Last October marked the hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. A century after this bloody event kicked off decades of Soviet rule, contemporary discussions of communism have frequently failed to appreciate the devastation that resulted from Russia’s violent overthrow of tsarist rule. In an era when communism has been popularized among some factions of the American left, Bard College professor and historian Sean McMeekin provides a timely reminder of communism’s historic evils in his book The Russian Revolution: A New History. McMeekin’s gripping account is particularly praiseworthy for its methodical articulation of the revolution’s complex timeline, its candid exposure of the calculated evils of the communist ideology, and its exploration of the role of the great powers in the revolution and subsequent civil war.
The unfamiliar lay reader may be unaware that the Russian Revolution was itself a complex, multi-stage event. McMeekin delves into the complex origins of the revolution with a careful narrative that builds momentum from the decline of the Romanov dynasty in the late nineteenth century to the dynasty’s demise in 1917. The focus on Alexander Kerensky, who eventually took power after the ouster of Tsar Nicholas II in February 1917, is particularly riveting. In one especially dramatic excerpt, McMeekin shows how Kerensky’s decision to continue Russia’s involvement in World War I incurred the wrath of the Bolshevik ranks and increased Russian discontent with his leadership, thus serving as a turning point in the revolutionary timeline. Another excerpt highlights the climactic juxtaposition of Kerensky’s wartime decision with the arrival of Bolshevik “agitators” from the Soviet Petrograd (155-156). The tragedy of Kerensky’s rule only grows as he makes desperate moves to maintain some semblance of control over his divided country. Several chapters later, the author’s retelling of the infamous “Kornilov affair” demonstrates Kerensky’s desperation to defeat the Bolsheviks and stabilize Russia. Yet, Kerensky’s foolish decision largely to conjure up a treasonous plot by his commander-in-chief only deepens popular resentment of his leadership and forces him to make peace with a Bolshevik force that had no intentions of disappearing (190).
The “agitators” of whom Kerensky spoke were just that, and their methods and ideas receive careful attention in McMeekin’s book. Far from being either a neutral recounting of Bolshevik actions or a revisionist history designed to portray the Soviet rise to power in a sympathetic light, the author frankly explores communism’s destructive impact. Building on an earlier exposition of Lenin’s belief in fomenting civil war to “bring about the defeat of their own country…and thereby ‘turn the imperialist war into civil war,’” McMeekin illustrates the ultimate fallout of these chaotic ideas in his final chapters. Here, there is no shying away from Bolshevism’s crimes. The brutal suppression of peasant rebels by a well-equipped war machine is justifiably depicted as a massacre of the very people the revolution claimed to liberate (316-319). Early outpourings of the Soviet preference for atheism are manifested in a tragic account of government-sponsored looting of Russian Orthodox churches and their priceless belongings (330-331). In short, McMeekin spares no detail in his recounting of communism’s explicit evils.
Historical events cannot be studied in a vacuum; accordingly, understanding the Russian Revolution requires a clear understanding of how World War I influenced the rise of Bolshevism. McMeekin probes the intertwining of Russia’s war with the Central Powers and the growth of the various revolutionary socialist movements. A close look at Germany’s support of Lenin and his followers is particularly interesting, rendering the concluding months of the Russo-German conflict even more significant in their impact not only on the Great War but also the overthrow of the tsar. German support for Lenin and his work was so deep that Berlin devised a roundabout way to wire him 50 million gold marks, the equivalent of $1 billion today (134). By the end of the book, it is the Germans who are treating the new Soviet regime as their superiors, paying exorbitant sums at Rapallo to maintain a friendship with one of the only governments still willing to do business with Berlin (342).
McMeekin’s account also shines for how it sheds light on global participation in the Russian Civil War. Despite the hesitancy of the Allied Powers to officially invade Bolshevik Russia, thousands of British, French, and American troops joined the White Army to fight the Reds (282-283). Such a perspective is critical to understand the extent to which the end of World War I brought about the swift freezing of relations between the Leninist regime and the Western governments, setting up decades of diplomacy that would either be explicitly hostile or purely pragmatic, as in the case of the World War II alliance against Hitler. Thanks to McMeekin’s inclusion of the Great Powers in the narrative of both the revolution and the civil war, the reader is given a truly global perspective on this critical period of Russian affairs.
Despite its many strengths, the reader can find shortcomings in McMeekin’s book. His most noticeable weakness is his lack of an in-depth analysis of Marxist thought in the Revolution. Given his forthright exposés of communism and its dangers, McMeekin would have done well to give more attention to the author whose view of history placed central importance on struggle and liberation, inspiring the Bolsheviks to rise up and overthrow the old regime. Tying a deeper analysis of Marx into discussions of Leninist thought might also have defended McMeekin against objections that Soviet Russia was an improper manifestation of Marxist thought. Nonetheless, while a philosophical exploration of Marxism and Leninism would have been desirable in McMeekin’s book, on the whole, he constructs a strong history of the revolution with a compelling narrative, moral clarity, and an intriguing attention to the role of outside powers in Russian affairs.
The author has no qualms about titling his epilogue “The Specter of Communism,” with startling relevance to today’s discussions about socialist politics. In a particularly searing passage, McMeekin writes:
Like the nuclear weapons born of the ideological age inaugurated in 1917, the sad fact about Leninism is that, once invented, it cannot be uninvented. Social inequality will always be with us, along with the well-intentioned impulse of socialists to eradicate it. Fortunately, most social reformers accept limitations on the power of government to direct economic life and tell people what they are permitted to do and say. But the Leninist inclination is always lurking among the ambitious and ruthless, especially in desperate times of depression or war that seem to call for more radical solutions. (351)
The author clearly comprehends the reality, indeed, the urgency of understanding the full impact of socialist thought as our leaders formulate wise laws and just policies. Understanding the history of revolutionary socialism as manifested in the Bolshevik Revolution and the inauguration of Lenin’s regime is key to understanding the dangers of embracing such radical thinking today. To ignore this same history is one step down the road to repeating it. May we be wise enough to see the evil and avoid it.
Nathan Heath is a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, with degrees in international relations and music. He also studied at Davidson College and the University of Oxford and interned with the US House of Representatives, Opportunity International, and the Hudson Institute before working for a Virginia law firm. Nathan was a Fellow of both the Summit Oxford Study Centre and The Philos Leadership Institute in 2016 and also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of Integras: A Journal of Faith, Politics, and Society. He currently writes from his home in Richmond, Virginia, and this fall he will begin graduate school with a focus on international policymaking.
Photo Credit: Bolshevik Army marching through the streets of Moscow. Unknown photographer for US War Department, 1917–18. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.