Autobiography by Grigory Grigorov

I can't say I enjoy reading about that scary period of the Russian history called the Civil War, but I often read memoirs about those years. I often think about their authors: what did they think, what did they feel, what did they hope for, what made them join one or the other side in that war. The war must have started subtly, creepingly, insensibly. Some of them were, probably, afraid of the German army, but then the Reds or the Whites came to the city and the people faced a simple choice: they could join that army or become, well, subjects of preventive actions. Had I lived in 1919 or 1920, I would, probably, try to avoid both sides, but, of course, I dislike the bolsheviks more. Could it have been the other way round if I really lived then? I believe, yes. Because I am sure that the communists were not all bloodthirsty maniacs. Like Whites, the Reds fought for a better life for the people. Well, some of them did.

Recently, I finished reading memoirs of Grigory Grigorov. He was born in 1900 in Ukraine, in a family of a poor tailor. The book starts in 1905, when his family lived in Aleksandrovsk, with one of his first recollections, a pogrom. In 1911, he graduated from a five-year Jewish school and started working: at a footwear factory, as a newspaper boy, an assistant at a barbershop... In 1915 he made acquaintance with a couple of students who ran education groups for workers and who helped him find good books, and he started learning. In just two years, Grigory managed to prepare for the gymnasium exams, which included math, geography, history, physics, chemistry, biology, German and Latin languages. In 1917, he was already reading Caesar in Latin and Schiller in German. At the same time, he read philosophy books, books about religion, classical Greek literature, Shakespeare's works. What's more important, these two students who became his close friends, were socialists. They introduced him to Marxism. By that time Grigorov was working at a factory, and the choice of socialism was quite natural for him.

He mentions some people, like young turner Bondarenko or foundryman Likhachov, who told him unanimously that the revolution, should it happen, would fail, because the workers would not be able to keep the power. "Either bourgeois, or opportunists would exploit the movement of the Russian proletariat", they told. Grigorov was not that pessimistic, so he joined the socialist party. In 1919, he worked as a spy on the territory occupied/liberated by the White Army. He was caught and put to jail, but liberated by anarchists of Nestor Makhno. Since then, he treated anarchists with respect. For a year he fought in the Red Army, but for some personal reason he prefers not to tell a lot about this period. In 1920, he decides that he has had enough and goes to Moscow. He always wanted to learn, so he enters the Moscow State University, where he studies philosophy and social sciences. In 1922 he entered the philosophical department of Institute of Red Professors.

It was a magnificent period for him, when he met a lot of great figures of the Russian culture: Mayakovsky, Stanislavsky, Chaliapin, Yesenin, when he was lectured by famous scientists and talked to influential politicians. In 1923, the bell rang. Someone reported to the party Central Committee that he promoted anti-Marxist views. As a warning, he was sent as a lecturer to a small town, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, then to Siberia: to Tomsk and then to Novosibirsk.

The first volume of the memoirs, the only one I had, ends in 1927. The other volumes were not published in Russia, but, fortunately, I found a blog of Grigorov's grand-daughter (Russian History). You can find a short synopsis of the whole book in a much better English there. Besides, that blog features large extracts from the books, so I will not go into further details. The blog authors told me they had published the second and the third volumes in Israel. These volumes cover Grigorov's life from the first arrest in 1928, return home in 1930, second arrest in 1934, twenty years in prison and all the following life in USSR. In the foreword to the first volume, the author promises some interesting news in the following books. So, he tells about a group of army officers who in 1926 met with Trotsky to propose a putsch to overthrow Stalin...

What is so interesting about this book? Firstly, it's a detailed description of life in the early USSR. Secondly, it is one of few biographies written by the people from the other side of the revolution. And, finally, to a certain degree, it has explained to me the way of thinking of the people who fought in the Red Army for the bolsheviks. Grigorov, like many others, was disappointed with the way the things went. I'd say he should have listened better to the wise people, like Bondarenko and Likhachov. There's a bunch of things where I would disagree with Grigory Grigorov, but he had made his choice and the book is a frank justification of that choice.

A bit later I read another book of memoirs, by Sergei Golitsyn, son of prince Mikhail Golitsyn, who, of course, disliked the bolsheviks. Actually, he never even tried to oppose them, but he hated them with all his heart. Paradoxically, this book has also helped me understand what brought people to the camp of the revolutionaries. Golitsyn's aristocratic arrogance and disdain towards all those who belong to the lower classes really made me feel what the bolsheviks must have called "the class feeling". So, Grigorov was not really that wrong when he joined the revolution, I believe. His books is a valuable source of information and I hope it will be made available in English soon. At least, Russian edition is already available in the library of Harvard university.

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