Book Review: The Russian Revolution: A New History

The Russian Revolution cover

The more I read about history, the more I find things are connected.  When looking at the 20th Century The Great War seems to be one of those moments to which so many things led and from which so many things followed.  The most obvious thing one can draw a connection to is the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, but also coming out of the chaos of global conflict came a one in a million shot for guy who should have been little more than a blip in the forgotten records of history, not the face of a revolution we’re still feeling the impact of today.

Sean McMeekin digs deep, trying to sift the facts from the myths, following the money, and revealing a lot of hidden hands behind the Russian Revolution.  He certainly goes far more into the specific dates, specific people, and literally down to the receipts than I might have wanted.  He shows his work, that’s for sure.  You could, and folks have, write hundreds if not thousands of books on the Russian revolution.  What McMeekin has done, essentially, is to provide a blow by blow timeline of the central events.  First, he sets the stage of Russia’s troubled late 1800s and early 1900s, when generations of poverty, oppression, corruption, decadence, and general pre-inevitable-revolution behavior.  Then he goes through the revolt of 1905, which was very much a preview of what was to come.  He has by far the least hostile take on Rasputin I’ve ever seen, still showing him to be a power-grabbing, womanizing zealot.  He was, however, giving the Czar some good advice when it came to staying out of the oncoming war.  Ignoring good advice seems to have been the Czar’s super power, however.

The events of the often forgotten February revolution show in some ways how things could have gone.  The war was still fairly popular, the people were unhappy and hungry for some change, but weren’t really out for blood.  There was ample opportunity for the royal family to stay in place, but in a constitutional monarchy, like so many others in Europe.  However, due in part to the Czar’s ineptitude, in part due to the anti-Rasputin element, to the anti-German sentiment (directed largely at the Czarina), and the machinations of many short-sighted power grabbers, that was not to be.  At just the right moment, Germany, hoping to destabilize their Eastern Front foe so they could concentrate on France and England, played the ace they had up their sleeve.  With German funding, exiled revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was sent to destabilize the country.  And did it ever do the job.  Germany was unable to fully benefit from this, as at just the wrong moment (for them), France, England, and the US pushed past their Western defenses and they soon crumbled.  But the fire had been set and it was going to burn.

From antisemitism to greed to bloodlust to downright stupidity, the ideals of the revolution were sabotaged from the start and it didn’t take long for things to turn truly ugly.  The crazy thing is just how many times Lenin and his crew should have failed, yet pulled it out of the fire at the last second.  As McMeekin puts it, the Bolsheviks were blessed at every turn by their enemies.  Even as Red October put the final nail in the coffin of what was, the Bolsheviks held power only by blind luck and bloody handed evil.  Magical thinking and paranoia helped create suffering on a scale even the Czar hadn’t managed.  Even the US had to step in to help feed civilians.  Ideals were immediately abandoned for power and money.  The poor were shaken down for everything they had so the power elite of Lenin and his cronies could spend their time in luxury and infighting.

The book then goes into the horrors of the post Revolution years until the death of Lenin.  These events, taking place over only a few years, permanently altered Russia on an almost cellular level, altered Europe, and altered how the whole world worked.  The Cold War is often listed as having taken place between 1947 and 1991.  I’d argue the Cold War started in October of 1917 and hasn’t ended.  The tactics learned in the 1910s, from what the Germans did with Lenin to how you can project an image of power even as you’re falling apart, were learned and learned well.  Since then, they’ve been playing a long game.  Maybe they’ve missed a few moves, suffered a few setbacks.  But that game is still being played, even as some of the players seem to have stopped paying attention.

McMeekin’s A New History is a good primer, a baseline knowledge of the events.  He’s drawn on a lot of new information, casting some accepted ideas in doubt.  As I said, he’s dug very deep on this.  It is, however, a bit dry for my tastes.  Occasional times where he breaks apart the economic situations, or the detail of military order, or the relations of various dignitaries and soldiers can get labyrinthine in a way I don’t enjoy.  Sure, some of that is the nature of the subject, but some is a matter of writing style.  I still think this is an invaluable tool for starting down the path of trying to figure out the Russian Revolution and how it affects the world we live in today…which it very much does. 


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