Reading the Russian Revolution: China Miéville’s October and other works

I had decided to read The Tales of Chekhov, in the 13-volume box set from Ecco. It’s difficult to explain why a reader gravitates towards certain fundamental works. There’s probably a whole complex of previous readings, social background and temperamental influences that coalesce into the notion: “I have to read this.”.

I think of the stories of Chekhov as the foundation of short narrative writing-although of course, a couple of Chekhov’s stories are so long they could be called novellas.

The most important feature of Chekhov’s stories is that he treats narrative as the expression of a problem. Once that problem is defined, the story ends. There’s a narrative flow that presents messy lives, but a zeroing in on what is essential. This rare ability to see through the fog of daily events and grasp what is critical, reminds me of what Lenin could do in politics.

Halfway through my Chekhov story reading project, a writer friend was talking about how much Chekhov’s letters had mattered to her. I hit pause on the stories and took up the Yarmolinsky collection of Chekhov’s Letters, from Viking.

The personality behind the stories was that of a classic European humanist, a liberal thinker who said he was not a believer but who depicted the Orthodox faith of his society with respect. I was struck by the pressure of state censorship in late 19th century Russia. Chekhov had to worry about what he wrote. He had to come up with a rewrite when lines were excised out of his stories and plays. And he wrote in several letters that he would never get a certain passage through the censors. That had a chilling effect: self-censorship in anticipation of repression. As modern as Chekhov’s work sounds, he would have gone farther if allowed. It was the reign of the paternalistic, autocratic state.

In Chekhov’s portrayal of late 19th Russia hanging fire, his characters seem to expect some momentous unknown to be looming up in the dark in front of them. Chekhov was an optimist, not as a futurist prediction but as a philosophical stance. His humanism required the hope that society would make progress through the pursuit of science and reason.

Chekhov died on July 15th, 1904, having a glass of champagne on his deathbed. He was no fool but he hoped for the best. A man who preferred Tolstoy to Dostoevsky, I sense a hanging back from the modernism he embraced. A few years later Russia was in a state of cataclysm that was not allowed for in his civilized, enlightenment philosophy. I wanted to read about that.

I read Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, whose main theme seemed to be the mendacity of the state in the face of its blistering incompetence. And how good men can be overwhelmed by a society whose foundation is built on untruths that amount to a spiritual betrayal.

Then I tackled The Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes at more than 800 pages of text plus various indexes. The Pipes is nearly three times the length of October.

Who gets to tell history’s story? Miéville is the graceful writer who can set the scene. If Miéville wrote a play, you would want to see it. Pipes couldn’t write a play, and enduring his stiff prose for 800 plus pages is a strain. But Pipes knows more and his book has greater scope.

For example, Pipes has a chapter on the murder of the Romanov family. He extensively covers the situation of the peasants, the largest group. Pipes discusses the complex subject of land reform. Miéville doesn’t cover these subjects. Most decisively, Pipes covers the post-revolutionary Red Terror, which Miéville alludes to in a brief epilogue. Since Miéville’s book ends with the Bolshevik uprising in October, he is spared dealing with the aftermath of the communist seizure of power.

Miéville presents the leftist version of the revolution and Pipes is on the right. Lenin is recognizably the same person in both books, as Tsar Nicholas II is vacuous and hapless in both books. I wouldn’t say that we get the charming, fun loving Lenin from Miéville but he’s not holding his nose when presenting the great revolutionary as Pipes seems to be doing. When Lenin withdraws to Finland to escape persecution, Miéville, in a scene that borders on hagiography, has him energetically stoking the train engine. In Pipes, Lenin just runs away, making it seem he is expediently deserting his comrades.

In Pipes, I was startled by the introduction of Eric Hoffer, of True Believer fame. Pipes mentions Hoffer to make a point about intellectuals, that their commitment to ideology can overwhelm their recognition of the truth. Pipes is a historian who makes moral judgments.

Miéville startled me as well, when he claimed that the October revolution didn’t have to end in terror and mass executions. Could the revolution have evolved along more humane and democratic lines?

Pipes can be deterministic. At one point, when Nicholas II made yet another of his incompetent decisions, refusing to support the reforms that might have saved him and his family, Pipes says that he is doomed.

With Stalin offstage biding his time, I took exception to Miéville citing an opinion that the White Terror which resisted the revolution for a time was worse than the Red Terror. It seemed that Miéville was approaching special pleading.

I don’t know if China Miéville’s engrossing, novelistic account of the Russian Revolution will last. Quality survives but it’s dicey to predict where it is. Pipes puts a frame around the revolution, staining it with his disapprobation. Miéville takes that frame off.

I’ll return to reading the remainder of Chekhov’s stories, and the plays as well. If he had lived longer, the Russian revolution would have shredded Chekhov’s sensibility. I love the man and his work now more than ever.