Russia 1917

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This is an impressive account which aims to set the record straight about how the revolution came about, and the reasons behind its ultimate downfall. In this it succeeds. Sherry has written an accessible introduction which is a joy to read.

Russia 1917 provides a detailed analysis of the most significant moments that shaped the revolution and the circumstances that the Bolsheviks were forced to navigate in those crucial years. Sherry draws out important lessons. He describes Lenin’s ability to be an uncompromising revolutionary, while recognising the need to be flexible to the changing conditions around him.

The arguments over reform versus revolution are laid bare. Dual power replaced Tsarism; workers, soldiers and peasants on the one hand and a capitalist government on the other. The Provisional Government tried to persuade the proletariat that it was the only practical alternative to the Tsar regime.

Sherry vividly illustrates the lengths to which the ruling class will go to in order to protect their interests and thwart any attempts by the working class to take real power: closing down publications, slanderous accusations, forced exile and murder. Trotsky and Lenin knew that the people needed to have true workers’ control to be freed from oppression. He excitedly describes the mass struggles of the time: strikes, protests, walk-outs, huge public meetings; demonstrating the awesome strength of solidarity.

The book rightly celebrates the critical role of women in spreading the revolutionary message and persuading the masses to act. It was women textile workers striking that triggered the February Revolution, and that went into the barracks and agitated to win soldiers over to support the October Revolution.

Sherry also makes the importance of an organised revolutionary party evident. Although the revolution was the result of the actions of a proletariat that stretched far beyond the Bolshevik party, it is clear that it would not have been successful without an organised core of revolutionary socialists.

Sherry’s portrayal of the early achievements of the Russian Revolution creates a sense of what is possible. Abortion and divorce became freely available on demand, homosexuality was decriminalised, and creativity and culture flourished. Ultimately the workers’ revolution was lost to the State Capitalism of Stalin, but this was despite the efforts of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. They understood that Russia could not sustain socialism in isolation. For it to last, it would require revolutions to spread across the world. A number of revolutions did bubble but they did not achieve full workers’ power. The mighty force of the ruling classes and Stalin’s appeal to nationalism, overcame the upsurge.

Russia 1917 is not sentimental to Lenin or Trotsky, yet the reader is left feeling charged with energy and hope because of what their actions, and the actions of the masses, represent for the potential for change today.