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What the Bolsheviks Saw

The revolutionary imagination of 1917

Revolution is always a matter of time travel, an exercise of the imagination, a painstaking, desperate crafting of the ultimate counterfactual. Sometimes, it involves creating a revolutionary calendar, a rebooting of our origins. So it was for the prophet Muhammad when he established the ummah, beginning a calendar that makes this year of ours 1439, and from which point it is possible to imagine there is still hope. And so it was for the French Revolution, which chose to institute a Republican calendar, transforming 1792, the year of the founding of the Republic, into Year One, with the days and the months named after natural elements.

“The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” that crusty old revolutionary Marx would title the articles he wrote on the 1848 revolution in France for his anti-slavery, German-American comrade Joseph Weydemeyer in New York. The eighteenth day in the month of Brumaire, Marx meant, referring to the French Republican calendar. A month of brume, of mist and fog, a month that overlapped October and November in its effort to achieve something new.

The Bolsheviks did something similar, as they brought about the Russian Revolution whose hundredth anniversary has come up on us: they would create their own overlapping month, establishing their new state through an event that is mostly known, based on the old Julian calendar used by pre-revolutionary Russia, as the October Revolution. Yet, given that the upheaval resulted in Russia’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar, thirteen days ahead of its Julian counterpart, it is also the November revolution.

Nevertheless, October is what the writer China Miéville chooses to call his gripping new account of the revolution, although he is well aware that his October is also a November. It is, in many ways, a month of much chaos. Almost everybody is confused in Miéville’s narration of the events, not least the figure we’re used to thinking of as steely and decisive, the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin—even as he sped (as the line from the Pet Shop Boys song “West End Girls” has it) from Lake Geneva to the Finland Station. Instead, Lenin often lags behind the fast-moving events, unsure that the time is right for a full-scale uprising of the working classes.

Lenin is full of doubt, often asking the rank and file of the Bolsheviks to back off from their demonstrations.

Of course, Lenin is not as bad as the Mensheviks, convinced from their reading of Marxist theory that a bourgeois state must first be established before a country as backward as Russia can contemplate a proletarian order. But Lenin is full of doubt, often asking the rank and file of the Bolsheviks to back off from their demonstrations, and sometimes notably less prescient than Leon Trotsky. Only eventually does Lenin’s sense of what is possible, of what might be done, fall in step with the restlessness of the workers and soldiers desperate for a more just world, one where there is enough bread, enough freedom, and where the senseless European war they are engaged in can be abandoned for peace.

A hundred years after the event, when the Russian Revolution terrifies plutocrats so much that they wish to erase it entirely from history or to reduce it simply to the grievous errors that followed from it, Miéville’s book wants to rework our sense of that time. It wants us to know how and why deprived, brutalized people in an autocratic, peripheral country came to believe revolutionary change was both necessary and possible, beginning with a day in February when women marked International Women’s Day, a recent innovation of the left, by walking out of their factories.

Miéville’s month-by-month account gives us the back and forth from that point on. There are countless strikes, of course, and barricades, and astonishingly colorful characters like the anarchist Shlema Asnin who “dressed like a gothic cowboy, wide-brimmed hats, guns and all,” the cleaning lady Ekaterina Alexeeva, who lets the Bolsheviks into the Duma building for a secret meeting, and Viktor Shklovsky, the great formalist critic, walking toward the front lines in Galicia as a Soviet army commissar.

None of this texture is surprising coming from Miéville, one of the edgiest and most political of writers working today. Protest and resistance has long animated his vast body of speculative fiction, works like Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, Railsea, and the recent, Surrealism-inspired The Last Days of New Paris that effortlessly demonstrate the overlapping of the utopian political imagination with its aesthetic counterpart. Here too, there are moments when October is a truly steampunkish history of the revolution, as for instance when Miéville writes, “The revolution of 1917 is a revolution of trains. . . .The tsar’s wheeled palace, shunted into sidings forever; Lenin’s sealed stateless carriage; Guchkov and Shulgin’s meandering abdication express; the trains criss-crossing Russia heavy with desperate deserters; the engine stoked by ‘Konstantin Ivanov,’ Lenin in his wig, eagerly shovelling coal.” Write this all over again as fiction, one wants to say to him, and please put in more of the art, the poetry, what the writer Anatoly Lunacharsky called the refashioning of the soul, and less of the endless meetings and committees and backstabbing and dithering.

This flowering of possibilities provoked, in turn, the thoughts of upturning the imperial order everywhere.

But then, perhaps, Miéville wants us to know that a revolution is not only an act of the imagination. It involves meetings and minutes as much as guns and poetry, and cleaning up after the meetings is always a necessity. Still, its ultimate purpose is to make us think how astonishing it is that the Russian Revolution happened at all, in this place and not in the great powers of the era with their promises of modernity—Britain, France, Germany, the United States—this flowering of possibilities that provoked, in turn, the thoughts of upturning the imperial order everywhere else, in the West and East, in the North and in the Global South.

“October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power,” Miéville writes. “Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, one hundred years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy.” It is sobering to reflect that a hundred years from that red October, those demands still strike us as revolutionary.