(p. 14) A professor at Bard College, McMeekin argues that one of the seminal events of modern history was largely a matter of chance. Well-written, with new details from archival research used for vivid descriptions of key events, “The Russian Revolution” comes nearly three decades after Richard Pipes’s masterpiece of the same name.
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Far from the hopeless backwater depicted in most histories, McMeekin argues, Russia’s economy was surging before the war, with a growth rate of 10 percent a year — like China in the early 21st century. “The salient fact about Russia in 1917,” he writes, “is that it was a country at war,” yet he adds that the Russian military acquitted itself well on the battlefield after terrible setbacks in 1915, with morale high in early 1917. “Knowing how the story of the czars turns out, many historians have suggested that the Russian colossus must always have had feet of clay,” he writes. “But surely this is hindsight. Despite growing pains, uneven economic development and stirrings of revolutionary fervor, imperial Russia in 1900 was a going concern, its very size and power a source of pride to most if not all of the czar’s subjects.”
Nicholas II — rightly characterized as an incompetent reactionary in most histories — is partly rehabilitated here. His fundamental mistake, McMeekin says, was to trust his liberal advisers, who urged him to go to war, then conspired to remove him from power after protests over bread rations led to a military mutiny. Even the royal family’s trusted faith healer Rasputin, the ogre of conventional wisdom, largely gets a pass for sagely advising the czar that war would prompt his downfall.
Although McMeekin agrees the real villains are the ruthless Bolsheviks, he reserves most criticism for the hapless liberals.
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Having taken power, the Bolsheviks turned on the unwitting soldiers and peasants who were among their most fervent supporters, unleashing a violent terror campaign that appropriated land and grain, and that turned into a permanent class war targeting ever-larger categories of “enemies of the people.” Unconcerned about Russia’s ultimate fate, they were pursuing their greater goal of world revolution.
For the full review, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 6, 2017, and has the title “A New History Recalibrates the Villains of the Russian Revolution.”)
The book under review is:
McMeekin, Sean. The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York: Basic Books, 2017.