Giving 1917 real meaning

Chris Gray reviews: China Miéville, October: the story of the Russian Revolution, Verso, 2017, pp369, £18.99

This is a wonderful, scintillating book: it makes a fateful year in world history come alive, in the sense that all significant actors in the drama and upheaval of Russia in 1917 come under the spotlight and are displayed in action. As with all the best historical writing, we get to feel the enveloping atmosphere of the times and places, and what it was like to live through the events. (The author visited Russia for the purpose of writing this book, and acknowledges help from there).

Following a short historical introduction extending from tsar Peter the Great, who reigned from 1682 to 1725, through to the two-man murder of the sinister monk, Rasputin, in December 1916, we are treated to nine months of 1917 - February to October - in which the dramatis personae make their entrances and play their parts. Key individuals are used to illustrate the social classes in interaction - the nobility, bourgeoisie, workers and the vast peasant majority. More diffuse groupings are not forgotten - women, the non-Russian nationalities, the ‘intelligentsia’, writers and artists (the last two sparingly, but seemingly mentioned where relevant to the narrative). Institutions are given due attention - the army and navy (from generals down to infantrymen, from admirals to sailors); the Russian Orthodox Church gets a mention, but no more. Above all the councils (soviets) in their various shapes and guises are given due weight - predominantly the Petrograd Soviet, which acquired “delegates countrywide” on becoming the All-Russian Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in March 1917 (p105).1

Political parties and movements also play their roles: the proto-fascist Black Hundreds2; the ‘Octobrists’, supporters of tsar Nicholas’s October 1905 Manifesto (the court party); the Constitutional Democrats (‘Kadets’, from kah, deh, the sounds of the initial letters of their name in Russian), the party of the “liberal bourgeoisie”; the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), the main pro-peasant grouping; and in their wake the Trudoviks (pro-peasant populist, their main spokesman being the lawyer, Alexander Kerensky). Then we have the Social Democrats, divided into the so-called Mensheviks (‘minority’) and Bolsheviks (‘majority’) - these names refer back to the party’s Second Congress held in exile in 1903, and do not reflect the degree of mass support and influence in early 1917 of what are by now two distinct parties. Anarchists appear in their usual form as “groups springing up” (the phrase seems to have originated with Michael Bakunin). Also, less dramatically, Leon Trotsky’s relatively small following, the so-called Interdistrict Organisation (Mezhrainontsy), gets its fair share of coverage.

Leading individuals, of course, feature prominently - Nicholas II (reigned 1894-1917), his brother, the grand duke Michael, other famous political names of the time, such as Alexander Guchkov (Octobrist), Pavel Milyukov, founder of the Kadet party and foreign minister in the Provisional government, holding office from March 2 to April 29; Mikhail Rodzianko, a co-founder of the Octobrists; Kerensky; Victor Chernov of the SRs; Social Democrats, such as the Georgians, Nikolai Chkheidze and Irakli Tsereteli; Julius (Yulii) Martov; Alexandra Kollontai; Lenin and Trotsky; Zinoviev (Lenin’s old comrade); and the eventual notorious ruler of the USSR, Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. Even Lenin’s faithful comrade Vladimir Bonch-Bruyevich - the name is surely unforgettably quintessentially Russian - gets coverage. Generals Mikhail Alekseev, Aleksei Brusilov and Lavr Kornilov play leading roles militarily and politically.

The sweep and detail of the narrative is most impressive, but, above all, the masses of ordinary men and women, non-Russian peoples, workers and peasants, not only feature as actors, but are recorded from time to time as speaking - and shouting, where necessary.

We are treated to a series of panoramic shots of those nine months; they bring the events beautifully into focus in a way that does not seem to have been done in English since John Reed’s classic Ten days that shook the world (first published in 1919).

What comes through, crucially, is the immense power of the popular forces which swept onto the political stage like a dam bursting in 1917 - a trinity of workers (spurred on by the women of Petrograd on International Women’s Day, now celebrated on March 8 annually), soldiers and peasants - once they began to move in concert.

Dual power

Rather than go through the narrative, which would spoil things for those wishing to read the book, let us look at a number of important themes and topics that China Miéville covers - the role of women, dual power, the ‘sealed train’, Lenin in 1917 (and the left’s unintentionally comic tradition), the July Days, October and its legacy to 1941, Alexandra Kollontai and, last but not least, the European dimension.

The author judiciously quotes Kollontai, on her return to Russia, as saying: “But wasn’t it we women, with our grumbling about hunger, about the disorganisation in Russian life, about our poverty and the sufferings born of the war, who awakened a popular wrath?” (p94). She underlined the fact that the revolution started on International Women’s Day: “And didn’t we women go first out to the streets in order to struggle with our brothers for freedom, and even if necessary to die for it?” (“With our brothers” - the words evoke the beginning of original communism, as depicted in the work of Chris Knight, Camilla Power, Ian Watts, Jerome Lewis et al in the Radical Anthropology Group.)

Comrade Miéville describes a procession to the Tauride Palace on March 19, when a diverse crowd of 40,000 demonstrators demanded that women be given the right to vote. And he touches on the role of the soldatki - soldiers’ wives - who took independent action. For example, in Kherson province early in the year they forced their way into certain homes, ‘requisitioning’ luxuries:

Not only did they flout laws and intimidate the authorities wherever they possibly could: there were also direct acts of violence. The state flour trader who did not want to offer them his goods at discounted price was beaten by a band of soldiers’ wives, and the pristav, the local police chief, who wanted to hurry to his help, escaped the same fate by a hair’s breadth (p115).

There is some useful discussion of dvoyevlastie (dual power) - the balance from February onwards between the Committee of the Duma, out of which came the Provisional government, and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which, as a revival of the institution of 1905, prepared its own plans. The antagonism between the two was the basis of the dual power. Early on, the question of military discipline was raised:

... the soviet put together a draft resolution. It stressed that soldiers’ committees were important. It proposed soviet democracy within units, combined with military discipline on duty. The soldiers, the gathering urged, should send representatives to the duma’s military commission, and recognise its authority - in so far as it did not deviate from the opinion of the soviet (p68 - original emphasis).

“In so far as” in Russian is postol’ku-poskol’ku - “a formulation key to dual power, and its contradictions” (p84).

Naturally this situation was inherently unstable, as recognised both by the Octobrist leader, Guchkov - who complained that the Provisional government wielded no real power, while the soviet controlled such things as troops, railway and postal and telegraphic services - and by Leon Trotsky.3

Lenin’s return

The book gives useful information on the so-called ‘sealed train’. in which Lenin and some other comrades crossed German territory on their way back to Russia. Martov, apparently, was instrumental in arranging, via the Swiss authorities, this safe passage in exchange for the release of German and Austrian internees in Russia (p88). Lenin demanded that there should be no passport controls, stops or investigations along the way, and that there would be no enquiry into the passengers’ details - all this because he was aware that collaboration with the enemy could be construed as treason (as it later was).

On March 21 the German embassy accepted his terms, and 28 individuals, including Lenin, Krupskaya, Zinoviev, Zlata Lilina (mother of Zinoviev’s young son, Stefan), Karl Radek and Inessa Armand, set out from Zurich. At the Swiss border they transferred to a two-coach train - one full of Russians and the other for the German escort. Stops did take place, however, and it appears that the passengers attracted the attention of Social Democrats eager to meet Lenin, who apparently asked his companions to tell one persistent trade unionist to “go to the devil’s grandmother” (p104). The passengers travelled via Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Berlin, eventually reaching the north German coast at Sassnitz, where they transferred to a Swedish steamer. Landing at Trelleborg on Sweden’s southern coast, they then proceeded to Stockholm and thence by sleighs across to Finland (p106).

This account given by Miéville appears to clear up the mystery in the matter: perhaps a better description would be ‘secret train’.

Upon arriving at Petrograd’s Finland station on April 3, Lenin began to intervene in his customary energetic fashion, following a warm welcome from assembled Bolsheviks. In the car that drove him from the station he asked Kamenev: “What’s this you’re writing in Pravda? We saw several issues and really swore at you” (p108). Through to June he stuck to his basic position of justifying an uncompromising opposition to the Provisional government by “patiently explaining” that the real root of the crisis was “the pilfering of the bourgeoisie” (p143). Comrade Miéville quotes his interjection at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies (held from June 3-24) on June 4, when the Menshevik leader, Tsereteli, outlined a policy for a possible all-socialist government, but declared that no party was advocating such:

“There is,” he said, “no political party in Russia which at the present time would say ‘Give us power’”. To which from the depths of the room an immediate heckle came back: “There is such a party,” shouted Lenin (p143).

However, Lenin is not treated in the book as some uniquely charismatic sage, who had the answer to every political problem. On the occasion of an attempt to evict a group of anarchists from a villa they were occupying, and a demonstration was called in the face of Tsereteli’s determination to suppress it, together with threats by the Black Hundreds, Lenin at first urged that the party should participate. But then he swung round to supporting a proposal that it be cancelled. “The fact is that Lenin had blinked,” comments comrade Miéville (p151).

Lenin even abstained when the vote was called - very uncharacteristic. This provoked a comment from Igor Naumov, a member of the Bolshevik delegation to the Soviet: “If the cancellation was correct, when did we make a mistake?” This affords Miéville the opportunity to point to a well-known left tradition - exaggeration of successes and refusal ever to acknowledge mistakes. He quotes “the vinegary humorist”, Nadezhda Teffi, to the effect that “If Lenin were to talk about a meeting at which he, Zinoviev, Kamenev and five horses were present, he would say ‘There were eight of us’” (p152).

Likewise during the July Days, at a certain point when the Bolshevik leaders were debating what to do, word reached them that the armed masses were approaching, eager to establish soviet power. This prompted someone to ask in astonishment: “Without the sanction of the central committee?” (p173). (The late Labour MP and broadcaster, Brian Walden, is reported to have said in the early 1960s, “I would be in favour of a revolution if I could control it”.)

July Days

The July Days (especially July 3 and 4) were the most critical period in 1917 for the Bolsheviks up to that time, and China Miéville discusses them extensively (pp167-97).

This chapter is particularly useful, as such moments have occurred more than once in a revolutionary situation (eg, Germany 1919 and 1921; Portugal 1975), where a section of the population is anxious to take action, but does not have sufficient support for that to succeed. The revolutionary party, therefore, has to try to hold its supporters back, so as to allow time for larger masses to be won over. A street demonstration began on July 3 and turned violent. Marchers overturned trams, revolutionary soldiers set up machine gun posts on the bridges of the Neva, and left and right clashed in the street. The mood on the left was insurrectionary: “... this movement could not be reversed. The question for the Bolsheviks, then, was whether to shun it, join it or attempt to lead it” (p173).

The party decided to go with the flow, and gave the demonstration its official blessing. But the movement lacked direction, and the crowds dispersed with the coming of darkness. The next day, which was still more violent, involved the capture by sailors from Kronstadt of the great Peter and Paul Fortress (p182), but the struggle overall was still not conclusive. At this point Pacel Perverzev, the minister of justice, announced he had evidence purporting to prove that Lenin was a German spy (p179). The situation was instantly transformed - the rumour being spread by “the sensationalist hard-right rag Zhivoye Slovo (‘The Living Word’ - no prizes for naming the current British equivalent newspaper). Warrants went out for the arrest of Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Kollontai, Anatoly Lunacharsky … and Trotsky, who had demanded flamboyantly that his name be added to the list (p189). Criminal gangs raised their heads, issuing their own warning against “street justice” (pp191-92). Kerensky underlined the trend of events by replacing Brusilov as Russia’s commander-in-chief by the more rightwing Kornilov around July 15-16 (pp194-95).

Kornilov’s rise and his rivalry with Kerensky as potential rightwing dictator of Russia are well documented, and there seems no point in going into a detailed discussion of Miéville’s treatment of the topic here. Suffice it to say that Kornilov was defeated militarily and arrested.

We can pick up the tale on the morning of October 10, as the author’s action-packed retelling of the drama reaches its climax. The Bolshevik CC meets in Nikolai Sukhanov’s flat, attended by 12 out of 21 members, including Lenin in disguise as “a clean-shaven, bespectacled, grey-haired man - ‘every bit like a Lutheran minister’, Alexandra Kollontai remembered” (p261 - photos of Lenin as himself and as “Konstantin Petrovich Ivanov” are reproduced in the book).

We are told on p263 that “Lenin wanted insurrection the next day”. He may have wanted it then, but the resolution he drafted (quoted on p262) does not set a date - how could it? It reads:

The CC acknowledges the international situation as it affects the Russian Revolution … as well as the military situation … and the fact that the proletarian party has gained majorities in the soviets - all this, coupled with the peasant insurrection and the swing of popular confidence to our party, and, finally, the obvious preparation for a second Kornilovschina [Kornilov affair] … makes armed insurrection the order of the day … Recognising that an armed uprising is inevitable and the time fully ripe, the CC instructs all party organisations to be guided accordingly and to consider and decide all practical questions from this viewpoint.


China Miéville’s final chapter (pp305-20) gives us a fleeting glance over the fortunes of the new Soviet state, when, on October 25, Lenin, addressing the Congress of Soviets, declared: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”4

There would appear to be 17 distinct events listed in this epilogue - all would be worth looking at separately, but space is short. We are informed, inter alia, of the Left SRs’ decision to join the new government in December 1917 (p308). The long awaited Constituent Assembly refuses to endorse the Bolshevik-led regime, but is dispersed and fails to provide an effective rallying point for what for a while looks like an exhausted counterrevolution.

The treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3 1918) detonates the resignation of the Left SRs from the government This is followed by a denunciation by the SR heroine, Maria Spiridonova, of food requisitioning by the state (p309) and the ostensible Left SR uprising in June 1918 (I hope to discuss this in a forthcoming piece on Europe between the first and second world wars, together with a number of further events listed in the book). A discussion follows of the armed actions of the Czechoslovak Legion in May 1918, the civil war (1918-21) - Miéville gives a succinct and accurate résumé of why the Whites lost, the unspeakable suffering of the Russian people at this time (pp311-12), the institution of the Cheka (red secret police) led by Feliks Dzerzhinsky, who is quoted as saying at the end of 1918, while drunk: “I have spilt so much blood I no longer have any right to live” (p312). It is recorded that a Cheka newspaper called for the use of torture against enemies of the revolution, whereupon the Soviet authorities closed the organ down (ibid).

The 1921 ban on factions in the Communist Party is duly noted; likewise what has been called ‘Lenin’s last struggle’ (the title of a book by Moshe Lewin) is mentioned briefly. The so-called ‘Lenin testament’ is very briefly alluded to, about the need to remove Stalin as party general secretary. Lenin’s death in 1924 (p313) leads to the emergence of a grotesque Lenin cult (which his wife in particular objected to).

The rest of the list comprises Stalin’s main initiatives - the push for ‘socialism in one country’ (a complete denial of Marx’s world revolution perspective), the forcible defeat of the Left Opposition, and the speech by Stalin in 1931, where he said: “We have 10 years to catch up with the west - either we do it or they will crush us”. In contrast to all the above, there is (as necessary) a brief mention of the moves towards socialism in other parts of Europe - Germany 1918-23, Austria 1918-19, Hungary 1919, Italy 1919-20 (the ‘two red years’).

It is a pity that there is no mention of Alexandra Kollontai’s comments on why the Left Opposition lost the political battle with Stalin.5 Kollontai says:

Now we are in a period of construction and we need not only unity in our actions, but unity in our thinking. The masses instinctively understand this. That is why they are so opposed to the Opposition. The Opposition destroys the cohesion of the collective; a cohesion that has been built up with such difficulty (p313).

Lastly, Trotsky is usefully quoted on 1905, to the effect that: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat, the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship” (pp29-30).

This judgement has been proven correct, although not in the way many observers expected - the rule of the workers was undermined from within. Trotsky reiterated his concern with the European revolution many times after: eg, in War and the International (1915) through to The revolution betrayed (1936), where, explaining that Europe suffers because it is split up into numerous national states, he declared: “The task of the European proletariat is not the perpetuation of boundaries, but, on the contrary, their revolutionary abolition; not the status quo, but the Socialist United States of Europe.”6

In conclusion, I would recommend a reading, in conjunction with the book’s epilogue, of an article by Al Richardson which appeared in What Next? (No6, 1997, pp26-28), which argues that the Bolshevik revolution may be thought of as premature, with its anomalous state form, but that the question can only ultimately be decided by the ongoing class struggle.

A measure of the worth of China Miéville’s book is that, given a basic knowledge of the events, which can easily be got from John Reed’s Ten days that shook the world, everyone can gain by reading it.


1. A good deal of information on the soviets is given in the index, p359 (Petrograd) and on pp365-66 (general).

2. The term ‘White Hundreds’ was used in mediaeval Russia to designate the privileged nobility and wealthy merchants; by contrast, active supporters of such organisations as the Union of Russian People (of 1905 provenance) were definitely not usually nobles or merchants: hence they became known as ‘Black Hundreds’. This information is from O Figes A people’s tragedy London 1997, p195. See also DC Rawson Russian rightists and the revolution of 1905 Cambridge 1995, and W Laqueur Black Hundred: the rise of the extreme right in Russia London 1994.

3. Strictly speaking, the slogan, ‘All power to the soviets!’, which expresses this is illogical, since power simply means the ability to do something or get something done, and cannot therefore be concentrated in one institution or set of institutions. The slogan really means that the soviets should have sovereign power, and echoes the historical sovereignty of the tsar.

4. In one sense this famous sentence was ill-phrased, since it gave the impression that socialism could simply be instituted as a series of steps by the Russian people, regardless of outside events (Stalin’s gloss in 1924). But, as comrade Miéville notes, “Lenin was clear that it was not our immediate task to ‘introduce socialism, prior to a European socialist revolution, but to place power in the hands of working people, rather than to pursue political class collaboration, as advocated by the Mensheviks’” (p113).

5. See A Kollontai Selected writings London 1977, pp312-14.

6. L Trotsky The revolution betrayed Detroit 1998, p198.