October 1917, heralded as the culmination of the Russian Revolution, remains a defining moment in world history. Even a hundred years after the events that led to the emergence of the world's first self-proclaimed socialist state, debate continues over whether, as historian E. H. Carr put it decades ago, these earth-shaking days were a "landmark in the emancipation of mankind from past oppression" or "a crime and a disaster." Some things are clear. After the implosion of the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty as a result of the First World War, Russia was in crisis —one interim government replaced another in the vacuum left by imperial collapse.
In this monumental and sweeping new account, Laura Engelstein delves into the seven years of chaos surrounding 1917 —the war, the revolutionary upheaval, and the civil strife it provoked. These were years of breakdown and brutal violence on all sides, punctuated by the decisive turning points of February and October. As Engelstein proves definitively, the struggle for power engaged not only civil society and party leaders, but the broad masses of the population and every corner of the far-reaching empire, well beyond Moscow and Petrograd.
Yet in addition to the bloodshed they unleashed, the revolution and civil war revealed democratic yearnings, even if ideas of what constituted "democracy" differed dramatically. Into that vacuum left by the Romanov collapse rushed long-suppressed hopes and dreams about social justice and equality. But any possible experiment in self-rule was cut short by the October Revolution. Under the banner of true democracy, and against all odds, the Bolshevik triumph resulted in the ruthless repression of all opposition. The Bolsheviks managed to harness the social breakdown caused by the war and institutionalize violence as a method of state-building, creating a new society and a new form of power.
Russia in Flames offers a compelling narrative of heroic effort and brutal disappointment, revealing that what happened during these seven years was both a landmark in the emancipation of Russia from past oppression and a world-shattering disaster. As regimes fall and rise, as civil wars erupt, as state violence targets civilian populations, it is a story that remains profoundly and enduringly relevant.
Laura Engelstein is Henry S. McNeil Professor Emerita of Russian History at Yale University, where she served as chair of the History Department, and Professor Emerita at Princeton.
List of Maps
Part I: Last Years of the Old Empire, 1904-1914
Part II: The Great War: Imperial Self-Destruction
1: The Great War Begins
2: Germans, Jews, Armenians
3: Tearing Themselves Apart
4: Conflict and Collapse
Part III: 1917: Contest for Control
1: Five Days that Shook the World
2: The War Continues
3: From Putsch to Coup
4: Bolshevik October
5: Death of the Constituent Assembly
6: Politics from Below
Part IV: Sovereign Claims
1: The Peace that Wasn't
2: Treason and Terror
3: Finland's Civil War
4: Baltic Entanglements
5: Ukrainian Drama, Act I
6: Colonial Repercussions
Part V: War Within
1: The Unquiet Don
2: Foreign Bodies
3: Trotsky Arms, Siberia Mobilizes
4: Kolchak-the Wild East
5: Ukraine, Act II
6: War Against the Cossacks
7: Miracle on the Vistula
8: War Against the Jews
9: The Last Page
10: War Against the Peasants
Part VI: Victory and Retreat
1: The Proletariat in the Proletarian Dictatorship
2: The Revolution Turns Against Itself
Conclusion: Revolution Against Itself