Reading the Russian Revolution – Wrap-Up

All Power to the Soviets!

A year and a half ago I thought it would be fun to commemorate the centenary of the Russian Revolution by setting myself a challenge to read all about it. It’s a period I knew very little about, having forgotten what little I learned in school back in the dark ages. The plan was to read some history, some contemporaneous accounts and some fiction, both classic and modern. And I have to admit, at risk of sounding even weirder than usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience!

White propaganda poster – a happy worker in Soviet Russia

If you want to see the full list of the books I read, you’ll find it here. I decided against three of the books on my initial list of ten as I went along, and abandoned another too early to review. On the other hand, I added eleven – a combination of books that were published during the centenary year and books to which some other part of my revolutionary reading led me.

In total, then, seventeen books, of which seven are factual and ten fiction. I enjoyed the vast majority of them, with only a couple being quite disappointing. So to celebrate the end of this challenge, I thought I’d pick out what were the highlights for me – all books that I unreservedly recommend – and some of the images I used to illustrate my reviews.

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FACTUAL

A People’s Tragedy by Orlando Figes (1996)

Massive in scope and meticulously researched, this history of the Revolution is brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject, even for someone with no previous knowledge. It’s an exemplary mix of the political, social and personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

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History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1932)

Trotsky’s own detailed account of the events of 1917 and analysis of what led to Russia being ripe for revolution at that moment. Dry and jargon-filled when discussing Marxist theory; sarcastic and even humorous when talking about Stalin or the bourgeoisie; angry and contemptuous when discussing the Romanovs and imperialists in general. But when he gets misty-eyed about the masses, describing a rally or demonstration or some other part of the struggle, he becomes eloquent and even inspirational, writing with real power and emotionalism, reminding the reader that he was a participant and passionate leader in the events he’s describing. Essential reading for anyone with a real interest in the period.

Trotsky addressing the Red Guard

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FICTION

The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

It is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, and the Ukrainian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.

A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution.

St Vladimir watching over the city…

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And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1928-32)

This Nobel Prize-winning novel follows the members of one family, the Melekhovs, through the upheavals of early 20th century Russia, casting light on those events from the Cossack perspective. It’s divided into four sections – Peace, the Great War, Revolution and Civil War. The book has the added fascination that we’re seeing how it all played out through the eyes of those at the bottom of the society’s power structures, rather than via the political actors and intelligentsia whose opinions are the ones we normally hear.

Very similar were all the prayers which the cossacks wrote down and concealed under their shirts, tying them to the strings of the little ikons blessed by their mothers, and to the little bundles of their native earth. But death came upon all alike, upon those who wrote down the prayers also. Their bodies rotted in the fields of Galicia and Eastern Prussia, in the Carpathians and Roumania, wherever the ruddy flames of war flickered and the traces of cossack horses were imprinted in the earth.

A wonderful book, one that fully deserves its reputation as a great classic of the Revolution, and of literature in general. To be able to tell such a difficult and complicated history while simultaneously humanising it is a real feat, and one Sholokhov has pulled off superbly.

A Cossack troop rides off to war c.1914

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The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus (2003)

It is 1910 and a packed train makes its way into Astapov, a little village suddenly famous because Tolstoy is there, in the process of dying. Aboard the train are two men: Professor Vladimir Vorobev, a scientist who has developed a new method of embalming that can make corpses look strangely alive; and Nikolai Gribshin, a young film-maker attached to Pathé News. These two men will soon be swept up in events, as Lenin and Stalin create their Communist utopia…

According to secret reports from the Commissariat’s foreign agents, the movies had reached every burb and hamlet of America. This transformation of the civilized world had taken place in a single historic instant. Despite its rejection of Byzantium, the West was creating an image-ruled empire of its own, a shimmering, electrified web of pictures, unarticulated meaning, and passionate association forged between unrelated ideas. This was how to do it: either starve the masses of meaning or expose them to so much that the sum of it would be unintelligible.

The major theme of the book is about the development of propaganda techniques under Stalin, specifically using film. More widely, it’s about facts, presentation of facts, distortion of truth using facts, myth-making; and, as such, feels even more timely today than I suspect it would have done when originally published. Plus it’s brilliantly written and highly entertaining.

Soviet propaganda poster – Retreating, the Whites are burning the crops

(NB The three propaganda posters are from Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths edited by Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia – another excellent and recommended book.)

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The Man Who Loved Dogs by Leonardo Padura (2009)

The story of three men whose lives become intertwined across decades and continents: the Cuban narrator who tells the story, Trotsky living in exile in Mexico, and a young Spaniard, Ramon Mercader del Rio, who has been recruited by Stalin. The primary story is of Trotsky’s assassination in 1940. Its purpose runs deeper though: to look at the corruption and failure of the utopian dream of communism and to inspire compassion for the people caught up in this vast and dreadful experiment.

He [Trotsky] whistled, demanding Maya’s presence, and was relieved when the dog approached him. Resting his hand on the animal’s head, he noticed how the snow began to cover him. If he remained there ten or fifteen minutes, he would turn into a frozen mass and his heart would stop, despite the coats. It could be a good solution, he thought. But if my henchmen won’t kill me yet, he told himself, I won’t do their work for them. Guided by Maya, he walked the few feet back to the cabin: Lev Davidovich knew that as long as he had life left in him, he still had bullets to shoot as well.

Padura’s deep research is complemented by his intelligence, insight and humanity, all of which means that the book is more than a novel – it’s a real contribution to the history of 20th century communism across the world, looked at from a human perspective. My only caveat is that without some existing knowledge of the history, it may be a struggle to get through. But for anyone with an interest in the USSR, Cuba or the Spanish Civil War, I’d say it’s pretty much an essential read.

Ramon Mercader del Rio after the assassination

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So it’s a wrap!

Thank you for joining me on my journey and I hope you enjoyed at least some parts of my obsession with the Revolution – an obsession which I’m not sure has really ended yet, although the challenge has. The last word must go to Trotsky…

Suddenly, by common impulse – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child… The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!”

White propaganda poster – Peace and freedom in Soviet Russia

PEACE, LAND, BREAD!

Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge…

Proletariat of the World, Unite!

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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.

lenin-quote-revolutionary-situation

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.

george-orwell-quote-revolution

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.

revolution-trotsky

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.
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revolution-jfk

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.)

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

stalin-quote
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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?

READING THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION CHALLENGE

THE RULES

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

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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.

churchill-on-lenin

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).

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putin-democracyPEACE, LAND, BREAD!