1917, a collection of stories and poems from the Russian Revolution, edited by the brilliant Boris Dralyuk, is now on shelves.
1917 is dedicated by Boris to the memory of his grandmother. Read on to hear more about the story of Boris’ grandparents and how they came together during the ‘period of wild contradictions’ that was the Russian Revolution.
My grandmother was born in Odessa two years before the Bolsheviks seized power, and she outlived the Soviet Union by two decades, passing away in Los Angeles in 2012. Her story is neither grand nor unique, and yet, perhaps for that very reason, it reveals a great deal about the terror and triumph, the promise and betrayal of the Soviet experiment as a whole.
Her father, a Russian nobleman, lost his status and property in 1917, and later died in an accidental fall in 1921. My widowed great-grandmother was barely able to feed her two children. Meanwhile, in the lean and chaotic year of 1919, my grandmother’s future husband, the nine-year-old son of a newly emancipated Jewish family, went to work at a smithy to help support his parents and siblings.
The revolution brought his people opportunities of which they could only have dreamt; his sisters trained to be doctors, and he pledged his loyalty to the Young Communist League (Komsomol). This loyalty was tested in 1929, when his Komsomol group were given rifles and enlisted in the struggle against the ‘kulaks’ — local peasants resisting the policy of Collectivization. The night before what was to be his group’s first raid, my grandfather ran off to warn a peasant family he knew, then threw away his rifle.
My grandparents faced many hardships and disenchantments in the Soviet era, but it was the Revolution that had brought this unlikely pair together; the marriage of a Jewish proletarian to the daughter of a Russian nobleman would have been virtually unthinkable before 1917. It was a period of wild contradictions, and my sense of those contradictions informed my work on the anthology. It was hard not to see my great-grandfather’s experience in the laments of liberal and conservative authors, and hard not to feel my grandfather’s early enthusiasm in the working-class poems of the Proletkult:
Mikhail Gerasimov (1889–1937)
I forged my iron flowers
beneath a workshop’s smoky dome—
not amid nature’s tender bowers,
or beauty in full bloom.
They weren’t caressed by Southern sunshine,
or cradled by the moon—
my thunderous bouquet was burnished
in a forge’s fiery storm.
Where motors rumble, rude and awful,
where sirens whistle, metal rings,
I was entranced, I fell in love with
the chime of copper pines.
This workshop dance was tiring,
my palms were hard as rocks—
but a never-tiring fire
blazed in my chest, beneath my smock.
Fed by the dream of Communism,
I stoked the furnace with new power,
intoxicated by its rhythm,
I forged my iron flowers.