By Richard Rose
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Issue 425

What’s not to love about the most exciting and inspiring story of modern history being retold by one of the most exciting and inspiring writers of the day?

China Miéville’s account of the nine pivotal months of the Russian Revolution is based on extensive research. Every detail he includes is reported by people who were there. When this accuracy is united with his dazzling verbal dexterity, the intoxicating events of these days that shook the world are totally brought to life.

In fact, some of it reads as if Miéville is actually reporting live from the scene; his accounts often have the same vital urgency and passion of John Reed or George Orwell as they were swept up, unexpectedly but completely, in revolutionary fervour. For instance, his account of the “Liberty Parade” in Moscow, with even monks and nuns gripped by “revolutionary fervour”, recalls Orwell’s description of insurrectionary Barcelona.

The democratic, swift and inexorable spread of the revolution is compared throughout the book to the thunder and flash of trains along railway tracks, or telegrams whirring along telegraph wires. These lines were the information super highways of the day, transporting revolutionaries and their ideas around the massive land mass of Russia. However, Miéville insists, there is never anything predetermined about their destinations.

The vital importance of the actions of individuals in getting to the desired point is often stressed. These interventions could be workers writing and distributing a pivotal leaflet or soldiers organising and attending a vital demonstration. Or perhaps the originally unpopular arguments made by Lenin in the April Theses, or Trotsky’s views on Permanent Revolution. The book is teeming with masses of agitating, arguing, inspiring and organising individuals, all of whose important contributions are resurrected by the narrative, and all of whom made a difference.

The book makes a strong case for the egalitarian principles and democratic ethos of the revolution. Right wing revisionist claims that Lenin, Trotsky or any of their comrades were organising a coup are made laughable by the detailed accounts of the extremely prolonged debates and constant votes before, during and immediately after the revolution.

Its many achievements are celebrated — women’s rights, religious freedoms and gay liberation, all enacted within days of the revolution, but decades before they were grudgingly granted in many so-called Western democracies. In reclaiming these achievements from Cold War historians and establishment politicians desperate to hide them, Miéville knows that he has to counter the pernicious influence of Stalinism, “casting shadows backwards” and tarring the revolution with its totalitarian barbarity.

This is a story of bravery, heroism, brutality, murder, intrigue, loyalty and organisation. Most importantly, it is not just a story. These events really happened and (Miéville timidly hints) could happen again.

While some readers may not enjoy his writing style and others will no doubt find facts and interpretations to quibble over, I hope that the narrative he tells will inspire some of Miéville’s own, often young, readers to learn more, to play their own part and even to get on track with their own train to October. They need to be reminded that this entertaining read isn’t science fiction, isn’t historical narrative and isn’t an academic re-enactment. This story could be our future.

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