The dark relationship between individual and society is a vexed, and vexing, subject in Russian history – and so, too, in The People's Train, Thomas Keneally's at-times brilliant retelling of the experiences of two men in the lead-up to, and during, the momentous October Revolution of 1917.
Lenin's philosophy of democratic centralism, a founding principle of the revolution, was that individuals should have the freedom to debate matters of ideological policy, until action was decided upon democratically. Yet the first intimation that such a philosophy might be corrupted was present in the very way that system was to be brought into practice: by a vanguard of the revolutionary working class. If any of those select few happened to be less than unimpeachable... well, an event towards the end of Keneally's novel foreshadows the disasters to come in a quite wondrously economical manner.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Keneally has split this novel into two sections, and the first is related as the memoirs of one Artem "Tom" Samsurov, living in exile in Brisbane, Australia, after escaping a Siberian gulag. His story is loosely based on the real-life escapades of Fyodor Sergeyev, a man significant enough in the deposition of the Kerensky government to be given a burial place by the Kremlin wall. For now, though, Samsurov is working as a meat-packer who spends his spare time arguing political theory with his fellow socialists – an episode that gives a fascinating insight into Australian politics of the time.
As a centrepiece in these discussions, it is not long before Samsurov has entrenched himself firmly in the middle of a dispute over the local tramways workers' rights to set up a trade union, and organised a general strike in support (in between conducting a strangely awkward affair with a local champagne socialist). Yet, from the off, it has been clear that Australia isn't keen on Samsurov's politics – "The sovereign state of Queensland was kind enough to welcome energetic immigrants, we were told, but not rioters of foreign anarchist backgrounds" – and, once his actions have brought him to the attention of the authorities, and he finds himself imprisoned on a specious murder charge, it is clear too that Samsurov is no longer so keen on his new homeland. Nor its natives, who are too easily bought off to foment revolution.
And so he ups and leaves, to return to a Russia where uprising is in the offing. This second section of the novel is told from the point of view of Paddy Dykes, an Australian journalist who takes up with Samsurov in Queensland and follows him all the way to the Winter Palace. And it is through Dykes' eyes that we see the situation ("When we got down on the platform, a smell of piss and uncollected garbage hit us like a blow. It was the stink of a government falling apart"); the people; and, ultimately, the 10 days that shook the world.
Paddy is introduced to a series of leading Bolshevik lights, from Lenin to a sinister Stalin, and it is through his, a foreigner's, eyes that Keneally allows us to see through the apparent triumph of the proletariat to the first corruption of this new-founded era: as the Winter Palace is taken, one of Samsurov's fellow elite cadre rapes a fleeing cadet. Paddy himself points out that what should have been a great moment has been "besmirched" – and the synecdochal import of the episode marks a literary triumph on the part of Keneally; any notion that he is canonising the movement through the seemingly heroic actions of Samsurov et al is instantly dismissed.
Reading at times like a cross between Peter Carey and Tom Rob Smith's Child 44, Keneally has delivered a broad-ranging piece of historical fiction that approaches his best. Given that his best is the 1982 Booker-winning Schindler's Ark, that is high praise indeed.
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