Robert W. Merry, editor: Currently I am in the middle of The Russian Revolution: A New History, by Sean McMeekin, professor of history at Bard College. I hadn’t been familiar with McMeekin’s work, but the dust jacket says he is the author of seven books. Amazon lists among his titles July 1914, a day-by-day narrative of the events leading to World War I; The Ottoman End Game: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East; and History’s Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks.
The latter title intrigued me, particularly since an online entity called the World Socialist Web Site blasts The Russian Revolution in an essay by a writer named David North, who calls the book “simply an exercise in anti-communist propaganda from which no one will learn anything.”
I beg to differ. I consider the book a solid historical narrative rendered in crisp, unadorned prose. I haven’t reached the historical time in the tale when the Bolsheviks emerge to grab hold of the Russian destiny; perhaps when I do I will then see what rankles Mr. North so intensely. That will be an interesting exercise in critical reading when I get there.
In the meantime, I am learning a lot. McMeekin punctures a number of misconceptions about the onset of the revolution, which began in earnest in the streets of St. Petersburg with demonstrations that unfolded with a kind of festive spirit on February 23 (by the Russian Julian calendar). This day brought a fateful convergence—a sudden, unanticipated break in the winter weather, with temperatures climbing to 46 degrees Fahrenheit; and commemoration of the socialist-inspired International Women’s Day, which lured thousands of spirited folk into the balmy streets. That first day saw some 100,000 people join the celebration with little agitation or pushback from authorities.
But soon workers took the occasion to go on strike, swelling the second-day crowd on Nevsky Prospekt to 160,000. Authorities, increasingly alarmed, sought to check the inflow benignly by closing city bridges, but thousands merely crossed on the ice. Rougher elements showed up from Vyborg and Vasilievsky Island, where bread supplies were short, owing to a lack of fuel for the bakeries. By day three the crowd swelled further to more than 200,000 in what amounted to a spontaneous general strike. Blood was spilled, and soon the situation was entirely out of control.
Writes McMeekin: “We can only surmise what the ‘real’ motivations of the protestors may have been.” After all, bread was not in short supply through the winter (with the exception of the temporary situation noted above). Economic growth was roaring in Russia at the time. And there was little antiwar sentiment in the country as the conflict with Germany and Austria-Hungary continued; indeed, writes McMeekin, while the Russian war effort had languished in 1916, things looked much brighter as the new year of 1917 unfolded.
But among the elites there was plenty of tension and maneuvering, as respect for Tsar Nicholas II waned in response to his often hapless leadership. Contributing also were the German heritage of the Tsarina Alexandra, and the court machinations of the outlandish Grigory Rasputin (until his assassination by three nobles, including a cousin of the Tsar).
In any event, once the violence began and authorities finally moved aggressively to restore order, the situation was lost. The Tsar, off commanding his armies, couldn’t conceive of what was happening in St. Petersburg, and soon in Moscow and other cities. By the time he grasped it, it was too late.
The chaos that ensued serves as a kind of historical lesson. No society is immune from that kind of civic dislocation. And often the most stark and shattering historical developments are the ones that hardly anybody predicted.
Gracy Olmstead, contributing editor: I just finished reading The New Localism by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, and highly recommend it. The style is very wonky and reads occasionally like a TED talk, but the principles they explore are vital for Americans to consider. The book amply demonstrates that localism is not chained to the partisanship and bombast that dominate our national discourse at present, and thus the book is hopeful and refreshing in a way many of us need right now.
Now that’s finished, I’m delving into Cræft: a fascinating book about our nostalgic longing for artisan things such as handmade furniture, homemade sourdough bread, homespun wool, and other manually-made (often ancient) items. The author ties our desire for artisanship and cræft to a deeper yearning for place and context. So yes, reading this book is like entering my crunchy con happy place.
Finally, I am two-thirds of the way through Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain. I started this book last year, and kept setting it aside in order to write book reviews or meet deadlines. I’m hoping to finish it during this Lenten season. Thus far, Merton’s considerations of faith, culture, and God have been poignant, inspiring, and convicting. It’s one I’m sure I will re-read in the future.
Emile A. Doak, director of events & outreach: I’ve been revisiting Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. It’s a novel that I was first introduced to many years ago, before Donald Trump and Hillbilly Elegy jettisoned small town malaise into the center of the national conversation. Russo’s narrative focuses on the fictional Maine town that lends its name to the title, a blue-collar town that once thrived on the prosperity of the paper mill that made its home on the town’s river bank. Of course, Empire Falls, like countless other American small towns, loses the mill, leaving those who remain in the town—protagonist Miles Roby, chief among them—to navigate the uncomfortable challenges of post-industrial life.
Insofar as fiction has a way of clarifying and humanizing the most complex of social ills, Russo’s novel is up to the task. We see Miles’s steadfast devotion to his daughter, Tick—and his anguish as teenage Tick withdraws further and further from him amidst his messy divorce from her mother, Janine. Of course, the divorce itself is a quintessential Empire Falls story, as good hearted-yet-meek Miles loses Janine to the bombastically sleazy Walt “Silver Fox” Comeau, a man so opposite of Miles that it was inevitable that the town’s ennui would drive Janine straight to him. Walt’s constant presence at Miles’s Empire Grill certainly doesn’t help the uphill task of operating a struggling establishment that really should have closed with the mill.
Miles’s travails—personal, religious, professional—are not unique to fictional Empire Falls. Russo’s novel, written over 15 years ago, wrestles with many of the questions driving our politics today. Is there a future for the American communities that have been left behind by the global economy and the information age? Should there be? And what of the people who call these places home—many of whom, like Miles, stay despite a desire to leave? Yet perhaps the most prescient question is implied by the title itself: Is “Empire Falls” a foreboding allusion to our current national moment?
Grayson Quay, contributor: To amuse myself on long car rides and break up the heavy theoretical and canonical texts I read for my Georgetown classes, I tend to indulge in lighter fare when it comes to audiobooks, choosing plot-driven novels that don’t punish me if I lose focus for a second to check that I have the right exit. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge Trilogy—which consists of The Pillars of the Earth, World Without End, and A Column of Fire.
In his introduction to Pillars, Follett, who generally confines himself to World War II spy novels, explains how despite his lack of religious conviction, his fascination with cathedrals led him to research and write a novel about the decades-long construction of a twelfth-century Gothic cathedral in the fictional English city of Kingsbridge. The first novel, which Starz adapted into an eight-part miniseries in 2010, was followed by two more, set in the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, respectively.
Follett occasionally makes a historical or theological misstep, but generally his research is good, and the wide-ranging casts of architects, laborers, priests, nuns, knights, kings, farmers, and burghers gives a good cross-section of medieval society. There’s always building project, some intersection with larger historical events, and a love story in which Follett quickly throws two characters together only to keep them apart for decades with a series of contrived obstacles before ending the book with their joyful wedding.
As an added bonus, these are among the most pro-capitalist books I’ve ever read, a little like Ayn Rand but with fewer seventy-page monologues (none, in fact). Knights, instead of being portrayed as the chivalric figures of legend, are more like frat boys with unrestrained appetites for rape, and senseless violence. Even the good ones are hammers to whom every problem looks like a nail. The true heroes are the innovators and entrepreneurs like Jack Builder, who runs away to France and returns with the designs for ribbed vaults and pointed arches, or Lady Aliena, who becomes a prosperous wool merchant after her noble family is stripped of its lands and titles. The greatest triumphs take place on the building site, not the battlefield.
They may not be the most highbrow novels, but in a moment defined by the angst of “late capitalism,” it’s refreshing to visit a community where providing a needed service, making a quality product, and earning an honest profit is a cause for pride.