Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed.

Part of Russian Revolution Week.

Ten DaysWhen Kirsty first suggested a ‘Russian Revolution Week’ we jumped up and down, clapped our hands enthusiastically and said “Ooh!  yes!  Great idea, Kirst … You go for it, girl …”.  At least, I did … so that when she was casting around for a volunteer to read Ten Days that Shook the World, I felt sort of morally obliged to hold my hand up.  After all, it was a book I’d always meant to read (as one does) … and here, I reasoned, was my big chance.

The next time anyone sees me raising my right hand in bright-eyed eagerness to please – be so kind as to shoot me.

I bought the cheapest copy I could lay my paws on – a well-thumbed Penguin paperback with an introduction by no lesser personage than A J P Taylor – about whom I knew enough (as in ‘somewhere to the right of Genghis Khan’) to be moderately surprised.

It was, however, a fairly even-handed introduction and –  inevitably – beautifully written.  It did not in any way prepare me for what was to follow.

The book opens with a glossary that’s supposed to help you work out who was who and what was what, not to mention when and why and for how long.  I was cross-eyed before I was halfway through it.  With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I think I’d have been better advised to flick back as a reference when I needed it.

Coleridge once said of the actor Edmund Kean that watching him act was like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.  Ten Days had much the same effect on me.  So many facts, events, names and dates are thrown at you in such a short space of time that you feel as if you’ve been not so much informed as attacked.  It travels at a breakneck speed and it came as no surprise at all to discover that Reed – desperate to get it all down on paper while he could still remember the details – basically wrote it in two weeks.

He was plainly profoundly impressed by the Bolsheviks (he openly admits to his lack of complete objectivity in his own foreword).  He was in effect a fan … and like many fans before and since, he obsessively collected every scrap of paper that came his way.  Every poster, every flyer, every newspaper report was carefully retained and subsequently reported on.  He took detailed notes of every word he heard uttered in the seemingly never-ending all-day and all-night meetings of which the Russian Revolution chiefly seems to have been composed.

And that was one of the most eye-opening things about this book.  Knowing very little about the Russian Revolution, I had always vaguely assumed that blood ran in the streets and angry peasants and workers rushed around brandishing homemade weapons, felling the oppressors and whatnot.

In fact, nothing of the kind happened.

The momentous storming of the Winter Palace was an anti-climax.  They basically just walked in … and John Reed trailed in behind them.

In fact, stepping back from the book and its whirlwind narrative, the Revolution comes across as being some sort of gargantuan committee meeting that went on for days and days and days while ordinary people just got on with their lives.  Pity the poor soul who had to take the minutes.

John Reed didn’t live to see the horrors of Stalinism destroy the dreams of the Bolshevik revolution … and I’m really rather glad.  There may have been times as I was reading the book when I could gladly have throttled him (and Kirsty, now I come to think of it) but there’s something oddly endearing about his enthusiasm.

Reed tried hard to maintain journalistic objectivity, but didn’t quite succeed. Ten Days that Shook the World is too subjective to be a history … but then it wasn’t Reed’s intention to write one.  He wanted to record for posterity the events that he instinctively knew were going to reshape the world.

It didn’t all pan out the way he hoped it would … with the ideals of Bolshevism spreading around the world,  making it a better, fairer and safer place … but it’s beyond question that the shaken world was never quite the same again.

The edition I read was an old one, but Penguin produced a new edition in 2007.  ISBN 978-0141442129.  368pp.

10 comments on “Ten Days that Shook the World by John Reed.

  1. rosyb
    October 22, 2008

    Bizarrely you’ve almost convinced me to read this book! Almost. 😉

    I love your description of the revolution as an endless committee-meeting. Give me blood and gore anyday!

    Loved that. Wondering how on earth I’m going to deliver the goods with my piece tomorrow now. You really set the bar high, hustler-Moira.

  2. Ludwik Kowalski
    October 22, 2008

    Many would say that my new book on Stalinism is also “too subjective to be a history.” I would agree. But I also think that topics it addresses are worth discussing. With this in mind, let me share the message I recently sent to many university friends, asking for help. Please share this message with other potential readers, and ask them to do the same.

    = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

    Those who know very little about Stalinism might learn a lot from my short and easy-to-read 2008 book entitled “Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime.” The book (ISBN 978-1-60047-232-9) can be ordered online, for example, at

    http://www.amazon.com

    or from a large bookstore, like Barnes&Noble or Borders. Excerpts are at:

    http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/excerpts.html

    Please share this URL with those who might be interested.

    P.S. It is not a scholarly volume with new information or ideas; it is an educational book for those who know very little about tragic aspects of Soviet history. It mixes well-known facts, described by survivors of gulag camps, with comments and observations worth discussing.

    As shown on the back cover, the book was not written to make money (royalties are committed to a scholarship fund); it was written to expose horrors of proletarian dictatorship. The book is dedicated to all victims of Stalinism, including my idealistic father. My goal is to place as many of its copies as possible in homes, libraries and bookstores. But that is a very difficult task, especially for a self-published author. Would you, or someone you know, be able to review my book for a local, or not-so-local, newspaper? A review would probably convince bookstores that the book is worth ordering.

    Thank you for your help.
    Ludwik Kowalski, Ph.D.

  3. kirstyjane
    October 22, 2008

    Re. Ten Days, I personally love it, but then I would do badly as a Trotsky specialist if I was allergic to long descriptions of internal politics, committee meetings and organisational battles. Perhaps the book should be used as a litmus test for prospective Soviet historians?

    (Moira, I loved this review, it made me giggle.)

  4. Lisa
    October 22, 2008

    Oh Moira, I do sympathise. I think we’ve used identical phrases in our posts this week. Nonetheless, very entertaining review. Like Kirsty, I giggled. Will you be keeping John Reed’s excellent book or donating it to your charity? If the latter, I might be able to provide a near-pristine copy of Dr Zhivago to keep it company…

  5. kirstyjane
    October 22, 2008

    *hugs her copy of Ten Days tight*

  6. Jackie
    October 22, 2008

    This was a very funny review, but like Rosy, it make me think seriously about reading the book, despite all the negatives so amusingly described. That’s amazing that it was written in 2 weeks, my goodness! What a cool Coleridge quote, too.
    The cover is fitting, being a nice example of the Soviet propaganda style of art.Though the pose of the man reminds me of a local statue of Johnny Appleseed.

  7. Moira
    October 23, 2008

    Rosy … Jackie … It’s perfectly safe to THINK about reading the book. Really. Thinking about it will do you no harm at all.

  8. Jackie
    October 23, 2008

    But it could lead to the dangerous area of actually picking it up and who knows what could happen then…

  9. kirstyjane
    October 23, 2008

    You might enjoy it! And then you will have to face up to your latent Soviet historian tendencies. Ouch.

  10. Amyclae
    March 26, 2014

    I reached back into the archives for this review. *shrugs* I still love it.

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This entry was posted on October 22, 2008 by in Entries by Moira, Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , .

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