For my next review I am taking on a nonfiction book, and a rather timely one at that. Perhaps better known for his fantasy novels, author China Mieville is also a devoted socialist activist in the United Kingdom and in a nod to his real world interests released this account of the 1917 Russian Revolution a few years backf. What interested me about this title was that not only is it by an author I have enjoyed in a very different context, but he (like myself) has political sympathies that lay with the ideals and aspirations of the revolution despite being critical of its outcomes. I also happen to know quite a bit about this topic from my university studies and was curious to see his take on it.
The book details the events leading up to the Bolshevik uprising on October 26, 1917 that ultimately paved the way for the creation of the Soviet Union. It began, as these histories often do, with the 1905 uprisings against tsarist rule, the resulting period of reform and brutal counter-reform, and culminates in a month by month recap of the tumultuous year of 1917 that includes the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March and the Bolshevik-led uprising at the end of October. Centered in the capitol city Petrograd, the action focuses primarily on the events there and the struggles between and within the various groups vying for control and influence. To note, Mieville acknowledges in the introduction that while he has his “villains and heroes” in this story he does strive to be fair in order to present a valuable story to people of all persuasions.
The style and substance of this style was honestly quite impressive. Given the scope of the topic this was by necessity a rather breezy account, limited as it was to 300-something pages, but he definitely made them count. Mielville was able to cover all the highlights enough to give the casual reader an understanding of the events and its players while establishing a historical context that captured the chaos, confusion, and often zealous optimism of the times. That he kept this coherent while moving the story forward at a consistent pace is truly commendable. While not intended to be a source for scholarly endeavors, this work was nonetheless quite thoroughly researched and based entirely upon events and quotation within the documented, historic record. (As an aside, his reference section is quite extensive and contains several sources I recognize and have cited from my own studies). The author’s goal was to provide a resource for readers seeking a more casual understanding and by this measure, the book was most definitely a success. I would also say that most readers (with the predictable exceptions) would say that Mieville was indeed fair in his account.
As for my more personal impressions, I really enjoyed this read and found that I was still able to get a lot of it from a philosophical and historical perspective despite being well versed in the subject matter. One of the biggest points of interest here for me was some of the more personal glimpses into the people involved. The well known figures like Lenin and Trotsky are always endlessly fascinating individuals to read about, as was Alexander Kerensky and his desperate attempts to navigate a power sharing arrangement between the Provisional Government and Socialist dominated Soviet committees. What really inspired my side reading for this book, however, were two women about whom I knew considerably less; Maria Spiridonova and Alexandra Kollontai. In brief, Spiridonova gained prominence following her 1906 assassination of a reviled security chief know for his brutal policies and affiliation with a far-right group defined by their embrace of the Tsar’s more authoritarian tendencies and enthusiasm for pogroms. The act itself, followed by harrowing tales of her abuse and torture in police custody, made Spiridonova a celebrated and influential figure in the growing anti-tsarist movement for many years to follow. Kollontai, on the other hand, was a prominent Bolshevik activist, member of the Petrograd Soviet’s Executive Committee, and one of the first in the party to openly endorse Lenin’s radical positions regarding opposition to the Provisional Government and Russia’s ruinous involvement in World War One. She is also considered an influential figure in shaping contemporary concepts of feminism, sexuality, and women’s liberation.
And that is where I am going to start wrapping up my review before I get carried away on historical tangents on the significance of WWI in arming the revolution and the morbid fascination of seeing the ways in which all aspects of the Russian society and state splintered into heavily armed rival factions. Suffice to say, this was a really engaging read for me and an excellent refresher on a topic that I was once very much immersed in. I suppose this isn’t necessarily a book for everyone, especially those more interested in the author’s fantasy novels and less so his politics, but I most certainly would recommend it to someone seeking an approachable source for learning about this part of history.