Rescued From History’s Dustbin

Because he wasn’t a Bolshevik, Nikolai Sukhanov ended his life as an innocent victim of Stalin’s regime, and his eyewitness chronicle of the revolution was doomed to obscurity. Finally, a fitting biography of him.

“Nikolai Sukhanov: Chronicler of the Russian Revolution” by Israel Getzler. Palgrave Macmillan, 226 pages, £70.

Nikolai Sukhanov’s seven-volume chronicle of the Russian Revolution is without doubt one of the most brilliant and engaging masterworks of the 20th century. It was written over a period of three years, 1918-1921, and published in the early 1920s. Those in the know are familiar with it, and many historians of that era have availed themselves of Sukhanov’s work. But the volumes themselves were rare and only a few of the world’s libraries were able to offer the entire series to their users. One of the few was the Russian studies library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where, when I was a student, the books were located in the basement of the Sprinzak building on the Givat Ram campus.

Over the years, a highly abridged, one-volume version was published in English translation, but those who esteemed the original Russian text never ceased to complain about what had been done to their beloved book. The English translation preserved the chronicle, but tossed out its soul, eliminating the spirit and character of its wonderful author, Nikolai Sukhanov.

One reason for the scarcity of this important book stems from the fact that the author became persona non grata in the Soviet Union. Like many other literary and philosophical works, his study was removed from the shelves and its author disappeared during the hard years of Stalinist terror. Some said he had committed suicide, while others told a nightmarish tale of his being thrown from one of the top floors of secret police headquarters in Moscow.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the communist regime, Sukhanov and his enterprise received a certain amount of justice. In 1992, a special rehabilitation committee proclaimed that Nikolai Nikolaevich Gimmer, known as Sukhanov, was as pure as snow, and that all the accusations against him that led to his execution on June 29, 1940, were baseless and malicious.

Nikolai Sukhanov was not a Bolshevik, and his chronicle of the revolution does not flatter Lenin. He did not hesitate to describe Bolshevism as a kind of Jacobinism, but he was never a German spy or a member of the Menshevik underground. In any case, he had no connection to hostile groups whose purpose was to bring the regime down.

Dr. Arkady Kornikov, chair of the contemporary Russian history department of Ivanovo State University, has dedicated many years to Sukhanov’s legacy; with a great deal of effort, he published a new edition of the chronicles, magnificently edited and annotated.

ne day I was visited by a friend of mine who maintains an interest in the former Soviet Union, from which he emigrated as a child, and who knew I shared his love of Sukhanov. He gave me a copy of the much-desired new edition, now in three volumes.

I owe my first acquaintanceship with Sukhanov and his work to my former teacher, Prof. Israel Getzler. Getzler, an enthusiastic lecturer and meticulous historian, had an affection for the opponents of Bolshevism. When I was ready to choose a topic for my master’s thesis, Getzler suggested that I concentrate on Sukhanov, his criticism of the revolution and its stages, and his important journalistic reporting during the revolution.

he chronicles were available in the library, and somehow microfilm copies of Maxim Gorky’s newspaper Novaya Zhizn (“New Life”), which was edited by Sukhanov until the Bolsheviks shut it down, also found their way into my hands.

The first question that arises from reading the chronicle is how to define the limits of its legitimate use. Nikolai Sukhanov witnessed most of the events he depicted as an active participant, within the framework of his political activities, or as a curious journalist who wrote down what he saw. Sukhanov himself says again and again that his readers err if they approach him as a writer of history: I am not a historian, he argues, but rather someone who transmits what he sees and is told. History, the interpretation of recorded events, will be written by historians, those who come after and whom his work may help.

Yet Sukhanov’s narrative talent, his impassioned style, his personality he tended to get caught up emotionally in events, to be involved move the reader to accept his testimony at face value.

At the same time, when reading his book and comparing it to other eyewitness accounts, one wonders to what extent Sukhanov has served as a source for those who depended on his excellent memory and, for example, his ability to reconstruct long speeches. In the absence of official versions, we have no other source for the content of the latter something no one is in a hurry to admit.

Leon Trotsky, in his book on the revolution, gives a word-for-word account of his speech at the Second Soviet Congress, on October 25, 1917, the day the Bolsheviks seized power. At this dramatic and tempestuous moment, proud Trotsky sent the cautious and painfully conscientious Menshevik leader Yuli Martov “into the dustbin of history.”

Sukhanov carefully described the congress and thus opened an unending debate among curiosity hounds and seekers of primary sources. Was Sukhanov really the one who came up with this expression, which the 20th century ended up using exhaustively? Apparently not. But a much more important question is whether Trotsky really sent Martov into the dustbin of history, or got the idea from reading Sukhanov. The writer of the chronicle was so successful that much of what we know about the events of the “10 days that shook the world” (as John Reed’s account of the revolution was called) is known to us as Sukhanov described and memorialized them. No one denies that his is a brilliant eyewitness narration by a gifted storyteller, but at the same time, the writing goes beyond mere chronicle. Beyond the story, Sukhanov also offers historical exegesis.

The general idea framing the text is that we should reject the deterministic Bolshevik interpretation of the revolution. The Bolshevik takeover was not the result of inevitable historical development, but rather the consequence of a loss of power and direction by leaders of alternative movements. The Bolsheviks won and took control of the government because more moderate democratic factions lost both confidence and their belief in the justice of the movements they led. This angered Sukhanov. He was angered as well by those who were closest to him: Yuli Martov and the Mensheviks, for example.

Democracy in 1917 did not know how to defend itself, and recoiled from using arms and other defenses that bordered on the anti-democratic.

Fixed in his ways

As a historian and a socialist, Sukhanov was fixed in his ways and tended to think in historical terms. And so he did not hesitate to describe the Bolshevik revolution and the regime that followed as a Jacobin experiment. As the new regime entrenched itself, however, he shook off this simplistic explanation. He did not like Stalin’s regime any better, but understood the oversimplification of looking at Bolshevism as a fatal repetition of the events of the French Revolution. From a more distant stance, Sukhanov was able to see things and judge them as a historian: He could discern and describe the uniqueness of the historical process that had begun in Russia with the Bolsheviks’ capture of the government.

Getzler is worthy of praise for the work he has done to shed light on lesser-known chapters in Nikolai Sukhanov’s biography. By profession, Sukhanov was in fact neither a historian nor a journalist. His great expertise and love lay in the area of Russian farm life. Before the revolution, he published a wide-ranging study of Russian agriculture and the peasantry, and was an important player in the disagreement then occupying left-wing circles and parties namely, over the historical significance of the fact that Russia was a largely backward agrarian society.

Could it really be that Russia, a country that had not yet experienced the bourgeois revolution, a society that had not yet experienced urbanization and industrialization, was ready for the next stage of development: that is, the proletarian revolution? Russian Marxists, who were deeply split on the question, turned to Karl Marx himself and presented this difficult dilemma to him, but even the great prophet avoided giving a clear and unequivocal answer. As is well known, the uniqueness of the Bolshevik revolution and the Leninist worldview has its source in this issue.

Sukhanov numbers among those who sought to preserve the inimitability of the Russian country village, using one of its fundamental characteristics as both a starting point and a springboard in preparation for a just and socialist government in the future. He saw the obshchina (the traditional Russian farming community), which bore unmistakable signs of a tradition of equality, as an institution that all Russians should work hard to develop and preserve.

Though a Marxist and socialist Russian, Sukhanov did not call for the destruction of the obshchina on the way to proletarianization, but saw his obligation as a historian to defend it against the cruelty of increasing industrialization. In the late 1920s, at the beginning of what is known as the second Russian revolution when Stalin instituted farm collectivization and an industrial revolution Sukhanov numbered among those who opposed such rapid collectivization of farming, because of the high price it imposed on the peasants, who bore most of the burden of this purported great leap forward.

This opposition stance did not ensure Sukhanov a future in the USSR. He was among the first political activists attacked by Stalin’s regime, and all the hawkish political factions were united in seeing him as an opponent of the regime’s principles.

Getzler describes Stalin’s fervor, in one of the last creative acts in his life, in writing a highly critical and broad-ranging article after reading two or three volumes of Sukhanov’s chronicle. Lenin, for his part, called Sukhanov an enemy of the state, and when the new state began to search for opponents and enemies, Sukhanov was an obvious target. He was charged with belonging to a hostile Menshevik organization planning to sabotage the Soviet government.

Expressing remorse

In the absence of other primary sources, Getzler had to base the story of Sukhanov’s trial and his behavior on official protocols. Even before he was arrested, Sukhanov prepared a sort of confession in which he expressed remorse and admitted his mistakes, and in a very faulty analysis, justified the socialist regime. The subsequent trial, as Getzler depicts it, was a kind of general rehearsal for the big show trials of the second half of the 1930s. But as the author shows, Sukhanov’s trial was more problematic and puzzling than the more famous ones to follow.

One question that remains unanswered to this day is why the accused cooperated with such a cruel and grotesque undertaking. Why did they hurry to confess to all kinds of absurd and baseless accusations? Some of those who confessed (Nikolai Bukharin prominent among them) were self-respecting and courageous people. What brought them to such extreme acts of self-contempt? Not only fear of the regime and its torturers, but also the fact that their party and faith were everything to them. The party could not be wrong, and there was no life outside it.

But this explanation, says Getzler with justification, will not work in Sukhanov’s case. He was never a party member; though in the 1920s he had requested to join, he was rejected, and he never completely identified with the regime and the party that led it. Sukhanov confessed, Getzler writes, simply because he was tortured. He confessed because he was trying to save his wife’s life, and he confessed because he thought it would save his own life.

Sukhanov was one of the first to perceive the cruelty of the Bolshevik regime of the house of Lenin and his successor, Stalin, but he could not conceive of just how cruel and mad it was. A rationalist, he believed that common sense considerations would guide the regime in the end.

It is hard to shake off the impression that Israel Getzler’s book, like the re-release of Suhkanov’s chronicles, is in fact an attempt to commemorate a worthy man and his masterpiece. Sukhanov and his work are victims of a cruel paradox: When there was only an academic, political interest in his ideas, his books were inaccessible, anonymous and hidden. Now, when there is free access to the books, and to alternative ideas and schools of thought, it seems that there is no longer any interest in Sukhanov neither his writings nor his philosophy.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is a historian and editor of the Ofakim series of the Am Oved publishers.