A brilliant retelling of the Russian Revolution.
Reviewed by Jonathan Steele
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
By China Mieville, Verso, 384 pages, Au18.99
GGone are the days when visitors to the mausoleum in Red Square were forced to leave their cameras behind before being marshalled two-by-two in a tightly ordered queue that could take up to an hour to reach the cold cavern where Lenin's body lies. Cameras are still not allowed inside but everything else is now different. A much smaller crowd ambles forward with big gaps in the line while stragglers pause to take selfies in front of the plinths that carry busts of former Soviet leaders. Having a snap of yourself beside Stalin is a particular favourite, whether out of respect for the dead dictator or because it is seen as an amusing thing to do.
Solemnity has been replaced by casual curiosity, just one among many signs of the confusion that today's Russians feel over the legacy of the revolution of 1917. What is true for sightseers outside the Kremlin walls also applies to those who hold power within them.
Vladimir Putin has not ordered Lenin to be properly buried, as many anti-Communists hoped would already have been done by Boris Yeltsin, but the current Russian strongman seems totally unsure how to mark the revolution's centenary this October, or indeed whether to mark it at all. This is not really surprising for a man who started his career as a Soviet loyalist and public atheist, but now claims to be a Christian and has accused Lenin's Bolsheviks of being enemies of the state for stabbing tsarist Russia in the back.
As he told a conference of young people three years ago: "Regardless of how hurtful it might be to hear this, perhaps even to some of this audience, people who hold leftist views, but in the First World War, the Bolsheviks wished to see their fatherland defeated. While heroic Russian soldiers and officers shed their blood at the front, some were shaking Russia from within. They shook it to the point that Russia as a state collapsed and declared itself defeated by a country that had lost the war. It is nonsense, it is absurd, but it happened! This was a complete betrayal of the national interest!"
Outside Russia, the dominant view of the October revolution is also negative. Idealistic hopes for a brave new world withered in the civil war and its aftermath of terror, famine and one-party rule. Totalitarianism under Stalin defined the country and its image. The only debate was whether his dictatorship marked a break from Lenin's style or was its continuation, albeit in a more extreme and ossified degree.
The worst aspect of Stalinism - the unpredictability and arbitrariness of terror - ended after the dictator's death. There followed 35 years of what western analysts disparage as stagnation but which for most Russian families was their first experience of economic sufficiency and political stability. This massive post-Stalinist change was deliberately obscured in the west during the Cold War so as to provide one more justification for the argument that communism cannot be reformed but must be destroyed. As a result, most western analysts and politicians treated and still treat the historiography of the Soviet Union as a single block of time rather than dividing it into two periods, equal in their number of years but with radically different contents, one of turbulence, war and invasion, the other of order, peace and security. Because of this misinterpretation, outsiders fail to understand why many middle-aged and elderly Russians look back on the USSR with nostalgia. Its collapse was followed by a new wave of upheaval, which Putin is thanked for ending.
China Mieville's contribution in October is to get away from ideological battles and go back to the dazzling reality of events. There is no schadenfreude here about the revolution's bloody aftermath, nor patronising talk of experiments that failed because they were doomed to fail. Known as a left-wing activist and author of fantasy or what he himself calls weird fiction, Mieville writes with the brio and excitement of an enthusiast who would have wanted the revolution to succeed. But he is primarily interested in the dramatic narrative - the weird facts - of the most turbulent year in Russia's history: strikes, protests, riots, looting, mass desertions from the army, land occupations by hungry peasants and pitched battles between workers and Cossacks, not just in Petrograd but along the length and breadth of a vast country.
He is equally fascinated by the verbal fisticuffs, the debates and arguments at the epicentre between Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks, Kadets, Kerenskyites and Bolsheviks. Mieville brings to life the democratic practices that continued to be observed to an astonishing degree even as law and order crumbled - struggles over the wording of Pravda editorials, votes (for, against, abstentions) taken at meetings of the Duma and the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, a rash of municipal elections. This was not a contest of warlords like those that mark many other revolutionary struggles but a battle of pamphlets and verbal jousting between men in suits endowed with huge oratorical talent.
The story is old but Mieville retells it with verve and empathy. He brilliantly captures the tensions of coup and counter-coup and the kaleidoscope of coalitions that formed and then broke. There is wonderful detail on small points too. On the sealed train that brought him and his comrades from Switzerland back to Russia, Lenin was the man who organised the queuing system for the loo. In July, Trotsky acted as a moderate, telling the hard-left advocates of "all power to the Soviets" to stay calm and stick to sentry duty even as Cossack forces in Petrograd were killing workers on the streets. In August, as general Kornilov mounted his counter-revolutionary putsch, prime minister Kerensky bellowed operatic arias in his bedroom to try to steady his nerves.
Mieville does not neglect the Muslim issue, overlooked until recently - some contemporary scholars such as Jonathan Smele now see the anti-Russian uprisings in central Asia in the summer of 1916 as the true start of what turned out to be several overlapping civil wars - but records how the All-Russian Muslim Conference in May 1917 passed 10 principles, including women's right to vote, the equality of the sexes and the non-compulsory nature of hijab.
In a brief epilogue, Mieville skates through the horrors that were unleashed once Lenin's hopes were dashed that the October uprising would be strengthened by revolutions in the more advanced capitalist countries. From the present vantage point of history, this "can only hurt", he writes. But his moral is that we should keep trying. Change is not doomed to make things worse. With a different external environment and different actions by the main participants, the October revolution might have had a better outcome. Its degradation was "not a given, was not written in any stars".
-Guardian News & Media Ltd
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