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Red October: The Revolution that Changed the World

Author
Douglas Boyd
With all the attention that has been paid in recent months to the October Revolution on its 100th anniversary, one of its most astonishing aspects still remains under-appreciated: how a tiny gang of thugs, bandits and egomaniacs, led by the archetypal evil genius, could capture an entire enormous nation through sheer energy and ruthlessness. Douglas Boyd’s “Red October“ helps us to understand how this could happen.

The book traces Russian history from the early lives of the revolutionaries through to the death of Trotsky. Early chapters give us the essential introductions to Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, before the narrative is woven together into the events of 1905, 1914 and eventually 1917. Throughout, there are constant grim reminders of how periods of social upheaval in Russia provide a uniquely benign environment for evil to flourish.

I hadn't previously encountered the author Douglas Boyd. By the look of his biography and back catalogue, I should have done: after learning Russian at JSSL, he has authored a substantial number of books on the Soviet Union and Russia. It is plain that he is no friend of communism, and like many other writers on the period he combines disdain for the cynical manipulators of a flawed ideology with anger at the depths of human suffering for millions that they brought about. At the same time, the work remains relatively objective, honestly and thoroughly sourced, and an introduction to both familiar and new accounts of the events of 1917.

As so often when considering Russia, the final impression is one of oppressive déjà vu. In 1917, Russia’s experience of modern democracy was over almost before it began. It’s easy at this distance to overlook how the rest of the world welcomed the February revolution, and the removal of what was commonly seen as the Tsar’s despotic rule. But Russia’s experiment with democracy survived only between February and October’s implementation of the Bolshevik practice of seizing and consolidating power by murdering everybody who disagrees with you, in order to reinstate tyranny in the country for the subsequent 70 years. A century later, the processes have been slower and more subtle; and yet just as certainly, Russia is once again after a brief flirtation with democracy returning to its default state of autocracy.
Overall, I would recommend this both to people who are already well informed about the early communists and the events of 1917, and to those who need an introduction. It is not a happy tale, but then so few true stories from Russia are. Five mushroom heads.
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