History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

All Power to the Soviets!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Written in three parts some years after the Revolution of 1917, Trotsky sets out to give a detailed history of the events of that year, combined with his analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment in time. He admits to his own bias, but claims that he has rigorously fact-checked, including only what can be verified in written records. In order to stop the book reading like an autobiography or memoir, he refers to himself in the third person throughout. I ended up with 24 A4 pages of notes on this 900-page book, so will be summarising and paraphrasing brutally to keep this review even close to a readable length. Given the complexity of the subject, it’s highly likely that a different reader would disagree with my interpretations or emphases.

Trotsky begins by giving a fascinating explanation of why revolutions arise, and how they differ from other forms of changes of government, even violent ones. His position is that the involvement of the masses is key – that a tipping point is reached when people suddenly feel they cannot tolerate the existing regime any longer. Therefore the masses create the demagogue to lead them once that point is reached, rather than the demagogue being the starting point. This section, and other sections where Trotsky talks in general terms on political theory, are excellent – intelligent, concise and clear; and the translation is remarkable, especially for such a complex subject. The translator, Max Eastman, knew Trotsky and was well aware of the events under discussion, which perhaps makes his translation transcend the literal.

Riot on Nevsky Prospekt, Petrograd July 4th 1917, when troops of the Provisional Government opened fire with machine guns.

Next Trotsky explains the historical background which brought Russia to the tipping point. His argument, in summary, is that for geographical and cultural reasons Russia was a backwards nation, politically and economically, so that, when it came under pressure from the encroaching Western powers to industrialise and modernise, it did so by jumping some of the steps that those more developed countries had already gone through. He calls this the law of combined development. This sudden industrialisation led to skewed figures in terms of the percentage of the population employed in huge industrial concerns – this new industrial class, the proletariat, forming an ideal environment for revolutionary ideas to ferment. And the increased poverty and suffering brought on by the lengthy war – an imperialist war – sped up the natural progression towards the revolutionary tipping point. At all stages, Trotsky’s argument is that the pressure for revolution came from the masses upwards, and that the Bolsheviks merely gave guidance to the process of insurrection through providing a Marxist-based political education to the workers.

Trotsky next speaks of the Romanovs and their supporters, and it’s here that any pretence of impartiality or balance disappears entirely. Trotsky’s words positively drip hatred and venom. He criticises their intelligence, understanding, lack of compassion, cruelty. He compares them to other monarchies overthrown in earlier revolutions, specifically the French and English, but ranging widely and knowledgeably over centuries of history. His anger and scorn come through in every word, and, while the various overthrown Kings are shown as weak and contemptible, he puts much of the blame on the Queens in virulent, misogynistic prose.

The whole establishment of the historical, political and philosophical background to the Revolution is excellent, so long as the reader keeps Trotsky’s bias firmly in mind at all times. The following sections then go into an extremely detailed blow-by-blow account of the period from February – the beginning of the 1917 insurrection – to October, when the Bolsheviks finally came to power. I found these parts much harder to follow, because Trotsky assumes a good deal of familiarity with the political stance of the many factions and personalities involved, and therefore often doesn’t explain them. I found I was constantly referring to the lists at the back of the book, which give brief summaries of each of the parties and explain the unfamiliar terms that appear frequently in the text. These lists are very good in that they are concise and focused, but I still found myself confused and glazing over at many points. As the book goes on (and on), I gradually grew to have a greater understanding of all these factions and their leaders, so that the last third was much clearer to me than the middle section when they are referred to first. If I had the strength of mind, I’m sure that a re-read of those middle chapters would be much easier, but on the whole, by the end, I felt I had gleaned enough to understand the overall progress of the Revolution even if some of the detail had passed over my head.

In terms of the writing itself, there’s a real mix. When Trotsky is detailing the more technical stuff, it can be very dry with long, convoluted sentences full of Marxist jargon, which require concentration. At other times, mainly when talking of Stalin or the bourgeoisie, he is sarcastic and often quite humorous. The Romanovs and imperialists in general bring out his anger and contempt. These are all written in the past tense. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he drifts into present tense, becoming eloquent and, I admit, inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, and rising almost to the point of poeticism at times. I would find my critical faculties had switched off, and become suddenly aware of tears in my eyes – the power of the demagogue reaching beyond speech onto paper, indeed! These passages break up the more factual stuff, and remind the reader that Trotsky was an observer, a participant and a passionate leader in the events he’s describing.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

By the time Trotsky was writing this, Lenin was of course dead, and Stalin had come to power. Trotsky appears to have three major aims in addition to recounting the history: firstly, to show that he himself played a crucial and central role in events; secondly, to prove that while he and Lenin may have disagreed on some practical issues, their political philosophies had been closely aligned; and thirdly, and leading on from the previous two, that Stalin’s attempt to re-write history must be exposed and repudiated. Stalin, Trotsky suggests, is deliberately changing history as it relates to Lenin and Trotsky, in order to justify his own policies – which, by extension, Trotsky believes are out of line with the Marxist-Leninist origins of the Revolution.

Again, he often assumes more understanding of the variations between Marxism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism than this poor reader has, and it began to feel like those endless nights down the pub in the ’70s when my fellow leftist unionists (usually the men) would start arguing over abstruse points of political ideology and calling each other names, generally after their fifth pint or so. It all seemed rather… trivial, though that feels like an inappropriate word given the many millions of people who have suffered and died under the yoke of these ideologies over decades. But Trotsky’s sycophancy over Lenin, self-aggrandisement, and sarcasm and spite towards Stalin ensured that any lingering affection I may have harboured for the idea of a socialist revolution dissipated long before I reached the end of the book. Power undoubtedly corrupts and I couldn’t quite see that the leadership of the USSR was much improvement over the admittedly hideous Romanovs in the end.

A fascinating book, not by any means an easy read, but certainly an enlightening and worthwhile one. It gets the full five-stars from me, though I freely admit the fifth one may be due purely to the euphoria I felt on finishing.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Modern Classics.

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78 thoughts on “History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky

  1. You are so right: however high-minded in its ideals, however egalitarian in intent, Communism descended into in-fighting and power struggles, like so many other ideologies. Have you read anything by Alexandra Kollontai? Now she was an interesting fighter for women’s rights and has been airbrushed quite a bit out of Soviet history.

    • Yes, I got a little tired of Trotsky passing the buck to the “masses” too, as if they were one entity with a single opinion. It began to sound like a small child with jam round his mouth denying he was the one who ate the doughnut. No, I haven’t – her name is mentioned in this, but Trotsky doesn’t say anything about her other than that she was present occasionally. I had put her on my long list of people to look up, so thanks for the recommendation – I’ll try to fit something of hers in…

      • ‘Present occasionally…’ indeed! The fact that she became increasingly critical of the way Lenin and the others were heading meant that she was severely sidelined. Plus no one was interested in women’s views, despite women’s right to work as hard as men!

        • Although Trotsky paid lip service to the women’s side of the movement occasionally, I fear I came away with the impression that he was hideously misogynistic – not just about the Queens which might have been understandable, but also about the women who took part in the actual insurrection. I thought I might like Trotsky, on the grounds that Stalin hated him which seems like a bit of a recommendation, but actually I disliked him more the longer I read. Seemed to me he was narcissistic, bent the truth to suit his own legend, was racist, anti-semitic and misogynistic – in fact, I kept imagining what he’d have been tweeting… “Don’t believe Stalin – FAKE NEWS! Sad and bad comrade! Make Russia Great Again” 😉

  2. Yep – definitely going to have a crack at this one! My historical and political knowledge of this subject isn’t great, but you have prepared me for the difficult bits and I can always skip anything that gets too complicated 🙂 Well done, FF, this can’t have been an easy one to get through, let alone write such an informative review. A big pat on the back and even bigger glass of wine for you! 😀

    • Woohoo! Trust me, it never gets as incomprehensible as old Finnegan, so you should find it a doddle! I must say that, apart from the long bit in the middle where he talks endlessly about people and parties without explaining them, I found it a surprisingly enjoyable read, though I could only cope with a few pages a day. Sometimes his writing is great, and boy, does he know his history, even if you have to correct for bias! And it was intereresting to get the story from the horse’s mouth before beginning to read what Western (imperialist!) historians have to say on the subject… 😀 Up the revolution! I may have to watch re-runs of Citizen Smith now…

      • This is what draws me to it – he was there and, even accounting for bias (which at least he sounds fairly honest about), it is surely a far better perspective than an ‘outsiders’ account. I love history and politics so am really looking forward to it!
        Haha – love Wolfie Smith – Power to the people! Long live the Tooting Popular Front!

        • Certainly you get a real impression of what it must have been like, and how utterly confusing it must have been with all these different factions, and words like bourgeoisie and proletariat being bandied around, which I bet the vast majority of the ‘masses’ didn’t understand! Brief pause for some Tudors, and then I have another 900-pager on the RR, this time written recently. Phew! I need a beret!

  3. I can’t help thinking of the aftermath of the French Revolution. As you said, power corrupts.
    Well done on finishing this one! This will go on my ISRTBPW list (I Should Read This But Probably Won’t).

    • Yes, I struggle to think of any of these revolutions that turned out well. Trotsky clearly thought the French Revolution had been a huge success though – he was quite blasé about all the deaths – a price worth paying (so long as it wasn’t him obviously). I did enjoy this, but I’m weird that way – it’s by no means a fun read! 😉

      • he was quite blasé about all the deaths

        I think that with all revolutions you have to calculate in all the deaths and other human costs that would have been incurred — through starvation, persecution, etc. — had the revolution not happened. It’s always a bit of a held-together-by-sticky-tape calculation, of course, but the exercise is not, I think, pointless.

        • Yes, I think there’s truth in that, and also you have to be willing to take the long view. In the end, I suspect I feel the French Revolution was overall a good thing, though it was a pity they couldn’t change direction without the need for so much blood to be spilt. The Russian Revolution on the other hand appears to have achieved nothing for the ‘masses’ and even less for the peasants, and Stalin alone was surely responsible for far more deaths than would have happened otherwise. I think it’s partly that the active killing is somehow more shocking than the passive deaths from poverty, though I accept that from the point of view of the victim the difference is probably moot.

          • That’s roughly my feeling about those two revolutions, too. The other one I was thinking about was the Cuban Revolution where, despite a number of the (alas customary) gratuitous executions of the losers, at a guess the death rate actually went down that year, bearing in mind the savagery of the Batista regime.

            • Yes, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Cuban one too, though I know very little about the beginnings of it. But I remember long ago when I worked in the NHS, when at that time Cuba had one doctor for every 600 patients, and we had 1 for 1200. It seemed to me they were at least trying to prioritise the right things…

            • They still have that very high ratio. And, last I heard, their disaster teams are the best in the world — after Hurricane Katrina, they offered to send teams here to save lives but were, of course, refused by the Il Buce administration.

            • Ha – yes, can’t have these commies running around loose all over America… though they’re probably more welcome under the new administration… 😉

  4. This one sounds fascinating, FictionFan! I don’t see how Trotsky could be impartial about the events of the revolution, and their background, but what an interesting perspective. I often wonder how we can know about these underlying patterns, and their inevitable result, and not see it in current events. For that reason, if for no other reason, it’s worth understanding these events. I once read (for my graduate studies program) Crane Brinton’s The Anatomy of Revolution, that looks at this revolution, the French revolution, etc., to talk about how these events come about. I found that interesting, too.

    • Fascinating is definitely the word for it, Margot! I found his use of third person when referring to himself felt totally false – it certainly didn’t make me feel he was being any less biased or, indeed, narcissistic, but some of the writing is really powerful. I had to try really hard to keep comparisons to today’s politics out of the review, but I’m afraid I was drawing them all the time I was reading – some of it was scarily reminiscent of current events. The Anatomy of Revolution sounds fascinating – I shall put it on my “extras” list and see if I can perhaps fit it in sometime later in the year.

    • Ha! Funnily enough, I enjoyed this fifty million times more than poor Moby! Which, now I realise it, I find quite worrying! 😉 I shall try to tempt you with some of the fiction instead, maybe – I think I’m going to get evangelical about The Tsar of Love and Techno…

  5. Wow, I have little to say after such an enlightening and fantastic review! You managed to make me very curious about this one, and I admit my knowledge on the subject is superficial, so I could only benefit from reading it. Great job!

  6. I’m impressed that you read the whole thing!

    I’m reading a book right now that made me think of you; it’s a new English translation of The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexeivich. It’s WWII, not Russian Revolution, but it’s specifically about women in the Soviety Union in WWII. The effects of the Revolution on daily life and particularly for women are very evident in their stories.

    • That sounds fascinating too – thanks for the tip-off! It’s not out here till July but I’ll keep my eyes open for it, and see if I can fit it in as an extra to the main challenge. I can see this challenge may go on for longer than the originally planned year! I see the transalation is by Richard Pevear, whose translation of Dr Zhivago seems to have been widely acclaimed.

      • Yes, sorry, I should have mentioned I have an advance copy of it and it’s not out until July. I’m sure you have plenty to read until then! It’s a Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky translation and they seem to be the best Russian-English translators out there right now.

        • Ha! July would suit me fine – I have a giant history and a biography of Lenin I have to read first! I’m going to be speaking with a Russian accent soon… 😉

  7. I imagine you do feel euphoric at having trudged through this one, FF. Enjoy the feeling of accomplishment! I’m pretty sure this isn’t going onto my TBR, but I really liked your review of it. I wonder how many students read your reviews in lieu of having to wade through classics (or do teachers these days even bother to “force read” their classes??!)

    • The sad thing is I actually enjoy books like this! I know – I need some kind of counselling… 😉 Haha! I shall admit I get lots and lots of hits from search terms that sound very much to me like people looking for quick ways to do their homework – especially on the GAN Quest books! I often wonder whether I pass or fail – it would be awful if 100 kids were plagiarising me and all getting F-grades… 😉

  8. Wow – some sort of medal ought to be forthcoming1
    I admit to only having skip-read this one, and it was a very long time ago. I read a lot of Russian history (and fiction) at one period, but not much recently.
    Great review – I wonder how many reviewers could inspire interest in an almost 100 year old history book? 🙂

    • Well, thank you! 😀 I can quite see the attraction of skip-reading this one, though in the end I found his repetitiveness actually helped fix all the different factions in my head. But the process of reading for review definitely makes me concentrate more anyway – I’m hoping it will help fend off senility… 😉

  9. I’m impressed – and appreciative – FictionFan: a tour de force! Clear (and under the circumstances) remarkably concise review of a doorstopper of a book on such a complex subject. I admit to lacking the perseverance and drive to read such an opus, but I do thank you for presenting me with some nuggets of information which have stuck – probably much more effectively than if I had tried to read this myself. (When my eyes would have glazed over and my brain shut down within a very few pages I suspect.) 🙂

    • Thank you very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it! 😀 Actually reading for review makes me pay much more attention to these histories and biographies, and that makes me enjoy them more. But the eyes glazing over issue still remains – that’s why I can only read a few pages a day… 🙂

  10. I think you earn the full five stars yourself for finishing the book and then writing this review. I can see you sat there with all those pages of notes picking out the sentient points but you’ve done a fantastic job!

  11. That is one huge book. I know a lot of people take these big books and break up the review over a week so that they can say more about the text. I have The Brothers Karamazov on my to-read list, but it’s sheer size has stopped me many times.

    • Ha! I always feel my poor readers suffer enough getting it all in one big lump! I do occasionally toy with starting up a dedicated history book review blog, but I don’t really read enough of them to make it worthwhile. I’m not too bad at reading huge books, so long as I accept right at the beginning that it’ll take me months – War and Peace took me nearly three months, I think, but I probably read another twenty lighter books over that same period too…

  12. YIkes, you read it all….. How applicable to us in the U.S. It’s all Russia, Russia, Russia right now……maybe learning about the Revolution would be beneficial…. 😉

  13. I always feel as though, when I make a lot of notes, that I don’t want them to go to waste – it’s so hard to whittle them down! So, a job well done on paraphrasing this 900 page book. I don’t know if it’s one I will ever be reading, so I’m even more glad to have read your review of it!

    • Yeah, I always feel as if I should organise my notes and keep them, but honestly I’d never look at them again after writing the review – like my old college notes, which are still buried in a cupboard somewhere. Glad you enjoyed the review – I quite see that this book isn’t going to suit everyone, but it appealed to my weird liking for massively detailed history tomes! 😉

  14. Wow, what a review! I almost want to read this, after reading so many books about the Romanovs having started with Anastasia stories as a romantic teenager, but not sure if I have the understanding to take it on. The tipping point, to use your expression, is that Trotsky was able to bring tears to your eyes expressing his ideals. That is a huge selling point.

    • Thank you! 😀 Some of the writing in it was fantasic – in fact, I found myself wishing he’d become a novelist rather than a revolutionary, or at least written novels later. But lots of it was dry and extremely detailed too, which made it a tough read. I’ll be reading Dr Zhivago soon, and I’m hoping that might cover some of the same ground but maybe more readably… maybe, though I often don’t get on very well with Russian novelists. I haven’t really read anything about the Romanovs, but must – and Rasputin, whom Trotsky was pretty sarcastic about too…

  15. Kudos for reading this one and making it sound very interesting in your review. I don’t think I’ll be reading it myself any time soon (or ever), so I am glad you have done it for me. (I was about to ask if it would get any GRN stars, but that’s not a good acronym and it’s not a novel anyway, so I will not ask…)

    • Haha! I refuse to start up a GRN Quest! Imagine having to read the Russian equivalent of Moby Dick! *shudders* But I will be reading Dr Zhivago soon, so maybe I should rate it in GRN stars…

      Ha! Yes, I don’t think this is a book that will suit everyone, but for some weird reason I love these massive overly-detailed history tomes – my form of weight-training… 😉

  16. Oh well, WELL done. I say ‘what a stunning review’ though of course, unlike your good self I do not have the rigour and dedication to stick with the difficult stuff..but, you make me wish to TRY (but not yet)

    • Thank you! 😀 Well, having more free time helps – I certainly didn’t read all these heavy tomes when I was working! No, something light to relax with was the order of the day – a few gory murders or some broken hearts or cheerful stuff like that…

  17. LoL! No, for the final exam, the students must write a book review of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which they’ve been reading and studying all semester. We’re talking about why people write reviews and how to choose criteria. One less is that a single criteria can have more than one paragraph, and it can convey more than one opinion. You write about the author’s dry tone and then how he becomes inspirational. Because the book is a longer work (and so is Malcolm X’s), it makes sense to have different opinions about the same criteria.

  18. Sooo behind on reading reviews and whatnot, but I’m glad to see that the Russian reading is continuing! I’m not sure that I’m up to Trotsky myself, although parts of it do sound quite fascinating. Perhaps you could work on an abridged version for me?? 😀

    • Haha! OK, let’s see. Well, nasty King, poor workers, starving peasants, strikes, riots, land grabs, Trotsky, Power to the People!, bigger riots, regicide, power struggle, civil war, butchery and terror, and hey, presto! The USSR was born! There! Just saved you 920 pages… 😉

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