First book of year 4 of this blog, and we were in St Petersburg for the New Year, so it felt appropriate to read a book about the Russian Revolution. In this case, a rewriting of the momentous events of the year of 1917 by Miéville, a writer best known for futuristic sci-fi novels. With a short intro and a short epilogue, October focuses pretty completely on 1917, with each month getting its own chapter.
The promise of the comments on the front and back covers is of a readable, novelistic version of events which presents it all in a fresh way. Perhaps those commenting were comparing it to more academic treatments, but this didn’t really live up to that billing for me. Far from being a narrative sweep through historical events, this is actually incredibly detailed – it feels like every committee, every vote, every abstention, every missive, every note is captured; much of it can be quite interesting, but the sheer volume of detail does start to numb after a while. It is also something of a struggle to keep track of people (don’t mix up your Lvovs, nor forget what the difference between Kamenev, Kornilov, and Kerensky is) as well as the committees and conferences, which get created at the drop of a big furry hat in response to events.
I should say that I learned a huge amount – vague memories of history A-level were coming back, as Tsars shut down Dumas and Mensheviks split with Bolsheviks. And while much of the story of 1917 is chaotic, backwards and forwards, bureaucratic, and shapeless in its progression, there are moments that are straight from the pages of a fictional thriller. Lenin shovelling coal in disguise as the engine-stoker on the train, or whipping off his curly grey wig to surprise his Bolshevik comrades; or similarly avoiding being captured by a Cossack in the woods and when out on the streets of St Petersburg. There are other characters that shine out and stay with you: the principled Martov, the hyperbolic Kerensky, the magnanimous Antonov – Miéville also goes out of his way to recognise the leading role of women in the revolution, both in the original march (on International Women’s Day) that kicked things off, and through the actions of various individuals. My favourite being the wife that encouraged her husband to sleep at the office so the Bolsheviks could use their house to meet.
It is also a useful reminder of how genuinely revolutionary what was proposed was – universal female and male suffrage; taking back all ownership of land; legalising homosexuality and so on – in 1917. And a useful reminder of how the year was filled with happenstance and flip-flopping; Lenin himself backed compromise before finally backing the revolution when he felt the people were with them; the royal family failed to offer a constitutional monarchy (and the Tsar abdicated too late); the Bolsheviks spent most of the year debating with each other; and there were any number of near misses that could have make history take a different path.
Overall, I enjoyed learning about this period again, and it was great to be in the city of the Peter & Paul Fortress, the frozen Neva river (scene of Bloody Sunday), the Hermitage and Winter Palace and the Mariinsky Theatre where most of these events took place. So do read it if you’re interested in getting an events-driven take on the year of revolution with a fair amount of style and élan; but don’t read it if you’re expecting a page-turning take on history that only covers the top-level events.
BUY IT NOW: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution