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The Early Years of the Russian Revolution

by Robert Service

Pub Date: May 8th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-61039-140-5
Publisher: PublicAffairs

British historian Service (Russian History/Univ. of Oxford; Trotsky, 2009, etc.) examines the fraught birth of the Soviet Union in this careful, dense scholarly study.

The conventional view of the Bolshevik Revolution and its aftermath posits a Marxist-Leninist regime cut off from the rest of the world, a state behind an iron curtain decades before the fact. As Service capably shows, this view is incorrect. The outside world was well aware of events inside the new Soviet Union, while the Union had a network of agents, representatives and sympathizers able to convey its wants and demands abroad. During the first years of the Soviet experiment, civil war raged in the country. The White and Red armies were well apprised of one another’s actions, and it seems largely thanks to the ineptitude and personal strangeness of many of the anti-Soviet commanders that the Revolution was not overwhelmed, particularly since foreign expeditionary forces—including American, British and French detachments—were fighting on behalf of the Whites inside Russia. One of the most interesting snippets of Service’s book is a passing reference to what happened to the White leaders after the civil war ended: Pëtr Wrangler died suddenly and mysteriously in Serbia, Anton Denikin wound up in the United States and Nikolai Yudenich retired quietly to the French Riviera “and shunned émigré affairs through to his peaceful end in 1933.” Meanwhile, on the opposing side, Trotsky suffered a terrible end, Lenin was embalmed and entombed and Stalin took the nation through several grim decades. Service paints detailed portraits of the revolutionary principals and their sometimes-surprising allies and enemies—e.g., one British spy who worked inside the Soviet Union was the noted writer W. Somerset Maugham.

Why did the Soviets kill the tsar? Why was Finland granted its independence? How did Keynesian economics save Lenin’s skin? For those with an interest in such questions, Service’s book will hold plenty of appeal.