American Red


A Romance with Revolution

A bust of Vladimir Lenin in the Moscow subway Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

A bust of Vladimir Lenin in the Moscow subway
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Rewatching the 1981 Warren Beatty film Reds, about journalist and eventual collaborator John Reed’s coverage of and interest in the Russian revolution, I remember that Reed is buried at the Kremlin, a point that I neglect to pursue when I am actually at the Kremlin. Lenin’s Tomb is closed when I am there when I am more fascinated with people who breached the Kremlin’s walls (namely, Napoleon’s army) than with American dreamers interested in another great experiment, however badly it may have turned out.

Elsewhere in Russia, though, are reminders of that revolution and its efforts to put peasants and the working class into power. Moscow’s subways—the working class mode of transportation—glorify the worker and the revolution. I can’t help but wonder what John Reed and his wife, Louise Bryant, would have thought about how the Soviet era turned out. Bryant, it seems, became disillusioned with life, if not with communism, before she died relatively young in 1936, having remarried, had a child, lost her daughter in a custody battle, and gained a bit of a drinking problem. I look forward to learning about the rest of her story from a 1996 biography, Queen of Bohemia: The Life of Louise Bryant, by Mary V. Dearborn.

Lenin's tomb in Red Square Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

Lenin’s tomb in Red Square
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

I digested Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World back when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was referred to often as the Evil Empire and not long after wars opposing the spread of communism stopped being fought. I can see how the excitement of the time, an effort toward self-determination by a long-oppressed population, could appeal. Contemporary coverage of Reed by publications like the New York Times is both reverential and not; Reed’s obituary—he died at age 33 from typhus while in Russia—describes him as both an agitator and a virile writer. John Reed Dies in Russia, N.Y. Times, Oct. 19, 1920, at 11.

A paragraph from 1921 informs me that a statue of Reed stands in Red Square, placed there on July 4, but I do not see it when I am there. I do not know if it remains. John Reed Statue Unveiled, N.Y. Times, July 7, 1921, at 17. I see no mention of it in coverage of his niece Susan Reed’s visit to Moscow in 1987. Beth Austin, Susan Reed: Following John Reed’s Footsteps to Russia, Chicago Tribune,May 24, 1987.

A plaque in Red Square, Moscow Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

A plaque in Red Square, Moscow
Photo credit: M. Ciavardini

When I am at the Kremlin, I focus more on the wonder of simply being there, in Red Square, and at the high-end stores in GUM, the mall facing it. With Saint Basil’s at the far end, it’s an odd troika of church, state, and commerce. John Reed is not on my mind, but I wish he had been.

—Lori Tripoli


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