- - Sunday, February 12, 2017


By Helen Rappaport

St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 430 pages, illustrated

British historian Helen Rappaport, who has written memorably about Russia’s royal Romanovs, here turns her attention to their capital city during the year when it ceased to be theirs. Accustomed as we are to reading about — and even seeming to live through — years and places when things seem to move at a breathtakingly rapid pace, Petrograd in 1917 still takes a lot of beating. Starting the year as the seat of an autocratic monarchy allied with the United Kingdom and France against Germany, it soon shed the czar and became a kind of chaotic democracy, which allowed the United States to feel more comfortable joining the alliance. By the end of the year, violent revolutionary Bolsheviks held sway, turning on their domestic enemies, royalist and democrat alike, and determined to take Russia out of the war.

Not surprisingly, all this havoc made life terrible for the people of Petrograd and this emerges clearly in Ms. Rappaport’s account, which chooses to focus on the amazing mix of foreigners who found themselves caught up in this turmoil. Some were residents, like the British and American ambassadors, and, amazingly, the granddaughter of U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Princess Julia Cantacuzene-Speransky. But most of this stellar cast were foreign visitors, for various reasons willing to cast themselves into the maelstrom.

They run the gamut from the infamous Bolshevik-sympathizing journalist John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant to British suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and a host of other Britons, many of them aristocrats, who came to bolster the Russian war effort. British novelist Hugh Walpole had first worked for the Red Cross, before returning to Petrograd as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau during 1916-1917. Spies came in different guises, from diplomat Robert Bruce Lockhart to a bestselling novelist and renowned playwright, whose “code name was Somerville, and his cover that of a journalist reporting on the situation in Russia for the British press. His real name was Somerset Maugham.”

Of all the characters profiled here, no one stands out quite like Maugham, whose mission was not just all-important, but an encapsulation of his country’s most pivotal task with regard to Russia: keeping it in the war on the Allied side. Specifically, he was to bolster Alexander Kerensky, who ruled between the abdication of Czar Nicholas and the advent of the Bolsheviks. Maugham had been doing minor intelligence tasks for British intelligence in Switzerland, but his masters must have expected great things from him to send him equipped with a large amount of money and “expected to be ‘occupied there presumably till the end of the war.’” Needless to say, his mission ended far earlier than expected when he was sent by destroyer back to London to deliver an unheeded message to Premier Lloyd George, never to return to Petrograd.

Ms. Rappaport’s book gains enormously from her mining the memoirs of so many of those whose stories she tells. They are not only evocative of the atmosphere and activities of that time and place, but they introduce us to forgotten figures and the odd dilemmas they sometimes faced. Lady Georgina Buchanan, wife of Britain’s ambassador, was in many ways as remarkable — and as active in her way — as her husband Sir George. While he was trying with Kerensky’s aid to save the doomed czar and his immediate family by sending them into exile, she had to turn away royals seeking refuge in the embassy unless they happened to be British subjects by birth. The Buchanans’ daughter Meriel wrote memoirs of her time in Russia, which I read many decades ago and have never forgotten, are perhaps the most evocative of any dealing with that strange time, as will be apparent from Ms. Rappaport’s extraction.

And if it were not for this book, who would remember the remarkable pair of British aristocrats, Lady Muriel Paget and Lady Sybil Grey, a cousin of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey? This redoubtable duo not only founded the Anglo-Russian Hospital in a requisitioned royal palace, but in the case of Lady Muriel, returned regularly for two decades to the Soviet Union to aid British subjects stranded there. One of the great strengths of this book is the way in which the unheralded and the celebrated mingle in its pages.

Lady Georgina Buchanan also ran a British hospital, but for all her sterling work, she was not the most remarkable — or the most surprising — ambassadorial companion in wartime Petrograd. American Ambassador David Francis, a former governor of Missouri, left his wife and six sons back home, taking “his devoted black valet-cum chauffeur, Philip Jordan Francis relied heavily on the protective ‘Phil’, as he liked to call him: a man he respected as ‘loyal, honest, and efficient and intelligent withal.’” Suffice it to say that this odd couple shared many an adventure and memorable experiences during their time in Russia until they were forced to leave for Britain, where Jordan even accompanied Francis as valet to dinner with King George and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. It’s things like this which make Ms. Rappaport’s book a mosaic of truth which no fictional one could outdo.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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