October : the story of the Russian Revolution

by China Miéville

Paper Book, 2017

Description

"Acclaimed fantasy author China Mieville plunges us into the year the world was turned upside down 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"--… (more)

Status

Available

Call number

947.084/1

Publication

London ; Brooklyn, NY : Verso, 2017.

Media reviews

The Guardian
China Miéville’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
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left-wing activist and author of fantasy or what he himself calls weird fiction, Miéville 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.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member RobertDay
The centenary of the Bolshevik October Revolution has spurred some attention in the media and some recent books on the subject have become quite widely discussed. I’ve been reading China Miéville’s 'October', which I was looking forward to because a) Miéville is a writer I admire, and b) he
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identifies very clearly with the Left. As a leftist writer, Miéville’s position might be assumed to be uncritical; but this is not the case. Reviewers have generally welcomed his book, whilst having some criticisms about the form, or the style. Perhaps the most critical reviews have come from those further to the Left than the author, who take him to task for not being sufficiently dedicated to the Cause, or for not addressing issues which they believe he should have done and which are on their personal list of bogeys, but which are actually well outside the remit of the book.

Miéville’s aim was not to attempt any historical or political assessment of the October Revolution and its place in world history or politics; rather, his aim was to place the story and events of October 1917 before a wider readership and recount that story for those who have heard of it but may not have looked in detail at Revolutionary Petrograd before. After a short piece of historical scene-setting, he recounts the story of the October Revolution on a month-by-month basis, starting with the abdication of the Tsar in February and ending with the overthrow of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in October and the subsequent establishment of Soviet rule under the leadership of V.I. Lenin. An Epilogue tells the story of What Happened Next, and there are useful appendices with suggestions for further reading (admirably non-partisan, though Miéville doesn't hold back from giving his personal view of some historians) and potted biographies of some of the major characters in the story of 1917.

The book is written in a lively, novelistic style, though some level of background knowledge is helpful. I was broadly familiar with the events of October and the broad chronology of the year from books like John Reed’s 'Ten days that shook the world' and films like Sergei Eisenstein’s 'October 1917' (though it should be noted that there was more damage done to the Winter Palace during the filming of 'October 1917' than there ever was during the actual revolution). And my To Be Read pile includes a number of histories of the October Revolution and afterwards, from a range of writers on all sides of the debate, from Leon Trotsky and Tariq Ali to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Richard Pipes. But Miéville’s book is perhaps the most detailed account of pure events that has been assembled from contemporary accounts by a writer with some degree of overview of and insight into the various factions and fractions involved. And although he writes as a novelist, with a novelist's turn of phrase at times, the account is scrupulously fair to all concerned (although where history is unreservedly critical of certain individuals, Miéville attempts no revisionism). And even though he leaves his political views (mainly) outside the covers of the book, he sometimes lapses into the jargon of the Left, though that is often the best and most precise way of telling the story.

With our post-Cold War perspective, we find it difficult to understand the attractions that socialism held for the mass of people in Russia. But in 1917-20, conditions in eastern Europe were harsh; the war had taken its toll on societies and Russia in particular was struggling to emerge from feudalism and absolute monarchical rule. Marxism had seized the imagination of both its adherents and opponents; for many, it represented a new way of looking at society which held out hope of alleviating the harsh conditions of the time, whilst for the Establishments of many nations, Marxism represented an existential threat to the established order of things. And Marxism set great store on organisation, education and democratic participation – all exciting concepts to working people around the world. The coming socialist utopia seemed just that: a promise that tomorrow would be materially and tangibly better than today.

For a brief window in time, the October revolution promised these things to the people of Russia. Not only was the Bolshevik ideology new, but it drew in new thinkers on a range of subjects and it used new directions in film, art and popular culture to appear fresh and exciting. Constructivism led to dynamic forms appearing as posters in the popular environment; at last, art and education would be open to all and available to all. Bringing Russian involvement in the war to an end promised peace; and the aim of building the new socialist state meant that working people could look forward to a brighter future. Indeed, the new state drew on Russian thinkers like Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, pioneer of spaceflight theory, and the emergent technologies of radio, film and aviation to promise a world of wonders.

Of course, it didn’t last. But Miéville’s thesis, which he suggests in the epilogue to 'October', is that the Civil War and the involvement of hostile interventionist foreign troops set the new Soviet state on the road towards repression and tyranny in the name of security. Lenin did not necessarily lead to Stalin; but Stalin’s reaction to the Civil War, his paranoia, his feud with Trotsky and the creation of a bureaucracy loyal to Stalin as a consequence did lead to the totalitarian state that the Soviet Union became. It took time; for many, the optimistic dream of the socialist future faded slowly and indeed had a brief rebirth and blossoming in the 1950s during the Khrushchev era as the planned economy briefly started to provide Soviet citizens with the material prosperity they had long been promised.

What 'October' and some of the other books I’ve read tell us is that in the early years of the 20th Century, the time was right for some sort of overthrow, somewhere, of the Old Order. When a society gets thrown up in the air by a revolution, no-one can tell how and where the pieces will land; and all political events have unintended consequences. Had Lenin been arrested at any stage during 1917 – and this could have happened on at least three different occasions – it is possible that the October Revolution might not have happened, or it might have fizzled out in the way that the German Revolution did two years later. But when an idea’s time has come, that idea will take form, if not in one place then in another.

Many people say that the Communist experiment was never followed through to its conclusion, or that full socialism has never properly been tried. Be that as it may, we cannot change the history we have; the important thing is to learn from it. But if we only ever accept one interpretation of that history, we aren’t learning from it at all, simply deluding ourselves that our world-view is the one and only True Account. And that puts us at risk from others who have drawn different conclusions or have a different viewpoint. No ideas should ever be off the table. 'October' is a valuable contribution to putting the events of 1917 in Petrograd on that table with some degree of balance.
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LibraryThing member fugitive
I'm a huge fan of China Miéville's entire fiction oeuvre to date. This includes some of his more critically problematic works such as RAILSEA and the more recent THIS CENSUS-TAKER, both of which are near the top of my list of personal favorites. Mr. Miéville's OCTOBER is my first foray into his
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non-fiction and and I personally find it wanting. It's not that the book is bad or unreadable, but it feels as if Mr. Miéville is constrained by the historical record, odd as that may seem. To be honest, this review may be more of a criticism of myself as a reader than the author's own craftsmanship. This is one of those books that I read thinking all along that I was learning a lot about a subject in which I was not very well versed, that I found impressive, and that I recognized as an extremely well written historical book. But it just didn't get me entertained or challenged to expand my thinking as his other works have made me do.

If I were to have any specific complaints, the main one would be the pacing which I found a bit slow. Secondarily, I found the number of people and places covered caused me to sometimes get confused (that's something I've generally found about all things Russian, I have to confess). Again, the historical record is the historical record, and that has directed the subject matter of the book.

Great book, not for me, maybe not for others who are fans of the author's other work to date.
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LibraryThing member PhilipJHunt
Not Mieville's usual stuff, but written with his usual panache and the occasional tendency to invent words which work. Quite the Shakespeare. This is a short history of how the Bolsheviks got to take charge in Russia. It tracks the characters (and beware, they are numerous) as they weave between
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meetings, events and a lot of talking. It's a fairly heavy read owing to the complexity of the events but Mieville's writing talents help to keep us on track.
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LibraryThing member quondame
This is like an outline of what happened to whom in St Petersberg in the first 10 months of 1917. Some background is given for the situation and how in Feb 1917 bad choices on bad days lead to the fall of the government and resulted in a group that didn't seem able to govern leading the government
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(Provisional Government) and a group with many different ideas about what leadership should be trying to avoid governing (Soviet). It details how the Bolshevik influence grew and ebbed and coalesced in response to successes, failures, treachery, attacks, and leadership until they were pretty much the only popular group with coherent leadership.

It is in the Glossary of Personal Names that I found heart break.

Miéville gives brief descriptions of 55 people

55
-17 dead before Lenin in 1924
38
-2 deaths at unknown times, probably outside Russia
36
-13 people fled Russia - Trotsky killed on Stalin's orders
23
-13 people executed by Stalin or died imprisoned during his lifetime

Only 5 of the listed individuals outlived Stalin
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LibraryThing member Marse
A week by week, sometimes day by day retelling of the disorganized, disheveled and haphazard events leading up to Russia's October Revolution (November 7 by Gregorian calendar). It's amazing, really, that the Bolsheviks ended up in power after all the back and forth between factions, parties,
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military and unions. For much of it, it seemed, no one entity was in control and the end result could have gone in many different ways. Mieville's research is astounding given the fact that he does not himself read Russian. My favorite parts are when he throws in little snippets like news bulletins about murders, attacks, horrible disasters that befell people during this chaotic time.
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LibraryThing member jonfaith
The old regime was vile and violent, while Russian liberalism was weak, and quick to make common cause with reaction. All the same, did October lead inexorably to Stalin? It is an old question, but one still very much alive. Is the gulag the telos of 1917?

The timing appears apt. A sunny Sunday in
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June begs for calm. Jihadis again rocked the night before. There is a thirst for deliverance in the air, again. Always. While I appreciate the urgency of the book, I am doubtful about the necessity. I applaud Miéville for the effort and especially the Further Reading section. His analysis is painfully fair but emotionally neutral. This measured approach is leery of ghosts: Bunny Wilson and Nabokov frothing in polemic, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, Figes making sock puppet accounts on Amazon to denounce authors. Shit, if I didn't exist would Orlando invent me? That's enough vanity for one day. Edward Crankshaw provided a solid narrative history of these events, as have many others. This isn't a waste of anyone's time, nor is it revelatory.
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LibraryThing member magonistarevolt
I'm putting this down for a bit. It's possible that I just fell off the reading wagon for the last 6 months, and that this book just happened to be the one I had started before falling off. Or it could be I couldn't stomach another page.

There are moments that cause me to swoon: descriptions of
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insurrection, when the literary camera zooms and pans across a ravaged countryside and depicts revolution as a living thing. But then Mieville's Leninism kicks into and I am stuck in a bog of minutiae: process, party, meeting, resolution, positions, conventions. The Bolshevik counterrevolution redefined as revolution. Even Mieville's purple prose can't make this shit interesting to me.

I'll try again, I promise.
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LibraryThing member spounds
Pretty good. It was hard to follow some of the names and groups after awhile. All the committees started to sound alike. Still a good listen.
LibraryThing member fegolac
This is an interesting angle on the Russian revolution, where instead of a bird's eye view with a long list of historical antecedents, we get the daily development of the revolution, from February to October 1917. Instead of the "inevitable wave of history" feeling I often get when reading history,
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with October I felt a real connection to the time and place of the revolution. Besides the fact that this makes for a more compelling story, it also helps dispel the notion that there's anything inevitable or uniquely Russian about how the revolution ultimately panned out.

The book suffers a bit from having to include so many actors and separate interest groups in a single narrative. There are just too many names to remember. (There's a glossary, which given that I was reading this on a Kindle was not much help.) The reading is probably more enjoyable to those who already have some decent knowledge of the revolution, which prior to reading this I did not.
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Awards

Language

Original publication date

2017-05-09

ISBN

1784782777 / 9781784782771
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