Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Russian Revolution in 400 words

Something I had to write for work the other day. Pretty much all of this was news to me, so I found it interesting.
In early 1917 failures on the battlefields of World War I, coupled with frustration at the slow pace of political reform in Russia, triggered an armed uprising in Petrograd (as St Petersburg had been renamed in 1914). In what became known as the ‘February Revolution’, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and a reformist provisional government was formed.
Regardless of its intentions, the situation this new government inherited was completely unworkable. The Russian Army was locked in a stalemate with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and losing thousands of men every day to desertion. The state was effectively bankrupt and many wanted to sue for peace. The government knew, however, that a peace settlement under these conditions would mean devastating reparations and territorial concessions. Furthermore, the old regime’s allies, Great Britain and France – who had invested heavily in the Russian war effort – would not allow such a move. It was decided, therefore, that the fighting had to continue, much to the dismay of the Russian population.
While the war raged on, the radical groups that had backed the February Revolution began working to undermine the provisional government, which they now saw as a continuation of the old regime. The Bolshevik Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, was particularly active in this regard, establishing a parallel system of local government controlled by workers’ committees, known as ‘soviets,’ all over the country.
With the integrity of the state deteriorating rapidly, the Provisional Government pinned their hopes on a final, massive offensive against the Central Powers in the summer of 1917. Aware that the Central Powers were also near collapse, they hoped this final push could pave the way for a acceptable peace settlement. The offensive proved to be a catastrophic failure, however, and led to the near-collapse of the Russian Army. As the crisis deepened, the internal divisions within the provisional government flared up, leaving it deadlocked and incapable of responding effectively. In the absence of a functioning government, the authority and influence of the soviets grew.
As early as March 1917, the Bolshevik Party had been establishing units of Red Guards, an armed militia. By October this had grown into a force some 200,000 strong, with brigades all over Russia. On 25 October, Lenin used the 30,000 Red Guards within Petrograd to seize power. The Red Guards arrested the Provisional Government and declared that they had taken power in the name of the soviets of Russia.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I use wikipedia quite a lot when I'm at work. The project I'm currently working on often requires me to read up on a broad swathe of history so that I have a reasonable idea of the context of the events I'm writing about. I don't need to know anything in great detail, just the broad shape of things. For that purpose wikipedia is great. I also frequently need to write things about weapons systems, past and present, and wikipedia -- with its huge cast of gun nuts, teenage boys, and war-obsessives -- gives me all the detail I could possibly ever want to know (and a fair bit more... I now have an opinion on the relative merits of 7.62mm vs 5.56mm ammunition, for example -- an opinion no one is ever going to ask me for, nor do I ever want to volunteer).

Unfortunately, if you spent a lot of time using wikipedia it's hard to resist the urge to glance under the hood, so to speak, to hit that little tab on the top of the page that says 'talk'. At first I'd look to see if anyone had put any useful links there in the course of their discussions, now I tend to look out of a sort of morbid fascination.

In case you're unfamiliar with the format, a wikpedia talk page is where the people involved in the creation of the page -- and interested readers -- can post queries or messages, suggest changes, or debate what should go in the article. Every now and then you find one like this, usually on some innocuous subject like botany or basket-weaving, but generally they're either empty (because the article was written by one person, and no-one else cares) or they're filled with a wonderful cross between committee minutes and a full-on forum flame-war. The rules of wikipedia -- which discourage personal attacks and urge contributors to always assume good faith -- ensure that most disputes are, at least at first, couched in wonderfully passive-agressive language. People make extraordinarily bitchy comments about each others' contributions without ever technically breaching any of these rules. I often find myself scrolling down, reading the gradual descent of a sensible, grown up discussion into childish name calling and threats. Often it's possible to follow these arguments as they jump from one article's talk page to the next, to various users' personal pages, to the annals of the administrators.

The talk pages on well known contentious and divisive subjects don't really interest me -- if I wanted to see pages and pages of people arguing religion or politics I'd look at, well, anywhere on the internet. What I like are the pages where you get two socially maladjusted nerds flinging abuse at each other over, say, the divisional organization of an army that was disbanded 200 years ago. It's like what the big bang theory would be if the characters weren't secretly just mouthpieces for witty, articulate people.

Sometimes the people involved are clearly completely insane. For example, I recently found this userpage, having encountered his signature on a few particularly bizarre messages left on talk pages. It reads like the sort of thing that gets mailed to the New York Times shortly before the author goes on a spree killing.

By far my favourite recent discovery, however, is this wonderful page -- the talk page relating to an article on a not particularly well known chess player, writer, and aspiring libertarian politician who seems to have puffed his own page out beyond all proportion to his notability. It's good partly for the arm-flapping fury of the participants, but also for the personalities of the two main combatants. If you follow their various disputes from page to page, it soon becomes clear that this bloke is this bloke's nemesis, and vice versa. They've managed to generate an animosity for each other, purely through chess and arguments on the internet, that in day of yore would have required one of them to murder at least two of the others' immediate family. The whole thing provides a fascinating insight into the slightly surreal and unintentionally hilarious world of professional chess players.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Robot Music

The above picture is taken from a Musicians Union campaign from the 1930s against the use of recorded music in movie theaters (cinemas). This particular dispute is covered in detail in this interesting post from the Smithsonian's stable of bloggers.

I'm always fascinated by conflicts like this, by incidents of people being made redundant by new technology. On the one hand, it's never good to see people put out of work, to see skills that have been honed over many years rendered useless, but on the other hand it seems absurd to 'uninvent' or ignore something to protect the income of a particular group.

When it comes to cases like this, people tend to come down strongly in favour of the group being pushed aside, but there are plenty of others where people would be fine with it. I think very few people realise just how labour intensive pretty everything was until the last few hundred years or so.There are thousands of jobs -- occupations that people once devoted their lives to -- that have faded completely into obscurity, in many cases the idea that you could have a job doing one of these things strikes people as weird, even funny.

The first time I was really struck by this was while studying Herman Melville at university. One of his short stories (which are generally much better than any of his novels), the wonderfully titled Bartleby, the Scrivener, describes in intimate detail, the daily life and work of a once common class of clerk -- the Scrivener. These men were essentially human photocopiers -- they spent hours, sometimes days, painstakingly copying legal documents or writing them out in a professionally presentable form. The work required perfect penmanship and a proofreader's eye for detail (mistakes could end with someone getting sued). It sounded, to me, like a close approximation of hell. There are no scriveners anymore (at least, not as far as I know) but that doesn't seem like a loss that anyone should mourn.

I suppose the reason why I'm so interested in stuff like that is that I work in an industry that has recently experienced a similar technological shock. Back in the 1970s my job (I'm an editor for a reference publisher, in case you didn't know) would have been done by several different people and would have taken a lot more of everyone's time. Computers changed all that. I now do the job of both an editor and a typesetter, and frequently do the work of a designer or a proofreader. In a few seconds I can make changes to a layout that would, just 25 years ago, have required a lengthy discussion with a designer, a few minutes fiddling with a pasteboard and scissors, a trip to the typesetter and a time-consuming period of re-fitting. There are still some in the publishing business who miss the old days, but to me, having not lived through them, it seems like an absurdly convoluted and frustrating way of making a book.