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'October' masterfully portrays the intricacies of the Russian revolution

British sci-fi and fantasy author China Miéville sifts through the extraordinary disagreements, debates, and debacles that accompanied the Russian reds on every step of the road to revolution.

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    October 1917
    By China Miéville
    Verso
    384 pp.
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You say you want a revolution? It helps to have passion for power. But first, get ready to have a meeting. Then another. And a few dozen more. 

Is someone keeping the minutes? Good. They may be relevant a century from now when a writer like China Miéville comes calling. 

British sci-fi and fantasy author Miéville, best known as a pioneer of a genre called "weird fiction," may seem an unlikely chronicler of the 20th century's most consequential revolt. But Miéville's academic past and interest in leftism give him the background he needs to handle a potentially mind-numbing task. In his new book October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, Miéville sifts through the extraordinary disagreements, debates, and debacles that accompanied the Russian reds on every step of the road to revolution.

Miéville doesn't neglect the misery, confusion, and violence that led up to the revolution. He's especially evocative when he chronicles the scenes on the chaotic streets. 

But much of the value of "October" comes in his mastery of how the intricacies of human decision-making play out in Petrograd (the once and future St. Petersburg), Moscow, and beyond. Nothing is preordained, not Lenin's rise nor Russia's pullout from World War I. Even dictatorship, authoritarianism, and communism aren't sure things.

Looking back, though, it does seem inevitable that Russia was overdue for massive change even as the men in charge manned the defenses of denial, refusing to respond fully to the pressures of war and poverty. 

Tragically, Czar Nicholas II managed the rare trick of combining absolute power with absolute ineptitude. While he found the inner emotion to be eternally besotted by his wife, the czar blithely ignored the misery within his own country. 

As the revolution began in February 1917, liberals and socialists in St. Petersburg united with an mass of soldiers, criminals, and drunks, "armed with what they found" – a kitchen knife, machine gun rifles, a pole for cleaning tramlines. They wanted the legislature, the Duma, to take action, but it is "unwilling, even now, to rebel against the Czar Nicholas II – even against his orders that it dissolve itself."

As the crisis deepened, the czar's minions either facilitated his fogginess or tried in vain to get him to focus. "There is anarchy in the capital," one telegraphed him. "The government is paralyzed." The czar refused to reply, and scoffed at the next morning's message: "The situation is getting worse." 

It was only the beginning. But of what? Here's where the talking – the endless meetings and minutes – becomes crucial. 

As Miéville explains, many Russian leftists believed that revolution could only happen in one way. First the bourgeoisie, the middle class, would gain power. Then the lower classes would rise. To get to the finish line, the socialists needed to form an alliance with the privileged and piggyback on them until it was time to throw them out of power so the proletariat could finally take over.

Even a revolutionary named Vladimir Lenin was on board with this idea of a democratic and capitalist revolution to pave the path to socialism. However, as Miéville writes, Lenin also had a stubborn self-aggrandizing streak, and a dislike of coalitions and compromises that became his trademark even if he occasionally supported working together with rivals. 

But while Lenin despised the idea of working together, this amazingly diverse nation was full of voices clamoring to be heard and obeyed. Some marched and went on strike. Some sang, played music, and read poetry at rallies. And many met in "soviets."   

"Russia that year was riddled with committees, caucuses, congresses, permanent and semi-permanent, standing and non-standing," Miéville writes. "Meetings proliferated ad well-minuted nauseam."

The leaders of the revolutionary movement had one especially big decision to make. Would they continue Russia's war against Germany and its allies? It seemed for a while as if the country would keep fighting since even liberals balked at the idea of pulling back. 

Meanwhile, violence served other purposes back at home. In Petrograd, radicals grabbed weapons and tried to arrest government ministers. When they approached the mansion where their allies the Bolsheviks were meeting, one of the attendees cried out in horrified alarm about the idea of militants running around on their own: "Without the sanction of the Central Committee?"

As Miéville writes, "How easy to forget that people do not await permission to move." 

All those endless Russian revolutionary meetings are easy to mock. But they're also an indication of serious thinking about serious matters, of an uncertain future that could still have been shaped, of a moment in history when history itself rested in tedium around tables. 

The moment passed, taking many hopes, dreams, and lives with it. A master at the art of leadership, Lenin – the man who'd be forever set in memorial stone – created a rock of a country in 1917. And it would take decades for Russians to chisel their way out. 

 
 
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