The history of Russia from 1917 to 1922 is among the grimmest, darkest and most fascinating periods in the entire human epic. After suffering three million dead in the horrors of the First World War, the tottering Russian Empire fell in a democratic revolution in February 1917. Inspired by visions of liberty, democracy, and freedom from arbitrary rule, Russia’s new Provisional Government sought to keep Russia in the war while reforming the state and organizing national elections. Simultaneously, a Soviet [council] of workers and soldiers sprang up alongside it in Petrograd, its direction contested between socialists, anarchists, and several factions of Marxists. As the year progressed, the elite-led Provisional Government found itself increasingly eclipsed by the Soviet.
It was in this chaotic historical moment that Boris Sokoloff came of age. Born in St. Petersburg in 1893, he studied medicine before joining the Russian Army. As a medical doctor with a front-line division in the War, he witnessed not only the horrors of combat, but epidemics that ravaged the ranks of the arm, and a crisis in morale expressed in mutiny and the murder of officers. During his service, Sokoloff’s uncompromising democratic idealism and success in saving many lives earned him the respect of those who served with him. At the same time, his experiences with Bolshevik agitators in the ranks strengthened his anticommunist views.
In the revolutionary year of 1917, Sokoloff was elected by the soldiers on the Southwestern Front to be their representative to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly, a body summoned by the Provisional Government to determine the form of a new constitutional state. A Socialist Revolutionary, Sokoloff favored democracy and socialism, and considered the Bolsheviks tyrannical. When he reached the capital, he attempted to use his elected position and military experience to organize defense forces to protect the newly elected Constituent Assembly.
However, the first meeting of the Assembly, in January 1918, would prove to be a disaster. After only one day, Lenin ordered the dissolution of the Assembly and the detention of all its non-Bolshevik members. Sokoloff was one of the few who escaped. Fleeing northward, Sokoloff joined the resistance there, becoming a minister in the anticommunist government based in Archangelsk. He was soon betrayed by monarchist rivals who hated his political views. They left him alive in a tiny boat trapped in the ice floes of the White Sea. The boat eventually drifted to land, where Sokoloff was captured and sentenced to death by a howling communist mob. Spared execution because of his political importance, however, he was sent to Moscow instead.
Interned in the infamous Butyrki prison, Sokoloff waited for months for death to come. He was spared only by the intervention of a former mentor from medical school who begged Lenin to “save the life of a promising young scientist.” Freed from prison, he acquired false papers and disguises, and managed to escape Russia via Estonia. He took with him—also in disguise—the family of former Prime Minister Alexander Kerensky, saving them from arrest by Lenin’s regime. From Estonia, Sokoloff eventually traveled to the safety of the United States. There, he would pen his dramatic memoirs, published under the title The White Nights, and enjoy a comfortable life as a doctor.
Sokoloff had grown up surrounded by the elite of a stillborn generation: those leaders, artists and intellectuals seemingly so full of potential and promise in February 1917 who would be exterminated one by one during the Soviet period. The disappearance of his high school and university classmates in to the meat grinder of the Great War and the Russian Civil War and then into the secret prisons of the Soviet Union lends this story an ultimately tragic tone. It is the combination of vivid history and literary intimacy which makes Sokoloff’s work so different from the memoirs of most of his contemporaries, such as Alexander Kerensky.
His writing has aged well; so too has his political message. From the vantage of exile in the United States, Sokoloff recounts his confusion regarding the attraction of the American intellectual class to Stalinism. Sokoloff aimed to illustrate for them the horrors of communism in its full colors, describing the horrors of Butyrki Prison and the imposition of totalitarianism from a keen observer’s perspective.
Another theme makes Sokoloff’s work even more relevant today: the failure of democracy. The White Nights provides one of the best extant descriptions of the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s last elected body for eighty years. Even though the Constituent Assembly met after the Bolsheviks’ triumph in the October “Revolution” (Sokoloff prefers the moniker coup d’état), there was still a real expectation in Russia that it would provide a new and legitimate democratic order. It was not yet clear that the Bolsheviks intended to stamp out the democratic impulses of the February Revolution entirely. It was the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918—a final coup—that ushered in the era of communist despotism.
How did this happen? Sokoloff makes the causes for democracy’s defeat clear. The unwillingness of true believers to defend their freedoms doomed the democratic project. Sokoloff admonishes his contemporary readers clearly:
Nobody ever gives the slightest consideration to the responsibility that is imposed on the members of a democratic society. Their responsibilities and obligations are incomparably heavier than for a citizen of an absolute monarchy or a dictatorship.
Sokoloff argues that a few brave men might have arrested the Bolshevik coup in its infancy. A general strike in Petrograd in December 1917 might have shaken loose communist control before it was fully established. Some simple, reasonable, self-defense measures taken by the Constituent Assembly in January 1918 might have created enormous problems for the would-be tyrants of the “proletariat.” In each instance, those with the power to do something failed. As those in the West forget the horrors of communism and find their democratic values increasingly contested at home and abroad, it is a timely lesson to remember what happens when those who believe in freedom fail to act.