The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was one of the most tumultuous events of the 20th century. Preceding it was the February 1917 Revolution, which began with a series of strikes in Petrograd (the Russian wartime capital) and ended with the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the establishment of a provisional government under Alexander Kerensky, a center-left politician pledged to keep Russia in the First World War.
This book offers a thorough and comprehensive telling of the events underlying both of these revolutions, and their immediate aftermath. The more I read the more I felt myself a part of an big, explosive drama of Shakespearian proportions studded with a variety of colorful and infamous characters. Lenin and Leon Trotsky emerge as the key figures from the Bolshevik faction of centre- and far-left parties who vied for control of the Russian government between the late spring and autumn of 1917.
Before reading this book, I like to think that I had a fairly broad understanding of the events that shaped Russia (and by extension, Eastern and Central Europe) between 1917 and 1922. But once I took the plunge into “SPIES AND COMMISSARS”, I found that I had to tread a lot of heavy water. There was so, so much information to ingest and analyze. (Much of this information has only become available after the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991.) My opinion of Lenin, however, remains unchanged. He was a cunning, shameless opportunist who had no compunction about using violent means to consolidate and expand the Bolsheviks' control of Russia and, through the Comintern, spreading the gospel of Bolshevism throughout Europe. The wonder of it all was that the Bolsheviks managed to hold out, despite civil war, famine, massive social dislocation, and threats (of varying degrees) from the Germans (until their defeat in November 1918) and Allies to unseat them from power.
The best way to sum up the theme of this book is through the following remarks found in Chapter 32 ("The Unextinguished Fire") ---
"The Bolsheviks had kept their hardness and had kept their faith. Even pseudonyms they chose for themselves signified unyielding intent. Stalin was a name taken from the Russian word for steel, Molotov was a derivation of hammer. Their generation had been born and brought up in years when armed force was used the world over to expand empires and transform economies. Bolsheviks absorbed this toughness of spirit into their own doctrines and practices. They saw how industrialists, financiers and landowners had become masters of the earth. They learned from the ruthlessness and optimism they witnessed. Like the capitalists they detested, they took chances. The October Revolution had always been a gamble. But it had been successful for them, even though the price was paid by millions of Russians in death, tears and famine. Communists proved themselves flexible. Although they hated compromise, they became adept at scraping off the minimum of skin from their ideology. Bolshevism was founded on the idea that humankind is infinitely plastic, infinitely malleable. The rulers of Soviet Russia aimed to reconstruct the entire edifice of life for the benefit of the working class --- and if workers did not yet understand where their best interests lay, the communist party would simply carry out the Revolution on their behalf."