Amateur vs. Professional Revolutionaries, 1917

The final downfall of the Romanov dynasty came on 3 March [1917], with the renunciation of the throne by the Grand Duke Mikhail, who had been nominated to be the Tsar’s successor…. The sudden collapse of the aristocracy took professional revolutionaries, such as Lenin and Trotsky, completely by surprise. They were exasperated to find themselves so far from the centre of events. But as things turned out, they had not missed their opportunity. The leaders of the Provisional Government, acting out of high-minded liberal naïvety in the case of Prince Lvov, and theatrical vanity in the case of his successor, Aleksandr Kerensky, proved easy to outmanoeuvre. The neck of the new freedom was exposed to the unscrupulous Leninists.

Kerensky was a lawyer. He was small and his starting eyes and curved nose made him look like a very intelligent frog, yet with ringing rhetoric and bursts of emotional energy he could dominate huge crowds. (Olga Chekhova later observed that whenever she saw Dr Goebbels speak, she could not help thinking of Kerensky.) Kerensky managed to convince many highly educated people – Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko among them – that he was a political genius, the Napoleon who would bring revolutionary excesses back under control and produce human justice. But historical parallels, especially in times of revolution and war, are often dangerously misleading. The balancing act which he had to undertake between reassuring the bourgeoisie and Russia’s Western allies on one hand, while at the same time appeasing the impatience of workers and peasants to take over factories and farmland, would have undermined the credibility of even the greatest leader.

Stanislavsky’s family business, the Alekseiev factories, were seized by the workers, and his house, as he admitted to a friend, had been ‘done over’. Respect for private property had collapsed with the elastic notion of ‘revolutionary expropriation’. Stanislavsky now had nothing more than a salary from the Moscow Art Theatre. Yet his enthusiasm for this new world of freedom did not diminish. He was certain it would lead not only to a fairer world, but to a more beautiful one. On the other hand, he also admitted that he was politically illiterate.

SOURCE: The Mystery of Olga Chekhova: The true story of a family torn apart by revolution and war, by Antony Beevor (Penguin, 2005), pp. 43-44

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