October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville (2017) (read in 2017)
Published by marco on
Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.
This is a thoroughly researched retelling of the Russian revolution, as written by a master of Science Fiction and Fantasy. It takes the reader from February 1917 to October/November 2017. There follows a bit of an epilogue, sketching the following decades roughly, but that’s not the focus of the book.
The focus is on how the initial coup of Nicholas II transformed over nearly a year to the Bolshevik revolution. The summer sees a cavalcade of famous names, each placed in history: Lenin, Trotsky, Maslov, Kolchak, Semenov, Stalin, Sukhanov … the list goes on an on.
Allegiances whipsaw, bolsheviks gain in power over the summer, the second revolution in October was a near-inevitability in hindsight. A very interesting and very well-written unsnarling of an incredibly complicated and singularly important sequence of events. The hopefulness and solidarity of the socialists shines through at nearly every moment. They would, in the end, win for a only a few shining months before the clouds of totalitarianism descended. Highly recommended.
“In its wake come more reading circles, cells of agitators, gatherings of the variously like-minded, aghast at a world of ruthless, exploitative capital and the subordination of need to profit. The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.”
“The Petrograd police blocked the bridges. But the gods of weather showed solidarity in the form of this brutal winter. The streets were lined with thick snowpiles, and the great Neva itself remained frozen. The demonstrators descended in their thousands from the embankments onto the ice. They walked across the face of the waters.”
“Alongside such appeals to the war’s new legitimacy, the Coalition Government knew that its international standing, certainly among the Allies, was heavily dependent on whether it was seen to be doing its bit to win the war – and doing so on those Allies’ decidedly unsocialist terms. Some were clear-sighted that this was a contradiction, and, continuing to laud the anti-imperialist necessity of the war’s continuation, they were entirely cynical.”
“Either way, it is a curio of the moment that hard-left advocates of ‘all power to the soviets’ were delegated by a soviet opponent to defend the Soviet currently arguing furiously against taking the power they wanted it to take.”
“Then came a sadism so startling it stunned the left. ‘The bony hand of hunger and national destitution will seize by the throat the friends of the people.’ Those ‘friends of the people’ he dreamed into the grasp of predatory skeletal fingers were socialists.”
“Lenin suggested Trotsky for commissar of the interior. But Trotsky foresaw that enemies on the right would attack him – as a Jew. ‘Of what importance are such trifles?’ Lenin snapped. ‘There are still a good many fools left,’ Trotsky replied. ‘Surely we don’t keep step with fools?’ ‘Sometimes’, said Trotsky, ‘one has to make some allowance for stupidity. Why create additional complications at the outset?’”
“There, their world collapsing, the sullen embers of the Provisional Government still glowed.”
“With all the seriousness in the world, like burnt-out matches telling grim stories of the conflagration they will soon start, the ashes of Russia’s Provisional Government debated which of them to make dictator.”
“The minister Semion Maslov of the Right SRs screamed down the phone line to a Duma representative, who relayed his words to the hushed house. ‘The democracy sent us into the Provisional Government: we didn’t want the appointments, but we went. Yet now … when we are being shot, we are not supported … Of course we will die. But my final words will be: “Contempt and damnation to the democracy which knew how to appoint us but was unable to defend us.”’”
“When the cheering subsided, Trotsky himself rose to respond to Martov. ‘A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification,’ he said. ‘What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups which have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!’”
“Russia gains peace but loses swathes of land and population, some of its most fertile regions, and vast industrial and financial resources. In these vacated territories, the Central Powers install counter-revolutionary puppet regimes.”
“David Francis, the American ambassador to Russia, writes of his concern that ‘if these damned Bolsheviks are permitted to remain in control of the country it will not only be lost to its devoted people but Bolshevik rule will undermine all governments and be a menace to society itself’.”
“Churchill is particularly obsessed with the ‘nameless beast’, the ‘foul baboonery of Bolshevism’, and perfectly explicit that it is his greatest enemy. ‘Of all the tyrannies in history, the Bolshevist tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading,’ he declares in 1919. ‘It is sheer humbug to pretend that it is not far worse than German militarism.’ As the war ends, he publicises his intention to ‘Kill the Bolshie, Kiss the Hun’.”
“The Allies pour troops into Russia, screwing down an embargo, stopping food from reaching the starving population of Soviet Russia. And they funnel funds to the Whites, no matter how unsavoury – supporting a dictatorship under Alexander Kolchak, and regarding Grigory Semenov, whose Cossack forces unleash a reign of terror in Siberia, as, in the words of one American observer, ‘tolerably severe’.”
Plus ça change.
“And there is no doubt that its reach and depth expand beyond control; that some agents of the Cheka, the political police, seduced by personal power, sadism or the degradation of the moment, are thugs and murderers unconstrained by political conviction and wielding new authority. There are no shortage of testimonials as to their dreadful acts.”
“Under such unrelenting pressures, these are months and years of unspeakable barbarity and suffering, starvation, mass death, the near-total collapse of industry and culture, of banditry, pogroms, torture and cannibalism”
“Major General William Graves, who commanded US forces in Siberia, considers himself ‘well on the side of safety when I say that the anti-Bolsheviks killed one hundred people in Eastern Siberia, to every one killed by the Bolsheviks’.”
Despite this, the US would support the other, more-evil side. And then they’d blame bolshevism when it fails to flourish despite their onslaught.
“Threats against the regime multiply, and Stalin consolidates his rule. As crisis grips the world economy, he inaugurates the ‘great change’. ‘The tempo must not be reduced!’ he announces in 1931. This is his first Five-Year Plan. ‘We are fifty or 100 years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.’”
“Lenin rather startlingly allows as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready’ for revolution. He wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of its situation’ could be blamed”
“In his short piece ‘Our Revolution’, written in January 1923 in response to Sukhanov’s memoir, Lenin rather startlingly allows as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready’ for revolution. He wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of its situation’ could be blamed for ‘fling[ing] itself into a struggle that would offer it at least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilisation that were somewhat unusual’. It is not absurd to argue that the ground-down of Russia had no real choice but to act, on the chance that in so doing they might alter the very parameters of the situation. That things might thereby improve.”
“The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from that plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the later bad hope of Socialism in One Country, is a baleful result of recasting necessity as virtue.”
“It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.”
“Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.”
“October, for an instant, 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 decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.”
“The revolutionaries want a new country in a new world, one they cannot see but believe they can build.”
“Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not always be followed by night.”
“By the Forest Shacks are the points, the switches onto hidden tracks through wilder history. The question for history is not only who should be driving the engine, but where. The Prokopoviches have something to fear, and they police these suspect, illegal branch lines, all the while insisting they do not exist. Onto such tracks the revolutionaries divert their train, with its contraband cargo, unregisterable, supernumerary, powering for a horizon, an edge as far away as ever and yet careering closer. Or so it looks from the liberated train, in liberty’s dim light.”
Two books in the list of references that looked interesting:
- Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (1930). Justly celebrated as a towering, vivid, historically vital work.
- Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The February Revolution, Petrograd: 1917 (1981). Outstanding. The definitive telling of the early days of 1917.