Sheila Fitzpatrick reviews October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville, Verso, 358 pp, £18.99, May, ISBN 978 1 78478 280 1, The Russian Revolution 1905-1921 by Mark D. Steinberg, Oxford, 388 pp, £19.99, February, ISBN 978 0 19 922762 4, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 by S.A. Smith
Oxford, 455 pp, £25.00, January, ISBN 978 0 19 873482 6, The Russian Revolution: A New History by Sean McMeekin, Basic, 496 pp, $30.00, May, ISBN 978 0 465 03990 6, Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution by Tony Brenton, Profile, 364 pp, £25.00, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 78125 021 1
For Eric Hobsbawm, the Russian Revolution – which occurred, as it happens, in the year of his birth – was the central event of the 20th century. Its practical impact on the world was ‘far more profound and global’ than that of the French Revolution a century earlier: for ‘a mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the [revolution] … and Lenin’s organisational model, the Communist Party’. Before 1991, this was a fairly standard view, even among historians who, unlike Hobsbawm, were neither Marxists nor Communists. But finishing his book in the early 1990s, Hobsbawm added a caveat: the century whose history he was writing was the ‘short’ 20th century, running from 1914 to 1991, and the world the Russian Revolution had shaped was ‘the world that went to pieces at the end of the 1980s’ – a lost world, in short, that was now being replaced by a post-20th-century world whose outlines could not yet be discerned. What the place of the Russian Revolution would be in the new era was unclear to Hobsbawm twenty years ago, and largely remains so to historians today. That ‘one third of humanity’ living under Soviet-inspired systems before 1989-91 has dramatically dwindled. As of 2017, the centenary of the revolution, the number of Communist states in the world is down to a handful, with China’s status ambiguous and only North Korea still clinging to the old verities.