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Reading the revolution: 7 of the year’s best new books to help you understand 1917

Reading the revolution: 7 of the year’s best new books to help you understand 1917

There has been a flood of new history writing in 2017 as the world marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, which saw mass insurrection, the fall of Russia's last tsar and the rise of Lenin's Bolsheviks. Here are seven of the best centennial books on 1917 from this year you should read

2 November 2017

The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917 by Mikhail Zygar

Mikhail Zygar is fascinated by counterfactuals and contemporary parallels. A former journalist for liberal Russian television channel Dozhd, he took up history in 2016. Since then, he has been widely praised for his Project1917 that fuses reporting and history to relay the events of the revolution in real time via social media. The Empire Must Die is a similar mix, and Zygar embraces some of his old journalistic habits to produce a re-telling focused on characters rather than social or economic forces. As he sees it, the revolution and the period leading up to it was one of the few “liberal moments” of Russian history — exhilarating and pregnant with potential. Russian politicians in 2017, he argues, should be looking over their shoulder at the events of 100 years ago for both inspiration and a warning.

Russia In Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914 – 1921 by Laura Engelstein

Laura Engelstein is a leading historian of late Imperial Russia working at Yale, and her new history shows how the Russian Revolution was born in the crucible of violence that engulfed the Empire between the beginning of the First World War and the Bolshevik victory in the Civil War. It is a long and rigorously argued study that responds forcefully to her own contention that English-speaking audiences need, once again, to be reminded both of what the revolution involved and of its immense historical significance. The period between 1917 and 1921, Engelstein suggests, clearly shows “the cost of democracy’s failure”— an example that, with an eye on Trump’s America, she says has a powerful relevance for Western democracies today.

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville

Riots in Petrograd during 1917

One of the oddest books on the revolution to emerge this year is this narration of the Bolshevik seizure of power from academic, activist and left-wing fantasy fiction writer China Miéville. Though his lack of Russian means the book is based on secondary literature, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution ranges over much the former Russian Empire. Miéville’s book is both breathtaking and rich in colour as he highlights some of the lesser-known figures who enjoyed brief moments of revolutionary fame. While Miéville describes a direct line from the events of 1917 to Stalin’s terror, he argues there was nothing pre-ordained about the revolution’s degradation.

Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 by Stephen Smith

Even 100 years on, it is too early to say that the Russian Revolution has come to an end, according to Oxford University professor Stephen Smith. His new history of 1917 is the result of years of teaching on the subject and is a comprehensive account of the causes and consequences of that year that delves deep into the experiences of peasants, workers, soldiers, non-Russian ethnic groups, women and young people. Smith asserts that writing about the revolution in Russia remains a “peculiarly political enterprise” — but he says he has done everything he could to avoid moralising and remain objective throughout.

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

The House on the Embankment. Image: arthur shuraev under a CC licence

Yuri Slezkine’s magnum opus uses the history of one iconic Moscow building to tell the story of the revolution and its bloody Stalinist apotheosis. The House on the Embankment was built in 1931 across from the Kremlin and its apartments were handed out to the Communist elite. Slezkine recounts, in minute detail, the history of the ministers, journalists, secret policemen, party ideologues and theatre directors who lived there. As the revolution consumed its creators in the Great Terror of the 1930s, many of the inhabitants in the building were arrested and imprisoned or executed. For Slezkine, Bolshevism was a millenarian sect, whose devotees were more religious fanatics than political visionaries. His book’s enormous scope has prompted comparisons to works on the scale of War and Peace or The Gulag Archipelago.

The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali

Lenin is a widely misunderstood and misrepresented figure, argues Tariq Ali in a new study of the Bolshevik leader. A prominent left-wing filmmaker, activist and writer, Ali does not have specific expertise on Russian affairs, but he does have a wealth of experience writing about politics and history. The Dilemmas of Lenin makes a point of analysing the decisions the Bolsheviks took in the context of autocracy, repression, poverty and the brutal violence of the First World War. Unlike many others, Ali sees the October Revolution as a mass uprising, and he is less interested in dissecting its bloody legacy than illuminating and engaging with Lenin’s ideas.

Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution 1918-1921 by Eric Lee

Soviet relief in the Georgian town of Gori. Image: orientalizing under a CC licence

Despite its name, the Russian Revolution was not just a Russian phenomenon. Journalist and historian Eric Lee tells one of these non-Russian stories in his Georgia’s Forgotten Revolution. While Russia was consumed with the Civil War, Georgia achieved a shaky independence and elected a government dominated by Mensheviks, the less radical wing of the Social Democratic Party. Although it survived for only three years before being toppled in a Red Army invasion, this government pushed for free elections, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, free trade unions and carried out agrarian reform. Lee’s book describes the major figures of this beguiling political experiment, and how their politics was an alternative to the Bolshevik authoritarianism emerging in neighbouring Russia.

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Reading the revolution: 7 of the year’s best new books to help you understand 1917

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Reading the revolution: 7 of the year’s best new books to help you understand 1917

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