“The question for history is not only who should be driving the train, but where.”
Known for his post-modern fantasy and science-fiction, China Miéville enriches these genres with his expertise in international relations and critical legal studies. Educated at Cambridge and the London School of Economics, he argues in the 2005 adaptation of his doctoral thesis: “The attempt to replace war and inequality with law is not merely utopian but is precisely self-defeating. A world structured around international law cannot but be one of imperialist violence. The chaotic and bloody world around us is the rule of law.” Recently a very unsuccessful Socialist Workers Party candidate for the House of Commons, he has since helped to found the anti-capitalist “red-green” Left Unity party.
His biographical data assist the reader of this version of the Russian Revolution. Although a fellow-traveler alongside many of those whose tales he retells, Miéville sustains a detached stance, if an implicitly radical affinity, for the rebels and malcontents within the nine months of 1917 that he explores.
He offers the pre-history of that year, especially the anti-tsarist tumult in 1905. That earlier October, Moscow’s print-workers started a strike. The reason? Having been paid by the letter, the typesetters demanded added remuneration for punctuation. Massive unrest spread. Debating such resistance, Bolsheviks agreed that the time for a socialist uprising led by proletariat and peasantry remained premature. Their semi-rivals the Mensheviks counter that a democratic and capitalist insurgency is acceptable, given the need of the bourgeoisie to guide under-prepared factions in a backward land.
Miéville commences his chronology of the pivotal year in February of a century ago, in the former St. Petersburg. The imperial capital witnesses its mill-workers rallying. They turn to meet Cossack cavalry facing off against, and later letting through, thousands of marchers again on strike. The horsemen stay still as protesters duck under their mounts. “Rarely have skills imparted by reaction been so exquisitely deployed against it.” With so many members of the military turned against their royal commander, by March the Mensheviks are in charge. Under Alexander Kerensky, the moderate leftists struggle to keep order. Vladimir Lenin returns from exile to incite a new “second stage” revision of his earlier opinion that the revolution could wait. He regards Russia as ripe for leadership by the workers allied with the poorest peasants. Rejecting collaboration with the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks edge towards the seizure of the councils, the soviets, established by the proletariat and farmers. They want power now.
However, triumph will not hurry itself. The First All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Soviets convenes during May in Petrograd. Out of 1,200 delegates, nine are Bolshevik and 14 affiliated. Urged on by Lenin and his comrades, their numbers will soon balloon. But others contend against them for a share of the action. Anarchists attempt to occupy a right-wing press. Not amused, the authorities push them aside. “Up with these anarchists, they decided, they would not put.” A rare glimmer of levity lightens the recital of figures and the recording of events that may sink heavily, for this is quite a dense story.
While Miéville provides a glossary of key characters and an annotated reading guide, keeping the zemstov straight from the Trudovski remains a challenge for any novice inquirer unfamiliar with this milieu. To his credit, Miéville patiently lists the constantly warping factions and their fleeting moments of notoriety. Still, the pace of change occurs so rapidly that it requires very steady attention.
By July, the Kerensky government weakens. Bolsheviks bicker. Hearing armed masses approaching, someone “in the room gasped: ‘Without the sanction of the Central Committee?'” Miéville remarks on the gap between party and populace: “How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.” This showdown nudged the Bolsheviks against the soviets, now dismissed as counter-revolutionary. Although they numbered 8,000, one-tenth of the Menshevik ranks, momentum was theirs. Under Lenin and Leon Trotsky, they sought “direct seizure of power by workers and the party.”
August witnesses Kerensky despairing. “I want to take the middle road, but no one will help me.” A right-wing military coup fizzled. September opens as the Petrograd Soviet finally adopts the Bolshevik militancy as a socialist wedge against the Provisional Government of the Mensheviks and their wavering allies. But this policy is rejected by a pro-Kerensky committee. Worsened by insistent opposition to Russia’s entanglement in the Great War, troops desert and mutiny, filling the cadres of radicalized Bolsheviks back in Petrograd. Europe itself appears to tip towards the long-anticipated socialist revolution. Germany’s kaiser totters towards chaos. Lenin reckons the time to act has arrived.
The titular month starts with Lenin returned from his flight to Finland. Disguised in a grey wig, he enters crime-riddled Petrograd. The last bastion between the Eastern front and it having been abandoned, those within the tense capital prepare for second overthrow of a Russian regime that year. “Upheaval was traced over a regular city dusk.” Strollers continue; gunfire peppers cold air nearby.
Over an attenuated 26th of the Julian calendar (November 5th by the Gregorian reckoning superseding it the following year), Miéville depicts not a dramatic raid by eager recruits on the Winter Palace, but a stultifying endgame. Shots from a naval vessel meet with little response from cadres on the ground. Inside the grandiose redoubt: “Men skirmished in stairwells. Any creak on the floorboards might be the revolution.” The victors find a dim dawn, with a hint of lightening above.
In a necessary epilogue, Miéville charts the trajectory of the Bolshevik overthrow. While never diminishing the human costs of the Soviet triumph, he insists upon a balanced tally of the progress achieved for millions, in a dim but persistent era of advancement away from serfdom and bigotry, oppression and submission. “Twilight, even remembered twilight, is better than no light at all. It would be equally absurd to say that there is nothing we can learn from the revolution. To deny that the sumerki of October can be ours, and that it need not be always followed by night.” At the close of Miéville’s narrative quest, he considers the metaphor and fact of 1917 as a “revolution of trains.” He aptly concludes: “The question for history is not only who should be driving the train, but where.”