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book review

Where the Russian Revolution went wrong

Misha Japaridze/AP FILE PHOTO/Associated Press

Mixing sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and the outright bizarre, China Miéville has created some of the most unusual and fully realized worlds in contemporary fiction. In short stories and novels such as “The Last Days of Paris’’ and “Embassytown,’’ he has mapped wildly imaginative futures and alternative pasts in narratives that combine ideas and politics, both earthly and otherworldly.

A history of the Russian Revolution may seem like an unusual turn for Miéville, but the author is also a left-wing activist and a Marxist with a PhD in international law. In “October: The Story of the Russian Revolution,” Miéville hopes to provide an introduction to one of the seminal events of the 20th century — the overthrow of the Romanov dynasty and the establishment of the world’s first communist state 100 years ago this year.


“The year 1917 was an epic, a concatenation of adventures, hopes, betrayals, unlikely coincidences, war and intrigue; of bravery and cowardice and foolishness, farce, derring-do, tragedy; of epochal ambitions and change, of glaring lights, steel, shadows,” Miéville writes floridly in his introduction. In short, it has all the makings of a novel, and though Miéville sees the event as a “story,” his telling, drawn from the vast secondary literature on the revolution, is a rather straightforward and conventional political history, cappedon a note of guarded optimism.

Miéville devotes a chapter to each month between February, when unrest broke out in the streets of St. Petersburg, leading to the establishment of a new regime, and October, when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized power. He tracks the twists and turns of the forces of the bloody revolution and the panoply of parties and interests who jockeyed for power. His account is mostly confined to the Russian empire’s then-capital St. Petersburg (called Petrograd), though he flicks at events outside the city. Lenin is the dominant figure, but Miéville also highlights the roles of many lesser-known revolutionary personalities and provides a helpful glossary of the dramatis personae.


Among a host of issues that dominated that year, two stand out for their effect on events. After the tsar abdicated, a new provisional government took power in March. It was liberal compared to what came before but not nearly revolutionary enough for its rival, the Petrograd Soviet, an elected council of soldiers and workers deputies. If Marxist theory held that a bourgeois dominated government was but a necessary step on the way to a genuinely proletarian one, the Soviet was divided over how — and whether — it should cooperate with the current leadership.

Linked to this debate were the ravages of World War I, which had claimed a million lives by 1917. The prosecution of the war — the provisional government remained committed to fighting against Germany and honoring a commitment to the Allies — would prove to be incendiary. This is the issue the divisive Lenin would exploit to devastating effect when the exile made his legendary April train journey from his refuge in Switzerland (with self-serving support by the Germans) to St. Petersburg. His arrival at the Finland Station changed the whole dynamic of the revolution. He denounced the “shameful imperialist slaughter” — actually calling for Russia’s defeat — and rejected the legitimacy of the sitting government.

Miéville captures such signal moments. But his book, pitched somewhere between an introduction and a selective account of 1917, can be heavy going and dense with esoteric terminology. (Parse, for example, the difference between “ ‘left’ entryism” and “ ‘right’ socialism.”) One wishes for more of the kind of atmosphere Miéville evokes in this passage: “Secret routes wound across the top of Petrograd, a roof-world above the courtyards, secret skyline walkways.”


The author, in his guise as historian, really gets down to the nitty-gritty with the Bolsheviks and their factional warring with left-wing rivals the Mensheviks, a more moderate grouping, and the Socialist Revolutionaries, who represented a wide swath of the peasantry and split into two wings (Right SRs and Left SRs).

By any measure, the revolution was a bureaucratic affair — committees, committees, committees — but keeping track of the profusion of interests requires considerable effort.

Miéville’s narrative builds toward its crescendo as the Bolsheviks prepare to take power with Lenin in a leading role. The provisional government had lost credibility over the summer, and a botched right-wing coup in August injected further chaos into the power struggle. The title of the book indicates where Miéville’s sympathies lie. He deals with the aftermath of 1917 in an epilogue and briefly touches on the vexed question — “did October lead inexorably to Stalin,” his successors, and the “monstrosity they call socialism”? He acknowledges the “failures and crimes” of the revolution that set the empire on the path to brutal, totalitarian failure. Still, for him, the “standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.”


The Story of the Russian Revolution

By China Miéville

Verso, 369 pp., illustrated, $26.95

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.