This is the Anniversary of the Bolshevik-led Russian Revolution. It is fitting that I review a book that did much to give Westerners a bird's-eye view of what happened during that tumultuous year. Forward To New Octobers!
Ten Days That Shook The World, John Reed, New American Library Edition, New York, 1967
I, on more than one occasion, have mentioned that for a detailed history of the ebb and flow of the Russian Revolution of 1917 from February to October of that year your man is the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Trotsky’s "History of the Russian Revolution" is partisan history at its best. One does not and should not, at least in this day in age, ask historians to be ‘objective’. One simply asks that the historian present his or her narrative and analysis and get out of the way. Trotsky meets that criterion. I have also mentioned in that same context that there are other excellent sources on this subject, depending on your needs. If you are looking for a general history of the revolution or want an analysis of what the revolution meant for the fate of various nations after World War I or its affect on world geopolitics look elsewhere. E.H. Carr’s "History of the Bolshevik Revolution" offers an excellent multi-volume set that tells that story through the 1920’s. Or if you want to know what the various parliamentary leaders, both bourgeois and Soviet, were thinking and doing from a moderately leftist viewpoint read Sukhanov’s "Notes on the Russian Revolution". If you need a more journalistic account for the period of the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and the immediate aftermath, the book under review, John Reed’s classic "Ten Days That Shook the World" is invaluable.
If we do not, as mentioned above, expect our historians to be ‘objective’ then we have a lesser expectation of those journalists who write the ‘first draft of history’. Reed makes no bones about the fact that that he is a partisan of the Bolshevik-led social revolution that he was witnessing. He, nevertheless, tells his story reasonably well for those who are not partisans. Moreover, Reed seems to have been everywhere in Petersburg during those days. He is as likely to have been reporting from Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the seat of the Kerensky's Provisional Government, as Smolny, the seat of the insurgent Soviets. We can find him among the bourgeois politicians of the City Duma or at the Russian Army General Staff headquarters. Hell, he was also in Moscow when things were hot there as the Soviet forces tried to seize the Kremlin. He is at meetings large-Peasant Soviet size- or in some back room at Smolny with Trotsky’s Military Revolutionary Committee that directed the uprising. To that extent, as a free lancer on the move, he covers physically during this period much more territory than Trotsky could as central director of the action and thus has more first hand observations.
Reed’s style tends toward straight forward reportage with little obvious sense of irony in the various situations that he is witnessing. Of course, against Trotsky’s masterly ironic sense he is bound to suffer by comparison. Nevertheless Reed gets us into places like the City Duma and into the heads of various characters like the Mayor of Petersburg that Trotsky, frankly, displayed no interest in dealing with. Probably the greatest compliment that one could pay Reed is that he is widely quoted as a reliable source in many historical accounts from Trotsky on the winning side to someone like Kerensky on the losing side. For those who want a quick but serious overview of the dynamic of the October Revolution then here is your man. Add in his companion Louise Bryant’s separate account, "Six Month In Red Russia" (if you can find it), and some very good primary source poster, pamphlet and newspaper material in the appendices of Reed’s book and you are on your way.