China Miéville’s ‘October’ breathes life into a century-old history lesson

Chuck Twardy

Three and a half stars

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution By China Miéville, $27.

A writer of “weird fiction” might seem an unlikely candidate to author a history of the Russian Revolution. But China Miéville, an Arthur C. Clarke Award winner whose works embrace surrealism, steampunk and sea monsters, proves himself an ideal chronicler of a chaotic time.

His October: The Story of the Russian Revolution joins a long list of books focused on October 1917, not least among them two eyewitness accounts, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World and Leon Trotsky’s three-volume History of the Russian Revolution. While the American journalist recounted the crucial days of conclaves and street skirmishes and the émigré revolutionary took a comprehensive view, Miéville focuses on a middle-distance stretch of months, starting in February 1917.

A month earlier, 150,000 workers in Petrograd had defied Tsar Nicholas II’s dreaded police to commemorate victims of his brutal suppression of revolt in 1905, and roughly 100,000 were still on strike when the Duma, a consultative assembly and tsarist sop, met in Tauride Palace on February 14. By the end of the month, the tsar was gone, and the Russian Provisional Government convened in the palace. More or less starting here—a first chapter somewhat bewilderingly compresses developments leading to the February uprising—Miéville is able to evoke clashes of personalities and ideologies in a way that’s both broad and granular, with a novelist’s sense of the absurd.

For instance, he describes bumbling negotiations between the bourgeois Duma and the Soviet, an assembly of Marxists of various shadings: “To actually take power was, of course, the last thing the flustered socialists wanted.” Meanwhile, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—Lenin—has followed events from exile in Zurich, and even he wavers between the need to wait for an ideal moment and the urgency to take power.

At times the twists of policies and loyalties turn arcane, and Miéville’s taste for obscure words does not help, but mostly his narration is lively and wise. He doesn’t stress the point, but the revolution cannot be viewed separately from the vast upheaval of World War I, so vital were military units dispirited by Russia’s blundering involvement and so divisive was the question of continuing it. And what of revolution’s aftermath? Was Stalinism inevitable? Miéville isn’t so sure, and anyway, he says, October 1917 has its lessons: “Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all.”

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