BOOK REVIEWS (2013): P. Gelatt and T. Crook’s (2011) Petrograd

21 November 2013


Against the structural “failure” of the Soviet Union, we should contrast the socio-personal transformations that occurred in human personalities during that time (Marya represents an excellent image of this transformation)—just as we might readily contrast the structural “success” of United States (following World War II), and the socio-personal degradation of both individuals and the social world they (we) inhabit as a result.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow. I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  P. Gelatt and T. Crook’s (2011)[1] Petrograd

This is a deftly accomplished graphic novel[2] that manages not to get bogged down only or merely in the murder of Rasputin, which figures centrally (in this version of the history of the Russian revolution at least) in the history of the Russian revolution. Nonetheless, one cannot write about Petrograd without acknowledging the fellow. As Wilson (1964)[3] wrote:

No figure in modern history has provoked such a mass of sensational and unreliable literature as Grigory Rasputin. More than a hundred books have been written about him, and not a single one can be accepted as a sober presentation of his personality. There is an enormous amount of material on him, and most of it is full of invention or willful inaccuracy. Rasputin’s life, then, is not ‘history’; it is the clash of history with subjectivity (11)

That two of the main conspirators practiced transvestitism or homosexuality similarly seems a fanciful (and rather distracting) addition. That the British secret service had anything at all to do with Rasputin’s murder offers the most egregious conspiracy theory angle but, perhaps much as Alan Moore selected the “theory” of Jack the Ripper that offered him the greatest range of narrative possibility (more than any likelihood or conceit of historical factualness), Gelatt may have made a similar decision. I don’t mind—one shouldn’t read history for its conceit of factualness; even the least interested text devoted to history involves no negligible degree of constructedness or fabrication, and a text like this—as also Moore, Campbell, and Mullin’s (1999)[4] From Hell—does (or should) forthrightly avows this fact; or we, as readers, may (and should) remember that fact when we read a purported history (or any text for that matter). The insertion of the Irish-born British agent Cleary into the text offers, then, the “purpose” or narrative center that Gelatt seems interested to pursue. In the arc of his story, he winds up a pawn in the Great Game of empires—betrayed by his own boss, of course, and with a deft counter-betrayal as a sort of form of personal revenge—but his redemption, as a character, occurs through tricking his former boss into giving him information on Russian troop movements, which he then supplies to the Bolshevik underground. He had previously contrived to spare his lover, Marya, from a police raid by the Russian authorities. When she learns of this generous act, Marya handsomely denounces him, feeling herself cheated of sharing the ate of his fellow conspirators who had gotten arrested, out of a sense of her own accountability to those who had (and were) enduring such a fate. When, completely friendless in Petrograd, Cleary returns to her in desperation, she takes some measure of pity on him, but sharply interrogates him as to what kind of man he represents: an Irishman on the side of his own people’s imperial oppressors, working for those people on behalf of the Tsar to oppress Russians. Her revolutionary zeal throughout the book stands as a model and admirable characterization on Gelatt’s part. And he gives her also what seems the centerpiece speech in the work. Following the February 1917 massacre of demonstrators by Russian authorities, the powder keg of Russia seemed finally on the very brink of blowing up. In the wake of that event, Gelatt has Marya state at an organizer’s meeting:

This has caught us all off-guard. Nobody thought it was going to be 1905 again and perhaps it isn’t. But it is clear we stand now on a cusp. The empire is teetering and the world is watching to see which way it will fall, which way we will fall. Future generations will look back on this moment and judge their possibilities by our success … or by our failure. This is not just a struggle for bread, not just a struggle for today, for whose flag will fly at sunrise tomorrow. This is a fight for freedom for all of the oppressed. For a system of rule that will take us into the future. The time has come to take this city, to wrest her from the hands that have strangled her, to breathe new life into her. We will force the Tsar from his throne. We will unmake the Duma that has failed us. Do not doubt that many of us will die, but we are this city now and they cannot kill a whole city, as much as they might try. Blood that is spilled in this fight will be forever honored … once the Petrograd soviet has risen again (236).

This sense of moment, of history, of scope, rings powerfully and certainly captures something not much experienced these days. Most assuredly, we can locate this kind of personal significance in moments of religious conversion—of any stripe—and I don’t doubt that certain folks in the Tea Party have a sense of the moment and the scope of things, but we all know that their aspirations have nothing of “a fight for freedom for all of the oppressed, for a system of rule that will take us into the future.”  Whatever one might say, the progressiveness of the Bolsheviks stands in stark contrast to the regressiveness of the Tea Party, as all reactionary pseudo-revolutions do. The almost instantaneous political representation of Tea partiers in congress, as opposed to candidates from Occupy, point to the reactionary character, to the fact that the Tea Party breaks no new ground but, instead, merely rolls through the very deeply entrenched patterns of culture already available. They represent nothing new, only a more pitched intensity of the old, just as the proliferation of blackface this past Halloween represents nothing new in culture, but merely a resurgence of an old pattern in a renewed intensity.[5] Needless to add, the scope and moment of personal salvation in religion similarly participates in renewed, rather than genuinely new, social forms—to say nothing of merely selfish, i.e., non-social, forms. This emphasis on the specifically social scope of things, this engagement with the historicity of one’s times, seems Gelatt’s inspiration for writing his novel. It closes when Cleary meets Mayra one last time after the tsar abdicates. She asks what he will do, and then says, “I think it’s time for you to decide, Cleary. What are you really? A spy? A revolutionary? An opportunist? A reactionary? None of them? What are you, Cleary” (249). Clearly, we may ask ourselves the same question and should. I do not read from Gelatt’s text any intended irony—that we should, while reading his text remember what subsequently happened in Stalin’s Soviet Union. As one critique has it, Soviet communism failed—excellent (and no surprise, given how things ran), let us now in light of what we learned from that failure build true communism. But even within the context of the Soviets themselves, the high seriousness with which the Russian people undertook to transform themselves, however cynically Zinoviev intended the term homo sovieticus, cannot simply get swept away in brainless cynicism of a US sort. Against the structural “failure” of the Soviet Union, we should contrast the socio-personal transformations that occurred in human personalities during that time (Marya represents an excellent image of this transformation)—just as we might readily contrast the structural “success” of United States (following World War II), and the socio-personal degradation of both individuals and the social world they (we) inhabit as a result. We can hardly (much less cynically) dismiss the utter sincerity and earnestness and motivation of the Soviet people, who leapfrogged Russia over the nineteenth century and directly into the twentieth (for better or for worse an despite the enormously high human costs)—just as one cannot declare as meaningless the centuries of suffering that African people endured as slaves in the United States . I will accept no such declaration as anything less than the most obscene human vulgarity imaginable. Lastly, Gelatt’s book reminds us that revolutions do occur, and specifically presents some of the factors involved in bringing them about. Besides the generalized chaos Russia found itself in—ruled by a weak personality, surreally influenced by a rogue monk, impoverished an starving due to the world war and prevailing economic superstructures—it also involved what Gelatt records in a conversation between Cleary and a random Russian man in the street. Having asked if Cleary can spare him any moment, the man—more than middle-aged, with a few strands of comb-over but with star-lit eyes—says of a bread line:

MAN: Wait. You see that line over there? CLEARY: I do. MAN: Twice as long today as it was last week. Twice as long last week as it was the week before. It gets harder every day to be among the living in this city. CLEARY: So why not go join the dead, then? MAN: Ha! Is that how you feel, my friend? Look at me, I’m not yet defeated. CLEARY: Funny, you certainly look it. MAN: Perhaps in fortunes, but never in spirit. You know what they say, sir? Stormy weather cannot stay all the time. The red sun must come out, too. Hold out for that sun, Sir! Hold out for the storm to end! CLEARY: They sound like fools to me (77).

We may mark Cleary’s cynicism here as (1) a betrayer of his own Irish heritage, but also as someone who by the end of the novel (2) aids the cause of those who hold out for the storm to end as well. Gelatt, perhaps wisely or not, does not offer a “full rehabilitation” for Cleary, preferring to end with the question:  “What are you really? A spy? A revolutionary? An opportunist? A reactionary? None of them?” (249). We can dismiss that question cynically because cynicism provides something of a noble-seeming cover for cowardice, but we well know that something needs doing and that so long as we do nothing for that something, then we have betrayed our own people just as surely as Cleary.


[1] Gelatt, P., & Crook, T. (2011). Petrograd. Portland, OR: Oni Press.

[2] Typically, I find that graphic novels ultimately live or die by the visual storytelling more than the writing,[2] but Crook’s illustrations, here black and white with various hues of sepia, only serviceably do their work. With the exception of the head of the Russian okhrana (the secret police) and a few ably realized choice frames here and there (Crook seems very deft with eyes), usually Gelatt’s writing carries the day.
[3] Wilson, C. (1971). Rasputin and the fall of the Romanovs. Secaucus, N. J.: Citadel Press.
[4] Moore, A, Campbell, E., and Mullins, P (1999). From Hell (collected edition). Marietta, GA: Top Shelf.
[5] Assuming, of course, that the increased visibility of blackface this past Halloween doesn’t result most of all from the technology of social media, that makes an already extant, but otherwise widely invisible, phenomenon widely visible.

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