Ivan Bunin (the first Russian author to win the Nobel) remarked in Accursed Days, a collection of his 1918–1919 notes from Russia:
“The world had not known disappointment,” says Herzen, “until the great French revolution. Skepticism arrived with the republic of 1792.”
As for us, we are to carry with us to the grave the greatest disappointment in the world.
Indeed. Here’s more:
“The attempt of the French to restore the people’s sacred rights revealed complete human impotence… What did we see? Brute human instincts, which, liberating themselves, break all social bonds in search of bestial self-satisfaction… But some mighty man will emerge, one who will tame the anarchy and firmly clutch in his fist the reigns of power!”
What is the most suprising about these words (so true of Napoleon) is their author being the trubadour of Kolokol.
It was Herzen who published Kolokol (The Bell) in London; I’m not sure if he referred to 1789 or 1848 though. [Note from 2015. Having recently seen Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia, I think it’s 1848 and the Napoleon is Number Three.] It’s also obvious that the words are as true of the Bolshevik regime: their chokehold on Russia, so tight in the 1930s, was a flip side of the chaos of the Civil War, for which they, too, had been responsible.
How alike they are, all those revolutions! During the French revolution at once a myriad of new administrative offices were created; a flow of decrees and circulars gushed forth; the number of commissars — they are invariably called commissars, for some reason — and various authorities in general, became incalculable; unions and parties were growing like mushrooms, and all were “devouring each other;” a new, special language arose, “consisting throughout of most grandiloquent exclamations mixed with the foulest words aimed at the dirty remnants of the dying beast, the tyranny.” It all repeats because, first of all, one of revolutions’ most distinctive traits is a rabid thirst for acting, for theatrics, for the pose and the farce. Inside the man, the ape awakens.
And the last bit for today:
When you lose heart from utter hopelessness, you catch yourself at an inmost dream: that somehow, some time, a day will come of vengeance and of total, panhuman damnation for these days. One can’t be without this hope. Yes, but — what can one believe in today when an unspeakably terrible truth about Man has revealed itself?
All will be forgotten and even glorified! And above all literature will help — it would distort anything as was done, say, with the French revolution by that most harmful tribe on earth called poets, among whom for one true saint there are always ten thousand false prophets, degenerates and quacks.