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Steven Fisherciti

Into Russia’s Cauldron reviewed in Slavonic & East European Review Vol. 100, No. 3 (July 2022)


Fisher, Steven. Into Russia’s Cauldron: An American Vision, Undone. The

Newly Revealed Century-Old Eyewitness Journal of Leighton W. Rogers.

Forest Cat Productions, Chicago, IL, 2021. xx + 427 pp. Maps. Illustrations.

Timeline. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $32.50; $22.99; $9.99 (e-book).


The National City Bank of New York opened its Petrograd branch in October

1916, in the former Turkish Embassy on the Palace Embankment. By the

autumn of 1917 the bank had sixty employees in Russia and a second branch,

in Moscow, was planned. National City Bank’s chairman Frank Vanderlip had

been enthusiastic about investment in Russia since the 1900s, when he met

Russia’s modernizing Minister of Finance, Sergei Witte. In Russia, the bank’s

employees were told, ‘the natural resources have hardly been touched. There

are railroads to be built and mines to be opened. This means a wonderful

opportunity for American capital’ (pp. 7–8). In retrospect, National City Bank’s

foray into the Russian market did not come at a propitious time. The events of

Russia’s revolutionary year rapidly derailed the bank’s business. The Moscow

branch opened and closed within a day in November 1917, and its premises

were commandeered by the Moscow Soviet in January 1918. Following the

Bolshevik repudiation of tsarist loans in February 1918 the bank’s staff spent

their time playing cards and ‘finding depositors and persuading them to take

back their money’ (p. 251). National City Bank’s total losses in Russia following

their subsequent withdrawal amounted to $10 million: around 10 per cent of

the bank’s total capital.

Leighton Rogers sailed to Russia in 1916 to help set up the Petrograd branch.

His diary (held in the original by the Library of Congress) has been edited

and annotated by Steven Fisher, who has also worked for Citibank, as it is

now known, in Russia and Ukraine. While there are many published Western

eyewitness accounts of the revolution, Rogers is interesting because he was

not a journalist or a diplomat but rather one of the many non-governmental

actors performing economic roles in Russia during the war. Even before the

revolution Rogers knew he was living through interesting times, and this

presumably motivated his decision (not uncommon amongst wartime visitors

to Russia) to start a diary. Rogers was a reflective writer who often pondered

the purpose and value of his diary. ‘A great journal this — from Constituent

Assemblies to raspberry tarts!’ he wrote in December 1917. ‘I don’t know which

I consider more important’ (p. 283).

Rogers’s attempts to follow politics in Petrograd were hampered by his lack

of Russian (despite the bank’s daily lessons); the difficulty of getting hold of

news (he regarded himself as often two to three days behind); and the many

conflicting rumours that circulated. He recorded his own observations on life

in St Petersburg — the poverty, the crowded public transport, the ubiquity

first of portraits of the tsar, and later of photographs and cheap biographies

of Kerenskii. He praised Woodrow Wilson but was scathing about the US

embassy in Petrograd and about Ambassador David Francis. Surprisingly

we learn relatively little about the work of the bank, perhaps because Rogers

regarded this as more familiar and predictable than his observations about

Russian life and politics. Fisher mentions that the bank’s records are held by

the Russian State Archives (having been seized by the Bolsheviks in 1918). It

would be fascinating to know what additional insight these records shed on the

bank’s activity in 1917.

Fisher’s annotations to the diary are meticulous. He dates undated diary

entries, and identifies characters including other passengers who sailed with

Rogers on the boat to Russia. Each chapter begins with a helpful contextual

summary, though these would at times benefit from more detailed engagement

with the vast literature on the Russian revolutions. The principal sources are

Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes, and some interpretations of events are not

particularly nuanced or current (there is no acknowledgement of revolutionary

organizing in the February revolution for example which Fisher says was

‘spontaneous and exploded like a volcano’).

For Fisher, the fact that citizens of Petrograd flocked to deposit their money

in an American bank in 1917 should have been a warning to the American

bankers about the lack of public faith in Russian institutions. He also highlights

modern parallels to the events Rogers lived through. Citibank re-entered the

Russian market in the 1990s, but when El.tsin defaulted on domestic debt and

declared a moratorium on repaying foreign loans, they suffered losses even

greater than in 1917. This book was published in 2021, before Russia’s invasion of

Ukraine, but the accelerated withdrawal of Citibank from the Russian market

since February 2022 further reinforces Fisher’s point: in his closing remarks

he offers Rogers’ experience as a cautionary tale ‘in which smart people don’t

know how to read the signs of impending calamity’ (p. 382).

The impact of Rogers’s experience of war and revolution on his own

thinking make his diary compelling reading. In 1916 Kerenskii was a ‘rabid

socialist’ (p. 71); by the summer of 1917 he was ‘the only man in Russia able

to cope with the situation’ (p. 176). Rogers came to admire Raymond Robins,

the socialist head of the US Red Cross Mission in Russia, for his ‘reason and

common sense’ as well as his grasp of the labour struggle (p. 280). In January

1918 Rogers holidayed with the family of a Russian bank teller in their home

outside Petrograd: he acknowledged that he would never have undertaken such

a visit prior to the revolution. Following his departure from Russia, Rogers was

interviewed by a panel of American diplomats about ‘the Russian problem’. On

the prospects for intervention in Russia’s Civil War, he was sceptical: Russians

hadn’t chosen to support the provisional government against the Bolsheviks,

so he thought it unlikely they would join forces with a foreign invader. As

to whether the US should recognize Lenin’s government, Rogers argued that

no steps to recognize any government should be taken until the Constituent

Assembly had confirmed the will of the people. Fisher agrees with his subject:

for him one of the morals of Rogers’s story is the imperative ‘to provide help to

the Russian people once they have made their own decision and call out their

leadership if it denies its people the right to do so’ (p. 367).

Northumbria University

Charlotte Alston, Professor