New East Digital Archive

Revolutionary reading list: get your head around 1917 with our selection of novels and non-fiction

So much has been written about 1917 that it's hard to know where to begin. Fear not: we've rounded up the most revealing reads to set you on your way

25 May 2017

“In order to build, you must know. In order to know, you must study.” So went a famous Soviet propaganda slogan. The problem for budding amateurs, though, is that countless words have been written about the year 1917 in Russia. So where to start? Below is our selection of the best books on the revolution – from bourgeois comedy and scholarly classics to Trotsky’s autobiographical work and treatises on sexual liberation.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Teffi (1932)

Teffi, known in Russia as Nadezhda Teffi, is a Russian writer who was renowned in the early 20th century for her satirical poems, plays, and work in the popular magazine Satiricon. She was dubbed the “queen of Russian humour”, and Nicholas II and Lenin were reportedly among her fans. Teffi was 23-years-old when she was first published in a literary magazine under her real name Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Explaining the unusual pseudonym she took on later, she would say that many contemporary women writers chose a male pen name to be able to put on plays, but she didn’t want to “hide like a coward behind a man’s name”, instead opting for something “neutral and confusing”. Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea focuses on the journey the writer took through Russia to Ukraine just after the revolution, in 1918. The book, which was only recently translated into English, is not necessarily a realistic account, instead filled with humour, small details and observations that are in the end as valuable as the hard facts available in any history book.

Cursed Days by Ivan Bunin (1926)

Cursed Days, by the Nobel Prize-winning Ivan Bunin, is a memoir assembled from diary entries and notes that the written in Moscow between 1918 and 1920. Excerpts from the book were first published in 1925 in a Paris-based Russian émigré newspaper, and the book itself was banned in the USSR. Bunin called the revolution a national catastrophe, branded Lenin and Trotsky as bloodthirsty and cynical and the intellectuals and students that supported them clueless and naïve, and criticised the people for turning “savage” at the first opportunity. The book is filled with anger, fear, despair and depression, as well as a dose of arrogance. Cursed Days is considered a valuable historical document despite its clear subjective position in debates on the revolution – as Bunin said himself in the diaries, people’s views and biases are as important for history as neutrality: “Real objectiveness doesn’t exist. But most importantly, our passions and opinions will be very valuable for future historians. Is it just the “revolutionary folk” whose passions are important? Aren’t we people too?”

The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman by Alexandra Kollontai (1926)

Alexandra Kollontai was not only one of the principle figures of the Russian revolution, but also one of the most influential feminists of the early 20th century. “It must also be said that not a single one of the men who were close to me has ever had a direction-giving influence on my inclinations, strivings, or my world-view. On the contrary, most of the time I was the guiding spirit. I acquired my view of life, my political line from life itself, and from the uninterrupted study of books,” as she notes in the beginning of the memoir, which bears a dry, factual style. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are paragraphs and sentences in italics: these were the sections censored from Kollontai’s manuscript when she first finished it in 1926. There are also footnotes to explain the circumstances of the book’s publication that end up providing a deep look not only into Kollontai’s life but also how Soviet censors wanted their young country to be portrayed.

Love of Worker Bees by Alexandra Kollontai (1924)

Love of Worker Bees consists of a novel and two short stories which exemplify Kollontai’s radical politics, including her views on sexuality – she was an advocate of “free love” and viewed the institution of the family as an outdated and oppressive bourgeois legacy. The language of the book is rather plain – Kollontai wasn’t a fiction author by trade – but it serves as an excellent illustration of her political writing and has been described as “both a moving love story and a rare graphic portrait of Russian life after October”. The central characters of all the stories in the book are women, and the overarching theme is the attempt to balance romantic relationships and families with the political work of the post-revolution period; while the country had changed in radical ways, the family remained a patriarchal structure.

In the Shadow of Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Yuri Slezkine (2000)

As major historical events go, the Russian revolution was less overwhelmingly dominated by men than others, and In the Shadow of Revolution aims to bring its female contemporaries and participants to the fore. In the preface historian Sheila Fitzpatrick notes that life stories of women who took part in the revolution differ significantly from the stereotypical, confessional style and male-centred narratives of many women’s autobiographies (so much so that one of the women featured, Stakhanovite tractor driver and Supreme Soviet Deputy Pasha Angelina mocked her American autobiographer when they asked her for the date of her wedding). Rather, they are a snapshot of the times, honest, eyewitness accounts of people who considered the times they were living in to be remarkable and of greater importance than any private concerns. The book, edited by scholars but also of great general interest, is a compilation of various documents – from literary autobiographies to speeches, letters and interviews from both active participants and those who suffered under the revolution: from big names like Nadezhda Krupskaya (Politburo member and wife of Lenin) to less prominent Party members, from émigrés and purge victims to dedicated revolutionaries and Stalinists.

Prelude to Revolution by Alexander Rabinowitch (1968)

One fact often ignored in mainstream takes on the revolution is that there was more than one in Russia in 1917 alone, with the initial uprising that deposed the tsar occurring in February. This book by Alexander Rabinowitch, a leading researcher of 1917 and the son of Russian émigrés, looks at the time leading up to the Bolshevik’s October revolution, and the inner dealings of the party. The book is highly objective despite the fact that it was first published in America in 1968, the author not allowing Cold War prejudices to affect his research. It was also revolutionary in itself as it reformed how historians and revolution enthusiasts viewed the establishment of Bolshevik rule – rather than a monolithic party ruled dictatorially by Lenin, he showed it to be chaotic, divided and sometimes disorganised but generally more democratic than most history books had made it out to be. Rabinowitch’s book The Bolsheviks in Power: The First Year of Soviet Rule in Petrograd is a logical sequel, looking at how the turbulent first year of Bolshevik rule unfolded.

My Life by Leon Trotsky (1930)

An autobiography by one of the leaders of the revolution might seem an unexpected choice as a way to learn about the events of 1917 – despite it being a primary source, many would be wary of its one-sidedness. Unlike some other revolutionaries’ works, Trotsky’s writing is colourful and the style lively, and together with his eventful life they make for a great read despite frequent injections of political philosophy. Some parts even read like a detective blockbuster – for example, Trotsky’s escape from exile in Siberia had to be made on deer, and the organiser, a local resident, sent several more men on deer into nearby villages to confuse the footprints and marks from the sled in the snow. This autobiography was written in the first year of his life in Turkey after he was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1929.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)

This novel is set in in 1922 in the Grand Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Intentionally light-hearted, the book is more Great Gatsby than Gulag Archipelago, following the main character, fictional count Alexander Rostov, after he is sentenced by a communist court to house arrest in the hotel. Imprisoned in a bourgeois harbour in the midst of the newly emerging communist country, Rostov can only observe events through his friends and occasional acquaintances who come in from the outside and deliver news of censorship, stress and inescapable politics; meanwhile the main character stews in his own thoughts and reminiscences, while remaining utterly unlikeable and even clueless. A Gentleman in Moscow is the second novel by American author Amor Towles, who, while receiving criticism for such a whimsical take on the revolution, has also been praised for the unusual angle of the book, consciously distancing itself from popular ideas of what a book on revolution should look like.

The Odessans by Irina Ratushinskaya (1996)

This novel looks at three families, of Jewish, Russian and Ukrainian-Polish descent, who live in the Ukrainian town of Odessa between the start of the 20th century and the Second World War. Their chaotic lives are caught up in in the biggest moments of the country’s history, as we get to witness an entire generation grow up and live out their lives in a whirlwind of uprisings, revolutions and wars. The novel is often criticised for being more historical and schematic than emotional and engaging but many also note that it has autobiographical trappings (traits of the Ukrainian-Polish family are borrowed from Ratushinskaya’s own family), and offers an insightful and masterful illustration of the hard historical facts of the era. The author, poet and writer Irina Ratushinskaya, was sentenced in 1983 to seven years in the gulag for anti-Soviet agitation. Now she is frequently criticised for her active support for the current government in Russia.

Text: Sasha Raspopina

The Future Remains: Revisiting Revolution runs until December 2017 at the Calvert 22 Foundation