Ninety years ago this week, a Bolshevik mob stormed the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, arrested the provisional government and installed a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Though the Russian Revolution is no longer widely celebrated (not even by Russians, who instead commemorate the expulsion of the Poles from Moscow in 1612), I felt it important to mark the occasion. In honor of the anniversary, I reread “Ten Days That Shook the World,” the famed account of the revolution by John Reed, the American journalist and fellow traveler. Then I reread last week’s press reports of the recent encounter between Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, and Naomi Campbell, the British supermodel.
Just as I’d remembered, Reed’s book superbly transmits the breathless energy of the autumn of 1917 — “Adventure it was, and one of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses” — as well as his fascination with, and approval of, the violence he saw around him. After attending a mass funeral, he understood, he writes, why the Russians no longer need religion: “On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die.” By contrast, he is abashed when he has to explain that in America, people try to change things by law — a state of affairs that his new Russian comrades find “incredible.”
Fast-forward 90 years, and surprisingly little has changed. True, the Russian Revolution itself is no longer much admired, not even by Reed’s heirs on the far left. But the impulse that drew Reed to St. Petersburg remains. The Western weakness for other people’s revolutionary violence, the belief in the glamour and benevolence of foreign dictators, and the insistence on seeing both through the prism of Western political debates, are still very much with us.
Exhibit A is Campbell. Though better known for her taste in shoes than for her opinions about Latin American economics, she nevertheless turned up in Caracas last week gushing about the “love and encouragement” Chavez pours into his welfare programs. Wearing what a Venezuelan newspaper called “a revolutionary and exquisite white dress from the prestigious Fendi fashion house,” she praised the country for its “big waterfalls.” Not surprisingly, Campbell did not mention the anti-Chavez demonstrations held in Caracas the week before her visit; proposed constitutional changes designed to let Chavez remain in power indefinitely; or Chavez’s record of harassing opposition leaders and the media.
But then, that wasn’t the point of her visit, just as it wasn’t the point when actor Sean Penn, a self-conscious “radical” and avowed enemy of the American president, spent a whole day with Chavez. Together, the actor and the president toured the countryside. “I came here looking for a great country. I found a great country,” Penn declared. Of course he found a great country! Penn wanted a country where he would win adulation for his views about American politics, and the Venezuelan president happily provided it.
In fact, for the malcontents of Hollywood, academia and the catwalks, Ch·vez is an ideal ally. Just as the sympathetic foreigners whom Lenin called “useful idiots” once supported Russia abroad, their modern equivalents provide the Venezuelan president with legitimacy, attention and good photographs. He, in turn, helps them overcome the frustration Reed once felt — the frustration of living in an annoyingly unrevolutionary country where people have to change things by law. For all of his brilliance, Reed could not bring socialism to America. For all of his wealth, fame, media access and Hollywood power, Penn cannot oust George W. Bush. But by showing up in the company of Chavez, he can at least get a lot more attention for his opinions.
As for Venezuelan politics, or the Venezuelan people, they don’t matter at all. The country is simply playing a role filled in the past by Russia, Cuba and Nicaragua — a role to which it is, at the moment, uniquely suited. Clearly, Venezuela is easier to idealize than Iran and North Korea, the former’s attitude toward women not being conducive to fashion models, the latter being downright hostile toward Hollywood. Venezuela is also warm, relatively close and a country of beautiful waterfalls.
Most important, Venezuela’s leader not only dislikes the American president — after all, many other heads of state do, too — but refers to him as “the devil,” a “dictator,” a “madman” and a “killer.” Who cares what Chavez actually does when Sean Penn isn’t looking? Ninety years after the tragedy of the Russian Revolution, Venezuela has become the “kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer” for a whole new generation of fellow travelers. As long as the oil lasts.