Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Is that tea you're drinking there?

From Orlando Figes's estimable A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (hardcover edition link), which I'm reading this summer as a way of getting my mind off work:

Self-improvement was a natural enough aspiration among skilled workers, like Kanatchikov, who were anxious to rise above their peasant origins and attain the status in society which their growing sense of dignity made them feel they deserved. Many harboured dreams of marrying into the petty-bourgeoisie and of setting themselves up in a small shop or business. They read the boulevard dailies, such as the Petersburg Sheet (Peterburgskii listok), which espoused the Victorian ideals of self-help, guided its readers in questions of good taste and decorum, and entertained them with sensational stories about the glamorous and the rich.

It was only to be expected that this search for respectability should be accompanied by a certain priggishness on the part of the labour élite, a fussy concern to set themselves apart from the 'dark' mass of the peasant-workers by conducting themselves in a sober and 'cultured' way. But among those peasant-workers, like Kanatchikov, who would later join the Bolsheviks, this prudishness was often reflected in an extreme form. Their sobriety became a militant puritanism, as if by their prim and ascetic manners, by their tea-drinking and self-discipline, they could banish their peasant past completely. 'We were of the opinion that no conscious Socialist should ever drink vodka,' recalled one such Bolshevik. 'We even condemned smoking. We propagated morality in the strictest sense of the word.' It was for this reason that so many rank-and-file Bolsheviks abstained from romantic attachments, although in Kanatchikov's case this may have had more to do with his own dismal failure with women. The worker-revolutionaries, he later admitted, 'developed a negative attitude toward the family, toward marriage, and even toward women'. They saw themselves as 'doomed' men, their fate tied wholly to the cause of the revolution, which could only be compromised by 'contact with girls'. So strait-laced were these pioneering proletarians that people often mistook them for Pashkovites, a pious Bible sect. Even the police sometimes became confused when they were instructed to increase their surveillance of 'revolutionary' workers who drank only tea.

Figes's history is packed with colorful details like this one. A 900-page history of the Russian Revolution may sound like the literary equivalent of broccoli, but it's actually a great, absorbing read. Recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment