China Mieville’s new book provides a gripping account of the Russian Revolution but it has some telling omissions, says NICK WRIGHT
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution
by China Mieville
CHINA MIEVILLE’S latest book takes us in dramatic steps from February 1917 to October 25 that year, when workers and soldiers stormed the Winter Palace in Petrograd and overthrew the desperately unstable provisional government of Alexander Kerensky.
For eight months, power had shifted back and forth between the coalition government and the direct democracy of the soviets. Across the vast lands of the Russian empire, established order was breaking down while, at the front, soldiers abandoned the slaughter.
The government’s resistance to popular demands for an immediate end to hostilities and a redistribution of the land was to seal its fate.
In the counter-flow of “dual power,” the cadres of the Bolsheviks began to win practical leadership while, at the front, their call for an immediate end to the war gave them a new audience among the soldiers, essentially peasants in uniform.
That October day, the second congress of soviets met in the Smolny Institute. The minority tendencies, concerned to persuade the Bolshevised delegates to concede power to the government, had lost any impetus.
“Lenin, whom the Congress has not yet seen, is given the floor for a report on peace,” an eyewitness recalled. “His appearance in the tribune evokes a tumultuous greeting. The trench delegates gaze with all their eyes at this mysterious being whom they had been taught to hate and whom they have learned without seeing him to love.
“Now Lenin, gripping the edges of the reading-stand, let little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes.
“When it finished, he said simply: ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’”
That culmination of the interregnum between early spring and late autumn spans the time frame for Mieville’s excellent, if flawed, account.
He conjures, with a telling of the October revolution’s prehistory, the decay and disintegration of tsarism — the years of tragedy, of terror and counter-terror, capitalist industrialisation and revolt — which created both the psychological preconditions for revolution and the social forces which would make it both necessary and possible.
Later, he describes how the summer-time revolutionary surge gave way to a counterattack in which the Bolsheviks were driven underground and a heavily disguised Lenin was forced to hide in the Finnish marshlands.
Mieville is acclaimed as writer of futurist, fantasy and science fiction and writes well. But, like his hero Trotsky, quoted above, this is a partial and partisan account. It introduces a wide cast of heroes and villains and, with great descriptive power, conveys something of the revolutionary sweep of these events.
But the passages retelling the actual assault on power are curiously lifeless while, gripping though the story of the summer and autumn events is, missing is any sense of how the machinery of revolutionary leadership operated — who had a hand in finding a path through the complex assembly of human beings, social forces, class organisations and competing ideas.
An example is that in April 1917, the Bolsheviks elected a new central committee. Stalin, who came third in the ballot after Zinoviev and Lenin, joined Kamenev in a four-man central committee bureau.
Later, in June, Stalin had wanted to resign when Lenin warned against plans for an armed demonstration to which the soviet was opposed. Stalin was somewhat vindicated when the demonstration proved something of a success in showing how the balance of forces was changing. However, the next month, when the militant sailors at the Kronstadt fortress phoned to ask if a rising was on the cards, Stalin deferred to their judgement.
The consequence of their premature action was a counterattack by Kerensky, and Stalin, in charge of the party’s organisation, was pressed to find hiding places for Lenin, now accused of being a German spy.
This is not to laud Stalin who, despite being a man of great resourcefulness, was as capable of being wrong-footed by the speed of events as any. But human agency in such a situation is critical.
Mieville’s epilogue starts off by telling us that “the order that will be constructed is anything but socialist.”
We get a few pages sketching the story of foreign invasions and counter-revolution, hunger and sabotage, civil war and painful recovery. But of the heroic decades of socialist construction that followed the first steps of liberation, there is nothing.
Nor is there any mention of the prodigious achievements in industrialisation and mass literacy, of human liberation for the oppressed peoples and women throughout the former Russian empire, of rising living standards and mass housing.
And, alas, there is no index, while the glossary of names is missing only one.