Review: Caught in the Revolution

Put your hand up if you love Russian history!


Just me?

I will confess that most of my Russian history lessons have been confined to Tsars, their wives and children. I’ve been enamoured of the scandals, marriages, plots and descriptions of jewels for years.

But all of that leads, of course, to the Russian Revolution.

Helen Rappaport, author of the brilliant Romanov Sisters, has come to the same conclusion. Her new book, Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, Russia, 1917 – A World on the Edge, looks at what the Revolution meant for those expats living in Petrograd at the time.

In Caught in the Revolution, Rappaport relies on letters and diaries from eyewitnesses – those diplomats, journalists, nurses, engineers and workers who were there when all hell broke loose. In the Romanov Sisters, Rappaport managed to shed light on the sheltered lives of the grand duchesses who were mostly a mystery and she manages to illuminate the chaos of the Russian Revolution in the same way.

But this book is chaotic. This is the kind of dense non-fiction (a lot happens in a short amount of time) that will turn off all but the most dedicated readers. It is also kind of all over the place, owing in part to what was actually happening in Petrograd: bread lines turning into protests, the abdication of the Tsar, the provisional government taking over, riots in the streets, Bolsheviks fighting the ‘Whites’, blood running in the streets, journalists hiding out in hotel rooms for days without food, stranded by the violence outside.

But for all that, Rappaport still manages to dig out some gems including the observations of one Phil Jordan, an African American valet and chauffeur that accompanied the American ambassador. His letters, the only known published account of the revolution by an African American, provide readers with a sense of exactly what it was like to endure the Revolution.

Caught in the Revolution is not a book that I’d recommend across the board. It’s the kind of book that will appeal to a certain kind of reader. But if you’re interested in the time and are up for the challenge, I’d recommend this without hesitation.


Why I love reading books by Julia P. Gelardi

I am a disciple of the brilliant Lainey Gossip and she always says that girl sh*t is the best sh*t. What she means is that the kind of gossip that goes down between girls is always the most interesting/fun/hilarious.

(Incidentally Lainey, or Elaine Lui to use her actual name, has a book coming out! Listen to the Squawking Chicken arrives in Canada on April 1st and the US on April 21st. Don’t worry, I already ordered my copy!)

This is true in Hollywood today and 60 years ago (Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Fisher anyone?) and it was true at the Russian court in the 1800s.

I just finished reading From Splendor to Revolution: Romanov Women 1847-1928 and it was full of girl sh*t.

Julia P. Gelardi has got to be one of the best biographers of famous women. I’ve mentioned it loads of times before, but her book about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who all went on to become Queens in their own right, is among my favourite biographies. From Splendor to Revolution is another excellent example of the talent of this woman to take the incredible lives of four women and the times they lived in and break them down into a 389 page book. That’s a tall order.


The book follows the lives and loves of the Empress Marie Feodorovna (who had been Princess Dagmar of Denmark), and her sisters-in-law Marie Pavlovna (a German princess who married a Russian Grand Duke, also known as Miechen), Marie Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexander II who married Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh and became the Duchess of Coburg), and Olga Constantinovna (a Russian Grand Duchess who married Marie Feodorovna’s brother George who became King George I of Greece, making his wife Queen Olga of Greece).

Did you get all that?

Aside from all the Maries (and Olgas and Alexanders) to keep track of, this book was full of gossip. The Russian court loved to gossip and compete with each other. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna did not like each other and things only got worse as Russia headed ever faster towards Revolution. Meanwhile, Marie Alexandrovna, used to the level of status she had in Russia as the daughter of Alexander II, fought her English relations for her level of precedence in their society.

Of course their lives weren’t all about gossip and fighting and the most exquisite jewels; Russia’s Imperial family were living on borrowed time and their Greek relations were no better off. By the time the 1920s rolled around, most Russian royals were living in exile (if they were living at all) while the Greeks made one last attempt at maintaining the throne.

One of the reasons why Gelardi is so adept at making these sprawling biographies of hers so accessible is that she is able to show the human side of history’s personalities. If you look at portraits or photos of these women, you see them covered in the garb of their position, dripping in jewels that don’t seem like they could be real. But when you get the chance to read their letters to each other during one of the most tumultuous epochs of human history, you get to meet the person beneath the crown. Queen Olga was an affectionate and empathetic woman, writing adoring letters to her nephew, the future George V; Marie Alexandrovna was a proud Russian and an involved mother, looking out for the interests of all her daughtes, especially Missy who became Queen Marie of Romania; Marie Pavolvna was an excellent hostess who loved to surround herself with the most glamourous people and in the end was a most loyal mistress; and Empress Marie Feodorovna was incredibly devoted to her husband and her children, and adored by Russia while she shared the throne with Alexander III.

I learned a lot from this one. The period of time covered seems so available because their lives bled into the 20th century – their descendants still exist! They’re not that far removed either. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a grandson of Queen Olga after all.

So that’s another fantastic book about woman from Julia P. Gelardi. Now I just need to get my hands on In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory!