October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, by China Miéville
The study of revolutions could be a lifelong interest. Every revolution will have similarities to all other revolutions, and each will have unique differences caused by a multitude of other factors including culture, history, key individuals, assumptions of the age, and just plain luck.
Novelist China Miéville confesses a long interest in the Russian revolution and in what is a fairly short book manages to cover considerable territory. While the book has a few glimpses of earlier Russian history, including Peter the Great’s creation of St. Petersburg and the emancipation of serfs in 1861, nearly the entire book focuses on a 10-month period ending in October 1917 when the Bolsheviks succeeded in taking over Russia during what John Reed called the 10 days that shook the world.
The Russian revolution was spurred by many of the same forces that had spurred other revolutions. There was tremendous poverty with a wide gap between the wealthiest and poorest in society. At the same time there was a solid layer of well-educated professional and commercial middle class, almost always the group which is in a position to perceive the economic and moral flaws of a country: Close enough to the poor to have a strong sympathy with the poor but also in a position to understand the difficulty of rising out of the middle class due to financial or cultural barriers. There was also an intransigent or simply blinkered head of state that could not or would not conceive the need for change.
Nicholas II and Aleksandra were, in their way, similar to Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Both leaders were more interested in their hobbies and lavish lifestyles than they were with governing. Both had foreign-born wives. Aleksandra was suspected of being insane by some, particularly because of her closeness to Rasputin, and was suspect for her German heritage at the outbreak of WWI.
The war was a disaster for the country, with some estimates of as many as 3-million Russian soldiers dying on the battlefields and the military and groups of cadets played an extensive role in the revolution. While much of what happened in 1917 was kindled in the 1905 revolution (Bloody Sunday, the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, the exile of Lenin, the creation of the constitution and Duma governing body) the human and financial cost of the war, as well as the arming of millions, may have been the major factors in the final overthrow of the Tsar.
Miéville manages to thread his way through the dozens of intrigues and hundreds of characters driving the revolution, including the political battles among the communists, liberals, conservatives, and bourgeoisie to attempt to lead the country while maintaining Nicholas II in power. Much of the final outcome had much to do with the power of personalities and the failure of liberals to create and lead a moderate coalition. And then there’s just dumb luck, such as the many close escapes of Lenin who was wanted for arrest from the moment he made his way into the country through Finland, or the discovery of a boot helping to expose Rasputin’s killers.
Miéville takes the events month by month and sometimes hour by hour to create as clear a narrative as possible. Because of his skills as a novelist I had hoped for more in-depth material on living through the events of 1917. Still he manages to briefly dramatize many of the events and helps open up much of the mystery of how some things happened the way they did.
In the epilogue of the book the author focuses on what could have been in a change of government that began with so much hope and freedom. He doesn’t shirk from their eventual collapse or from the horror of life in the country after Lenin died. But he does remind the reader of the positive hopes that inspire revolutions with a wistful sense of what might have been.