Ivan Bunin was a great Russian modernist writer and the first Russian author to get the Nobel Prize. In 1918-1919 he wrote a secret diary where he recorded his impressions about the October Revolution and many years later published it under the title Cursed Days.
This is a devastating read at any time but today it reads in a particularly poignant way. There’s something very recognizable in the destruction of the cultural legacy by a mob that’s screaming ridiculous slogans, the sincere efforts of the revolutionaries to create a completely clean slate and wipe away the entire civilization they perceive as evil, the smart careerists who encourage the mob, the contempt of the crowds towards anything that isn’t about satisfying the most primitive appetites, and the horror of an artist, an intellectual who doesn’t know how to exist in the midst of this brutishness.
Of course, it’s not “just like” what we are experiencing. Nothing is ever “just like.” Bunin was keenly aware of the limits of historical analogies as he thought about the parallels between the tragedy of 1917 and the French revolution. Still, there are enough similarities to make us think about what we are allowing to happen.
As the horror around him deepens, Bunin finally manages to get rid of the enormous sense of guilt that every Russian intellectual carried towards the narod, the former serfs or their descendants.
The people who manipulated the angry mobs “kept giving them handouts, trying to butter them up.” But that’s not what Bunin finds hard to stomach. “Three quarters of people easily relinquish their conscience, their soul, and their humanity in exchange for handouts, for a permission to rob and loot.” Like most people, Bunin never realized how thin the veneer of civilization was and how easily the seemingly normal people around him would turn into animals that rape and murder for fun. It wasn’t exceptional for a regular person to turn into a rabid animal. It was exceptional not to.
And mind you, Bunin isn’t describing a totalitarian regime. These are the first several months of the revolution. There was no regime. An enormous number of people chose to do horrific things not because somebody made them or terrorized them or brainwashed them. No, they did it because they could. It was fun.
“The worst part,” writes Bunin, “isn’t even the horrors that we see every day. It’s constantly having to explain why they are wrong.” A point comes where a human imagination can’t feel any more outrage, anger, or shock. You are plunged into a mute, confused stupor. And this is where the real horror begins.
“Our optimism is what destroyed us. We have to remember this,” Bunin says. The very human need to believe that the terror was temporary, that it only happened sporadically and in exceptional cases, that things were bound to get better paralyzed people until it was too late.
Bunin managed to get on the very last boat leaving Odessa for Istanbul. He escaped, lived for many more years, and even survived Nazism. But the horrid regime whose birth the writer witnessed survived much longer.
The book is available in an English translation. I said that Bunin was a modernist but please understand that he’s a Russian modernist. This means highly readable, extremely clear, every word is to the point. So please don’t worry that it’s going to be a James-Joycian type of thing. It’s anything but.
The main point that Bunin brings across in the book is how easy it is to destroy one of the most sophisticated state apparatuses of its time and in a matter of weeks turn a society into a zoo. It never hurts to learn this lesson from someone who experienced it.