Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of one of the 20th century’s seismic events comes an anthology of writing, both poetry and prose, that was penned as a real-time response to the unfolding drama. “1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution” showcases the brutality and uncertainty that reigned as an old regime was dismantled and a new order established. So strong are the voices collected here that their words have the power to shock and stir a century on.
Refreshingly, not all the voices are familiar. Usual suspects such as Maxim Gorky, Isaac Babel and Ivan Bunin are sidelined for less well known figures, many of whom are translated here for the first time in English. One or two are all but forgotten even in Russia.
Credit is due to award-winning translator Boris Dralyuk for assembling these lost-and-found voices and allowing them to sing again. In his introduction he explains the rationale for his selections: Each piece was written between February 1917 and late 1919, the aim being not so much to track the revolutionary period as to “steep the reader in its tumult.”
The book begins with poetry. Two of the century’s finest Russian female poets are included, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova, as are two of the country’s most prominent male Symbolists, Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely. Boris Pasternak, best known in the West for his novel “Doctor Zhivago,” was primarily a poet, and here he condenses the drama of the February Revolution (“the surf of Europe’s wavering night”) into six elegant stanzas.
Dralyuk devotes more space to prose. As with his poetry section, he arranges writers’ work around a common theme, whether the collapse of the Romanov dynasty or the prolonged conflict that followed. Some writers pin the political colors to the mast. Alexander Serafimovich, an early Bolshevik supporter, rails against “the Tsar and his gluttonous band” in his story. On the other side, the wonderful satirist Teffi — who, interestingly, counted both Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II among her admirers — eviscerates the Bolshevik leader in one sketch, while in a second, more caustic piece, gleefully imagines her own impending guillotine execution.
After marveling at the zeal of proletarian poets, the inventiveness of prose stylists and the varying thoughts and visions of a range of other writers, we arrive at the book’s final section, which looks to the future. In his political pamphlet published 15 years before the Revolution, Lenin famously asked “What is to be done?” As if in riposte, the pertinent question at the heart of Mikhail Bulgakov’s closing piece, written two years after Lenin seized power, is: “What will become of us?”
Many of the writers here would go on to face persecution, ostracism or worse. This riveting collection catches them on the cusp of change, on the brink of darkness, when they were free to so brilliantly catalog the turbulence around them.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
1917: Stories and Poems From the Russian Revolution
Selected by: Boris Dralyuk.
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 236 pages, $14.95.