer things in a direction useful to them (if not outright control the situation — I rather doubt that was possible after March 1917) didn’t really get the scale of events through their thick skulls. And, of course, this is a very human problem.  One feels like there are lessons here for all of us today, whether in relation to climate change, or neoliberal economic globalization, or the power we allow corporations to have…

… or, yes, on the personal level. The sleep sacrificed to get things done, the hours diverted from what we should be doing for health, for self-improvement, to things that don’t need doing.

Surely it’s not that serious! we tell ourselves, and tell ourselves, and tell one another for good measure. And then we discover, it is.

1. Tania Alexander obviously is omitting parts of the poem, including a few lines near the end I found elsewhere:

For there beneath the summer skies
It’s easy to be awfully wise
And even singing such as mine
Heard from a distance, sounds divine.

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