Russia's Red Year

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2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. This graphic novel is an accessible introduction to Russia’s “red year” and contributes to an important interpretation of the events.

Most importantly, it puts working class people as the agents of their own change and is sprinkled with small but significant funny events that bring to life how the revolution affected every aspect of the peoples’ lives.

The book focuses on two main characters: Natalia, a factory worker, and Peter, a soldier. Of course, included are the revolutionary leaders Lenin and Trotsky — including a Lenin in a rubbish disguise — but there is a real focus on the experiences of ordinary workers.

The book has clearly been researched to unearth some of the personal stories of the revolution, highlighting the very real experiences of ordinary people and the conflicts and humour that they encountered.

Through this approach the book challenges some of the common assumptions about the revolution. It shows that women workers, soldiers and other workers were engaged and enthused by the revolution, and central to its making.

Women’s liberation comes to the fore in a scene where the character Sophie addresses a mass factory meeting on the woman question. She raises the slogans and demands that later began to become reality — divorce and abortion on demand; access to contraception; socialised childcare.

Tim’s illustrations convey the growth in confidence among women as they take part in the process of revolution. One of my favourite pages was the depiction of the women workers who disrobed the ultra-national Black Hundreds paper seller, outside the factory, leaving him humiliated.

Of course, the book also uses the big events — the July Days, the storming of the Winter Palace — to evoke a sense of mass action and democracy.

The book approaches the revolution from a consistently internationalist perspective. The debates of workers and soldiers always look to the outside world, and particularly a Europe ravaged by the First World War.

Another favourite scene was when Will Thorne, a British Labour MP and trade union leader, comes to see what progress the revolution is making. But the revolutionary Russian workers can see his descent into reformism and accommodation to the system. “Was he really a friend of Eleanor Marx?” one asks.

Other episodes express the real fear that the European leaders had of the revolution spreading to their own nations.

Most of all the book shows that the Russian Revolution was democracy in action. It is filled with debates, mass meetings and votes on what action to take. And it shows how the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin and Trotsky, were part of these democratic processes.

This is not a complete history of the revolution — it ends with the October insurrection. But it manages to put across the central truth of the revolution, which is so often ignored or hidden by mainstream histories — that it grew from and unleashed the potential of ordinary people to change the world, and in doing so to change themselves.