The Russian Revolution: A New History 1st Edition
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―New York Times Book Review
"McMeekin success in offering a fresh take through inclusivity of contributing events...A well-written and rewarding read on the Russian Revolution's lasting historical import."
"With strong scholarly foundations and a riveting narrative, this book provides a broad survey of this tumultuous and fateful social transformation...This fluid work offers an overview of the revolution's wartime context."
"A fresh history of the revolution...McMeekin refreshingly doesn't muddy the waters with too many characters, but he is thorough in his treatment, which is that much more interesting due to the wealth of information released following the downfall of the Soviet Union...McMeekin effectively shows how easily one man could undermine the foundations of a nation, and he makes the revolution comprehensible as he exposes the deviousness of its leader."―Kirkus Reviews
"[A] superb and eye-opening account of this important chapter in 20th century history that will be indispensable reading for those anxious to learn more about this seminal event and the aftershocks that followed.... The Russian Revolution is a carefully researched, well-written assessment of the complex and confusing events that did so much to shape the last century. McMeekin is a reliable guide to a complex story and the book moves seamlessly and clearly across a vast landscape of people and events."
―Christian Science Monitor
"[A] powerful revisionist history... Sean McMeekin is a gifted writer with historical talents equal to the challenge of helping the reader to follow the events of the revolution and appreciate their terrible significance... And in a world menaced by new totalitarians, by political actors prepared to use conflict as a path to power, by states ready to use their money to suborn democracy elsewhere and by liberals often paralysed by in-fighting rather than united by principle, McMeekin's magisterial study repays careful reading."―Times (UK)
"It is a quarter of a century since Richard Pipes published his history of the Bolshevik seizure of power in the Russian empire, and twenty years since Orlando Figes's A People's Tragedy. Back then, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, those seemed definitive. But now comes Sean McMeekin with a vivid new account, drawing on fresh evidence and offering an original, geopolitical perspective. The full, shocking extent to which Lenin was a German operative now becomes clear, as does the magnitude of Kerensky's blunder in not finishing the Bolsheviks off before their "revolutionary defeatism" went viral. McMeekin writes muscular history. His Russian Revolution grips the reader."
―Niall Ferguson, senior fellow, the Hoover Institution, Stanford
"Sean McMeekin's new history of the Russian Revolution is, as always with his work, dynamic, compelling, and revisionist, telling the familiar story with vigour, accessibility, and elan but ornamented with fascinating new archival revelations on, amongst other things, German funding of the Bolsheviks."
―Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of The Romanovs
"The Tsar didn't fall, he wilted, and this briskly written, fresh take on the revolution sketches the process in poignant detail-orgies, vodka, Rasputin, pogroms, plots, and war on the Eastern Front. McMeekin's Lenin is more seedy than heroic, his Bolshevik victory an act of treason engineered by a German army that had stuffed a billion dollars in Lenin's pockets before the bourgeois exile mounted his first barricade in Petrograd."
―Geoffrey Wawro, author of A Mad Catastrophe
"This is a book that we have been waiting for. The Russian Revolution is an enormous subject, and to write a short and authoritative book on it is very difficult indeed. Sean McMeekin brings many gifts to the task, not the least of which is that he can describe crowd scenes with immediacy. It should count as a classic."
―Norman Stone, author of The Eastern Front 1914-1917
About the Author
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Sean McMeekin's scholarly and engrossing history begins with a short prologue on the murder of Gregory Rasputin and its consequences in December, 1916, takes a step back to review the troubled reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the 1905 Revolution, and the calamitous decision to go to war in 1916, then launches into a history of 1917 and its aftermath. Along the way McMeekin punctures some well worn stereotypes: Tsarist Russia in the first decade of the twentieth century was industrializing and growing more prosperous even while it underwent political earthquakes; Russia in 1914 was indeed capable of fighting and perhaps winning a major war; Russian soldiers in that war were better fed and lived under better conditions than their adversaries; and there was no widespread sentiment for pacifism by 1917. Indeed, McMeekin points out that the Russian Imperial Army had had a good year of victories in 1916 and had every reason to expect even better results in 1917.
What swept away the Tsar in February 1917 was a desire to see the war fought more effectively by a more efficient government and military command. Liberal politicians who had sought greater power for the elected Duma first took over from the Tsar, but were then themselves replaced by tougher, more ruthless leadership. Waiting in the wings were Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks, transported to Russia and heavily financed by Germany, using German funds to print propaganda and agitate, and reliant on German support to keep their vision of a Marxist revolt alive. McMeekin's revelations of German influence on Lenin (even as he points out that much more evidence of that influence had been destroyed by the Soviets before 1991) are much more detailed than anything I've read before on that subject.
Then came the fabled October Revolution. A coup d'etat rather than the popular revolt of Soviet myth, led by iron-willed men determined to achieve their vision, even if that meant some temporary compromises and steps backward. The Bolsheviks withdrew Russia from World War I, fought a ruthless Civil War against their opponents (both real and perceived) and succeeded in forcing their vision onto the Soviet peoples at the cost of millions of lives and the devastation of the Russian economy.
McMeekin ends his history in 1922 with the acceptance by Germany and much of the rest of Europe of the reality of Soviet control through trade agreements and diplomatic recognition. There is some especially interesting discussion of the war fought by the Bolsheviks against the Orthodox Church. He leaves us with Lenin still in power, though in decline, with hints of what was to come after his death. His Epilogue points out that for most Russians little had changed by 1922: a despotic government controlled by a small minority held all power. and most Russians led lives constrained by shortages and fear.
In McMeekin’s view both the Tsar and the Russian army were in far better shape than what other historians have argued. I think he stretches here, because if it were that strong the army would not have collapsed as fast as it did under the weight of the Leninist policy of turning an imperialist war into a civil war by subverting the Russian draftees.
He argues, I think correctly, that Lenin was blessed by his opponents. The liberals who brought on the February/March Revolution were inept and the Socialist Revolutionary government under Kerensky was perhaps even more inept. When the time came for Lenin to strike in October/November, the provisional government was a mere shell. Thus the revolution was more a coup d’état than a real revolution. The revolution would come with the bloody civil war that followed the coup.
During the civil war period McMeekin highlights how split the opposition was and how unified the newly formed Red Army was under the leadership of Trotsky. Trotsky wisely utilized the officer corps of the defeated Tsarist army to build his new army and utilizing Russian gold reserves, Lenin was able to keep the army in the field. Nevertheless millions of lives were lost in the three year civil war as the country nearly starved to death and was saved by Herbert Hoover’s relief mission. One last note McMeekin tells us that the Cheka, the predecessor to the KGB, was founded to break the strike of banking, railroad and communication workers, so much for proletarian solidarity.
Therefore I highly recommend the ”The Russian Revolution” for history buffs like myself.
Many threads of history are skillfully assembled in Sean McMeekin’s absorbing account of the creation of modern Russia. McMeekin discusses the rise of the Bolshevik revolutionaries, the emergence of Lenin, and the fall of the czar. It almost seems that the story of Russia in the early 20th century tells itself but it is the mark of a good history that the reader is never lost in the midst of a steady parade of unfamiliar characters, some formless and others intensely absorbing. The huge forces surrounding Russia in its emergence as a great power are always present in this fresh look at a country that seemed to always be in search of itself and even now, one hundred years later, seems distant and cold.
Top international reviews
The war was a terrible mistake that costed dearly to all parties involved, not only Russia. That it was a mistake does not mean that Rasputin (opposed to the war) was a better advisor to the tsar than the liberal politicians, as claimed by the author. The book makes the even more astonishing claim that at the beginning of 1917 the war was going well for Russia and that, without a combination of circumstances and conspiracies by liberal politicians, the Tsar would not have abdicated in February. In 1917, the war was not going well for any of the belligerent countries. Nicholas was a weak and indecisive leader and his abdication was more a comedy than a tragedy. The weakness of the regime is inadvertently revealed in the author’s opinion that “had the tsarina been with him, the tsar would not have abdicated”. The book suggests that only the ineptitude of liberal politicians who did not support the army and a conspiracy between Germany and Lenin can explain the Bolshevik revolution. That the October revolution was not a worker’s revolution but the result of a coup organized by Trotsky has always been recognized, even by the Bolsheviks and the far left. But a coup more often fails than succeeds. Was it just dumb luck that brought and kept the Bolsheviks in power? Or did they need the help of more villains? Sweden and Britain under Prime Minister David Lloyd George were the first to break the embargo against the Soviets and to “stab in the back the white armies”. More conspiracies! More villains!
The October revolution was a tragedy, not a comedy of errors. The October revolution, the formation of the Soviet Union, and its failure have marked the last century and still affect the present world. But I am afraid this book does nothing to help us understand better the October Revolution and the world we live in.
Nowadays it is extremly difficult to find an objective book on the subject
Sean McMeekin is one of my favourite historians and I was delighted to see he’d written a history of the Russian Revolution to coincide with the 100th anniversary of this momentous event. He doesn’t disappoint. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of Russian and German history, McMeekin provides perhaps the clearest explanation yet of how and why the October Revolution of 1917 was the realisation of an out-of-control German plan to destabilise Russia and knock her out of the First World War. He also explains how its main protagonist, Lenin, was nothing more than a German stooge and agent bought and paid for by German money. The story of how Germany facilitated Lenin’s return to Russia and financed the subsequent Bolshevik putsch is a story that can’t be told too often – contradicting, as it does, so much of the Marxist garbage spouted about the causes of this great tragedy. It seems it wasn’t the proletariat who were to blame for unleashing the evil of communism upon the world, it was Kaiser Wilhelm II and the German Empire.
The book feels like a dense read, even if one ignores the lengthy (71 pages) list of footnotes and sources. McMeekin’s text is often terse and assumes good prior background knowledge of the revolution. I often found it difficult to understand McMeekin’s American English – as a trivial example of many, the use of the word “shutterings” for “closures” – and his infrequent use of hyphens, so that many times I had to re-read sentences or even paragraphs to ascertain their correct meaning.
Another irritating aspect was the author’s description of actions within the Russian Civil War, where there were no relevant adjacent maps. Those maps that do exist are located at the start of the book, and they are often too high-level to allow one to comprehend the scope and geography of the actions.
The viewpoint in the present book is mostly that of the ultra-reactionary. It is reactionary because it goes so far as to deny 'cause' within Russian society for either the revolution that overthrew the Tsar or the later Soviet revolution. McMeekin represents the same bewildered view that many Russian aristocrats had toward the revolution in 1917. Its a view from the top and a view in isolation.
Also the archival documents that are listed (for those that bother to double check) are mostly those he already used in his book History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks (2008).Whereby the current book, evidence by the fact that it is constantly quoted, is very much based on ideas first presented in the book 'The Russian Revolution' by Richard Pipes (1990).
Contrary to other specialists about the subject, McMeekin claims that the February revolution in 1917 was largely an accident. The war had placed strains on every belligerent regime, Russia’s more than most, but he identifies signs of resilience. Or where other historians insisted that the Russian capital was short of bread, so he finds witnesses with bags of the stuff. Where most historians have pointed to a crisis in the Russian army, he describes a thriving, even buoyant, military force, better fed and cheerier than any peasant back at home. Even the tense, weary citizens of Petrograd emerge as confused, long-suffering and largely apolitical human beings. What changed this, tipping Russia into pointless, tragic, unexpected revolution, was a break in the weather. For McMeekin, it was only the coincidence of a warmer, brighter morning on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917, that brought the crowds out, turning ordinary demonstrations 'into a rolling street party.' That mood turned sour, shots were fired, and in a week the tsar was gone. There are many colorful details in McMeekin’s account, including a confident overview of Russian conservatism and a shrewd assessment of military calculations. But the idea that the revolution was an accident defies belief. For one thing, there is no question about the depth of popular misery on the eve of that historic 'break in the weather.' It is possible, of course, to find authentic memoirs of champagne and dancing. But there is also a wealth of evidence on the other side, including a price inflation so rapid that even British diplomats were hit, to say nothing of mass strikes and shootings, sinister and hungry crowds.
Thus one could say the book is reactionary because it goes so far as to deny 'cause" Itswithin Russian society for either the revolution that overthrew the Tsar or the later Soviet revolution. McMeekin represents the same bewildered view that many Russian aristocrats had toward the revolution in 191It's a view from the top and a view in isolation.
McMeekin also approaches the subject as a conspiracy theory by claiming that Lenin: 'Fueled by German subsidies and his own indomitable will to power, Lenin succeeded in breaking the Russian Imperial Army in 1917'.(Kindle Location 178) And that Lenin was 'a German agent'(Kindle Location 6078).
Most serious scholars familiar with the subject today will say that this is nonsense, neither does McMeekin provide any evidence that 'German subsidies' (which in this case should have been substantial) allowed Lenin to succeed in 'breaking the Russian Imperial Army' in 1917. See for example S. A. Smith Russia in Revolution(2017) and Geoffrey Swain A Short History of the Russian Revolution (2017).
If on the other hand, one were to speculate as McMeekin does that there is some circumstantial evidence, that evidence is not persuasive at all, and certainly not conclusive. The Germans may have intended to fund the Bolsheviks, and they may have allocated substantial sums for that purpose, but there is no proof whatsoever that in 1917 this money ever reached the Bolsheviks.
The only documentary evidence of money being paid to Bolshevik politicians in Russia in the period before the October Revolution relate to relatively insignificant sums of two thousand roubles paid by Kozlovsky to Lenin and eight hundred roubles paid to Zinoviev in April 1917. Zinoviev explained that his brother-in-law in Petrograd – presumably Ilya Yonov – had sent eight hundred roubles to Switzerland to help with defraying the costs of the return journey to Russia, but that Zinoviev had left Switzerland before the money had arrived, with the result that it was now being remitted. Kozlovsky received payment of a more substantial sum of 23,424 roubles, but these were (at least on the face of it) fees for legal services that he had rendered.In any event, this amount is a mere drop in the ocean of the millions of marks that by McMeeking cited Parvus/Helphand received from Germany, and that were supposedly passed on to the Bolsheviks.
Whereby McMeekin nevertheless proceeds by claiming that: 'The charges, however, were serious. If the government made them stick in a public trial, the Bolsheviks would be finished in Russian politics.'
But not only were there many fake documents to try and forcefully proof there was when there was not, as George F. Kennan has pointed out (on this see for example his 'The Sisson Documents' that can be read for free on-line). Furthermore, the Provisional Government itself concluded that the case (alleged evidence provided by Nikitin) against the Bolsheviks was far from substantiated explains why, in 1927, Kerensky stated that Pereverzev’s premature publication of the telegrams, early in July 1917, precluded the arrest of Hanecki with further incriminating evidence and, thus, robbed the Provisional Government of the ‘possibility of establishing Lenin’s treason in final form, supported by documentary evidence’.(As quoted in 'The Catastrophe: Kerensky’s Own Story of the Russian Revolution' By Aleksandr F. Kerensky.) This statement implies that Kerensky accepted that, even with the telegrams, the Provisional Government did not have conclusive documentary evidence against Lenin and his comrades.
Most frequently mentioned by McMeekin is Parvus/Helphand and the one potential piece of evidence: the fact that Germany paid vast sums to Parvus. Catherine Merridale, an experienced historian of Russia in her recent book 'Lenin on the Train' after a careful investigation that among others depict Parvus/Helphand as a fraud, completely dismisses the notion that Lenin would have received money from Parvus.
Clearly, Parvus adeptly led the Germans to believe that such payments were made to the Bolsheviks; and the Germans were only too willing to believe that this was true – otherwise they would be unable to account for the large sums of money that they had transferred into Parvus’s bank accounts, and they would not be able to claim credit for having adopted and implemented a strategy designed to bring about revolution in Russia and, consequently, Russia’s withdrawal from the War. But Parvus’s claims that he gave money to the Bolsheviks should not be taken at face value. It is at least equally as plausible that most of the money that he received from the Germans was invested in his own bank accounts. And to the extent that Parvus may have used the German money paid to him for the purpose of stoking revolutionary fires in Russia, there is no way of saying whether the money actually went to the Bolsheviks or to other revolutionary and secessionist groups; there is clear evidence that, as much as some of the money may have been intended to go to the Bolsheviks, it was also intended to go to other revolutionary and separatist movements, for the Germans did not discriminate rigidly in this regard – they were quite happy for their largesse to go to any groups that might contribute in one way or another to instability and chaos in Russia. So, if Parvus did not keep all of the German money for himself (something of which he seems to have been quite capable) but, instead, did share some of it with the intended recipients, some or all of that money probably went to groups other than the Bolsheviks. We simply do not know. As such, to claim that all or the bulk of the money ended up in Bolshevik coffers is pure speculation. Or as Christopher Read added: Taken together with exaggerated claims about the 'sealed train' in which Lenin had traveled across Germany on his journey home from Switzerland, many were led to believe the stories. The issue of 'German money' has played a persistent but misleading role in the mythology of the Revolution.(C.Read, Lenin: A Revolutionary Life, 2005, p.161.)
Also in regards to McMeekin's mention of the 'cataloging evidence' by N.S. Karinski, records released in the post-Soviet era indicate that, despite the claims made in Karinsky’s report, the Provisional Government’s own investigation concluded that there was no evidence of the ‘German connection.'
McMeekin in the latter part of his book then claims that 'German Money'(Kindle Locations 2448-2449) allowed Lenin and his comrades to build up a press empire which called for peace with Germany.
But if indeed there was collusion between the Germans and the Bolsheviks, one might have expected Lenin to conclude a peace agreement with Germany at the earliest opportunity after the October Revolution. However, as a matter of fact, that is not what happened. On the contrary: one of the first things Lenin did after the Revolution was to draft the Decree on Peace, which was adopted by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets on 26 October (8 November). The decree made an appeal ‘to all warring peoples and their governments to begin at once negotiations leading to a just democratic peace. … The Russian Government proposes to all warring peoples that this kind of peace be concluded at once’. Pursuant to this decree, the Bolsheviks sought to bring about a general peace, not a separate peace with the Germans; when these general peace overtures came to nought, war between Germany and Russia resumed, with the Bolsheviks seeking, and being promised, military aid from the Entente – not exactly the outcome one would have expected if Lenin was the Germans’ puppet in bringing about a separate peace on the eastern front. During the Russo-German peace talks at Brest-Litovsk, British and US intelligence agencies intercepted telegraph dispatches between the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute and the Soviet delegation at Brest-Litovsk; these contained no scandalous revelations (as might have been expected if there was a secret pact between the Germans and the Bolsheviks.)
And even if is evident that there was a significant increase in Bolshevik media activity in the period following Lenin’s return to Russia. Does it follow that the proliferation of Bolshevik publications was funded by German money? It is an argument that seems to be premised on the tacit supposition that some secret deal must have been struck between Lenin (or his duly authorised adjutants) and representatives of the German state, regarding which German funding would be provided to the Bolsheviks.It is a sort of ‘post hoc ergo propter hoc’ argument: because there was significant growth in the Bolshevik press in the period after Lenin’s return (and after the conclusion of the alleged secret deal), therefore such growth must have been caused by that deal. However, as every student of rudimentary philosophy knows, this sort of construction is a logical fallacy. In any event, as has been shown, there is no actual evidence that such a secret deal was ever struck.
Although the revived Pravda was soon followed by a large number of Bolshevik provincial newspapers, of which the Moscow-based Sotsial-Demokrat was the most important, the growth in the Bolshevik press must be seen in its proper perspective. First of all, the extent of the Bolshevik press ‘empire’ must be viewed in the context of circulation figures of other publications in Russia during that period. Estimates of Bolshevik circulation figures vary significantly. At the upper end of the spectrum of estimates, the total cumulative circulation of all Bolshevik newspapers probably never exceeded 600,000 during 1917. At the lower end of the spectrum, estimates vary between 235,000 and 320,000. Even if the higher figures are accepted as accurate, they would yield a number considerably lower than the circulation of non-socialist newspapers. For example, the liberal Russkoe Slovo alone sold 739,000 copies per day in 1916, and in excess of one million after February 1917. Likewise, daily circulation of Gazeta Kopeika (which was aimed at a working-class audience but which was liberal middle-class, scurrilous, sensationalistic and largely apolitical, in content) exceeded a million copies every day in Petrograd alone in 1917. Similarly, the periodical Ogonyok had reached daily circulation figures of seven hundred thousand in 1914, after which its circulation began to decline. The Black Hundred publication Malenkaia Gazeta also appeared in printings of hundreds of thousands. (Already by 1913, daily newspaper circulation in Russia had exceeded three million.) By comparison, Pravda, with a daily print-run of about ninety thousand, was small fry.
Secondly, the figures at the upper end of the spectrum (the ones that are usually cited in support of the argument that the Germans must have financed the Bolshevik press ‘empire’) represent the apex of Bolshevik press circulation during the course of 1917. Those numbers were not sustained throughout the year. In the period after the suppression of the July Days uprising, when the Provisional Government took action against the Bolsheviks (amongst other things, the printing plant that had been acquired only recently and paid for by worker collections was destroyed), total circulation figures of all Bolshevik publications dwindled to about 160,000. When Rabochy i Soldat, the successor to the banned Pravda, appeared on 23 July, it had a circulation of only twenty thousand. By the end of August 1917, the Party’s central organ (the name of which was changed periodically in an attempt to circumvent governmental restrictions) was printing only fifty thousand copies. These numbers are quite low, relative to the print runs of many other publications.
Thus to the extent that there was growth in Bolshevik circulation figures, it did not occur to such an overwhelming extent as to render it wholly inexplicable in the absence of German funding. Moreover, it is not as though the Bolsheviks demonstrably had no other sources of funding: it has been shown that money from other sources was also – at least to some extent – available to the Bolsheviks. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks’ socialist munificence did not extend to handing out copies of their newspapers free of charge: for example, Soldatskaya Pravda was sold at a price of five kopeks per copy. Sales revenues, even if perhaps not sufficient to cover production and distribution costs, must have made some contribution towards recouping such costs. Accordingly, the growth in the Bolshevik press in 1917 cannot be regarded as furnishing persuasive evidence that the Bolsheviks must have received German funding and that, failing this, it would not have been possible for the Bolsheviks to print and distribute their newspapers.
There is a large number of other smaller issues, to mention a few: McMeekin revives the outdated notion of a 'coup' while experts like recently also Geoffrey Swain in his excellent 'A Short History of the Russian Revolution' (2017) term it an 'insurrection', and writes: 'When Kerensky called for yet another coalition, his days were numbered, and the Bolsheviks, who had been calling for a Soviet Government since February, were the inevitable beneficiaries. On his return to Russia, Lenin had told his comrades that the time would come when the Bolsheviks had a majority in the Soviet. Immediately after the failure of Kornilov’s military coup, the Bolsheviks won that majority'. Swain, A Short History of the Russian Revolution (Kindle Locations 2414-2417).He tries seriously to suggest that Russian Civil War was nothing of the sort. That it was, in reality, a war initiated by Lenin to spread communism as far as the Red Army could reach globally. Or when McMeekin writes,' the British [Bruce Lockhart] envoy was made the scapegoat of a so-called Lockhart plot' (Kindle Location 4682) this while the son of Bruce Lockhart (who wrote a book about Sydney Riley) put in writing that his father told him he was indeed involved in such plot (when you go to the BBC international, website and type in the search 'Did Britain try to assassinate Lenin?' on that page that comes up, below on the right you can see it by clicking on the documents icon). The subject is also extensively covered in in books like Robert Service, Spies and Commissars: Bolshevik Russia and the West (2012).
Finally, McMeekin also brings a strong political perspective to the subject. An example from the book:
'A century of well-catalogued disasters later, no one should have the excuse of ignorance. Event so, history can play tricks on us. The popularity of Marxist-style maximalist socialism is on the rise again in the United States and other Western “capitalist” countries, even as it its appeal is all be dead in those countries were it was actually tried…Today’s Western socialists, dreaming of a world where private property and inquality are outlawed, where rational economic development is planed by far-seeing intellectuals, should be careful what they wish for. They may just get it.'
But I agree that Lenin was bad news. The 20th century could have turned out a lot better if he had simply never been given a train ride, and been left to fulminate in the Swiss Alps.