Further twists to the revolution

The Russian Revolution: The Essential Readings. First edition - Lenin's Revolution
March 2, 2001

It is ten years since the Soviet Union collapsed. New archival information from Moscow continues to inspire innovative writing about the Russian revolution of 1917. The range of historical perspectives on Bolshevism has also widened as the cold war fades from memory. But the new work that these changes have provoked has tended to appear in scholarly journals, making it inaccessible to students, and even to their teachers, unless they are specialists in the Russian field. Martin Miller's collection of reprinted essays brings some of the best writing together in one volume.

The book will be useful to sixth-formers and undergraduates, and offers material to suit a variety of courses and levels of specialisation. An essay by the Russian historian E. N. Burdzhalov presents details about the February 1917 revolution that will be new to most students, while for those unfamiliar with his book of the same title, Alexander Rabinowitch's essay, "The Bolsheviks come to power", will give a comprehensive picture of events in October.

It is the focus on language, class and gender, however, that makes the collection unusual. Some of the writing here will daunt fact-hungry A-level candidates, but for those who want to read beyond the basic story, Barbara Evans Clements's essay on Bolshevik women and Orlando Figes's on languages of revolution in the village offer exciting new material. Sheila Fitzpatrick's seminal essay on languages of class and Steve Smith's on rewriting history raise crucial questions for discussion. The book also includes contributions on the origins of the revolution (Edward Acton), nationality and statebuilding (Ronald Suny) and on labour protest (William Rosenberg).

Miller has collected some of the best writing from a brilliant field. It is no defect that his collection neglects the contributions of rightwingers such as Richard Pipes, many of which amount to restatements of the cold war story. More seriously, however, and inevitably, the book is already dated. Many of the essays originally appeared over a decade ago. Rabinowitch's book came out in 1978, and Smith's provocative essay in 1994. Some of the criticisms that he made then no longer hold, although he may be pleased to see so much of his advice so widely taken up. The new work he wanted to write on birth and death, romantic love, childhood and ethics is already under way, and much of it is now in print. Miller's excellent book needs to be read as the best of the 1990s, and not as cutting-edge research.

David Marples's clearly written and compact textbook is more disappointing. The author chose to organise his interpretation around Lenin, which would be fine if he used fresh research, but he does not. The documents he appends are all too familiar. They are drawn from existing translations, many of which have been in print for years. As a basic sixth-form text, the book covers the essential points, but it offers little challenge. There may, as Steve Smith reminds us, be plenty of good music still to be written in the key of C major, but the consumers of textbooks seem eager for something new, and now is the ideal time to write it for them.

Catherine Merridale is senior lecturer in history, University of Bristol.

The Russian Revolution: The Essential Readings. First edition

Editor - Martin Miller
ISBN - 0 631 21638 3 and 21639 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £55.00 and £15.99
Pages - 288

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