Moscow: January 1, 1918. “This damn year is finally over. But what will be next? Perhaps things will get worse. And that seems even likely.” Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution by Ivan Bunin, a masterly eyewitness account of the Russian civil war, reads as a warning of what may lie ahead in our own near future. Aged forty-seven when the diary begins in 1918, he was renowned for his classical and dangerously unfashionable aristocratic approach to writing—in our own time he would have unhinged the Twitter mob. Having known and admired (mostly) the dead authors Tolstoy and Chekhov, he now loathed (unreservedly) the living Mayakovsky and Blok and the other literary opportunists who crawled towards Lenin.
The Great Russian Revolution has brought misery. In the provinces Bunin has witnessed and been endangered by the fires and violence of the peasant revolts:
it was during the summer of ’17 that the Satan of Cain’s anger, of bloodlust, and of the most savage cruelty wafted over Russia while its people were extolling brotherhood, equality, and freedom. Everyone immediately became crazy, deranged. For the slightest infraction, everyone began yelling at everyone else: “I’m arresting you, you son of a bitch.”
Just before the Bolshevik coup he returned to Moscow and his diary records the cold, the lack of food, house searches and thefts, violence and uncertainty of that time. Cursed Days begins on the opening day of 1918 and continues to mid-1919. It tells of his further escape from Moscow southwards to Odessa where he stayed until January 1920 when it was possible and necessary to travel on to permanent exile in France, where he died in in 1953. The diary ends abruptly in mid-1919 because Bunin had hidden his final dangerous pages so well, “in a spot in the ground”, that he could not find them when he left Russia. The man who lost his country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933.
First issued by a Russian émigré publishing house in 1936, Cursed Days was not published in Russia until the beginning of the 1990s. Well received in his homeland, it introduced Bunin to a post-communist generation of Russian readers. A film focusing on his emotional entanglements in France is enjoyably (mis)represented in the Russian movie His Wife’s Diary (2000): beautifully acted, bad history. The film is available on YouTube. The first English edition of Cursed Days (1998) has an excellent introduction by the translator and editor Thomas Gaiton Marullo, who has added a coda to the original text—a further selection of Bunin’s civil war writings.
Like Quadrant and Quadrant Online writers he, facing far more bloody dangers, accepted the responsibility to “record” what was happening to him, his culture, his country at a perilous time. Marullo’s introduction to the diary refers to the fictional diary We by Evgeny Zamyatin and its final words which he imagines Ivan Bunin endorsing: “And I hope that we win. More than that, I am certain we shall win. For reason must prevail.” It could also be Quadrant’s motto.
The diary is a memorial to the sufferings brought about by the revolution and “a population that is being robbed and murdered every minute”. There are many individuals in Bunin’s book; some rush to profit from the Bolshevik terror while others are on paths that may end in death by starvation and cold or the simplicity of a bullet. Our guide is a man with a notebook who records what he sees, and the daily speech he hears about him on the streets. Much of what he hears or reads in the newspapers is untrue: “I tell the tale as it is told to me. I write current rumor. I do not vouch for anything.” The English text has a thick, useful layer of footnotes identifying individuals and pointing out when Bunin is right or misinformed in what he records. The corrections illustrate the confusion of the period.
Bunin is an eavesdropper. He notes, “How fiercely everyone yearns for the Bolsheviks to perish!” and has his pencil and pad handy when a doorman mutters, “God knows where those sons of bitches have really brought us.” When a group gathers in Lubyanka Square, not quite as famous as it was to become, he records the scene and the actors, as a hungry and resourceless, ex-school-owning “lady” desperately expresses her feelings before strangers:
“Whose life has gotten better with the Bolsheviks? Everyone’s worse off and we, the people, most of all!” A heavily made-up little bitch interrupted her, breaking in with naive remarks. She started to say the Germans were about to arrive and that everyone would pay through the nose for what they had done. “Before the Germans arrive, we’ll kill you all,” a worker said coldly and took off.
Bunin observes the collapse and blames those fools who had brought it about, and accepts his own responsibility for the disaster:
Our children and grandchildren will not be able to imagine the Russia in which we once lived (that is, what it was like yesterday) and which we ourselves did not value or understand—all its might, complexity, richness and happiness.
On page after page the parallels between his past and our present turn this from a book about the past seemingly into a warning from our own future. He sounds like a disillusioned viewer watching the degraded ABC:
There is so much lying going around that I could scream. All my friends, all my acquaintances, people whom earlier I never would have thought of as liars, are now uttering falsehoods at every turn.
The world of his yesterday was as carelessly discarded as our own: “What good were our former eyes—how little they saw, even mine!” Then, when it is too late, the misery: “there is the exhausting waiting around for something to happen. It simply cannot go on like this: someone or something will save us—tomorrow, the day after, perhaps even tonight!”
Just like this magazine’s own readers, who are in despair over the Children’s Book Council knowingly handing an award to a book of dishonest history, and over what is happening in our schools generally, Bunin points to the irresponsibility of those who have betrayed intelligence with their vanity and stupidity and quotes Dostoevsky, whose words, which seem so relevant to our country today, were written in 1877:
Give to all teachers ample opportunity to destroy the old society and to build a new one, and the result will be such darkness, such chaos, such unheard-of coarseness, blindness, and inhumanity, that the entire structure will collapse under the curses of humankind even before it is completed.
Bunin commented, as we can: “Such lines, now, seem vague and inadequate.”
Bunin blames the revolution for the chaos in Russian universities. We only needed a culture civil war to arrive at much the same place—just replace revolver in his last sentence with a reference to our social media:
Everything in the university is in the hands of seven freshmen and sophomores. The main commissar is a student named Malich from the Kiev Veterinary School. When he talks with the professors he bangs his fist on the table and puts his feet up on it. The commissar for advanced women’s courses is a freshman by the name of Kin. She does not tolerate objections but immediately yells: “No sounding like crows.” The commissar of the polytechnic institute always carries a loaded revolver in his hand.
Several lines describing the hypocrisy of his age could well be adapted to describe our literary and art prize-winners or a page of Dark Emu—and his reaction is one I share:
As is always the case now, the thing [a short story] reeked of something false and pretentious. It talked about the most terrible things, but it didn’t seem terrible at all because the author was not serious about what he was doing … I wanted to throw up.
Bunin describes the birth of the Soviet Union; on Quadrant Online Michael Galak, writing on Putin’s Russia, offered an explanation for its death:
Nobody wanted it any more. Contrary to a common misconception, the collapse had little to do with Reagan, Thatcher or a Western victory over Communism. It was the brilliant, but evil, manoeuvre of the Soviet élite, designed to complete the goals of the October Revolution of 1917. The people who effected the 1917 coup d’état did not get inheritable rights to the riches of those they had dislodged. The USSR’s collapse has reversed that “abnormality”.
Michael Galak saw the end. Bunin was a witness to the beginning: “Was it all that long ago that ‘comrade’ aristocracies and ‘warriors for socialism’ declared ‘peace to the huts and war on the palaces’ but then immediately took up living in these very same palaces?”
Galak’s words give Russian history, for its Western observers, the sort of simple shock into life that Australian history writing needs—a dynamic and comprehensible interpretation that breaks through layers of applied theorising and too easily accepted dogmas and suggests far more basic and realistic readings and writings. As Bunin noted at the beginning of the Great Russian Revolution:
Did many people not know that revolution is only a bloody game in which people merely trade places and which, in the final analysis, only ends up with their going from the frying pan into the fire—even if they manage temporarily to sit, feast, and raise hell where their masters used to be?
Later, that fire Bunin saw burning was further fuelled by the Stalinist purges before another generation of robber courtiers was rewarded with the stolen goods from the benevolent hands of Stalin.
Bunin was an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and is critical of both sides in the civil war, and of the Russian peasantry, for their violence against Jews. He has no illusions about peaceful peasants and strongly criticises the ill-fitting romanticism that had been imposed on them by preceding generations of Russian writers and political activists. News of atrocities in Rostov elicited a typical comment: “This is not the first time that our Christ-loving peasants—the very ones about whom these nurses have spread so many legends—have raped and murdered them.”
In the daily terrors he cries out: “If only I could find some respite, if only I could hide somewhere, perhaps go to Australia!” One person his diary mentions did later, only temporarily, come to Australia. Isaac Steinberg, a Socialist Revolutionary, was in office under Lenin when Bunin made this observation: “Kogan [a literary critic] told me about Steinberg the commissar of justice. He’s an old-fashioned, devout Jew; he does not eat non-kosher food, and keeps the Sabbath holy.”
In June 1939, between Kristallnacht and the Second World War, Steinberg, also in exile, was in Australia on a fruitless task looking for territory for a Jewish homeland. When in talks with members of the Durack family on Ivanhoe station in the East Kimberley he was observed by the young artist Elizabeth Durack in a letter to her future husband. She thought the fifty-one-year-old Steinberg was “a wonderful old boy”. Her letter, published in Art & Life: Selected Writings (2016), relates how Steinberg was involved in a typically Australian accident (note that his religious dietary preferences had been tactfully amended for his hosts):
He is a vegetarian and is slowly starving to death in this country where beef is eaten three times a day and meat sandwiches for morning and afternoon tea. His tie fell into some tomato sauce and I said I’d fix it for him. It was a nice pale grey and when I ironed it, it went an ugly brown and I don’t know what to do because I’m not game to give it back to him. What would you do in a case like that? Perhaps he’s forgotten all about it. I hope so.
Later in life Elizabeth Durack was a Quadrant writer.
As 2021 continues here, we have again seen an Australia Day accompanied by posturing “invasion day” parties and had the fun of watching elderly boring lefties either accepting, refusing or returning Australian government honours. Bunin needed a revolution to make this observation; we who live in bad days and on the cusp of worse days to come have already reached the same point of stupidity: “One of the most distinguishing features of a revolution is the ravenous hunger for histrionics, dissembling, posturing and puppet show. The ape is awakened in man.”
Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution
by Ivan Bunin, translated by Thomas Gaiton Marullo
Ivan R. Dee, 1998, 304 pages, about $40