Ten Days that Puzzled the Reader – An Irishman’s Diary about John Reed’s classic account of the Russian Revolution

When John Reed wrote ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, which 10 days did he have in mind?

When John Reed wrote ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, which 10 days did he have in mind?

 

Still three weeks to go until the centenary of the Russian Revolution, commemorations of which will be interesting. But in the meantime I see that John Reed, the man who so famously reported it, was born on this date in 1887. So to mark his 130th birthday, I’m reopening the case of a small literary mystery that has long baffled me, namely this: When he wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, which 10 days did he have in mind?

Yes, it’s one of the great titles, worthy of a classic. It’s also much catchier than most of the text, and must have contributed greatly to the work’s success.

But I have read both the book, which covers a period of about two months, and the timeline of events that accompanies it.

And I’m at a loss to identify any 10-day period therein, or even a nine or 11-day one, that explains the number.

As for the world-shaking bit, that would be true, eventually. At the time, though, the events barely shook Petrograd.

Much of Reed’s book is about people having meetings: occasionally dramatic, if only for their epic nature, as when he describes sessions of the Petrograd Soviet that had “delegates falling down asleep on the floor and rising again to take part on the debate [...] speaking six, eight, twelve hours a day.”

Like many foreign reporters in trouble zones, he had to cover much of what he thought was going on from his hotel room, studying local newspapers and other clues. But he wasn’t missing much.

Even on the actual night of the revolution – November 7th in the western calendar – Petrograd was resolutely unshaken.

As AJP Taylor wrote in an introduction: “Most people [...] did not even know that a revolution was taking place. The trams were running, the fashionable restaurants were crowded, the theatres were crowded and Chaliapin was singing at the Opera. The Red Guards kept away from the smart quarter or walked modestly in the gutter.”

Then came the takeover of the Winter Palace in the early hours of the 8th.

This is usually described as a “storming”. But Ophelia it wasn’t.

Taylor again: “Red Guards filtered in through the kitchen entrance and took over the palace without a struggle. At 2.25am [one of the Bolshevik leaders] broke into the room where the provisional government was still sitting and shouted: ‘In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare you all under arrest’. Such was the end of old Russia.”

Not being witness to such key moments, Reed often had to make do with first-hand reportage of what people in the streets were saying. But that provides some of the best detail in the book. Reflecting the disquiet of the local bourgeoisie, for example, a friend’s daughter is described as coming home “in hysterics” one day after a tram conductor addressed her as “comrade”.

Workers in general were getting uppity: “The waiters and hotel servants were organised and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read ‘No tips taken here’ or “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering a tip’.”

Maybe the title of his book was suggested by the frenzy in which it was written.

Astonishingly, that took little more than 10 days and must have shook the author, if no-one else.

It was a year later, in New York. The writing had been delayed by confiscation of his papers.

But when he finally got them back, he locked himself away like a hermit.

One morning in late 1918, his friend Max Eastman met him on the street, “unshaven, greasy-skinned, a stark sleepless half-crazy look on his slightly potato-like face”.

Eastman afterwards recalled his explanation: “I’m writing the Russian Revolution in a book. I’ve got all the placards and papers up there in a little room, and I’m working all day and night. I haven’t shut my eyes in thirty-six hours. I’ll finish the whole thing in two weeks. And I’ve got a name for it too – Ten Days That Shook the World. Goodbye, I’ve gotta go get some coffee. Don’t for God’s sake tell anyone where I am.”

Reed lived long enough to see it published and a success, but only just. Three years after the revolution, back in Russia, he contracted typhus and died, not quite 33.

His end was probably hastened by a lack of medicines caused by the allied blockade.

But he was given a hero’s burial in the necropolis in front of the Kremlin Wall – one of few westerners granted that distinction.

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