On the fragility of democracy

They are using nothing but democratic measures and democratic weapons. You can’t fight for power unless you’re ready to use all possible weapons and to fight hard and cruelly.

– Boris Sokoloff in The White Nights 

The first time I read The White Nights, I was convinced that Boris Sokoloff’s book was great fiction. At best, it might be historical fiction. But it couldn’t be real–it was just too good of a story. Like a Russian Forest Gump, Sokoloff recounts having been a part of such an impossible number of key events during the Russian Revolution that I just couldn’t take it seriously. But I also couldn’t put it down.

I had picked up the book from my friend Trevor after the 2016 US election. My liberal friends had started casually using words like fascist and totalitarian to describe Donald Trump. As a Louisianian, my primary point of reference was the 1920s populist governor of Louisiana, Huey P. LongThe White Nights, an out-of-print book Trevor had been given by a traveler while on his honeymoon, promised a window into the failed fight against the rise of Vladimir Lenin, one of history’s most brutal dictators.

As soon as I finished the book, I knew I wanted to see it re-published–as a novel. But I also wanted to understand just how full of it Sokoloff was. So I had Ian Johnson, a Russian expert and historian at UT, take a look. At first, he confirmed by suspicions: The book was too good to be history.

But the more Ian dug, the more plausible the story became. Ian found more references to Sokoloff in Russian language histories, then some photos that Sokoloff took in Moscow. Ian was hunting for information to discredit Sokoloff’s account, he instead tended to find historical details that corroborated it. We know that some of the more fantastical stories are… impressionistic, shall we say? but the book still offered important historical detail that, it seemed, had been lost to history.

I mentioned the book to my brother Robert, CEO of a publishing company called Bowen Press. Ian, Robert and I agreed that The White Nights was worthy of reintroducing to the world as a reminder “of what happens when those who believe in freedom fail to act,” as Ian writes in his introduction to this new edition. As The White Nights  shows, democracy is fragile, contingent, and particularly vulnerable to a small group of individuals committed to undermining it from within. 

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