The Russian Revolution of 1917 was one of the most cataclysmic events in world history, profoundly shaping politics, international relations, social patterns, economics and science in the century that followed. It created long-lasting aftershocks which travelled far beyond its geographical borders. How did it happen? What were the sequence of events that led, following the shocking upheaval of the old Romanov order, to a fierce and violent rivalry between a variety of revolutionary factions and the ultimate victory of the Bolsheviks?
Throughout the 20th century many accounts were written—and especially in the closing years when Russian archives became more available to external historians. But prime among them remains this work, History of the Russian Revolution, published as early as 1930—for it was a work (virtually unique among historical accounts of major events) written by one of the key protagonists, the Ukrainian-Russian Marxist politician Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). It appeared just a year after he was expelled from Russia (in 1929), having lost a power struggle within the revolutionary government headed by Josef Stalin who had seized control following the death of Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
Trotsky was forced to flee for his life and in exile immediately set about recording what actually happened (according to his viewpoint). He documented both the February Revolution (the ending of the Tsarist regime) and the October Revolution led by Lenin (and Trotsky’s) Bolshevik movement which ultimately resulted (in 1923) in the new Russian state of the Soviet Union.
Trotsky’s work is divided into three parts: Volume I - The Overthrow of Tzarism, Volume II - The Attempted Counter-Revolution (headed by the socialist Alexander Kerensky), Volume III - The Triumphs of the Soviets. In his vigorous but also personal account of the events leading to Bolshevik victory, Trotsky applied his strong intellectual and analytical abilities, while at the same time allowed his close involvement to present his knowledge of the causes, the results and the personalities in considerable detail. It is a powerful and extraordinary story, all the more engaging because we know how it ended.
For Trotsky himself, of course, it was going to end 10 years after publication with his assassination in Mexico (famously with an ice-pick) by an agent of Stalin’s NKVD. The importance of History of the Russian Revolution was marked by its English publication in 1932 in the definitive translation by Max Eastman, just two years after its publication in Russian (in Germany). However, it was only in 1997 that it was cleared for publication in Russia itself. Jonathan Booth gives Trotsky’s important work its first unabridged audio recording.