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  • "New" Histories of the Russian Revolution?
  • George Gilbert (bio)
Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, 1914–21. 823 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. ISBN-13 978-0199794218. $39.95.
Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution: A New History. 445 pp. New York: Basic Books, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0465039906. $35.00.
China Miéville, October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. 369 pp. New York: Verso, 2017. ISBN-13 978-1784782771. $26.95.
Jonathan D. Smele, The "Russian" Civil Wars 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World. 423 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. ISBN-13 978-0190233044. $74.00.
Mark Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905–21. 388 pp. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0199227624. $100.00.

The recent centenary of the Russian Revolution presented an opportunity for public commemoration that was not fully grasped. In the Russian Federation, authorities were keenly aware of how discussion of revolution necessitates talk of regime change. As far as can be ascertained, popular attitudes toward the revolution are polarized along generational and, to a lesser extent, professional lines, with polling showing roughly equal numbers of people either positive, negative, or indifferent toward the main events of "Red October."1 The contrast with World War II, known in Russia as the [End Page 159] Great Patriotic War, could scarcely be more marked. While one event is seen as potentially divisive, the other is a unitary celebration, and the war stands without question as the popular touchstone of Russia's 20th century, reflected in the huge official and lay interest that this event continues to generate; even the relatively unobservant on a fleeting visit to Russia today would struggle to completely avoid all traces of wartime ephemera. Driven by continuing interest in Russia as "the other" and, one might tentatively suggest, a slight revival of interest in (or at least awareness of) leftist politics, there was comparatively more interest in the fate of the revolution in the Anglophone hemisphere. One could even observe some discussion of the revolution in the mainstream media, though the debate was generally a turgid one that ran in well-established channels. Most of the Western commentariat took a dim view of the event: revolution equals socialism, which led to Leninism and to Stalinism, which meant, therefore, that the revolution was a failure on its own terms. High-minded ideas of freedom, justice, and liberation discussed during 1917 can only look cruelly ironic in light of what the revolution actually led to for the Russian people.

One would expect professional historians to look more critically at events without reading things backward. During and after 1917, many potential alternatives to Lenin and later to Stalin emerged, but for different reasons none of these were successful. Even a general summary must point out that the revolution was a remarkably complex event with a panoply of ramifications—political, social, economic, and so on. Among other things, a centenary evidently invites an opportunity for reinterpretation, and a number of publications have been released in the last few years, some even promising to be "new" histories of the Russian Revolution. Yet what can be said about the revolution that really is new? The main events of 1917—"dual power," the Kornilov Affair, the July Days, October, and, of course, Lenin's role—and beyond have been well recounted by a number of outstanding scholars writing at the peak of their powers. Furthermore, Russian archives, inaccessible to the first few generations of scholars of revolution, have been open for decades, and the treasure buried within mined by successive waves of people who have contributed rich work to our understanding of the revolution. Faced with this reality, it seems sensible that authors of the works under review here have eschewed trying to write histories based around rich archival repositories (a daunting prospect, in any case, if one is truly aiming for broad coverage) and instead sought to provide structural and conceptual innovation. Though it is harder than ever to write groundbreaking work on the revolution, there are always new emphases, interpretations, and conceptual frameworks that can [End Page 160] be applied. Many debates concerning the teleology, content, and...


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