Centennials don’t have much objective relevance, but they are marked nonetheless. It shouldn’t surprise, then, that everyone from The New York Times to Alex Jones to Jacobin have remarked upon the centennial of the Russian Revolution this year. The commentary has ranged from thoughtful to absolutely brainless. Fortunately, author China Mieville has provided a layman’s account of the event that both entertains and thoughtfully comments.
October is Mieville’s well-researched, page-turning history of the twin revolutions in 1917. Its subtitle, “The Story of The Russian Revolution”, is somewhat misleading, as it covers only the first ten months of the Revolution. The “story” aspect, however, is perfectly apt: October is narrative fiction at its best. This means it quickly disposes of objective, “hard” historical analysis. “While I do not pretend to be neutral, I have striven to be fair,” Mieville writes in the introduction. But this isn’t a deep reading or intensive historical study. It is an introduction to what Mieville successfully argues is a crucial event in world history.
In fact, the prose more resembles Mieville’s fantastical fiction (he likes to call it “New Weird” rather than sci-fi or fantasy) than a dense survey of history. It would be difficult to imagine, for instance, this early passage in a textbook:
It is not only tsars who dream of kingdoms. Like all exhausted peoples, Russian peasants imagine utopias of rest. Belovode of the White Waters; Oponia at the edge of the world; the underground Land of Chud; the Golden Islands; Darya; Ignat; Nutland; the submerged city of Kitezh, immortal below the waters of Lake Svetloyar. Sometimes bemused explorers strike out physically for one or other of these magic territories, but peasants mostly try to reach them in other ways: in the late nineteenth century comes a wave of countryside revolt.
Here, pre-revolutionary Russia has the feel of a far-off kingdom, only half-real, equidistant from a Jorge Luis Borges story and material reality.
The rest of the book is significantly less fantastical, but equally poetic. It details the whirlwind events of 1917: The fall, in a matter of months, of an autocratic dynasty half a millennium old; its replacement with a constitutional republic; intense infighting amongst revolutionary factions; and finally, the Bolshevik (later, Communist) seizure of power from a feckless Provisional Government. In ten months Russia is transformed from a languid feudal empire into the world’s first nominally socialist state.
Mieville comes from a Trotskyist background, so his sympathetic portrayal of the Bolsheviks is hardly surprising. However, there are no cults of personality here: Revolutionary instigator Vladimir Lenin is described as an energetic, sincere activist with a knack for correct snap judgments. But he is hardly glorious: He spends most of the book in hiding, first from the tsarist secret police, then from the moderates of the Provisional Government. He poses as a drunkard, a leper, and wears a wig to sneak past his enemies.
So, the Bolsheviks are sympathetic, if not necessarily heroic, in October. But those who Mieville identifies as villains receive harsh caricatures. Oddly, it is not the incompetent Tsar Nicholas, the “Mad Monk” Rasputin, or the brutal imperial prime minister Stolypin who Mieville seems to hate the most, though much fire is reserved for these figures. The people Mieville seems most eager to burn in effigy are the moderate socialists, particularly their leader Alexandr Kerensky. Observe: “Kerensky remained Russia’s only hope: of this he was still certain. He gathered the rags of his messianism about him, believing himself chosen by something or other for something or other.” His Provisional Government is unable to stop the war with Germany, end massive famine, and sides with the reactionary generals and ex-nobles at every turn.
This bitter denunciation of the Bolsheviks’ enemies seems an ideological tract until the book’s epilogue. In it, Mieville details in a matter of pages the history of the Soviet state in the 1920s. Under the pressures of civil war, Western intervention, and international isolation, the Bolsheviks retreat into one-party state. Lenin’s ban on factions eventually led to the consolidation of the totalitarian state under Joseph Stalin. But this horror, Mieville argues, was not inevitable: “We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder,” he admits. But “October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change. Its degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.” Both conservatives and Trotskyist analyses of the Revolution have long argued that the horrors of Stalinism were a matter of course: Conservatives because of the inherent barbarity of socialism (or some such ahistorical blather), Trotskyists because Russia’s isolation from the international community made a world socialist movement impossible. Mieville argues against this, and I am inclined to believe him: History unfolds in such surprising ways that such determinism seems ridiculous.
You may notice I’ve devoted most of my analysis to the beginning and end of the book. The chapters that bookend October are, for my money, the book’s best. The majority of the book concerns the back-and-forth street fights that plague the Russian capital, St. Petersburg, for most of 1917. These passages are filled with fascinating characters and scenes. But the plethora of terms, factions, what is sometimes called “world-building” in fiction, could prove insurmountable for some readers. Don’t be surprised if you find your interest lagging around the June or August chapters.
“October,” Mieville writes in the epilogue, “brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalization of homosexuality, 100 years ago…And those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.” It might have, and it can be, October posits. A book that convinces one, even for a moment, of this, is absolutely worth reading.