On the urgent narrative of the Russian revolution by China Miéville

THE CENTENARY of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the most significant political upheaval since the 18th century, passes quietly. In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s crony capitalist regime certainly has no intention of commemorating the event. The situation in the West is no better; after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the consensus was that Marxism was dead and buried as a political force. The recent death of Fidel Castro marked the passing of the last of the truly iconic communist leaders. The Middle East is today the global hotbed of revolutionary agitation, but apart from a few Kurdish groups, the insurgents follow the dark banners of radical Islamism, not the red flags of proletarian struggle. Even among leftists in the United States, the focus has shifted from class struggle to identity politics – despite the fact that the White House is currently occupied by the crudest possible personification of casino capitalism.

Against these prevailing winds, China Miéville bravely launches October: The Story of the Russian Revolution — a reworking of the Russian Revolution into a gripping narrative. October is just one of many books published by the left-leaning publishing house Verso to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik uprising. The list includes new works by radical veterans Tariq Ali and Slavoj Žižek that reassess the politics and personality of Vladimir Lenin. But Miéville’s book is probably the most popular and accessible of the pile. It is not a book dense with Marxist theory or analysis – although it is somewhat dense with political party abbreviations and participant names. Instead, he views the Revolution as a hopeful flashpoint that briefly showed the promise of socialist transformation, before descending into totalitarian tragedy. It is written with a special urgency designed for this era of struggle without clear political ideologies, where people throw around the word “revolution” without offering plans or even the most general directions.

Miéville’s wonderfully bizarre and highly imaginative novels, which combine fantastical hallucinations with sociopolitical commentary, have made him a cult favorite among fans of speculative fiction. To give you an idea of ​​his method, the short story of 2016 The last days of New Paris evoked a French capital besieged by surreal guerrillas and Nazi invaders, with both sides using a cocktail of imagination and dark magic to unleash living surreal artwork and dark monsters to battle each other. (Hitler’s cameo is a particularly brilliant moment.) October, Miéville, whose doctoral dissertation proposed a Marxist theory of international law, joins a hallowed group of science fiction and fantasy writers who have applied their talents to history. It belongs on the shelf next to HG Wells A brief history of the world and Isaac Asimov The Greeks. But Octoberthe closest parallel is journalist John Reed’s classic Ten days that shook the worldan eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution that still resonates with romantic energy. Ten days, however, was written before the Revolution unfolded in Stalinist terror and before the advent of the Cold War. Miéville is a new story that makes you dream, but does not rule out the nightmare.

Miéville begins his account in 1703, with Peter the Great plunging a bayonet into virgin land and marking the spot where Saint Petersburg is to be built. The narrative then goes back and forth like a film reel through ancient and modern Russian history. Ivan the Terrible, the anarchist terrorists of the late 19th century, the failed Revolution of 1905, the rise of serfdom and its abolition in 1861 all make quick appearances, setting the stage for the thunderclap of 1917. real drama begins to unfold during the First World War. I, when the desperate trial and error of Tsar Nicolas II, whom Miéville describes as a man of “bovine placidity”, opens the door to a general uprising in February 1917. All the actors in this epic are sketched with precision and bold color. Tsarina Alexandra, for example, is portrayed as tragically superstitious, falling under the spell of the “mad monk” Rasputin. “She gives [her husband Nicholas] Rasputin’s comb, Miéville tells us, to brush his hair before meeting the ministers, so that Rasputin’s wisdom can guide him.

Lenin is portrayed as a man who “constrains, even pierces, in print and speech, by his sheer intensity and concentration”. Trotsky is “charismatic and abrasive, brilliant and persuasive and divisive and difficult”, an intellectual capable of militant ruthlessness. Stalin, meanwhile, is introduced through haunting third-party glimpses; individuals remember him as nothing more than a “grey blur”, or as “appearing faintly and without trace from time to time”. Because Miéville is so narrowly focused on the moment, rarely moving to the near future and never to our own time, these passages have special power; one has the impression of seeing these figures in real time, but one cannot prevent oneself from carrying the future.

As Miéville recounts, the Russian Revolution was an apocalyptic moment. The hell of World War I sparked a civil war between the oppressed and their overlords. The social explosion fuels spontaneous and popular mobilizations. The masses formed “soviets”, councils of people’s power. Liberals and radicals constantly quarreled over what to do, while Lenin, back from exile, wrote explosive texts like the April theses, which called for the destruction of the old state. Dark forces like the anti-Semitic Black Hundreds roamed the country, carrying out pogroms with the tacit approval of the Tsarist regime. Restless peasants began looting their masters’ homes and burning down their estates. The situation does not hold and the tsar is overthrown. But the real battle, which takes up most of the book, is between the various factions vying for power, ranging from the radical Left Socialist (SR) revolutionaries to the more moderate Mensheviks and, of course, Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who modify (or reject) the old Marxist theory of historical development through well-defined stages and the urgency of immediate socialist revolution.

Like any good storyteller, Miéville delights in the phantasmagorical aspects of this true tale. As factions battle in the streets during the “July Days,” Russia’s middle and upper classes fall into nihilistic decadence: “[T]here flourished an age-old indulgence. Bands and dancing all night long, stained silk dresses and ties, flies swirling around warming cake and vomit and spilled drink. Miéville also gives us fascinating anecdotes worthy of any thriller. In a suspenseful yet comical moment, Lenin is hiding, disguised as a peasant in the woods, when a weary Cossack arrives and announces that he is looking for “someone named Lenin.” To bring him back dead or alive. The fugitive revolutionary spends the night chatting with his hunter before accompanying him.

As Miéville recounts, the Provisional Government led by Alexander Kerensky – which is described as pompous and melodramatic – was too weak, divided by different interests, and left the ground open for Lenin to push for overthrow in October 1917. When the Bolsheviks stormed in the story, the event is almost disappointing. It’s easy to see why right-wing thinkers, and even left-wing thinkers like Noam Chomsky, viewed the uprising as a coup. Lenin’s seizure of power required only a small group of loyal cadres and soldiers. The people of Petrograd barely noticed the drastic change of government when it happened. But Miéville nevertheless recounts the seizure of power with great enthusiasm; we see Kerensky’s people cowering in the Winter Palace as the walls rumble with cannon fire and Lenin proclaims that world revolution is near. Importantly, Miéville also highlights the too often overlooked roles women played in the events of 1917. He focuses on Lenin’s comrade, Alexandra Kollontai, who pointed out that the Revolution was born “on the international day of woman, ‘And don’t we women take to the streets first to fight with our brothers for freedom, and even if it is necessary to die?’

The realisation of October is to make this story fresh and urgent. The era of communist revolutions may be a distant memory, but the drive for social change, whether peaceful or violent, is not. Reading this book evokes the Arab Spring of 2011, in particular the Egyptian revolution. The sequence of events in Tahrir Square was similar to what Miéville describes here – the main difference being that there was no Lenin or a radical left party to uproot the old system. Two Egyptian governments have been overpowered by the military leviathan they thought they could tame. At some point in OctoberMiéville echoes Trotsky’s disturbing analysis: if the right-wing elements of the Russian army had succeeded in overthrowing the Bolsheviks, then “[n]not the Italian language, but Russian would have given the world the word for fascism. As he admits right away, Miéville has its “bad guys and [his] hero” in the room. “Although not, I hope, dogmatic or uncritical,” he wrote, “I am partisan.” This admission is refreshing and, for the most part, correct. Interestingly, however, he leaves out an important moment in his story: the execution of Nicholas II and his family. What’s behind this choice is hard to say, but it’s akin to writing about the French Revolution and omitting the beheading of Louis XVI.

Shortly after the events described by Miéville, the Russian Revolution turned from hope to despair. The highlight of the book might be its epilogue, which is a requiem for the promise of October. Besieged and overrun by hostile powers, and abandoning plans for a continent-wide revolution, the Bolsheviks carried out their own “Red Terror” and Soviet Russia was transformed into a monolithic one-party state. The dream of an ideal communist society gave way to Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which brought back limited capitalism to sustain an economy devastated by the Russian Civil War (1918-1921). Lenin’s death marked the rise of Stalin and the age of show trials, the Gulag and what Victor Serge called “midnight in the century”. One thinks of Syria, once in the throes of revolutionary fervor and now trapped in a bloody midnight of war and torture chambers.

Yet unlike other admirable stories – like that of Orlando Figes A popular tragedy — Miéville’s book emphasizes the hope inspired by the Russian Revolution. “Twilight, even the twilight you remember, is better than no light at all,” Miéville observes eloquently. Revolutions easily warp and often devour their children. This is the tragedy currently being played out in Venezuela. Once regenerator of the revolutionary dream, the country is now approaching an abyss that could trigger a civil war. And even OctoberThe dramatic narrative of argues that the effort is always worth it – that we must dare to dream, even if we risk conjuring up more nightmares in this darkening world.


Alci Rengifo is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written on many topics, including film, cultural criticism, politics, world events, music, and literature. He currently lives in East Los Angeles.