Russian Revolution Reading List

Russian Revolution

2017 marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution. In order to mark the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, we’ve asked an expert in the field to recommend books, which would help a general reader become better acquainted with the revolution. Jonathan Smele – a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London – suggested the following five books for graduate students or colleagues entering the field for the first time.

Below you will find his list, followed by brief descriptions of each book. This list is not intended to be comprehensive. Comment below to make your own suggestions.

Suggested by Jonathan Smele, Queen Mary University of London

Christopher Read. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914–22: The Collapse of Tsarism and the Establishment of Soviet Power. London: Palgrave, 2013.

  • “This essential introduction synthesises the wealth of new material available on the Russian Revolution into a clear overview which is ideal for beginners. Leading expert Christopher Read treats the period 1914-22 as a whole in order to contextualise and better understand the events of 1917 and their impact.”

J.D. Smele. The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years that Shook the World. London: Hurst, 2016.

  • “This volume offers a comprehensive and original analysis and reconceptualization of the compendium of struggles that wracked the collapsing Tsarist empire and the emergent USSR, profoundly affecting the history of the twentieth century. Indeed, the reverberations of those decade-long wars echo to the present day – not despite, but because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which re-opened many old wounds, from the Baltic to the Caucasus. Contemporary memorializing and ‘de-memorializing’ of these wars, therefore form part of the book’s focus, but at its heart lie the struggles between various Russian political and military forces which sought to inherit and preserve, or even expand, the territory of the tsars, overlain with examinations of the attempts of many non-Russian national and religious groups to divide the former empire. The reasons why some of the latter were successful (Poland and Finland, for example), while others (Ukraine, Georgia and the Muslim Basmachi) were not, are as much the author’s concern as are explanations as to why the chief victors of the ‘Russian’ Civil Wars were the Bolsheviks. Tellingly, the work begins and ends with battles in Central Asia – a theatre of the ‘Russian’ Civil Wars that was closer to Mumbai than it was to Moscow.”

Steve Smith. Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.

  • “The Russian Revolution of 1917 transformed the face of the Russian empire, politically, economically, socially, and culturally, and also profoundly affected the course of world history for the rest of the twentieth century. Now, to mark the centenary of this epochal event, historian Steve Smith presents a panoramic account of the history of the Russian empire, from the last years of the nineteenth century, through the First World War, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment of the Bolshevik regime, to the end of the 1920s when Stalin unleashed violent collectivization of agriculture and crash industrialization upon Russian society.Drawing on recent archival scholarship, Russia in Revolution pays particular attention to the varying impact of the Revolution on different social groups: peasants, workers, non-Russian nationals, the army, women, young people, and the Church. The book provides a fresh approach toward the big, perennial questions about the Revolution and its consequences: why the tsarist government’s attempt to implement political reform after the 1905 Revolution failed; why the First World War brought about the collapse of the tsarist system; why the attempt to create a democratic system after the February Revolution of 1917 never got off the ground; why the Bolsheviks succeeded in seizing power; and why Stalin came out on top in the power struggle inside the Bolshevik party after Lenin’s death in 1924.

    A final chapter reflects on the larger significance of 1917 for the history of the twentieth century – and, for all its terrible flaws, what the promise of the Revolution might mean for us today.”

Geoffrey Swain. A Short History of the Russian Revolution. London: I.B. Tauris, 2017.

  • “In 1917 revolutionary fervour swept through Russia, ending centuries of imperial rule and instigating political and social changes that would lead to the formation of the Soviet Union. Arising out of proletariat discontent with the Tsarist autocracy and Lenin’s proclaimed version of a Marxist ideology, the revolutionary period saw a complete overhaul of Russian politics and society and led directly to the ensuing civil war. The Soviet Union eventually became the world’s first communist state and the events of 1917 proved to be one of the turning-points in world history, setting in motion a chain of events which would change the entire course of the twentieth century. Geoffrey Swain provides a concise yet thorough overview of the revolution and the path to civil war. By looking, with fresh perspectives, on the causes of the revolution, as well as the international response, Swain provides a new interpretation of the events of 1917, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the revolution.”

Rex A. Wade. The Russian Revolution, 1917. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

  • “Combining his own long term study of the revolution with the best of contemporary scholarship. Rex Wade presents a revised and expanded account of one of the pivotal events of modern history in this second edition. Within an overall narrative that provides a clear description of the 1917 revolution, he introduces several new approaches on its political history and complexity. Wade discredits many of the myths and misconceptions that have clouded studies of the period. He also considers the social history of the revolution and incorporates people and places too often left out of the story, including women, national minority peoples, and peasantry front soldiers.”

Look out for:

Daniel T. Orlovsky. ed. Blackwell Companion to the Russian Revolution. Oxford: Blackwell, 2018 (forthcoming).

Title image: Russian soldiers marching in Petrograd in February 1917

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