Revolution! The air is filled with flames and fumes. The shapes of men, seen through the smoke, become distorted and unreal. Promethean supermen, they seem, giants in sin or virtue, Satans or saviours. But, in truth, behind the screen of smoke and flame they are like other men: no larger and no smaller, no better and no worse: all creatures of the same incessant passions, hungers, vanities and fears.
So it is in Russia. And in this book I have tried to show the leaders of the revolution as they really are, as I know them in their homes, where the red glare does not penetrate and they live as other men.
Great events make great men. For to be strong enough even to maintain one's self amid great events is to be great. Without the event the strength is nothing. Had the revolt of 1917 failed, like the revolt of 1905, Lenin would have worked his life out in an attic in Geneva, Trotsky would have lived and died in a New York garret, Kalinin would have remained a disappointed, debt-burdened peasant, Tchicherin a futile ex-diplomatist in exile. The world would not have known their names: just as the world would not have known Napoleon or Danton or Marat or Robespierre had Louis XVI been a trifle less desperately dull. But the revolt of 1917 became a revolution and its colossal drive and heave flung up the exiles to greatness. As men it did not change them.
They differ from the political leaders one meets in Washington, London and Paris, largely because they are able to be franker and more themselves. Public opinion, which is the boon of politicians and the bane of statesmen, does not drive them to drab conformity or high-sounding platitude. The public they have to satisfy is small and sophisticated - the trade unions of the larger cities. And these workingmen demand, above all else, frankness and the unpowdered truth. An address by Lenin is, therefore, as direct, unsentimental and full of facts as a statement to a board of directors by an executive of an American corporation. The slow, strong wants of the peasants have to be heeded, too; but they are simple wants, land and free trade, and do not yet touch intricate things, remote from the daily life of the farm, like foreign affairs and higher economics. In the end the peasants will rule Russia, but today public opinion is the opinion of the class-conscious workingmen of the cities. Therefore, the leaders of Russia can afford to be frank.
In the western democracies, politics is the art of seeming frank while not being so. Only three types of politicians ever emerge in the highest places. First, the statesman of brilliant intellectual understanding, like Lloyd George, who always knows what he ought to do, and never does it - until the public also comes to understand, usually some months, or years, later. Second, the sentimentalist, who is always able to muddle an inconvenient understanding of facts and muffle his conscience with high-sounding principles that endear him to the public heart. Third, the kindly blockhead, who discovers what ought to be done just a little later than the public. These types do not exist in Russia. The trade unions compel the Russian politician to be a stark realist, talking frankly, acting on the best information he can obtain and giving that information fully to his public. The leaders pictured in this book will seem, therefore, franker and more direct than the leaders of the western world.
They will also seem more desperate; not because it is their natural character to be desperate but because they face as desperate a problem as ever strained the human brain. They have been caught, from the first, on the horns of the revolutionary dilemma. The same intolerable breakdown of economic life, which alone makes revolution possible, also predestines revolution to almost certain failure. That dull beast, the public, will move to revolution only when life has become unbearable, only when the established order has broken down so completely that ruins alone remain. Revolution does not come before ruin. And to build on ruins a new and fairer life is a task almost beyond the powers of men. So much of the exhausted energy of the nation must be consumed in re-establishing the mere fundamentals of life - food, shelter, clothing and security from fear - that little remains to attack the task of remoulding life in a shape that is closer to the heart's desire. But to this task the leaders of Russia have dedicated their lives. And if they succeed or if they fail, they will be remembered always for their courage in following an ideal through destruction, famine, death and the hatred of the world.
Here, then, they are: the Russians of today:
Close to the Tartar and the Cossack of the plain, children of serfs and Norsemen and Mongols - close to the earth and striving for the stars.
Written: Between 1921 - 1923
Source: "Mirrors of Moscow", New York by Thomas Seltzer, 1923
First Published: 1923
Online Version: marxists.org 1999
Transcription/Markup: Alf Pangas