Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book: October Country

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville, Verso, 2017

Provenance: I first found this book in an airport bookstore, mis-shelved. It is a history of the Russian Revolution, but it was in the Science Fiction section. Which makes sense in that China Miéville is a noted SF/Fantasy writer of the "New Weird" school, best known for books like Perdido Street Station, Un Lun Dun, and The City and The City.

But I did not pick it up then. Instead I purchased it at Third Place Books in Ravenna, a tidy little neighborhood bookshop. On the day of purchase, Third Place was donating their profits to organizations working against the brutal immigration policies of the current administration (and ICE in particular). So a political book purchase made perfect sense.

Review: I'll fess up, despite a lot of reading, I have only a passing knowledge of the Russian Revolution. The storming of the Winter Palace, Rasputin. Lenin. The Battleship Potemkin, Reds with Warren Beatty. Yet in my brain the events of the Revolution itself unspooled almost simultaneously. One day there was a monarchy, the next day the Soviet Union.

Actually, it was a continual and chaotic clusterfreak, unrolling over a period of months, with Saint Petersburg (which becomes Petrograd and will eventually become Leningrad before returning to Saint Petersburg in 1991) at its center. Then the heart of the Russian government, it was here that the people's uprising mattered. Out in the hinters of Baku or Finland or Moscow, rebellions of the workers could arise, either to the be crushed or to find some limited amount of autonomy away from the wellspring of then-modern Russia.

There are histories built around Great Men. There are histories built around Great Moments. Miéville's approach is built around Great Meetings. And there are a lot of them in the tempestuous times.The Duma, the provisional government, the nascent Soviet, the various factions within the revolution, the gathering of a dozen Bolsheviks when Lenin was on the lam from accusations he was a German agents. Meeting upon meeting, faction upon faction.

How many factions were there? Take a dinner plate, hold it at an arm's length, and drop it on concrete. That many. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhriontskys, Socialist Revolutionaries, Kadets (Constitutional Democratic Party), the Military Revolutionary Committee, various garrisons, and subfactions of the above that range from moderate to revolutionary. The difference between the two big factions, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, is whether the worker's paradise has to go through an intermediate stage of bourgeoisie, as the masses need to get up to speed with the concept of self-rule (The Mensheviks said yes, the Bolsheviks said no, and Lenin thought that if you topple everything right now, the rest of a war-torn Europe would quickly follow).

Miéville openly skews left/socialist politically, and that shows in where his attention lies. We get a lot of the Bolsheviks and their meetings, while the right shows up in turns as ineffective foil or a threatening counter-revolutionary force. Nicholas abdicates and vanishes from this narrative. The Duma, tethered to the Soviet in a dance of dependency, is rarely effective (and the Soviet itself, like Caesar, rejects opportunities to take command until forced to by Lenin's wing of the Bolsheviks). He demurs on whether things could have gone differently, or if the horrors of Lenin and Stalin were "baked into" the Bolshevik Revolution itself. There were more than enough opportunities for a different faction, or collection of factions, to "win" the prize of a starving Russian state.

Miéville  is also a urbanist, and most of his fiction is city-based or community-based (The Armada from The Scar, the railroad town from The Iron Council). So he is at home in this not-as-ancient city, built like Washington, DC to house a ruling class and a government. He is at his best when he is describing the city itself, and its inhabitants, either scrounging for food, marching in protests, or defending the barricades against the counter-revolution. Miéville captures the flavor and the feeling of those turbulent months of 1917 where Russia hung suspended through a decaying old system and and an unborn, chaotic new one.

We stop in October, with the Czar still alive, the nation still at war, and the Civil War yet to fully kick off. Miéville tells a great story, but it is an incomplete one, with the great tragedies yet to come. The retro-vision of "what would be" colors our judgement of those hides the concept that the future of the Revolution hinged on a single decision, a single political act, or a single meeting.

More later,