A story can be retold many times over the course of a century. There can hardly be a series of events in modern history of which this is more true than the Russian revolution. In reproducing the story of 1917, one might expect China Miéville – the award-winning author of a brand of fantasy and sci-fi commonly labelled “weird” – to shake things up, twist events into strange new shapes. Yet his new history of the events of 1917, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution bears none of the surreality or irregularity of fiction like The City and the City (2009) or Three Moments of an Explosion (2015).
Instead Miéville has settled into a new groove between historian and novelist, making a virtue of his inexperience as a professional scholar of the revolution to put together a complex but readable account of the months between February and October 1917 that retains its author’s sense of excitement at what was going down. In retelling this old yarn, Miéville’s motivation is less to say something “new” and more to recapture some of the energy and agency represented in the Bolshevik seizure of power.
You’re talking about events that are so extraordinary that if you were to submit them as fiction your editor would probably send it back
“It’s completely chimerical to hope to tell the whole story. It was never intended to be an academic book,” he tells me. “The aim was to give you some sense of what an extraordinary story this was. On that level it’s that most straightforward thing: a narrative history.”
From the outset, Miéville intended for October to read “like a novel, letting the pace of the narrative pull you through.” At the same time, he committed himself to a pretty austere level of accuracy: his characters only say or write what is in the historical record. The resulting prose is both rollicking and intricate, picking meticulously through the personal quarrels at Bolshevik meetings one minute and sweeping through the streets the next. It’s a breathless and sometimes bewildering experience that functions as neither history nor fiction, where the protagonist, in Miéville’s words, is intended to be the revolution itself
“The thing with the revolution is that it’s not lacking in narrative tension,” he says. “You don’t have to do any sleight of hand. When you’re talking about something like the Kornilov revolt, you’re talking about events that are so extraordinary that if you were to submit them as fiction your editor would probably send it back covered in red pen saying: ‘bit much, rein it in.’”
Miéville is a leftist for whom 1917 is hardly “terra incognita. Writing it nuanced my positions but I didn’t completely reverse my sympathies.” One of the strengths of October are its brief, lyrical character sketches, woven into extracts from newspapers, memoirs, political debates. Tsar Nicholas II is “a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu” given to “bovine placidity”. Trotsky “was much spoken of, but in an uncertain tenor” because of “his maverick theories, bitter and brutal polemics, abrasive personality and inveterate contrariness”. On the Bolshevik leader: “To an extent unusual even among that ilk who live and die for politics, Lenin’s blood and marrow are nothing else.”
Usual suspects apart, the dramatis personae is quickly populated by seemingly hundreds of lesser-known figures, each with their part to play in these world historical events: General Ruzsky, Skobolev, Chkheidze, Shlyapnikov, Purishkevich… It can be hard to keep up. One admirable aspect to Miéville’s narrative is its attention to the international, inter-ethnic nature of revolution amongst the Russian empire’s many subjects. Revolutionaries in Azerbaijan, Latvia, Ukraine and Turkestan are given their due; the anti-Semitism of counter-revolutionaries is not ignored; women are recentred as part of the story of Petrograd. These aspects of 1917 are practically invisible in mainstream discussion; Miéville’s desire to document “the way the revolution was becoming a living reality to be wrestled with in these places” is a step in the right direction.
I wanted to show the way the Revolution was becoming a living reality to be wrestled with
October is the story of how the “great, sluggard, contradictory power” of tsarist Russia, locked into the First World War’s “strange infrastructure of death”, was transformed by forces “from below”. Miéville is unequivocal that the revolution was an “inspirational” instance of radical political change. I agree with him, but wonder how he feels about the presumed need, a century later, for those sympathetic to the revolution to account for the violence committed in its name.
“It’s a classic question and one that can, depending on the direction it comes from, be exhausting or infuriating, because often it’s asked in very bad faith. But if it’s asked in good faith I think it’s crucial. To speak with sympathy and inspiration about this event does not then mean that you endorse everything that happened.” The nascent Bolshevik regime was assaulted by Allied forces, blockaded, its far-right opponents lent international support, as Miéville is quick to point out. But he is also not interested in “engaging in an embarrassing and ultimately unconvincing politics by apologia, politics by cosplay, acting as if 1917 is simply a paradigm for anyone on the left now, and not engaging seriously and critically and sympathetically with criticisms of those revolutionaries whom one also wants to honour.”
In that sense, October is an introduction to the hundred-year old story of the revolution as much as it is yet another retelling. “The book is a first word in a discussion or a debate,” Miéville concludes. “You can only have a discussion if you know the story. And the story is what comes before.”
Below is an extract from chapter two of October entitled February: Joyful Tears, describing the unrest in Petrograd that led to the February revolution and the abdication of tsar Nicholas II.
On the 22nd the tsar left the capital for Mogilev, a drab town 200 miles to the east that housed the Stavka, the supreme headquarters of the armed forces. That was the day the Putilov bosses decided to show their strength: they declared a lockout. Closing the factory doors, they put 30,000 militant workers onto the streets – on what happened to be the eve of a recent innovation of the left, International Women’s Day.
Celebrations and events across the empire marked 23 February, demanding rights for women and applauding their contributions. In the factories of Petrograd, radicals gave speeches on the situation of women, the iniquity of the war, the impossible cost of living. But even they did not expect what happened next.
As the meetings ended, women began to pour from the factories onto the streets, shouting for bread. They marched through the city’s most militant districts – Vyborg, Liteiny, Rozhdestvenskii – hollering to people gathered in the courtyards of the blocks, filling the wide streets in huge and growing numbers, rushing to the factories and calling on the men to join them. An Okhrana spy reported:
At about 1 p.m., the working men of the Vyborg district, walking out in crowds into the streets and shouting ‘Give us bread!’, started ... to become disorderly ... taking with them on the way their comrades who were at work, and stopping tramcars ... The strikers, who were resolutely chased by police and troops ... were dispersed in one place but quickly gathered in others.
All in all, the police muttered, they were ‘exceptionally stubborn’. ‘Are we going to put up with this in silence much longer, now and then venting our smouldering rage on small shop owners?’ demanded a leaflet issued by one tiny revolutionary group, the Interborough Committee, the Mezhraiontsy. ‘After all, they’re not to blame for the people’s suffering, they are being ruined themselves. The government is to blame!’ Abruptly, without anyone having planned it, almost 90,000 women and men were roaring on the streets of Petrograd. And now they were not shouting only for bread, but for an end to the war. An end to the reviled monarchy.
The night did not bring calm. The next day came a wave of dissent. Close to half the city’s workforce poured onto the streets. They marched under red banners, chanting the new slogan: ‘To Nevsky!’
The geography of Peter’s capital was carefully plotted. The south of Vasilievsky island, the Neva’s left bank, as far as its branch, the Fontanka, were sumptuous; this was the quarter of the Mariinsky theatre, the spectacular Kazan and Isaac Cathedrals, the palaces of the nobility and the substantial apartment blocks of professionals, Nevsky Prospect itself. Ringing them were districts more recently thrown up by migration: remoter parts of Vasilievsky, Vyborg and Okhta on the Neva’s right bank; on its left, the Alexander Nevsky, Moscow and Narva neighbourhoods. Here the workers, many fresh from the countryside’s black earth, lived in their own blocks, in tottering brick barracks, in squalid wooden hovels between the blaring factories.
Such segregation meant that, to make their protests heard, the urban poor had to invade the city centre. They had done so in 1905. Now they tried again.
The Petrograd police blocked the bridges. But the gods of weather showed solidarity in the form of this brutal winter. The streets were lined with thick snowpiles, and the great Neva itself remained frozen. The demonstrators descended in their thousands from the embankments onto the ice. They walked across the face of the waters.
In a telegram home, the British ambassador George Buchanan offhandedly dismissed the disorder as ‘nothing serious’. Almost no one had, as yet, any sense of what had begun.
Climbing up from the river on the smarter side of town, the demonstrators pushed on through palatial streets towards the heartland. The police watched nervously. The mood grew brittle. Jeering, hesitant at first, in ones and twos then growing in confidence and numbers, some in the crowd began to hurl sticks and stones and jags of the ice over which they had come at the detested policemen, ‘Pharaohs’ in the city’s slang.
Towards the army’s rank and file, in contrast, the demonstrators were conciliatory. They gathered in great crowds by barracks and army hospitals. There they struck up conversations with curious and friendly soldiers.
The bulk of Petrograd’s soldiers were conscripts, recruits in training, or bored, bitter, ill-disciplined, demoralised reservists. Among them, too, were injured and sick personnel evacuated from the front.
A. F. Ilyin-Genevsky was already a convinced Bolshevik when he was gassed and shell shock shattered his memory for a time. From his hospital bed he saw the political awakening of the wounded, ‘the rapid revolutionising of the army’ under such desperate tutelage. ‘After all the bloody horrors of war, people who found themselves in the peaceful quiet of the hospitals involuntarily began to think over the cause of all this bloodshed and sacrifice.’ And he saw such reflections devolve into ‘hate and rage’. No wonder the war-wounded in particular were notorious for their hostility to military life.
And what of the 12,000 ‘reliable’ troops, on whom the city’s rulers pinned their hopes? What of the implacable Cossacks? Slavic-speakers from, particularly, the Don region of Ukraine and Russia itself, Cossack communities had not known serfdom, and boasted a long if rough tradition of militaristic, self-governing democracy. By the nineteenth century they had become projected as a myth: they were depicted as and often believed themselves uniquely proud, honoured and honourable, a quasi-ethnic, quasi-estate-based cavalry, a people-class. Living symbols of Russia, and traditional agents of tsarist repression: their whips and sabres had spattered a lot of blood on the snow, twelve years before.
But Cossacks were never a monolithic group. They, too, were differentiated by class. And many of them had grown sick of the war, and of how they were being used.
On Nevsky Prospect, a crowd of strikers came to a stand-off with mounted Cossacks, their lances glinting in the sun. A fearful hesitation. For a long moment something was poised in the icy air. Abruptly the officers wheeled and rode away, leaving the demonstrators cheering in astonished delight.
On Znamenskaya Square, other strikers hailed other Cossack cavalrymen, and this time the riders smiled back at the demonstrators they ostentatiously did not disperse. When the crowd clapped them, the police agitatedly reported, the Cossacks bowed in their saddles.
Over the hours, in the Tauride Palace, representatives to the national Duma continued to speechify against the regime. What they demanded was relevance: that the tsar must establish a ministry responsible to the Duma itself. For the left, Alexander Kerensky, the well-known Trudovik with a substantial reputation thanks to his writings on the Lena Goldfields massacre, held forth against the government in such swingeing and grandiloquent terms that the tsarina, hearing of it, wrote furiously to her husband, wishing Kerensky hanged.
Evening came and the air grew even colder. The heaving streets rang with revolutionary songs. Seeing workers from the Promet factory marching behind a woman, a Cossack officer jeered that they were following a baba, a hag. Arishina Kruglova, the Bolshevik in question, yelled back that she was an independent woman worker, a wife and sister of soldiers at the front. At her riposte, the troops who faced her lowered their guns.
Two thousand five hundred Vyborg mill-workers took a narrow route down Sampsonievsky Prospect, stopping short, horrified, when they met a Cossack formation. The officers grimaced, grabbed their reins and spurred their horses, and with weapons aloft they shouted for their men to follow. This time, to the crowd’s rising terror, the Cossacks began to obey.
But they followed the command with absolute precision. Like dressage riders, their mounts high-stepping elegantly through the slush, they advanced in slow, neat single file. The troops winked at the dumbfounded crowd as they came, dispersing no one at all.
There is an old Scottish term for a particular technique of industrial resistance, a go-slow or a sabotage by surplus obedience, making the letter of the rules undermine their spirit: the ca’canny. That chill evening, the Cossacks did not disobey orders – they conducted a ca’canny cavalry charge.
Their furious officers ordered them to block the street. Once more the men respectfully complied. With their legendary equestrian skills, they lined up their horses into a living blockade breathing out mist. Again, in their very obedience was dissent. Ordered to be still, still they remained. They did not move as the boldest marchers crept closer. The Cossacks did not move as the strikers approached, their eyes widening as at last they understood the unspoken invitation in the preternatural immobility of mounts and men, as they ducked below the bellies of the motionless horses to continue their march.
Rarely have skills imparted by reaction been so exquisitely deployed against it.
Next day, the 25th, 240,000 people were out on strike, demanding bread, an end to the war, the abdication of the tsar. Tramcars did not run, newspapers did not publish. Shops stayed closed: there was no shortage of sympathetic business owners exhausted with the incompetence of the regime. Now, smarter clothes were visible in the crowds, among workers’ smocks.
The mood on both sides was growing hard. The Alexander III monument is a massive and ugly bronze, a thickset horse with head bowed as if in shame at the despot it carries. That day, from its shadow, mounted police opened fire on the approaching crowd. But this time, stunning the protestors as much as their adversaries, watching Cossacks fired too – back at the police.
In Znamenskaya Square, the police lashed viciously at the strikers. Demonstrators scrambled away from their whistling knouts. They staggered, they ran to where Cossack troops waited on their motionless horses nearby, watching in uneasy neutrality. The crowds begged for help.
A hesitation. The Cossacks rode in.
There was a moment of wavering confrontation. Then a gasp and a spurt of blood and the crowd were shouting in delight, tossing a cavalryman on their shoulders. He had drawn his sabre, and he had put a police lieutenant to death.
Others died that day, too. In Gostiny Dvor, troops shot and killed three demonstrators, and wounded ten. Crowds launched themselves at police stations across the city, unleashing a hail of stones, smashing their way in and arming themselves with whatever weapons they could find. More and more police officers began to flee the rising onslaught, stripping off their uniforms to escape.
There was unease, an uncoiling in governmental corridors: an understanding, at last, that something serious was underway.
The regime’s first reflexes were always repressive. As evening came down in swirls of snow, the tsar sent orders down the wires to General Khabalov. ‘I command you to suppress from tomorrow all disorders on the streets of the capital, which are impermissible at a time when the fatherland is carrying on a difficult war with Germany.’ As if he might have considered them permissible at any other time. That day, when troops had opened fire it had been in panic, anger, revenge or unsanctioned brutality: henceforth, if crowds would not disperse, such attacks would be policy. And the war itself, that glorious national war, was brandished as a further threat: those not back at work within three days, Khabalov announced to the city, would be sent to join the carnage of the front.
That night, police snatch squads went hunting. They arrested around 100 suspected ringleaders, including five members of the Bolsheviks’ Petersburg Committee. But the revolutionaries had not started the insurrection. Even now, they struggled to keep pace with it. Their arrest would certainly not stop it.
‘The city is calm.’ On Sunday 26 February, the tsarina cabled her husband with strained optimism. But as the day’s light came up over the wide stretch of the river, glinting on the ice between the embankments, the workers were already crossing it again, returning. This time, however, they arrived in streets thick with police.
This time, when demonstrators implored the soldiers not to shoot, their appeals would not always be heard.
It was a bloody day. The coughing of machine guns and rifles’ reports echoed over the skyline, mingled with the screams of stampeding crowds. People scattered and scurried, past the cathedrals and the palaces, away from the onslaughts. That Sunday, repeatedly, troops obeyed their officers’ orders to fire – though, too, the attacks were undermined by weapon ‘malfunctions’, hesitations, deliberate misaimings. And for every such incident of stealth solidarity, rumours sprang up of scores more.
Not everything went the regime’s way. Early afternoon, workers flocked to the barracks of the Pavlovsky regiment. Desperately they begged for help, shouting to the men within that their regiment’s training squad was shooting at demonstrators. The soldiers did not come out in response, not immediately. Respect for orders made them hesitate. But they withdrew into a long mass meeting. Men shouting over each other, over the noises of shots and confrontations in the city, flustered and horrified speakers debating what they should do. At six o’clock, the Pavlovsky’s fourth company headed at last for the Nevsky Prospect, intent on recalling their comrades in disgrace. They were met by a detachment of mounted police, but their blood was up and they were ashamed of their earlier hesitation.
They did not back down but fired. A man was killed. On returning to their base, the soldiers’ ringleaders were arrested and taken across the water, behind the long low walls of the fortress, to the notorious prison of Peter and Paul below the thornlike spire.
Forty people died that Sunday. The slaughter devastated the demonstrators’ morale. Even in the militant Vyborg district on the north side, the local Bolsheviks considered winding down the strike. For its part, the autocracy broke off its half-hearted negotiations with the Duma’s President Rodzianko, and dissolved the parliament it held in such contempt.
Rodzianko telegraphed the tsar. ‘The situation is serious.’ His warning sped along the wires by the railway lines, across the wide hard countryside to Mogilev. ‘There is anarchy in the capital. The government is paralysed. It is necessary immediately to entrust a person who enjoys the confidence of the country with the formation of a new government. Any delay is equivalent to death. I pray God that in this hour responsibility will not fall upon the sovereign.’
Nicholas did not reply.
The next morning, Rodzianko tried again. ‘The situation is growing worse. Measures must be adopted immediately, because tomorrow will be too late. The last hour has come when the fate of the fatherland and the dynasty is being decided.’
At the High Command headquarters, Count Vladimir Frederiks, Nicholas’s imperial household minister, waited politely as his master read the message unspooling from the machine.
‘That fat Rodzianko has written me some nonsense,’ the tsar said at last, ‘to which I will not even reply.’
October: The Story of the Russian Revolution is out now from Verso Books.
Interview: Samuel Goff