Friday, 20 August 2010

History captured in a moment

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the murder of Leon Trotsky. In his epic 'History of the Russian Revolution', Trotsky describes a demonstration by 2,500 workers in Petrograd, in February 1917, which was attacked by the Cossacks. This is a superb description of an exciting and important moment in the revolutionary process, and captures something of the nature of revolutionary change:

'Cutting their way with the breasts of their horses, the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers.

‘Some of them smiled,’ Kayurov recalls, ‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink.’ This wink was not without meaning. The workers were emboldened with a friendly, not hostile, kind of assurance, and slightly infected the Cossacks with it.

The one who winked found imitators. In spite of renewed efforts from the officers, the Cossacks, without openly breaking discipline, failed to force the crowd to disperse, but flowed through it in streams This was repeated three or four times and brought the two sides even closer together.

Individual Cossacks began to reply to the workers’ questions and even to enter into momentary conversations with them. Of discipline there remained but a thin transparent shell that threatened to break through any second.

The officers hastened to separate their patrol from the workers, and, abandoning the idea of dispersing them, lined the Cossacks out across the street as a barrier to prevent the demonstrators from getting to the centre. But even this did not help: standing stock-still in perfect discipline, the Cossacks did not hinder the workers from ‘diving’ under their horses.

The revolution does not choose its paths: it made its first steps toward victory under the belly a Cossack’s horse.'


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