Book Review: Caught in the Revolution

Caught in the Revolution
Published By: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: February 7, 2017
Page Count: 464
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Adult - History, Nonfiction

Many books explore what life was like at the time of the Russian Revolution, but Caught in the Revolution, by Helen Rappaport is the first that I’ve read to tell the story from the perspective of foreigners living in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1917. My knowledge of the Russian Revolution is pretty basic, so I appreciated the detail that went into this book. I learned that there was a short period of peace in Petrograd just after Tsar Nicholas II abdicated; I had always assumed that once the unrest began it snowballed from there. I was also struck by the author’s description of Russians wandering the streets of Petrograd destroying evidence of things “imperial” on both signs and buildings. Apparently there was some confusion between the oppressive Russian Imperial eagle and the American eagle symbolizing freedom. Some of the foreign residents of the city were bummed that they didn’t get to keep an imperial eagle souvenir! 

When I began reading Caught in the Revolution, I expected a collection of stories about particular foreign residents of Petrograd and was looking forward to learning more about their individual experiences of the Russian Revolution. Rappaport, however, tells the detailed story of the revolution in the area of the city where most of the foreign nationals lived at the time. She peppers in the observations of British, American, French, and Canadian residents chronologically. It does make for a more cohesive narrative of the revolution, but, despite the “Glossary of Eyewitnesses” at the beginning of the book, it was harder for me to zero in what was happening to individual people. 

For me, Caught in the Revolution was a little dense because I don’t have the greatest foundation in early 20th century Russian history, but I think this would be a great book for history buffs who want to get a new perspective on one of the most globally transformative events in history.

Caught in the Revolution is Helen Rappaport’s masterful telling of the outbreak of the Russian Revolution through eye-witness accounts left by foreign nationals who saw the drama unfold.

Between the first revolution in February 1917 and Lenin’s Bolshevik coup in October, Petrograd (the former St Petersburg) was in turmoil – felt nowhere more keenly than on the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt. There, the foreign visitors who filled hotels, clubs, bars and embassies were acutely aware of the chaos breaking out on their doorsteps and beneath their windows.

Among this disparate group were journalists, diplomats, businessmen, bankers, governesses, volunteer nurses and expatriate socialites. Many kept diaries and wrote letters home: from an English nurse who had already survived the sinking of the Titanic; to the black valet of the US Ambassador, far from his native Deep South; to suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst, who had come to Petrograd to inspect the indomitable Women’s Death Battalion led by Maria Bochkareva.

Helen Rappaport draws upon this rich trove of material, much of it previously unpublished, to carry us right up to the action – to see, feel and hear the Revolution as it happened to an assortment of individuals who suddenly felt themselves trapped in a "red madhouse."