Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Revolutionist

The Revolutionist: A Novel of Russia
© 1988 Robert Littell
467 pages

Arise! You workers from your slumber
Arise! You prisoners of want

For  Reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of "can't". 
"The Internationale", English lyrics by  Eugène Pottier.

In the fourth year of the Great War,  the largest and most conservative monarchy in Europe suddenly collapsed in revolution, only to emerge as the world's first self-proclaimed Communist state. The  'spectre of communism' which had so haunted Europe was now suddenly corporeal, and hearts across the industrialized world set afire -- some in fear, others in desperate hope that an opportunity had finally arrived to create a better tomorrow. Alexander Til, an idealist driven by a longing for justice, was such a soul who saw in the revolution a chance to make the world a more just place -- and so the Russian-born American emigrated back to the country of his grandfather is a letter of recommendation of none other than Leon Trotsky.   Arriving in Petrograd, 'Zander' quickly becomes an agent and literary propagandist for the Bolshevik party, working directly under Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and others as they work to make the county theirs -- a firm believer in the Revolution, but driven by his own moral center.

The Revolutionist is intense from the star and its vigor never fades, maintained by lively characters, snappy dialogue, and a plot which follows the lives of a diverse cast of characters through decades of war, terror, and political intrigue . Upon arrival in Russia, Zander begins living with a group of Bolsheviks in an elegant home known as the Steamship: though disagreeing on much, they all believe in the cause which will dominate their life. Some of Zanders' fellow Steamship comrades would live to be bitterly disappointed by the products of their labor: others would be made monstrous by it, and some would die rather than endure it. Zander' morality is taxed to his limits as he tries to find the right course between morality and The Cause, making his way through the paranoid and horrifically murderous years of the Stalinist era.

As far as thrillers go, this must be one of the best I've ever read. My historic interest in popular revolutions made it engaging reading, particularly given that Lenin and Stalin appear as oft-used secondary characters.  The author makes Til entirely sympathetic, and seems to view the revolution as doomed from the start, driven by morally bankrupt men like Stalin who were corrupt from the start.  He takes the same attitude toward as Dickens did toward the similarly disappointing French Revolution, which started out in idealism but ended in its own 'reign of terror' -- the Russian revolution is far more disastrous, however, given that Stalin's butchery lasted for decades. The worst effects of his rule are demonstrated clearly in the novel, as people are made afraid to speak out or live bravely,  dominated completely by the world's first totalitarian state. Zander and his friends are put through the mill, their lives destroyed by the deteriorating political situation which throws more than a few plot twists at the reader. I had no idea how Til would see the end of the work through, or even if he would --  it deemed like a story that would end in death. The actual conclusion surprised me.

A singularly impressive work, one I daresay which will linger in my mind for months to come.


  • Archangel, Robert Harris. A political thriller set in Russia, and likewise dominated by Stalin. 


  1. I spotted it in a "What are you reading thread" over at CivFanatics Forum and knew immediately I wanted to read it. Littell has apparently made a name for himself writing about intrigue in Russia -- the back of the book calls him the "Isaac Asimov of intrigue".


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