Tom Keneally's `The People's Train': Steaming along the tracks of revolution

The People's Train
By Tom Keneally,
Vintage Books, 2009

Review by Phil Shannon

October 10, 2009 -- When Artem Samsurov first came to Brisbane in 1911, the Russian exile noted that the poor did not eat horse meat like they did in his native country and he wondered whether this did indeed make it true that Australia was a “working man’s paradise”? A diet that was no stranger, however, to rabbit, and bread and lard, suggested otherwise.

Tom Keneally’s latest novel, The People’s Train, follows the political and romantic adventures of Samsurov, a fictional character closely based on Fedor (``Artem'') Sergeyev, a Bolshevik who escaped from exile in Siberia after the crushing of the 1905 revolution in Russia and who was a political activist in Brisbane for six years. [See the Australian Dictionary of Biography's entry for Fedor``Artem'' Sergeyev below this review.]

In regular trouble with the Red-persecuting Queensland police, Sergeyev returned to Russia in 1917 in time to be elected to the central committee of the Bolshevik Party and play a leading role in the Russian Revolution.

The first half of Keneally’s novel follows the fictional Samsurov and his successful efforts to radicalise the Association of Russian Emigrants in Brisbane and set up a Russian-language newspaper. Samsurov is also active in organising union struggles and the 1912 general strike. As Lenin tells Samsurov in a letter, “‘You cannot help organising things, Artem’. He didn’t say whether [this] was a disease or a virtue”.

While Samsurov is fighting for free speech, labour rights and the political consciousness of his Russian exiles, his enemies (a Russian informer and agent provocateur, and the Queensland police) try to stitch him up on a murder charge.

His beatings in Boggo Road jail provide further material for Samsurov to disabuse those Russians who still think Australia has escaped class warfare. Neither, notes a fiercely anti-war Samsurov, has the existence of a national Labor Party prime minister (Andrew Fisher) kept Australians out of the mince-grinder of World War I.

Through all this, the Bolshevik Samsurov battles, futilely, with “the simperings of bourgeois love” and “bourgeois jealousy” — the source of his problems being the alluring Hope Mockridge, a lawyer and middle-class convert to the labour and socialist movements.

The February revolution in Russia in 1917, which overthrew Tsarist autocracy and established dual power between a bourgeois liberal government and workers’ soviets, suddenly opened up Russia again for Samsurov — “the press was free, the prison doors open and I was no longer under sentence”.

Part two of the novel moves up to top gear, as Samsurov returns to Russia in the company of Paddy Dykes, a (fictional) Broken Hill miner turned journalist who records the momentous upheaval of the October revolution.

With the vivid immediacy of Ten Days That Shook The World by the US socialist journalist, John Reed, Dykes records his meetings with people for whom “everything — absolutely everything — seemed to be just around the corner”.

He records “young women wearing ammunition belts over their summer dresses”, the great tussle of ideas between the different brands of socialism, the surge of popular support for the Bolsheviks who were the only ones promising peace, land and bread, the near-fatal last minute hesitations amongst the Bolsheviks themselves, and the drama of insurrection when the last bastion of the capitalist order (the Winter Palace) is taken by the revolutionaries.

Keneally’s decision to abandon punctuation in his novel works splendidly here to transport the reader to Petrograd in 1917, to heighten the tension of revolution and to convey the vitality of history in the making.

Through it all, the sleepless Samsurov displays confident leadership, a warm humanity, a calmness of purpose and a stress-busting humour — in the grim face of sawdust-bread and thin soup with a piece of gristle in it, Samsurov tells Dykes with a laugh not to ask where the meat came from, “just be grateful there isn’t more of it!”

Throughout these events are further affairs of the heart and loins, for both Samsurov and Dykes, the latter entangled with Samsurov’s revolutionary sister, Trofimova, who had “a businesslike air about everything she did. Let’s attend to this problem. That’s the way she went about love.”

And the “People’s Train” of Keneally’s title? It is both a monorail (an invention of Rybukov, an engineer and fellow Russian exile) and a political symbol, with Dykes pronouncing as the revolution gets up steam that “we’re on a sort of train right now”.

The locomotive of history, however, carries some old baggage, like “those bastards who would have enjoyed robbing banks whether asked by the party or not”, those who resort too casually to executions of real and potential enemies, and those who display a vengeful brutality with the first sip of power.

At the end of the novel, the fictional Samsurov is alive and the revolution about to face desperate days ahead as it struggles for its very existence … and its soul. In 1921, the real Sergeyev was killed in the crash of an experimental monorail train and, soon after, the train of revolution also came under serious threat with the death of Lenin from stroke and the scales of power tilting towards Stalin, who consolidated his rule by killing, during the Great Purges of the 1930s, all the 1917 Bolshevik central committee members who hadn’t died from natural causes.

Keneally has promised a sequel, and as displayed in this novel, he can do literary justice to the Russian Revolution (if not at quite the same heights as the Bolshevik-libertarian, Victor Serge, the benchmark novelist of the revolution).

Keneally has hinted in an interview, however, that up to 1917, we “had seen nothing of Lenin in power” and his positively painted Lenin of The People’s Train may yet turn into the caricatured monster of anti-socialist prejudice.

However, if the sequel has the historical integrity and thoughtfulness as The People’s Train, it will be worth waiting for.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #813, October 14, 2009.]

Sergeyev, Fedor Andreyevich (1883? - 1921)

Entry from the Australian Dictionary of Biography
Alternative names:
Artem, Fedor
1883?, Glebovo, Fatezh, Russia
24 July 1921, Russia
Cultural heritage:

SERGEYEV, FEDOR ANDREYEVICH (1883?-1921), journalist and political activist, was born into a peasant family at Glebovo village, Fatezh district, Kursk province, Russia. He was expelled for his revolutionary activity from Moscow Higher Technical School in 1901. He joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1902 and assumed the nom de guerre 'Artem' (pronounced Artyom). After serving six months imprisonment for participating in student demonstrations, Artem spent two years in Paris where he met Lenin. He became henceforth totally loyal to the Leninist wing of the party. At Lenin's suggestion he returned to Russia in 1903 and was active in the 1905 revolution in the Ukraine and from 1906 was leader of the Perm regional and Ural Oblast committees of the R.S.D.L.P. He was arrested and imprisoned several times. In 1910 he managed to escape from a Siberian prison camp, first to Korea, thence to China and finally, on 14 June 1911, with five other Russians he arrived in Brisbane, describing himself as a fitter. He intended to stay only long enough to recuperate from his ordeals.

Artem worked on various labouring jobs on the railways, the waterfront and on the land and meanwhile became a prominent leader of Russian workers in Brisbane. By late 1911 there were almost 800 Russians in Brisbane, including socialist revolutionaries, anarchists and Marxists. Artem was active in establishing the Soyuz Russkikh Emigrantov (Union of Russian Emigrants) in December 1911 and the Russian-language newspaper Australiiskoye Ekho) (Australian Echo) in June 1912; its radical character may have provoked its closure as an unregistered publication.

The tramway and general strike of 1912 gave Artem and other Russian radicals the opportunity to become active in the labour movement. They formed a Russian strike committee and collected strike funds. Dorf, a Russian tramdriver, was elected to the official strike committee. Impressed, Artem wrote: 'Australia has just experienced an unprecedented event. In a country where all institutions, all past experience appears to have destroyed the very thought of a revolution [there is] a general strike'.

In 1913 he joined the Australian Socialist Party, as well as the Amalgamated Workers' Union, the Meatworkers' Union and the free speech movement. During the war he adopted an intransigent Leninist position, arguing that the war had nothing to do with the legitimate aspirations of the working class; later, for revolutionary purposes, he called for the defeat of Russia.

Artem left Australia immediately after the February 1917 revolution and, having staged a May Day demonstration in Darwin, reached Russia in July. His rise in the Bolshevik Party was meteoric. He was made party leader of the Donbass (Ukraine) and was a member of Lenin's central committee from 1917. In 1920 he became secretary of the Moscow party committee and was a delegate to the second Comintern congress. In 1921 he was put in charge of the Mineworkers' Union. He wrote articles for Pravda, Prosveshchinie and other periodicals.

On 24 July 1921 Artem and Paul Freeman were killed in the crash of an experimental monorail train. Artem was buried in Red Square, Moscow. A son, later a major general in the Soviet Army, survived him. In Australia Artem had written Schastlivaya Strane (Lucky Country); it was published in Moscow in 1926.

Select bibliography

Ukrainska Radianska Entsyklopedia (Kiev, 1959); V. I. Astakhova, Revolyutsionnaya Deyatelnost Arteme v 1917-1918 Godakh (Karkhov, 1966); T. Poole and E. Fried, ‘Artem: A Bolshevik in Brisbane’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 31, no 2, 1985, pp 243-54; E. Fried, Russians in Queensland, 1886-1925 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1980); notes by V. Ogarev, formerly of Department of Political Science, Australian National University (held by ADB); private information. More on the resources

Author: Eric Fried

Print Publication Details: Eric Fried, 'Sergeyev, Fedor Andreyevich (1883? - 1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, Melbourne University Press, 1988, p. 567.