Understanding Russian Revolution


The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin, Basic Books, US $30.00, Pp 496, May 2017, ISBN 978-0465039906

The October Revolution in Russia was a major world event that shaped the 20th century and continues to shape the 21st century. “1917 has entered the lexicon of world-historical dates all educated citizens are expected to know and remember. The meaning of 1917, however, remains much contested, not least because two very different revolutions took place in Russia that fateful year. The February Revolution toppled the Russian Monarchy and ushered in a brief era of mixed liberal and socialist governance, only to be superseded by the more radical October Revolution which saw Lenin’s Bolshevik Party impose a Communist dictatorship and proclaimed an open-ended world revolution against Capitalism and imperialism. In The Russian Revolution, Sean McMeekin says because the Bolsheviks were avowed Marxists, our understanding of the Russian Revolution has long been colored by Marxist language, from the idea of a class struggle between proletarians and the capitalists ruling classes, to the dialectical progression from a bourgeois to a socialist revolution.

The Russian Revolution fundamentally transformed the political landscape, although not in the direction intended by the men who began it. McMeekin says that Russia’s liberals had dreamed of a constitutional monarchy in which the Czar ruled through cabinets answerable to the Duma and public opinion, allowing them to revamp Russia’s supposedly floundering war effort and her allegedly moribund economy (even though the liberals themselves admitted there was no real bread shortage in the capital in February 1917). Instead, their dangerous palace plots and inept stab at riding the Petrograd garrison mutiny to power unleashed political chaos and gravely undermined Russia’s war effort.

McMeekin says that it was not the provisional government that issued the discipline-destroying Order No. 1 which sundered the fighting morale of the Russian Imperial Army just as it was poised to turn the table on the Germans in 1917 after achieving overwhelming superiority in manpower and war material — and as Russia stood on the cusp of a historic victory over her ancient Ottoman enemy to the south. Still, the inability of the liberal ministers of the Provisional Government – Lvov, Guchkov, and Milyukov – to corral the irresponsible socialists of the Petrograd Soviet who issued Order No. 1 spoke ill of their capacity for statesmanship. Ruling the vast, multiethnic Russian Empire turned out to be far more difficult than these men had expected, and the liberals certainly performed not better than the tzar and his appointed ministers did. Indeed, if we are to judge by the army’s declining battlefield performance in spring and summer and the utter collapse of the Russian economy by fall 1917, they did far, far worse.”

The Russian Revolution provides new insights into Russian Revolution of 1917. Sean McMeekin sheds more light on major events before and after the 1917 Revolution such as plots hatched against Tsar Nicholas II in 1916-17 that led to the brutal assassination of Rasputin and disintegration of the Russian Imperial Army in 1917. It is a very well-researched and well-written book that gives new perspectives on the Russian Revolution. Sean McMeekin’s academic credentials are unmatchable. It is a must-read for both students and experts of Russia.