The Russian Revolution: Exploring Our Perennial Fascination

Vladimir Lenin, image via Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Americans watched the rise and fall of Russian communism from a distance. With our nations now more entwined than ever, we still can’t tear our eyes away.

The Russian Revolution and its aftermath continue to fascinate historians, writers, artists, and an abundance of those intrigued by political history. November brings with it Victor Sebestyen’s new biography Lenin: The Man,
The Dictator, and the Master of Terror
. Meanwhile, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner has announced that his followup will be an anthology series called “The Romanoffs,” about people who believe themselves to be descended from the Russian royal family whose reign was ended by said revolution. These are just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg: the Russian Revolution has turned up in everything from Broadway shows–the musical “Anastasia,” for one–to acclaimed works of nonfiction, including China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, itself one of a series of books published by Verso on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Those with an interest in that point of history have plenty to obsess over right now, whatever their chosen medium.

Revolutions in general are something that capture audiences in the United States: the runaway theatrical hit of the last few years here has, after all, been a musical about Alexander Hamilton. The French and Cuban revolutions have also made a mark on both popular culture and the reading habits of those who enjoy explorations of history. But the Russian Revolution checks off a number of boxes that few others do: it’s recent enough that a tangible arc can be traced–and, with the end of the Soviet Union, it allows historians an end date with which they can take in the arc of a revolution as a whole. For readers looking for compelling narratives, whether among royalty or revolutionaries, there’s plenty to ponder here; anyone seeking ambiguity will also find it in the story of a revolution designed to overthrow tyranny which itself became tyrannical.

In an interview with Calvert Journal, Miéville–known best for his imaginative and speculative fiction–explained to writer Samuel Goff what drew him to this particular subject: “The thing with the revolution is that it’s not lacking in narrative tension.” Miéville also speaks about the need to understand the events of the revolution in order to process the impact that it subsequently had on Russia, and the world.

That impact can’t really be understated. The rise of the Soviet Union had a substantial effect on two World Wars, to say nothing of the global conflicts that sprung up in the wake of the Cold War. An alternate history of the 20th century in which the revolution failed, or where the Bolsheviks didn’t take power, would lead to a very different 2017. But in the 2017 we all inhabit, the Russian Revolution has taken on a renewed historical urgency. In a review of Sebastyen’s book in the New York Times, Josef Joffe points out that the current Russian government has effectively made Lenin a state hero: “Lenin, the Robespierre of Bolshevism, now serves as patron saint of Russian nationalism and Putinist despotism.”

That cyclical nature of history is yet another reason why the Russian Revolution holds so many of us enrapt. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gulag, Anne Applebaum points out that many of the abuses of the gulag system under the Soviets weren’t exactly brand new; instead, they repurposed the authoritarian system that had come before. And as the abuses of those systems extended far beyond the overthrow of the tsars, so too have some of the most chilling aspects of the Soviet Union persisted in contemporary Russia.

A 2016 piece by Masha Gessen opens with a description of a statue of Lenin in a Moscow square that’s been knocked from its pedestal. This, Gessen notes, is an unusual event: “It is very rare to see a Lenin toppled in Russia.” She goes on to discuss the ways in which Lenin–as well as the Soviet Union as a whole–is increasingly revered in modern Russia. “Russia’s Soviet past has been reglorified in recent years,” she writes, with all of the chilling imagery which that brings to mind.

Gessen herself has a new book out this fall examining this phenomenon. The Future is History: How Totalitarianism
Reclaimed Russia
 explores this cycle. In a recent interview with Out, Gessen spoke of how her mother was involved with the Soviet dissident movement; in recent years, she’s become an authority on the abuses of both contemporary Russia and the historical Soviet Union. This provides yet another example of why the Russian Revolution continues to fascinate us: it’s a way to understand the current state of Russia, a subject which impacts us all.