Sheila Fitzpatrick is a highly esteemed scholar who has been publishing and editing works on Russian history since the 1970s (“Sheila Fitzpatrick Biography”). Her signature work on the Bolshevik Revolution which transformed tsarist Russia into the Soviet Union was first published by the prestigious Oxford University Press in 1982 and has since undergone three revisions as Fitzpatrick remains dedicated to keeping history alive and vital even as the past transforms into the present and looks to the future.
Despite these infrequent updates, the volume remains rather slim enough at just over 220 pages to remains a primary resource for those who are just beginning to express an interest in the Russian Revolution and want to enjoy a quick learning experience without feeling as though they are resorting to a highly edited Cliff’s Notes version of history.
What the beginner who knows little about the Russian Revolution gets from Fitzpatrick’s overview is the traditional format that usually accompanies books that try to fit a grand historical movement covering many years into a small frame. To suggest that “The Russian Revolution” is merely a sort of Greatest Historical Hits of the key moment in 20th century history would be to undervalue the seriousness with which the author treats her subject. Nevertheless, a proper summary of events describes in her book is best captured by noting some of the most important milestones in the path Russian took from outdated aristocracy to modern socialist experiment. The volume provides the necessary backdrop required for truly understanding the scope of the revolution by presenting a quick overview of Russia’s feudal past reliant on the crushing authority of the Tsars and the system of serfdom as their economic means of survival. What many readers only familiar with the Soviet Union through hysterical Hollywood paranoia may not realize before reading the books is that the idea of the “secret police” intruding into process of dissent certainly did not begin with the Communists or the KGB. Such an illumination may be surprising to those who don’t know much about Russian history and without question everything that Fitzpatrick follows with after this introduction will fail to make complete sense unless such context is provided. From that starting point, the book follows chronologically through the early unsuccessful revolutions against the Tsarist government in 1905 and February 1917 before getting to the real meat of the book with a far more extended descriptions of the battle for power taking place between various offshoots of the opposition before the deposing of the Tsarist dynasty following the October 1917 revolution. It is at this point that a great many readers may be completely shocked to the core at what they don’t know about the Russian Revolution. In fact, the bulk of gaps in historical ignorance about this historical event that most readers have will be unexpectedly filled as Fitzpatrick provides a solid outline of names, places, dates and analysis behind the conflicting perspectives of those in charge of the insurrection. The reader who knows the word Bolshevik but not Menshevik and is familiar with Russia’s Red Army but unaware of the White Army is in for quite a history lesson when they pick up “The Russian Revolution.”
Which makes it all the more unfortunate for the reader who is better equipped with an understanding of this history. As just one instance where the book will be viewed differently from the true beginner than it will be from someone with more perspective, there is Fitzpatrick’s insistence that the revolution should be characterized as a coup that lacked legitimacy through popular support. The word “coup” brings to mind disaffected bureaucrats already in the system looking to take over the power structure for themselves with little real desire for an authentic revolt against the way things are done. Such a description hardly seems accurate when describing the Bolshevik agenda to utterly dismantle the existing economic system and force and entire country into a new century. Nor does it seem an accurate way to portray the very groundswell of support for changes in the economic system intended to benefit former serfs and undervalued laborers. Indeed, Fitzpatrick rather quickly undermines her own estimation of the October Revolution as a coup by writing that the Bolsheviks owed their success to the country’s workers, soldiers and sailors (72). If the revolution was really a coup made illegitimate through lack of popular support, then exactly how did the workers, soldiers and sailors help make the Bolsheviks successful in October 1917 where so many others had failed before?
This disconnect between how Fitzpatrick frames the essence of the Russian Revolution and her outline of facts, figures, names, dates and places to provide the groundwork for her analysis is, ultimately, what leads to the book being deemed a very slight failure. While well-written, well-researched and well-sourced, Fitzpatrick’s account of one of the most significant events of the 20th century cannot authentically be described as well-analyzed. Those with a much firmer grasp on the factual intricacies of the revolution may quibble over the description of it being well-researched, but since this book exists primarily as an introductory source, such lapses are really not relevant. It is not in the facts that Fitzpatrick’s failure surprises, but in the analysis of those facts. And on that account, the surprise is much larger than the actual failure. For a historian who has quite clearly devoted her life’s work to the subject, the manner in which historical data is computed into political assessment is almost shockingly devoid of genuine value.
- “Sheila Fitzpatrick Biography.” Sheila Fitzpatrick. University of Chicago. Web. 26 Oct. 2015
- The Russian Revolution, by Sheila Fitzpatrick, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2008