How do we remember the Russian Revolution? Infused with the noblest of intentions and ideas, it ultimately begat disaster. “We know where this is going,” writes China Miéville in his new study of the revolution, October. “Purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder.”
A century has passed since the House of Romanov was overthrown and the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, unleashed a revolution they hoped would lead to the worldwide overthrow of capitalism and the liberation of the miserable proletariat. If Lenin’s dubiously preserved corpse could rise from the dead, he would probably be horrified: The workers of the world never united, but the capitalists sure did. Yet none of this was preordained. “Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars,” Miéville asserts.
A wildly imaginative English novelist known for his blending of horror, fantasy, and science fiction, Miéville is a committed leftist and proud partisan in this engaging retelling of the events that rocked the foundations of the twentieth century. His goals are not condemnation or hagiography. In a blow-by-blow account of the year 1917, he hopes to reintroduce history to a world that has a habit of forgetting it. And lucky for him, a book about a year of great upheaval arrives just when old orders seem to be crumbling all around us.
Before the horrific civil war, a sclerotic Soviet regime, and Stalin’s terror, there were revolutionaries who dreamed of handing land over to peasants, democratizing the military, enacting universal suffrage and education, and ending imperialism. Female revolutionaries like Alexandra Kollontai stood at the front of the movement. One hundred years ago, as Miéville notes, an All-Russian Muslim Conference passed ten principles, including the equality of the sexes, a woman’s right to vote, and the noncompulsory nature of the hijab.
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, reckoning with the Russian Revolution is a challenge. As Miéville cautions while describing a young leftist of the revolution named Joseph Stalin, “any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, mustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state — the -ism that bears his name.” Stalin is not Stalin in 1917. He is a “weathervane,” like a “grey blur.” In Miéville’s narrative he’s something of a bit player.
The author’s point is that history must be understood in its moment, not just in a future context unknown to its participants. With his painterly touch and zest for characterization — Lenin is as mercurial as he is brilliant, a “striking, prematurely balding man with distinctive narrow eyes” — he sets the scene in St. Petersburg, eventually renamed Petrograd and then Leningrad, the seat of the revolution. There, “one hundred thousand corpses” lie beneath the streets, worked to death by the hand of Peter the Great, who dreamed up the city in 1703. For 300 years, the Romanovs ruled Russia, enslaving peasants and ethnic minorities while shackling the empire in a relative dark age. Inchoate, immense, and backward, Russia was not anyone’s ideal staging ground for radical change.
The seeds of revolution were sown in the late nineteenth century. Most know the names of Lenin and his collaborator and rival, Leon Trotsky, perhaps imagining a unified Communist front marching straight at the Winter Palace. But as Miéville reminds us, the originators of the revolution were multifarious, including leftists and moderates of all stripes, and forgotten men like Andrei Zhelyabov, who once lamented that “history is too slow” and was hanged in 1881 for plotting the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.
In 1905, unarmed demonstrators were slaughtered by Tsar Nicholas II’s forces, triggering strikes and uprisings that would set the stage for the events of a decade later: Nicolas II, dispassionate and oblivious, leads Russia into the disastrous World War, and even nonradicals begin to understand that the center cannot hold.
Numerous factions on the left and right would vie for supremacy; in Miéville’s giddy retelling, Lenin’s Bolshevik victory was far from a fait accompli. There were Mensheviks, led by a charismatic bohemian named Julius Martov, and Kadets (liberals with a warmness for monarchy) and Trudoviks (agrarian leftists), anarchists, and Black Hundreds, savage bands of proto-Fascists who backed the monarchy at all costs. Trotsky, an intellectual behemoth, always stood apart, clinging to the leftist Mezhraiontsy before eventually joining the Bolsheviks.
In Russia, 1917 was a year of soaring crime, starvation, worker uprisings, and bloodless and bountiful verbal sparring. Debates of theory and tactics were dizzying and constant, waged at endless conferences. “Nomenclature was tangled: Russia that year was riddled with committees, caucuses, congresses, permanent and semi-permanent, standing and non-standing,” Miéville writes.
There are times in October when you wish Miéville hewed to the novelist within instead of the researcher. Committee meetings are exhaustively chronicled, and their relevance can be lost in the torrent of factoids. He loves rehashing vote counts. Must we know that the Bolshevik leadership in June 1917 voted on a particular resolution 14–2, when it would have been enough to say it overwhelmingly passed?
If October is, at times, a maze of names and bureaucratic wrangling, Miéville’s métier is rendering atmosphere and character, and reminding us just how remarkable this single year was. A mass movement, linking moderates and radicals alike, forced a tsar from power. A provisional government, attempting an alliance between left and right, was doomed to fail. Lenin was smeared as a German spy and forced to flee, donning disguises and dwelling in muddy huts. Counter-revolution was an ever-present threat: at one point, an authoritarian general named Lavr Kornilov tried to overthrow the new government. His foe, the onetime prime minister Alexander Kerensky, belted out arias to calm his own nerves.
It’s always a dangerous exercise to draw a straight line from the past to the present, to impose today’s ideals and movements on yesterday. But “twilight, even remembered twilight,” Miéville writes, is “better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say there is nothing we can learn from the revolution.” Revolutionary dreams need not be deferred because of October’s sins.
Once again, millions of people in America and Europe are waking up to a system that’s failed them, globalized capitalism bearing ill fruit for all but the most privileged. Far right and left leaders trample established orders. The de facto power brokers of the Republican and Democratic parties are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Once more, the yearning for radical (and needed) change is out in the open, ready to be harnessed.
What comes next? Will we strain, like the Russians a century ago, toward “liberty’s dim light”? Are we doomed to make the same bloody mistakes? Future historians stand ready to judge us.