Sunday, 26 November 2017

Russia in the Shadows (1921)


Wells went thrice to Russia: visiting for twelve days in 1914, two weeks in 1920 and eleven days in 1934. Russia in the Shadows is the book he wrote about that second trip. His son George, ‘Gip’ as he was known, travelled with him. The lad had just turned 19, and had studied Russian at Oundle School (this, it seems, was the first British school ever to teach the language, and Gip's year the first to be given the opportunity). He was fluent enough to act as interpreter.

They went to Petrograd (not yet named Leningrad) and then on to Moscow, and Wells writes about everything he sees. The highlight of the visit was, and the climax of this little book is, an interview with Lenin himself. The official invitation for Wells to visit had come from Lev Kamenev, Chair of the ruling Politburo, but the original idea had likely been Lenin's. Presumably Vladimir Ilyich appreciated the propaganda value of having one of the world's most popular and widely-read authors write-up the new country. Not that Lenin was a particular fan of Wells. Despite being fluent in English (he had taught himself the language in order to be able to translate English socialist writers into Russian), he told Claire Sheridan that he'd only read one Wells novels: Joan and Peter, oddly enough. Wells was no Marxist, and certainly no Leninist (after their conversation Lenin told Trotsky he was ‘an unreconstructed bourgeois’, which is spot on, I'd say) but given Wells's socialist/collectivist views, and considering the enormous popularity of his war journalism, Britling and the Outline of History, it was as much a coup for Lenin to get Wells as it was for Wells to meet Lenin. Gip took pictures, eight pages of which were included in the volume.

Before going, Wells had contracted to write his travels up for the Sunday Express (the fee was £1000, and he agreed not to write any other articles or give any interviews until the Express pieces had appeared.) In the event wrote five articles, and these were fixed-up, with an all-new final chapter, into Russia in the Shadows—the first edition says 1920 on the title page, but was in fact published January 1921. Here's the verso of the American edition's dust jacket:

The book caused quite a fuss. Though it portrays a country desolated by war and on the brink of collapsing into anarchy, Wells says sympathetic things about the aims of the Bolsheviks, and is genuinely impressed by Lenin. That outraged some in Britain and America. Winston Churchill published an attack-dog article in the Express under the toothsome title ‘This Frightful Catastrophe: Mr Wells and Bolshevism’ (5th Dec 1920) mocking Wells's account as superficial and asking him whether he thought ‘cancer could repent?’ Wells's reply (‘Mr Wells Hits Back—Rejoinder to Mr Churchill's Criticism’ 12 and 19 Dec 1920) is worth quoting at length:
Although I am an older man than Mr Churchill and have spent most of my time watching and thinking about a world in which he has been rushing about vehemently from one superficial excitement to another, he has the impudence to twit me with superficiality. ... He believes quite naively that he belongs to a peculiarly gifted and privileged class of beings to whom the lives and affairs of common men are given over, the raw material for brilliant careers. It seems to him an act of insolence that a common man like myself should form judgments upon matters of statescraft. He is the running sore of waste in our Government ... He has smeared his vision with human blood, and we are implicated in the things he abets. He does not stand alone. This vision of his, grotesque and distorted though it may be, is no more and no less contemptible than some misshapen idol esteemed by the tribe, to which we may presently see our children sacrificed.
That's the stuff!


Russia in the Shadows launches straight into its main theme:
Our dominant impression of things Russian is an impression of a vast irreparable breakdown. The great monarchy that was here in 1914, the administrative, social, financial, and commercial systems connected with it have, under the strains of six years of incessant war, fallen down and smashed utterly. Never in all history has there been so great a débâcle before. The fact of the Revolution is, to our minds, altogether dwarfed by the fact of this downfall. By its own inherent rottenness and by the thrusts and strains of aggressive imperialism the Russian part of the old civilised world that existed before 1914 fell, and is now gone. The peasant, who was the base of the old pyramid, remains upon the land, living very much as he has always lived. Everything else is broken down, or is breaking down. Amid this vast disorganisation an emergency Government, supported by a disciplined party of perhaps 150,000 adherents—the Communist Party—has taken control. It has—at the price of much shooting—suppressed brigandage, established a sort of order and security in the exhausted towns, and set up a crude rationing system.

It is, I would say at once, the only possible Government in Russia at the present time. It is the only idea, it supplies the only solidarity, left in Russia. But it is a secondary fact. The dominant fact for the Western reader, the threatening and disconcerting fact, is that a social and economic system very like our own and intimately connected with our own has crashed. [Russia, 1]
The book is a fascinating historical document, certainly: but for me it's in this ‘poetics of ruin’ that the writing really hits home, partly for its moments of desolate beauty, and partly because Wells several times seems to be speaking with uncanny prescience to 21st-century realities. What price the internet-only shopping world? ‘One realises that a modern city is really nothing but long alleys of shops and restaurants and the like. Shut them up, and the meaning of a street has disappeared.’ Too right.

The rationing, the broken infrastructure, dysfunctional hospitals, people bootless and ragged, the looting of public buildings and art galleries (though not, Wells says, of theatres: Russians respect the theatre too profoundly to loot it) is all vividly described. ‘Ruin; that is the primary Russian fact at the present time,’ Wells insists. ‘The revolution, the Communist rule is quite secondary to that. It is something that has happened in the ruin and because of the ruin.’

It's good that the physical descriptions of Russia are so well done, because on the level of ideas Russia in the Shadows is a depressing congeries of intellectual and political philistinism:
It will be best if I write about Marx without any hypocritical deference. I have always regarded him as a Bore of the extremest sort. His vast unfinished work, Das Kapital, a cadence of wearisome volumes about such phantom unrealities as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, a book for ever maundering away into tedious secondary discussions, impresses me as a monument of pretentious pedantry. ... When I encountered Marxists I disposed of them by asking them to tell me exactly what people constituted the proletariat. None of them knew. No Marxist knows. [Russia, 3]
The humour is leaden, a kind of Peter Hitchens avant la lettre:
Wherever we went we encountered busts, portraits, and statues of Marx. About two-thirds of the face of Marx is beard, a vast solemn woolly uneventful beard that must have made all normal exercise impossible. It is not the sort of beard that happens to a man, it is a beard cultivated, cherished, and thrust patriarchally upon the world. It is exactly like Das Kapital in its inane abundance, and the human part of the face looks over it owlishly as if it looked to see how the growth impressed mankind. I found the omnipresent images of that beard more and more irritating. A gnawing desire grew upon me to see Karl Marx shaved. Some day, if I am spared, I will take up shears and a razor against Das Kapital; I will write The Shaving of Karl Marx. [Russia, 3]
This jovially-chuckling refusal to grant that there even is such a thing as ‘Marxism’ of course blinds Wells to what is happening around him. He believes Russia is about to tumble into the abyss; his refusal to take Marxism seriously means he simply can't see that it will go on to build a superpower out of these ruins. The most he will concede is that the Bolsheviks he meets seem determined: ‘albeit numbering less than five per cent, of the population, [they] have been able to seize and retain power in Russia because they were and are the only body of people in this vast spectacle of Russian ruin with a common faith and a common spirit. I disbelieve in their faith, I ridicule Marx, their prophet, but I understand and respect their spirit.’ [4]

Wells is shown round a very well equipped school and waxes wrothful that his hosts are trying to deceive him by taking him to a pedagogic Potemkin village; but then he is shown other schools and decides that Russian schools just are very well-provisioned. At the second school he asks the schoolchildren what they think of the famous novelist H G Wells. None of the kids have ever heard of him. ‘This did much to convince me that I was seeing a quite normal school’.

He addresses a Soviet (his speech, translated into Russia, is printed in Pravda), and hangs out with his old friend Maxim Gorky. Finally he goes to the Kremlin, and labours past the many layers of bureaucrats and guards, to meet Lenin.
We got to Lenin at last and found him, a little figure at a great desk in a well-lit room that looked out upon palatial spaces. I thought his desk was rather in a litter. I sat down on a chair at a corner of the desk, and the little man—his feet scarcely touch the ground as he sits on the edge of his chair—twisted round to talk to me, putting his arms round and over a pile of papers. He spoke excellent English. [Russia, 6]
This whole section is interesting, actually, partly for what the two men said, but also for the word-portrait Wells makes of Lenin: ‘not very like the photographs you see of him because he is one of those people whose change of expression is more important than their features’. Wells is struck by Lenin's ‘domed, slightly one-sided cranium’ (as who wouldn't be?) and says: ‘Lenin has a pleasant, quick-changing, brownish face, with a lively smile and a habit (due perhaps to some defect in focussing) of screwing up one eye as he pauses in his talk.’ The two men, though, talk rather at cross purposes:
Our talk was threaded throughout and held together by two—what shall I call them?—motifs. One was from me to him: ‘What do you think you are making of Russia? What is the state you are trying to create?’ The other was from him to me: ‘Why does not the social revolution begin in England? Why do you not work for the social revolution? Why are you not destroying Capitalism and establishing the Communist State?’ These motifs interwove, reacted on each other, illuminated each other. The second brought back the first: ‘But what are you making of the social revolution? Are you making a success of it?’ And from that we got back to two again with: ‘To make it a success the Western world must join in. Why doesn't it?’ [Russia, 6]
The Lenin Wells meets is the Lenin of his ‘Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country’ phase (that famous slogan is from 1920, of course), and Wells ribs him mildly about the way he bangs on and on about electrifying everything: ‘Lenin, who like a good orthodox Marxist denounces all “Utopians,” has succumbed at last to a Utopia, the Utopia of the electricians’. But it also kindles something in Wells's science-fictional imagination:
Can one imagine a more courageous project in a vast flat land of forests and illiterate peasants, with no water power, with no technical skill available, and with trade and industry at the last gasp? Projects for such an electrification are in process of development in Holland and they have been discussed in England, and in those densely-populated and industrially highly-developed centres one can imagine them as successful, economical, and altogether beneficial. But their application to Russia is an altogether greater strain upon the constructive imagination. I cannot see anything of the sort happening in this dark crystal of Russia, but this little man at the Kremlin can; he sees the decaying railways replaced by a new electric transport, sees new roadways spreading throughout the land, sees a new and happier Communist industrialism arising again. While I talked to him he almost persuaded me to share his vision. [Russia, 6]
Electrification became the first of the USSR's five-year plans, and was completed by 1931. Dark crystal, indeed.


  1. "He believes Russia is about to tumble into the abyss; he can't see that this ideology is, actually, going to build a superpower out of these ruins because he simply can't take it seriously."

    Of course an apologist for Wells might argue - as I'm about to - that he was right: it wasn't Marx's ideology (or Lenin's) that constructed a superpower out of those ruins, it was Stalin's.

    And, I think, you can fairly argue that Stalin's state was something quite different in aims and in application from anything Marx imagined. It would take murder on a near industrial scale through the second half of the 1920s and through the 1930s and, ultimately, the even greater slaughter of the "Great Patriotic War" before Stalin's "superpower" emerged and the USSR seemed a genuine ideological and military challenger to the West. I don't think anyone saw that coming.

    Did Russia fall into the abyss Wells saw coming? No. But it went pretty deep into an entirely different hole in the ground.

    1. It's an interesting question, isn't it, what might have happened in the USSR, and how much ... well "credit" seems the wrong word, but you know what I mean: how much credit to give Stalin. It also had something to do with a much longer-term historical inertia, a rooted authoritarianism. Maybe Stalin achieved what he did less through his in-state terrorism and mass-murder, and more through his appeal to Russian patriotism?

      But I also don't really buy the division you sometimes encounter on the Left where Lenin is the 'good' Communist and Stalin the bad, tyrannical one. Lenin was plenty ruthless, especially after the Kaplan assassination attempt in 1918: lots of blood on his hand.