BBC radio has been running a version of Ten Days That Shook The World by the US journalist John Reed.
Both the book and the writer, and indeed the radio drama, are worth your time.
Reed was a spectacular revolutionary journalist. He went to report in Russia after the February Revolution in 1917, made straight for the Petrograd Bolsheviks and immersed himself in the meetings and demonstrations.
On 7 November, in the right place at the right time, Reed joined a band of Red Guards. He rushed across Palace Square and—a few moments later—found that he had stormed the Winter Palace.
After working for the Bolsheviks for months, he returned to the US and in 1919 completed Ten Days That Shook The World. He died back in Russia in 1920.
Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote an introduction to Ten Days. “Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world,” he wrote.
Reed was already a socialist journalist in 1917. He had covered the revolutionary war in Mexico and had written about some of the most brutal industrial struggles in the US.
Importantly he also agitated in active support of them.
John Reed’s socialism was broad, angry and generous. In Russia he found “his” revolution.
His Russian language skills were almost non-existent—although he eventually could make out more or less what a speech was about. But Reed did have access to most of the leading Bolsheviks.
Ten Days makes the reader feel the revolution. He writes, “Out on the Nevsky, in the deepening dusk, a long double file of cyclists came riding, guns slung on their shoulders.
“They halted, and the crowd pressed in and deluged them with questions. ‘Who are you? Where do you come from?’ asked a fat old man with a cigar in his mouth. ‘Twelfth Army. From the front. We came to support the Soviets against the damn’ bourgeoisie!”
He salutes the Revolution as an “adventure. One of the most marvellous mankind ever embarked on, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses, and staking everything on their vast and simple desires.”
Reed builds suspense until the reader is desperate to reach the explosion. There are wonderful accounts of people stretched and sleepless. And of roaring mass meetings contrasted with deserted palaces of the old regime.
There are details. When Reed first sees Lenin speaking, he is struck by how far too long his trousers are and his “little winking eyes”.
There is humour. The commissars for war and the navy rush to the front by car and have to borrow pen and paper from Reed to write an order.
The shifts and turns of the revolution are laid out.
He writes, “General Kaledin received a deputation from his troops. ‘Will you,’ they asked, ‘promise to divide the estates of the Cossack landlords among the working Cossacks?’ ‘Only over my dead body,’ responded Kaledin.
“A month later Kaledin blew out his brains. And the Cossack movement was no more.”
Reed felt that the Bolsheviks were the only party in 1917 which matched the hopes of the “wishes of the masses”.
Ten Days is the journalistic work of commitment to revolution and still one of the best things to read about the Russia in 1917.