Russia 1917: You Are There

By Carl FreedmanJuly 8, 2017

Russia 1917: You Are There

October by China Miéville

THIS IS a very fine book — in some ways, I believe, the best work that China Miéville has produced since the three thick volumes of the Bas-Lag trilogy. Indeed, October bears, in certain respects, a deeper affinity to those novels — Perdido Street Station (2000), The Scar (2002), and Iron Council (2004) — than to anything else he has published since; and it thus provides a convenient opportunity to take stock of the Miéville oeuvre to date.

Miéville, of course, is primarily a novelist, and one whose peculiar genius is based on the synthesis, in his fiction, of compelling, engaging plots and memorable, three-dimensional characters with a wide range of rigorously presented ideas: ideas derived predominantly (though not exclusively) from the vast Marxist intellectual tradition. Though most of Miéville’s fiction can certainly be read and enjoyed merely for its attractive surface qualities, a deeper engagement with it requires some grasp of such concepts as the logic of the dialectic (especially in Perdido Street Station and in The Scar); the distinctions between bourgeois and socialist revolution (in King Rat [1998] and in Iron Council); the structure of imperialism (in The Scar and, in a rather different way, in The City & The City [2009]); the construction of the national and the nationalist imaginary (most notably in The City & The City); the law of uneven and combined development (especially in The City & The City and in This Census-Taker [2016]); and the difference, in language, between signification and referentiality (in Embassytown [2011]). Among the greatest realistic English novelists of the 19th century — who collectively form, in some respects, the ultimate background against which all later English (and much non-English) prose fiction has been composed — Miéville’s chief precursor is, in at least one way, the uniquely intellectual and scholarly George Eliot.

As with Eliot, Miéville’s scholarly and theoretical bent has also found expression in a significant body of nonfiction related in vital ways to his fiction. His numerous essays in literary criticism (which are considerably overdue to be collected in book form) are devoted mainly to writers whose influence is important in his own novels and tales; and his monograph on international law — Between Equal Rights (2005) — analyzes many of the same issues that are explored in novelistic form in The Scar, which was written at about the same time. October, however, is Miéville’s first nonfiction work in which his powers as a novelist are on full display.

The volume is of medium length, and, as the subtitle indicates, offers a narrative account of the Russian Revolution, specifically of the months in 1917 from February (when the tsarist regime was overthrown and the Provisional Government established) through October (when the Provisional Government was overthrown and the Bolshevik Party seized state power). The author expressly disavows pretensions to real scholarship, and the disavowal is justified in the sense that October seems not only to be based exclusively on published sources (Miéville has apparently done no archival research) but on sources either written in or translated into English. The immense literature on the Russian Revolution available only in French or German — or, most importantly of course, in Russian — evidently goes untapped. Within these limits, however, the author’s reading appears to have been about as wide as could be expected of anyone other than an academic specialist. Miéville has leaned heavily on contemporary journalistic accounts of the revolution and on memoirs written later by observers and participants. He has mastered an impressive number of the theoretical, polemical, and historical texts produced by leaders of the revolution, most notably Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. He has also read a wide variety of studies by academic historians, including socialists like Mike Haynes and Lars T. Lih, liberals like Orlando Figes, and even right-wingers like Richard Pipes — not to mention the voluminous, indispensable, and almost unclassifiable E. H. Carr. Research has long been one of Miéville’s strengths, not only in Between Equal Rights (his most scholarly production to date) but frequently in his fiction as well. For instance, extensive reading in modern linguistic theory lies behind Embassytown, and the amount of research into surrealist art and poetry done for The Last Days of New Paris (2016) could probably have supported a doctoral dissertation. Though no single individual could possibly absorb all the useful material on the Russian Revolution — the field is simply too enormous for that — Miéville has done his homework extremely well. Furthermore, though Miéville makes no secret of his Marxist convictions or his fundamental sympathy for the Bolsheviks, this is not, primarily, a polemical or partisan book. The author tries to be fair to the various contending factions and individuals of 1917, and the Bolsheviks — who, as October makes clear, were often fiercely divided among themselves — come in for a significant share of criticism on matters small and large. The beginning reader who mainly seeks a balanced, accurate introduction to the events of 1917 will be in safe hands.

Yet October should also be a rewarding book for those who have already studied the Russian Revolution a good deal. It will even be highly worthwhile, I should think, for scholarly specialists who will find few facts new to them in these pages (though I certainly cannot claim to speak for this group myself). For, from the beginning to the end of October, Miéville the conscientious popular historian is supported by Miéville the great novelist. I have elsewhere discussed the Bas-Lag novels in terms of the “thick descriptions” that the author provides of the varied sectors of the invented world of Bas-Lag. In the great trilogy, such places as the powerful capitalist city-state of New Crobuzon, the floating pirate utopia of Armada, and the “perpetual train” of moving communist revolution called the Iron Council are all delineated with such totalizing comprehension and in such meticulous detail that everyday life, as experienced by a large gallery of psychologically convincing characters, seems utterly concrete and present. The settings of Bas-Lag are so completely there that it becomes difficult to believe, as one reads, that they have been wholly invented out of paper, ink, and the author’s imagination. Though the generic composition of the Bas-Lag trilogy is determined primarily by a synthesis of fantasy and science fiction (with other genres at work as well), the method of these novels might alternatively be described as the sociohistorical realism of an imaginary world.

Not since the Bas-Lag trilogy — with the arguable exception, perhaps, of The City & The City — has Miéville’s special talent for describing environments been exercised so powerfully as in October. In this text, of course, the setting is no invented world but the Russia, and mainly the Petrograd (today Sankt-Peterburg), of real history during the nine most fateful months of 1917. As Miéville traces the progress of the revolution not only month by month but sometimes day by day, and occasionally almost hour by hour, we feel that we are seeing and hearing, and at some points even smelling and tasting and feeling — as well as understanding — the events that will culminate in Red October. Here, for example, is a glimpse of the part of the Tauride Palace where the parliament is meeting in March, in the wake of the tsar’s overthrow: “Beneath its high ceiling the Duma’s meeting room was foul with cigarette butts, bottles, and the smell from plates of half-eaten food which made the famished socialists salivate.” Here, in midsummer, are sailors from Petrograd’s Kronstadt naval base, which throughout 1917 was a center of the most fervent revolutionary sentiment and activity, as they arrive in the capital city:

Kronstadt’s February had been bloody and desperate, an act of revolutionary hope on an isolated island, in expectation of counter-revolution by dawn. No officer held sway in their base now. The sailors’ soviet had no qualms about completing its own local revolution, and their arrival meant more than just more men in Petrograd. They were, rather, emissaries from a red fortress. A living collective, a political premonition.

It may be noted that the stylistic echo in this passage (especially in the final sentence quoted) of Iron Council — one of many such echoes in October — is wholly appropriate, for these are Miéville’s only two books to offer detailed, direct representations of the process of communist revolution. Here, the revolutionary seizure of state power all but completed, is what the author calls Red October’s “endgame in the Winter Palace”:

Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

If the Bas-Lag trilogy represents imaginary places with such strong quasi-verisimilitude that it is hard to believe that these environments have no real-world existence, October illustrates how the most lifelike descriptions of actual historical settings can succeed in large part by borrowing the techniques of prose fiction.

Among the quasi-novelistic features of October, the representation of character is second in importance only to the representation of setting. Though October never loses sight of the fact that the revolution was made by the masses, most of whose names are lost to history — for real politics, as Lenin famously said, begins only where there are millions — many of the better-known actors of 1917 emerge from these pages as vividly as the dramatis personae of a good work of fiction: the right-wing army general Lavr Kornilov, for instance, and the self-dramatizing and self-deluding Socialist Revolutionary Alexander Kerensky, on the conservative wing of his party and always drifting further right; the tireless, principled Menshevik Julius Martov and the always cautious Bolshevik Lev Kamenev, who would perish under Joseph Stalin; the paramount Bolshevik leader Lenin, a man of little obvious warmth but of almost superhuman resolution, and his brilliantly charismatic opponent-turned-ally, Trotsky. Occasionally, one may suspect Miéville’s novelistic imagination of running slightly ahead of the documentary record. For instance, he shows us Lenin in Swiss exile, reading in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of the tsar’s abdication: “Lenin, too, looked up in thought, his eyes wide.” Does Miéville really have a source for the width of Lenin’s eyes at that particular moment? Still, such a slip, if that it be, is rare, very minor, and more than compensated for by the liveliness of the portrayal.

The novelistic or quasi-novelistic qualities of October help to make it an irresistibly readable book; this is history written at the furthest remove from lifeless textbook dryness. There is, however, also an important issue in the philosophy of history implicitly at stake here, one articulated most effectively by Jean-Paul Sartre in Question de méthode (1957). Arguing mainly against a certain too mechanistic version of Marxism, Sartre maintains that, in studying the men and women of the past, we should not understand them simply and solely in terms of what retrospective historical interpretation judges the ultimate significance of their actions to have been. We should also strive for an existential grasp of how they understood themselves, of the three-dimensional psychological terms in which the battles of the past have been fought. Thus, for example, to understand the French Revolution as having helped to create the conditions under which French capitalism could break free of the feudal restraints inhibiting its growth should not mean forgetting that the protagonists of 1789 passionately believed themselves to be struggling for liberté, égalité, fraternité. The same principle applies, of course, to the Russian Revolution. Reading October, we are never allowed to forget that the people of the revolution were people — real living, breathing human beings — and not abstract categories of historical science. Though Miéville certainly has his heroes of the left and his villains of the right, he makes clear that the rightists were not villains in their own eyes and that the left-wing heroes were flawed as all members of our species are. The volume understands political theory to be indispensable for a comprehension of the revolution, while also keeping in mind that human interactions can never be reduced only to the expression of theory. A particularly memorable example concerns an encounter between Trotsky and Martov. As the author of the theory of permanent revolution — according to which Russia could pass directly from the overthrow of tsarism to socialist revolution, without passing through an extended period of bourgeois rule — Trotsky had little in common with Martov, whose Menshevism was based on the insistence that the “stages” of history could not be skipped. Yet, during the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies in June, where Martov was viciously attacked by most of his own party for condemning the Menshevik Irakli Tsereteli’s collaboration with the Provisional Government, it was Trotsky who rushed forward in solidarity to proclaim, “Long live the honest socialist Martov!”

October is, indeed, so devoted to providing an existential dramatic narrative of the Russian Revolution that it has relatively little attention to spare for the revolution’s long-term significance. But the book — pointedly published an even 100 years after Red October — does not neglect the matter altogether. In an epilogue titled “After October,” Miéville acknowledges that, “We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder,” while, at the same time, he insists that the revolution’s “degradation was not a given, was not written in any stars.” His chief explanation for the trajectory from the bright hopes of October to the nightmarish despair of the gulags is that which has long been more or less standard in Marxist (except for Stalinist or Communist Party) circles. Lenin and all the other original Bolsheviks had assumed that, owing to Russia’s relatively low economic and cultural level, revolution in western Europe — especially in Germany — would be indispensable to the successful construction of a socialist society in Russia. When western revolution failed to materialize, something like the despotism implied in Stalin’s “Socialism in One Country” became overwhelmingly probable, though perhaps not necessarily in such savage form as it actually took.

Perhaps surprisingly, Miéville says almost nothing about the balance sheet of the Soviet Union from Lenin’s death in 1924 and Trotsky’s exile in 1929 until its own implosion in 1991. There is a case to be made — often maintained in the Trotskyist tradition but also upheld by other left-wing Marxists like Sartre — that Red October, however often betrayed and corrupted throughout Soviet history, was never completely abandoned. The defeat of Nazism, the support of liberation forces from South Africa to Cuba, the solidarity with Vietnam against near-genocidal United States assault: the revolutionaries of 1917 would have been proud of Soviet achievements like these. After 1991, however, there will be no more of such, and it is perhaps for this reason that Miéville instead finds the positive value of October to inhere in its status as example and even as symbol: “The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again.” The ultimate image of Iron Council is of the communist train suspended out of time and unable to produce direct political effects, but still charged with revolutionary energy that may be discharged another day. For Miéville, the historical image of Red October is something very much like that: a real-world counterpart to his invented perpetual train. It is, indeed, no coincidence that, in the volume’s final pages, where stylistic echoes of Iron Council become overwhelming, images of trains are everywhere. “The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains,” writes the author, whose final perspective, in this book, is “from the liberated train, in liberty’s dim light.”

Isaac Deutscher — perhaps the most brilliant of all who have written in English about the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union — once commented that, though there are various good ways to write history, the very greatest historical works are those that are simultaneously works of science and works of art. Deutscher’s own magnificent three-volume biography of Trotsky is among the most outstanding modern examples of this principle. Since Miéville’s October seems to be innocent of the archives and of Russian-language material, some might reasonably question its status as a work of historical science: though perhaps we can say that it is about as scientific as a book based on library research into English-language sources could be. That it is an excellent work of art there is no doubt whatever.


Carl Freedman is the William A. Read Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University. His best-known book is Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015).

LARB Contributor

Carl Freedman was born in 1951. He is the William A. Read Professor of English Literature at Louisiana State University and the author of many books, articles, and reviews that cover a wide range of topics in modern thought and culture, most notably Marxist critical theory, science fiction, film, and United States electoral politics. His best-known book is Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000); his most recent is Art and Idea in the Novels of China Miéville (2015). He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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