Ian Johnson and Mark Hand are responsible for bringing to life The White Nights, a previously out of print collection of stories about the Russian Revolution. We interviewed them about the book and why they are so excited to see Bowen Press bring it into the hands of twenty-first-century readers.
Who discovered this text?
Mark: A friend told me I should read Sokoloff’s The White Nights. When I did, I finished it in two days, yanked forward from page to page by the velocity and inevitability of Lenin’s victory and democracy’s defeat, and the improbability of the author being at the center of so many historical events. He was like a Russian Forrest Gump. I wondered if the stories were true. The simplest explanation was that the book was junk—a sort of jealous counter-history written by one of the Revolution’s losers.
I asked Ian, one of my colleagues, to take a look. I assumed he would spend 45 dismissive minutes with it, and that The White Nights would prove to be of little historical worth. I was wrong.
Ian: I first heard of The White Nights when Mark introduced me to it last year. He told me he’d read an incredible memoir about the Russian Revolution and was curious how accurate it was. When he first brought it to my attention, I was pretty skeptical of its historical value. Boris Sokoloff claimed to have known or met every major figure in Russian history between 1917 and 1920, survived years on the front lines, been elected to the Constituent Assembly, fought in the Russian Civil War, then escaped from the country in remarkable fashion. It just seemed too good to be true.
It was interesting enough, though, that with Mark’s encouragement, I decided to do some research. The University of Texas at Austin, where I was then on a postdoctoral fellowship, happened to have some of Alexander Kerensky’s papers, a major figure in the story. I investigated there, did some digging in the Hoover Institution’s records out at Stanford, as well as the University of Birmingham’s (UK) archival collections on the Russian Civil War. Between all of these sources, I soon came to see that much of Sokoloff’s story was in fact true. At that point, it seemed to be a story worth bringing back into print, so we submitted it to Bowen Press for review.
Was the text translated? Did you select pieces from it to publish?
Ian: Much of the story of The White Nights was originally drawn from the “Doctor’s notebook” that Boris Sokoloff kept throughout his time in Russia. The book itself has appeared in both Russian and English, but was actually originally written in English by the author himself. Sokoloff had—from all accounts—a fortunate life after the events discussed in the book. He managed to flee to the United States, receive a professorship at Florida Southern College, and marry an American woman, Alice Hunt, who was an impressive writer in her own right. He spent most of his adult life publishing in English, writing 27 books in total. As to the book itself, it is published as originally written, in its full length. We’ve provided a new introduction, fixed some printing errors in the original text, and added annotations to help clarify the text.
How was the text available originally? Who was the audience? Was it forgotten? Why?
Ian: The work first appeared in print in 1956. This first iteration of the book came in the context of the early Cold War, and was addressed in particular to Americans. Sokoloff felt the need to communicate to Americans that the Soviet state was by its fundamental nature repressive and intolerant, something he felt they misunderstood.
The press that originally published The White Nights was a political one, interested primarily in works of anti-communism and libertarianism. This may have detracted from the work’s broader circulation, and the appreciation of Sokoloff as a literary and historical figure. Perhaps for that reason, it was not printed in large numbers. When the press later folded after the death of its founder, The White Nights was thus out of print and unlikely to return to bookstores. That is, until Mark’s rediscovery.
What was the original message?
Ian: The author’s intent is made clear briefly at the beginning and end of the work. He asks why so many intellectuals in the US find communism compelling. He hoped to change their minds and that the book would make clear exactly how Lenin came to power, and the horrible things Lenin did once his regime was in power.
Sokoloff makes his point primarily through his stories. The reader follows the lives of many of Russia’s leading intellectuals and cultural figures, few of whom escaped the maw of the Cheka’s secret prisons or graveyards of Russia’s civil war.
What’s the relevance of the text today?
Ian: The book has value on several fronts. The first, I would argue, is literary. Sokoloff consciously imitated a generation of great Russian authors, most notably Anton Chekhov. He provides his audience with a series of interconnected short stories, some of them murder mysteries, others romances, or political thrillers. All are depicted upon a vast stage: the anarchic, disintegrating Russian Empire. The writing is lucid and tight, one of the great virtues of the author’s fluency in both Russian and English.
The second value of the work is as a piece of history. Sokoloff was the equivalent of a congressman at the beginning of the short-lived Russian Constituent Assembly, whose destruction marked the start of the Russian Civil War. There is no way, I would argue, to understand the twentieth century, or the world today, without a knowledge of the events he describes in this work: the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. His unique perspective casts light on the inner workings of the opposition to the Bolsheviks before the establishment of the Soviet Union.
Finally, in ideological terms, the message remains relevant today. Sokoloff’s main goal, I would argue, is to provide a defense of democracy. His writing is one of the best surviving accounts of the Constituent Assembly, Russia’s last elected body for eighty years. After the October Revolution, a lot of people in Russia believed that the Constituent Assembly would provide a new and legitimate democratic order. It was only after the Bolsheviks rounded up and arrested its members—after losing the elections that had brought the constituent assembly into being—that the despotic era in Russian politics began. Sokoloff makes clear in the book why democracy failed at a particular juncture in Russian history. The White Nights reminds us what happens when those who believe in freedom fail to act.
Mark: As an educator, I was looking for historical examples to explain how, after the 2016 US presidential election, many of my friends and colleagues were left groping to make sense of the entrenched political class’s inability to stop the meteoric rise of a candidate with open contempt for the elites. I had begun to use Huey P. Long, the much-loved and much-hated populist governor of my home state, Louisiana, in the 1920s and ‘30s. He, too, had ridden a wave of populist discontent to power and took particular delight in ruffling political feathers. Sokoloff’s The White Nights, however, provides an even better example of a political moment that has lessons for us today. I am thrilled that Bowen Press is making it available to a wide readership.
Ian Johnson, Ph.D. is Associate Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale University, where he also teaches history. A former Fulbright-Hays, H.F. Guggenheim, and Smith-Richardson fellow, Ian received his Ph.D. in military history from the Ohio State University. He is the author of The Faustian Bargain: Secret Soviet-German Military Cooperation in the Interwar Period (Oxford University Press, Spring 2019).