October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

China Mieville

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

China Mieville

The renowned fantasy and science fiction writer China Mieville has long been inspired by the ideals of the Russian Revolution and here, on the centenary of the revolution, he provides his own distinctive take on its history.

In February 1917, in the midst of bloody war, Russia was still an autocratic monarchy: nine months later, it became the first socialist state in world history. How did this unimaginable transformation take place? How was a ravaged and backward country, swept up in a desperately unpopular war, rocked by not one but two revolutions?

This is the story of the extraordinary months between those upheavals, in February and October, of the forces and individuals who made 1917 so epochal a year, of their intrigues, negotiations, conflicts and catastrophes. From familiar names like Lenin and Trotsky to their opponents Kornilov and Kerensky; from the byzantine squabbles of urban activists to the remotest villages of a sprawling empire; from the revolutionary railroad Sublime to the ciphers and static of coup by telegram; from grand sweep to forgotten detail.

Historians have debated the revolution for a hundred years, its portents and possibilities: the mass of literature can be daunting. But here is a book for those new to the events, told not only in their historical import but in all their passion and drama and strangeness. Because as well as a political event of profound and ongoing consequence, Mieville reveals the Russian Revolution as a breathtaking story.

Review

What’s the difference between a Bolshevik and a Menshevik? And why, 100 years on from the Russian Revolution, should any of us care? If you’re wondering, then China Miéville has written this book for you.

October is an exhilarating retelling of the events of 1917. Throughout the book, the complex and often conflicting aims of the revolutionaries and their adversaries are deftly explained. Political debates and machinations are punctuated by stories from the streets of Petrograd: desperate peasants, dissenting soldiers, fiery activists, and pompous militants all find their way into these pages without becoming clichés. This is the people’s history of the Revolution.

This account is neither dispassionate nor particularly objective – Miéville has always worn his Marxist politics on his sleeve, and is refreshingly upfront about having ‘picked a side’ in this story. Lenin emerges as the inspired and frustrated protagonist, alongside Trotsky and other less well-known figures. Nevertheless, the author is critical of his own heroes when their actions warrant it, and he provides deep insight into the decisions made by those he admires less: the portrayal of Alexander Kerensky’s hubristic attempt to reconcile opposing factions is compelling and tragic. The book builds to a blazing conclusion, and the epilogue dazzles as Miéville seamlessly draws the threads of literature and history together.

You don’t need to have any familiarity with Miéville’s broad body of work to enjoy this book, but October will prove especially intriguing to fans of his fictional works. His emphasis on the revolutionary role of trains begs comparison with the drama of Iron Council, and I find myself eager to revisit his other books to spot more inspirations and parallels. But before that, perhaps I’ll seek out some more Russian history!


Eleanor Jenkins works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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