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Four Books to Read in the Centenary Year of the Russian Revolution

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International Women’s Day on the 8th March 2017 marks one hundred years since the beginning of the Russian Revolution, the earth-shattering events which saw the overthrow of the Russian Tsar and the eventual replacement in November of the Russian Empire with a state based on councils (soviets) of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, led by Lenin’s Bolshevik party.

It is unsurprising that these historic events, and their contested legacy, would provide a mountain of historical and other literature. In its centenary year, what are some of the highlights in getting to grips with one of the key turning points in world history?

Ten Days That Shook the World

John Reed was an American socialist journalist who visited Russia in 1917 to report on the revolution for the radical New York journal The Masses. He returned to the USA in April 1918 intent to write down his vivid impressions of the tumultuous events he experienced and the privileged access he enjoyed to Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Bolsheviks.

Reed’s book very nearly did not get written. On his return from Russia, his belongings were seized by US customs officials and his trunk of notes, documents and books was not returned to him until November 1918. He then worked day and night at a frenzied pace for about two weeks to complete his masterpiece before his memories faded.

Controversial since the date of its publication, Ten Days that Shook the World is a thrilling eye-witness account of the Revolution, both honest yet unapologetically partisan on the side of the revolutionaries. It was damned by conservatives but also banned by Stalin - some might say there is no higher compliment.

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The Russian Revolution

Renowned social historian of Russia, Sheila Fitzpatrick, produced a clear and concise one-volume interpretative survey of the revolution, which is currently in its third edition.

Unlike some of the other books on this list, Fitzpatrick carries the story of the revolution from 1917 right up until Stalin’s purges of the mid-1930s. In doing so, she interprets the ebbs and flows of the revolutionary process, from initial enthusiasm, to bureaucratisation, to the regime produced by the horrors of Stalin’s forced collectivisation.

Based on archival material available only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Fitzpatrick’s book is an accessible account of events and a fine introduction to some of the wider historical and conceptual questions raised by the Russian Revolution.

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The Bolsheviks Come To Power

In The Bolsheviks Come to Power, Alexander Rabinowitch provides an academic yet briskly written account of the Russian Revolution, synthesising narrative with original source material.

Although focused on Petrograd and the latter half of 1917, the book’s principal virtue is that it provides thought-provoking evidence and arguments to counter two dominant interpretations of the revolution in academia, politics and public understanding.

The first is the school textbook view the October Revolution was a coup d’etat launched narrowly by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. Rabinowitch, on the other hand, convincingly traces the growth of support among the wider working-class for the Bolshevik idea that the soviets (workers’ councils) should take governmental power over the summer of 1917, and the discrediting of the forces tied to the old Provisional Government.

The second idea to come under attack is the Stalinist myth of a monolithic Communist Party which in many ways preserves the essential content of the first myth, with the value judgements reversed from negative to positive. In Rabinowitch’s account, the differences in strategy and ideas between even leading members of the party, and the vigorous debate in the organisation, come to the fore.

He concludes that victory was due in no small part to “the party's internally relatively democratic, tolerant, and decentralised structure and method of operation, as well as its essentially open and mass character--in striking contrast to the traditional Leninist model.”

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History Of The Russian Revolution

Leon Trotsky’s three-volume History of the Russian Revolution is unique on this list in being written by one of the leaders of the revolution itself.

Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher has compared him as an historian variously to Karl Marx, Thomas Carlyle and Winston Churchill. It is not difficult to see why. A sprawling panorama, Trotsky’s history takes in not only the events of the Russian Revolution itself, but sets them in the context of a deep historical analysis of Russia’s social structure. In the second chapter, he outlines and applies his famous theory of “combined and uneven development” to explain how it was that a society as underdeveloped as Russia nevertheless produced the world’s first workers’ revolution.

Though Trotsky is at pains to point out that the work did “not rely in any degree upon personal recollections” but “historically verified documents”, he argues strikingly that the “serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom…”

Whether one agrees or not with Trotsky’s account, it cannot be ignored by anyone interested in the subject.

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London-based library worker, interested in modern history, socialism and Ireland.

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