The Russian Revolution: a New Story. Sean McMeekin.
New York: Basic Books, 2017. 496 pages.
I am writing this review of in a downtown Moscow hotel, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution – and around me there are no signs of glorification, celebration, or even remembrance of the grave events of 1917. Even public officials are shy of commemorating that part of the country’s history. According a friend, Andrey Kolesnikov who is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the reason for such behavior is very simple:
The Revolution is “irrelevant” because “the generations that still had romanticized notions about [it] are departing, and the number of respondents who believe that “the early years after 1917 brought more bad than good” consistently grows: it went up by 10 percentage points from 1994 (38 percent) to 2016 (48 percent).”
There are other bits of contemporary history, shown in a poll from the Levada Center, which constitute the national pride of contemporary Russians. What makes Russians proud is the actions of the imperial nineteenth century, the conquering of vast lands in Europe to the Far East, and what is, in their mind, the correction of history with the retaking of Crimea in 2014 (of which almost 80 percent of Russian citizens are proud).
Besides North Korea, the Russian Federation is the only openly aggressive country in the Northern hemisphere. Forgetting the Russian Revolution as an inconvenient past is an important factor stoking the aggressive behavior of Russia’s present leadership.
The revolution, once labeled in schools from Vladivostok to East Berlin as the “Great October Socialist Revolution,” was inglorious. It proved deadlier than the World War I to the Russian empire. It provoked or inspired all the major disasters of the twentieth century. The world must never forget it and, among the vast literature on the October Revolution, Sean McMeekin’s book The Russian Revolution: a New Story builds a monumental panorama of both its accidental nature and bloody, historic significance.
McMeekin stands on the shoulders authors such as Richard Pipes and Orlando Figes, but he also elaborates on his own academic record, having already published four books on the Bolshevik looting and propaganda war, on the impact of October 1917 on reshaping of the Middle East, and on World War I. All these books were published from 2001 to 2008.
Establishing a successful revolutionary model
Besides panoramic vision, McMeekin shows an extraordinary sense of detail and thus helps the reader draw parallels between Bolshevik “innovation” and practical details of modern-day hybrid warfare as practiced by President Putin and his regiment of KGB collaborators.
After Louis Fischer’s biography of Lenin in 1964, it is well known that the Bolshevik group that came to control that vast country after October 1917, and after the World War II created the Soviet sphere of influence over approximately 40 percent of the territory of the earth, was financed and smuggled into Russia by German authorities. McMeekin’s account of this episode puts the particulars (discovered earlier by Fisher, Pipes, and Shapiro) together, showing how this investment of five million gold Marks in Lenin paid enormous dividends for the Germans. These came, first, in war gains and Russia’s capitulation before the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire), in March 1918.
The Communists created a propaganda machine second to none. It spurred waves of soldiers to desert the war front, then undermined the efforts of Kerensky’s government to introduce a legitimate constitutional order in post-Tsarist Russia. Lenin’s attack on legitimacy was so extreme that in April 1917 even his party newspaper, Pravda, refused to publish his program. Lenin’s response was to purchase the paper and a state of the art printing facility, and increase its circulation in the army.
McMeekin chronicles the Bolsheviks’ destruction of any legitimacy. Its first victim were the Soviets, the workers councils. Their Central Executive Committee (elected in June 1917) was dismissed for collaboration with Kerensky. At the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies, Lenin’s group seized power without elections; the elections for a Constituent Assembly were scheduled for November 12.
In his appeal to the Congress, Lenin promised: “immediate democratic peace to all the nations and an immediate armistice on all fronts”; a “transfer of the land of the landed proprietors, the crown, and the monasteries to the peasant committees without compensation”; “complete democracy in the army” (to protect “soldiers’ rights”); and to “establish workers' control over production.” The new Soviet government, Lenin said, is a provisional government of sorts, to “ensure the convocation of the Constituent Assembly at the time appointed.” He added that “it will see to it that bread is supplied to the cities and prime necessities to the villages; it will guarantee all the nations inhabiting Russia the genuine right to self-determination.”
The first task this government pursued ahead of these elections, however, was to ban the non-Bolshevik press and persecute the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party. It also enforced the “fullest freedom of agitation” for peace in the army and it sought that “the right of private ownership of land is abolished forever,” dividing the arable land “among toilers in accordance with the consumption-labor standard.” The latter standard had not been and could never be calculated. The decree aimed at neutralizing the influence of Socialist-Revolutionary (SR) Party, which promised to give the land to the peasants.