The Russian Revolution: A New History

Image of The Russian Revolution: A New History
Release Date: 
May 29, 2017
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“an excellent resource for the facts and key players in Russian history from the start of WWI to the mid-1920s.” 

If readers are interested in a broad work covering the essential actors and historical events leading up to and following the Russian Revolution of 1917, this book is a good place to start.

Sean McMeekin offers a comprehensive look into the background and socio-economic factors in early 20th century Russia, as well as the brutal reality of the Tsar’s autocratic regime. This is a relatively short work: the author covers the main actors and historical moments quite well, including the many minor characters of the Revolution and the following civil war, yet still gives appropriate detail. On the whole, if the reader wants a fast-paced, wide understanding of the history leading up to and after the Bolshevik Revolution, here is a good place to start.

McMeekin starts off with a broad overview of the far-flung Russian Empire at the dawn of the 20th century. Stretching from Poland to the Bering Sea, from the Arctic tundra to the arid Central Asian steppes, the Empire was a sprawling, massive enterprise, with about 125 million citizens circa the turn of the century.

Russian industry was catching up with the rest of Europe in the first decade of the 1900s, although with mass poverty in the countryside and the usual squalid working and housing conditions for the poor, similar to other European nations. The first flash points in 1905 are covered well, including the war against Japan, although McMeekin seems to underplay just how much the smoldering resentment at the Tsar’s regime as well as the brutal repression of the Okhrana (secret police) and killings by the army made a future revolution only a matter of time.

McMeekin does due diligence by focusing on the Balkan Wars and the slow collapse of Ottoman influence pre-WWI, which shifted geopolitics in the region and started one of the first sparks in the powder keg that was Europe. The details of WWI are one of this works’ highlights: There is little ideology, and McMeekin focuses on the facts. 

The big shifts of WWI are covered quite well, if briskly. Fast forwarding to 1917, and McMeekin’s twist on what he considers “A New History” is that Lenin was financed to a large degree by Germans, if not outright by the German government. The evidence he provides, however, is sparse. While German intelligence did return Lenin to Russia via Finland station in the hopes of sowing chaos and lowering Russian troop morale, “in this flood of discontented humanity pouring into revolutionary Russia, Lenin was but a single individual,” as McMeekin correctly notes.

However, he then paints the canvas of Lenin’s arrival and subsequent rise to power as a grand conspiracy orchestrated by Germany, rather than as an opportunistic ploy of the return of one revolutionary figure. In revolution and war, it is assumed that tough decisions are to be made regarding funding and alliances: Lenin cannot be considered a German “agent” just because he or his party took money from shadowy figures.

The end of the WWI, and the Treaty of Breist-Litovsk are very well documented. The period of the civil war and War Communism are also explained deftly, and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s mistake by advocating for revolutionary defeatism makes for engaged reading, showing how the German high command played the Bolsheviks diplomatically.

However, it’s hard to support McMeekin’s confusion surrounding the violence and authoritarianism that followed: the Bolsheviks were attacked from all sides, basically all the nations of Western civilization attacked the Red Army, leading to further party centralization and brutality, as could be expected in nearly any other country facing such odds and violence.

McMeekin is right to describe the Revolution as a series of missed chances and random acts of fate that brought the Bolsheviks to power. McMeekin is highly critical of the Tsar’s actions preceding WWI, yet seems to imply that since the economy was expanding rapidly pre-WWI, and the Russians were beginning to show signs of turning the war towards their favor in 1917, the revolutionaries and the Soviets were wrong to place so much in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Yet this only reinforces for the reviewer just how hard it is to understand the socio-economic forces at play of only 100 years ago, never mind the state of mind of exploited peasants, workers, women, and their desire for an authentic socialist government. 

McMeekin’s epilogue strays from history toward the ideological, trying to equate theoretical Communism with the totalitarianism of the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s. Lenin and Stalin were both bloodthirsty tyrants, of this there is no doubt.

Yet when McMeekin claims that “the popularity of Marxist-style maximalist socialism is on the rise again in the United States and other Western “capitalist countries,” his misreading of contemporary politics becomes all too clear.

What is on the rise in the West are right-wing, ethnocentric, xenophobic governments, and a small undercurrent in Left-liberal politics has countered with a mild return to social democracy, exemplified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who are not Leninists in any reality-based sense of the term. 

All told, this book is an excellent resource for the facts and key players in Russian history from the start of WWI to the mid-1920s.