Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge…

Proletariat of the World, Unite!


2017 sees the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution that ushered in nearly a century of Soviet rule in Russia and its satellites and annexed territories, while its aftershocks still reverberate through the world today. It’s a period about which I know very little – I’m more aware of mid-20th century history as it relates to the USSR than I am about the period just before and after the revolution. So I have decided to set myself a little challenge to read myself into this period of history during the centenary year.


I’m going for a mix of factual and fiction, and since several of these books are monsters in terms of size, my list is pretty short. However, I’ve tried to come up with a selection that will show me the Revolution through the eyes of contemporaries, both supporters and opponents, and also retrospectively, through history, biography and fiction. I’ve also tried to select books that are considered to be amongst the most important written on the subject, even though I expect some of them will be pretty tough going.


Here’s my initial list (in no particular order), which might be subject to change or additions as I go along…

history-of-the-russian-revolutionHistory of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (history)

Regarded by many as among the most powerful works of history ever written, this book offers an unparalleled account of one of the most pivotal and hotly debated events in world history. This book reveals, from the perspective of one of its central actors, the Russian Revolution’s profoundly democratic, emancipatory character.

animal-farmAnimal Farm by George Orwell (fiction)

“All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

This well-loved tale is, of course, a satire on the Soviet Communist system that still remains a powerful warning despite the changes in world politics since Animal Farm was first published.

memoirs-of-a-revolutionaryMemoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (memoir)

Victor Serge was an anarchist who initially supported the Russian Revolution. He was also a writer of rare integrity, who left behind a remarkable eyewitness record in fiction, journalism, and above all his masterwork, Memoirs of a Revolutionary. In it he tells the story of how the Revolution unfolded, swept up an entire nation, and eventually failed.

blood-red-snow-whiteBlood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgewick (fiction)

When writer Arthur Ransome leaves his unhappy marriage in England and moves to Russia to work as a journalist, he has little idea of the violent revolution about to erupt. Unwittingly, he finds himself at its center, tapped by the British to report back on the Bolsheviks even as he becomes dangerously, romantically entangled with Trotsky’s personal secretary.


ten-days-that-shook-the-worldTen Days that Shook the World by John Reed (journalism)

John Reed’s eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution. A contemporary journalist writing in the first flush of revolutionary enthusiasm, he gives a gripping record of the events in Petrograd in November 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks finally seized power. Reed’s account is the product of passionate involvement and remains an unsurpassed classic of reporting.

doctor-zhivagoDoctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (fiction)

This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it.

a-peoples-tragedyA People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (history)

Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People’s Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of the Revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased.

november-1916November 1916 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (fictionalised history)

The month of November 1916 in Russia was outwardly quiet—the proverbial calm before the storm—but beneath the placid surface, society seethed fiercely.With masterly and moving empathy, through the eyes of both historical and fictional protagonists, Solzhenitsyn unforgettably transports us to that time and place—the last of pre-Soviet Russia.


the-white-guardThe White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (fiction)

Drawing closely on Bulgakov’s personal experiences of the horrors of civil war, The White Guard takes place in Kiev, 1918, a time of turmoil and suffocating uncertainty as the Bolsheviks, Socialists and Germans fight for control of the city. It tells the story of the Turbins, a once-wealthy Russian family, as they are forced to come to terms with revolution and a new regime.

Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen

I can’t find an existing one that seems to be accepted as definitive and relatively unbiased, so I’m leaving this blank at the moment in the hopes that a new one may be published during the centenary. However, if anyone knows of a good one, please let me know. (Lenin the Dictator was published during the year, so I went for it.)

* * * * * * *

Should be fun! Well… maybe not fun, exactly, but… er… interesting. Or something.

* * * * * * *

If anyone feels like joining in, I’d be more than happy to do an occasional round-up post linking to reviews. Just in case, I’ve drawn up an extensive list of rules, which must be strictly adhered to. Are you ready?



1. Read whatever you like, whenever you like, if you like. Or watch a film. Or don’t.

* * * * * * *

Seriously, my list is history heavy because as you know I enjoy reading heavy history. But it’s not to everyone’s taste, so if you prefer to read entirely fiction, or fiction and some memoirs, or watch movies or documentaries, or anything at all really, then that’s great. I’m also not setting any targets (for you or me) in terms of how many books to read, and no deadlines of any kind. The only “rules” I would suggest are, firstly, that you let me know in the comments if you decide to join in; and, secondly, that, if you do, you tag any relevant WordPress post as RRRchallenge (and for Tweets, #RRRchallenge). That way, I’ll be able to pick up any posts when I do a summary. If you’re not on WordPress or Twitter, then a comment on this or any other post of mine will have the same effect.


I’m also not restricting the time period. Personally I’m interested in learning more about the period from before the revolution (roughly 1890) up to the 1930s because that’s when I know least about, but if anyone wants to read about Stalin or the post-WW2 period, or the end of the USSR, or even Putin’s Russia, then feel free. And lastly, don’t feel under any pressure to join in at all! I won’t be offended… well, not enough to declare war on you anyway, (though I may sing the Red Flag to you which, frankly, would be worse).

* * * * * * *

putin-democracyPEACE, LAND, BREAD!

96 thoughts on “Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge…

  1. Wow, what an I interesting challenge. It’s been quite a few years since I read the Bulgakov but remember enjoying it. Also John Reed’s book. Hmm, can I take on another challenge this year….?

    • Of course you can! Just a tiny, little one… 😉 I haven’t read any Bulgakov – in fact, I’m woefully under-read when it comes to Russia, and I’m afraid the history side won’t leave me too much time for a lot of fiction, but I’ll see how I get on and maybe try to fit in one or two more…

  2. I’m not sure what it says about me as a person that the first thing I thought was “Oh! What fun!” haha I must recommend one more hefty tome for your list – Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime by Richard Pipes is really quite excellent, covering from the conclusion of the Revolution through the death of Lenin. I personally loved Pipes’s writing so much that I wrote him a fan letter. His chapter on totalitarianism, contrasting and comparing communism, fascism, and national socialism is genuinely fascinating. So, you know, if you’re looking at your list and thinking, “Wow what I really need is another 500 pages”, Pipes gets my recommendation. 😀 Good luck on your challenge!!

  3. Nice to see a picture of Putin before the plastic surgery, there 😉 Well, I like Russians and I like revolutions so this should be fun! I’d be interested to know if there is a definitive Lenin biography, by the way – keeps your eyes peeled!

  4. What a fascinating challenge, FictionFan! And I think you’ve chosen some excellent books to help you learn a little more about that time. I’ll be very interested in what you think of your reading, and of what you learn. Looking forward to your posts on the topic!

    • I don’t usually focus on one period like this, so I hope my butterfly mind can cope – but it should be interesting. Unfortunately, every book on the subject is nearly as massive as the country! Oh well…!!

  5. I’ve read quite a few of these already, and your other choices look interesting. I can’t think of a really good biography of Lenin either, but if I come across one I’ll let you know. You might like to add some of Ransome’s own writing about Russia – The Crisis in Russia, Six Weeks in Russia and The Truth about Russia and numerous articles for the British press – all very well written by a man who was there.

    • Only Animal Farm will be a re-read for me – I don’t really enjoy Russian writers as you know. But the non-fiction stuff all sounds intriguing, if hard-going. I shall have a secondary list just in case, so I’ll add some Ransome onto it… 🙂

  6. This challenge looks sooo interesting!
    I did a Revolutionary module at university. We did the Egnlish (Glorious), the French and the American, but we never got a chance to do the Russian which sounds fascinating. Good luck with your challenge and I look forward to your thoughts on the books you read!

    • Sounds dangerous, teaching students how to revolt! 😉 We covered most of these briefly at high school but it was a) pretty superficial and b) a long time ago! I also know far less about the French than I feel I should… maybe one day! Thanks – I might need luck!

  7. Wow. I felt exhausted looking at that list of books. But you’ve covered some good ones.

    The only Marcus Segwick book I’ve read was My Swordhand Is Singing. Loved it.

    • Haha! I know – I’ll have to do some weight training before I pick some of them up! I haven’t read any Marcus Sedgewick but I’ve heard lots of good things about him, so I’m hoping that will be more palatable than a lot of the other ones…

  8. A great list – Doctor Zhivago in particular is one of those books that stays with you for life.
    If you did want to extend your challenge into the post-Lenin period, I would recommend At the court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore, which provides a spyhole into Stalin’s wild and crazy personal world.

    • Actually, another Bulgakov makes very good reading if you want a satirical view of the wheeler-dealers who took over Moscow during the early years of Lenin’s rule: Heart of A Dog. It’s available in Penguin Classics in a very readable translation by James Meek.

      • Funnily enough, I’ve read a book about Dr Zhivago even though I’ve never read the book itself, and it seems as if it was pretty autobiographical in a lot of ways. Fascinating publication history too, which itself says a lot about working under the Soviet regime. Thanks for the recommendations – I shall have a secondary list just in case, so I’ll add them to that and see how I get on…

  9. Reblogged this on Read Noir and commented:
    Reblogged. Feeling lazy. I wanted to do a blog on this subject because I recently heard a revisionist view of the 1917 Russian Revolution that was a defence of Tsarism. I’d just read that Hobsbawm said, “nobody could defend Tsarism”, but twenty years on, that’s what some are trying to do. So here are some great books that set the record straight thanks to Fictionfan, and be prepared in 2017 for the revisionists.

    • Thanks for the reblog! 😀 Haha! Who knows – maybe by the time I’ve read all these books, I’ll be arguing for Tsarism myself! Unlikely, though… but I may well be arguing for shorter books… 😉

  10. When you said “short list,” I thought you meant maybe 4 books or so. What was I thinking?! I’ve been considering reading Dr. Zhivago this year. Do you already know which translation to read? I can’t make up my mind. I do have an old, inherited copy sitting at home, but it doesn’t have an ISBN number, so I have a feeling it might be an abridged version. While I can’t part with it, I can’t quite bring myself to read it either, because who wants to read a shortened version?

    • Haha! I’m thinking 4 books would have been plenty – but you know me and lists… 😉 My researches suggest the Richard Pevear translation is the most highly regarded… but that may well be because it’s the most recent. I have a different one – Hayward, I think the name is – but I may invest in the Pevear or at least sample it and see which one I prefer. The translation can make all the difference, can’t it? Well, it seems to come in at around 500 pages so if your edition has less than that it probably is abridged… I hope you do read it this year – it would be fun to compare impressions!

  11. We read Animal Farm in high school, and I expect most people have seen the movie version of Doctor Zhivago. The others on your list, of course, are as yet untouched by me. What an interesting challenge you’ve come up with for yourself. It seems to me that our educations shouldn’t cease when we’re out of school, right?!

    • Animal Farm is the only one I’ve read before, and I still haven’t really got over poor Boxer! Haha! I’ve learned far, far more history from just reading than I ever did either at school, or university where I theoretically studied it for two years! If only I’d paid more attention… 😉

  12. What a great challenge! You’ve got a really good varied list to – though I would really recommend adding ‘We’ by Zamyatin as a companion to ‘1984’. It was written first and is incredibly similar – but this version was written by a Russian, so it’s great to see the two books side by side.
    I look forward to following your progress and learning what you discover!

    • Ah, now “We” is actually sneaking onto my Classics Club list to replace one that I kinda decided against. It was recommended to me by another blogger ages ago in terms of sci-fi classics, but I didn’t realise it was that kind of dystopian – intriguing! I’ll try to make sure I read it this year – thanks!

  13. Well, I will think on this. I’ve already read and reviewed the Sedgwick, which is an wonderfully accessible fun read, and as an Orwell nut, have read Animal Farm lots, but not reviewed, I might use it as an excuse for an Orwell re-read..and i read the 10 days that shook the world in my Russian teens and twenties, and it may still be on the shelves………ditto various Bulgakovs…..they could make a re-read…….and I have vague memories of reading the Serge………..or at least, meaning to read the Serge……..well, I might, you know…..I will keep you posted…………….

    • Of course, you don’t have to go by my list – you may well know of other Russians who were writing about that period. I was actually surprised at how little relevant fiction I could find… though no doubt censorship played a part in that. Still, with the length of all the non-fiction, I won’t have time to read vast amounts of fiction! Whose idea was this anyway…?!

        • Yes, I should probably read a bit more about the pre-revolutionary period – another period I know zipadeedoodah about! I have a massive Robert Massie bio of Peter the Great I’ve never been able to face but thankfully I think that’s a bit too early…

    • Thank you! I haven’t read much Russian literature either, and haven’t kuch enjoyed the little I have read, in truth! But I’ll enjoy the non-fiction side, I hope, and maybe that’ll help me get into the fiction a bit more. I was thinking of adding a history of the Romanovs… I will if I find I have time… 🙂

  14. I have only read two books on your list Animal Farm and Dr Zhivago both many, many moons ago. I have learnt something though as I didn’t know that Arthur Ransome was in Russia at the time of the revolution! Have fun and learn loads 🙂

    • That’s one more than me! I’ve only read Animal Farm before, and still haven’t really got over poor Boxer! Thank you – it should be fun! Well, my type of fun, anyway… 😉

  15. What an interesting challenge! I’m tempted to join in but I have such a long TBR list already…maybe something on there can fit in with this! I recently read Anthony Marra’s Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which is Chechnya in the late 20th/early 21st century but was very eye-opening for me as to Soviet history.

    • I know – I have more than enough books too, but couldn’t resist doing something for the centenary. Just a pity all books about Russia seem to be so long!! I’m making up a secondary list of other USSR-related stuff just in case, so I’ll add the Marra to that – sounds fascinating! I’ve never properly understood the whole Chechnya thing…

      • No, I haven’t either so it was very eye-opening. I actually went on to read some of Tolstoy’s stories referenced by Marra so I’ve read a bit of Russian lit recently but completely skipped over the Revolution!

        • I actually couldn’t find much fiction set at or around the period of the revolution – lots of stuff with the Romanovs before it. Whether there’s loads and it’s just never been translated, or whether it’s just always been too dangerous for writers to address I don’t know… I’m hoping I might come across more as the year wears on.

    • Thank you – I’m hoping it’ll be fun! I suspect almost any book written before the Revolution would give some insight into why it happened – I know the couple of Tolstoys I’ve read definitely do, even though they’re about entirely different periods. But realistically I doubt if I’ll be able to fit in all Russian literature… 😉

    • Thank you! Ah, but the challenge is just to read any book(s) you like – it’s a kind of no-rules challenge! I look forward to seeing what ones you pick, if you get time to fit one or two in… 🙂

  16. What an interesting challenge. It makes me want to get back to Penelope Fitzgerald’s “The Beginning of Spring” even more now. I dropped it shortly after starting when a couple of library holds became available. The setting is 1913 Moscow and I was finding the politics more of interest than the actual story. I found my lack of knowledge in this area just stunning as well as embarrassing.

    Your fiction list would all be rereads for me except for the Sedgwick book. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    As an add on- A 5 star read for me back in 2014 was City of Thieves by David Benioff. It’s set during the siege of Leningrad so a later time than you’re looking for and another thing I knew shockingly little about. I describe it as one wicked black comedy. It’s definitely not one I would recommend to my mother. I don’t recall it being very educational about the politics of the period though I followed up later with some non-fiction.

    • I must say both those books sound great – my secondary list is soon going to be longer than my primary one! Thanks for the recommendations, especially for The Beginning of Spring – I found it surprisingly hard to find much fiction written about the period of the revolution – lots before it in the Romanov period, and lots afterwards once the USSR had become established, but not much in the narrow period of the revolution itself. I’m hoping I might stumble across more as the year goes on though. I’m hoping the Sedgewick will be good – I’ve heard lots of good things about him so fingers crossed… 🙂

      Do you blog, Anne? Your name’s not linking through…

      • No, no blog. I tried it for a short time and found it just wasn’t for me. These days, I just follow you and at least half your commenters around to alert me to books of interest. Crime fiction is my favorite but since I’ve gone digital, I’ve mixed things up quite a bit genre wise. Even if I had a local bookstore/library, they would never have a Penelope Fitzgerald for sale/loan. It took someone blogging about Booker winners to bring it to my attention. You and other reviewers deserve a lot of credit for my adventures outside crime fiction. My thanks too.

        Anyway, this post has motivated me to put The Beginning of Spring back into the rotation immediately. What I laughingly call a “rotation” is that every 5th book has to be a setting outside the US and western Europe. Crime fiction counts for this category and bonus points if it’s a translated work.

        • Well, thank you! I often think we bloggers are only talking to each other, so it’s nice to know there’s someone else out there reading our ramblings! Yes, when I started the blog, crime was my main focus too, but I’m so fed up with the “new Gone Girl” stuff that I seem to have moved more towards factual and fiction at the moment. Though my dislike of domestic thrillers has thrown me back into reading a lot of classic crime, and that’s been fun.

          I like your rotation! You sound like my type of person… nothing like a good system and maybe a list or two to add to the reading pleasure… 😉

  17. Film: ‘The Battleship Potemkin’ directed by Sergei Eisenstein
    Music: ‘The Year 1917’ (Shostakovich – Symphony No. 12) & ‘No More Heroes’ – The Stranglers
    History: ‘The Bolsheviks’ by Adam B. Ulam
    Fiction: ‘How the Steel Was Tempered’ by Nikolai Ostrovsky
    Food: Blinis
    Drink: Kvass
    Football: Moscow Dynamo

    • You definitely deserve a prize for managing to link Shostakovich and the Stranglers! I shall look up the history and fiction choices to see if they’re suitable for inclusion on the secondary list, but I fear football is banned! Too revolutionary! You could always do a guest post on The Battleship Potemkin… which sadly I always thought was about WW2… Please send the blinis…

      • ‘The Battleship Potemkin’

        Basically, the crew didn’t like the maggots in their food, so they started a revolution. Then the baddies shot a lot of people on the Odessa steps (no, not steppes!). Soon the red flag was fluttering atop the mainmast – quite effective in a black and white film. Long live Lenin and Trotsky! Long live the revolution!

  18. I love this idea! I will happily take any excuse to read more books on Revolutionary Russia so I’m definitely in. I can recommend the Orlando Figes book despite it having been the bane of my undergraduate studies!. I might give Dr Zhivago a crack but we’ll see how it goes. Good luck!

    • Hurrah! Welcome aboard, comrade! Oh that’s good to hear about the Figes – it’s quite a committment in terms of size, so it’s good to know it’s worth it! I look forward to seeing what books you pick… 😀

  19. I shall abstain, based solely on fear and a short attention span. I am truly an American. *sigh* I’m afraid they’re already hacking my thoughts, you see… Good luck to you, FF!

    • I’m afraid that Americans will doubtless find that learning Russian history is compulsory under Comrade Trump! I do hope they don’t make you learn the language too, tovarich!

      • I already feel like I’m trapped in one of those alternate history books! Trump doesn’t have a clue about history. All he reads is Twitter, so I think perhaps I’m safe…from Russian literature at least! Maybe I’ll be forced to have a bare chested pic of Putin though! Ugh!

  20. I’ve got the damn Brothers Karamazov on my to-read pile, but there won’t be a review of it on GTL. I’ve reached out to a few bloggers to see if they want to do a buddy read. *fingers crossed*

  21. Hello again. I’ve been thinking about your Herculean challenge and I wonder if you should start by reading (or rereading War and Peace) which was the buildup to the Revolution . . . It’s good, or perhaps– more to the point that a friend of mine commented “Too much war and not enough peace.” Best regards and courage in your endeavors!

    • Hmm… it is a good idea, but I truthfully don’t think I could bear to re-read it. It took me about three months to get through the last time, and the sad thing is almost none of it has stuck in my mind, even though I sorta enjoyed it while I was reading. Maybe I should watch the recent BBC adaptation…

  22. What an admirable challenge! Or should I say formidable?! My knowledge of Russian history is nil so thank you for providing a list a reads to start learning. Should I pick up one of these, I’ll be sure to return to let you know.

    • Ha – I think formidable might be closer! I’m more aware of mid-twentieth century Russian history, though only in a vague way, but I know nothing about the actual revolution. I’m looking forward to reading my way into it. Oh, yes, if you do get a chance to read any of these or any other books to do with that period, please do let me know! It would be nice to get a range of opinions rather than just my own! 😀

  23. That’s a terrific list. I’ve only read the Orwell – many years ago now, but it’s a book that stays in the mind for quite some time. Best of luck with your challenge. I hope you find it rewarding!

    • Thanks, Jacqui! Ha! Some of the history books have arrived now, and “brick” doesn’t begin to cover it, so it’ll be a relief to turn to fiction when I get the chance. But I’m looking forward to both… 🙂

  24. Don’t wish for tsarism. My grandparents, their relatives and thousands of other Jewish people had to flee anti-Semitic pogroms under the tsar in the early 1900s. Also, their home country, Poland, was occupied by imperial Russia. Only after WWII after the tsar was toppled was Poland again an independent country.
    Also, there are no communists leading Russia now. Putin is not one! He is a nationalist and very wealthy, tied to billionaires and to right politicians in Europe. The Soviet Union was overturned in the early 1990s and it reverted to being Russia once again, and the republics of the USSR were no longer part of Russia.

    • Yes, tsarism sounded like a particularly bad form of monarchy even in comparison to the other European monarchies. Just a shame that when they all got rid of their monarchs, so many of them turned to totalitarian regimes of one kind or another. But it lasted so much longer in Russia than elsewhere, and even though it’s now nominally a democracy, I’m afraid it still seems to have some way to go. Pity, because it’s such a great country, and has produced some great literature and art. Thanks for sharing your family’s own experiences – it brings a human touch to the dry history learning. 😀

  25. Well, my grandparents and their relatives and friends were for the ouster of the tsar because of how awful life was. Also, there was compulsory and very long military service, and Jewish people had to serve longer. So they all hated that system and rooted for its end.
    Today, there are problems in Russia and much repression. Women demonstrators a few years ago were put in jail for a few years for protests. They don’t treat dissenters well. And gay rights! Putin is awful about that.

    • Yes, I think there were very good reasons for the Revolution at the time. It’s just sad that things were just as bad afterwards, maybe even worse under Stalin. It looked hopeful for a while around the time of Glasnost, but Putin has taken them back to dictatorship in all but name. The world seems to be regressing in general at the moment, sadly.

  26. I just read Lenin on the Train – about Lenin’s journey back to Russia from exile in Switzerland to foment the second October Revolution, with other socialists from exile. There’s also lots of background about the government of the time from the earlier revolution in the year. I thought Catherine Merridale strikes a good balance between scholarliness and readability – it is well paced and a good read even with lots of footnotes. I’d just realised I could borrow it from the library when it came up on a Kindle offer for £1.99 (sadly ended). Are you going to continue this challenge into 2018?

    • Interesting – I’ve seen mixed reviews of it, but I’ve wondered whether it’s the kind of book where you have to know at least a bit of background to really get into it. I shall add it to my list of possibles. I’ve almost run out of steam on the factual side now so I’ll probably wrap that up round about Feb, when I expect to have finished one more history that’s due out next month, and a bio of Rasputin that I’m looking forward to. But I haven’t managed to read much fiction at all, so I’m toying with extending that side of the challenge for at least a few extra months. Or possibly I’ll finish the challenge as such and just mix the books I still want to read into the general TBR. Frankly, I think my poor readers have had more than enough of my Russian trip… 😉

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