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'Ten Days That Shook the World'

February 09, 1992|JOHN ESPEY

With the breakup of the Soviet Union standing out as last year's most memorable event, John Reed's record of the Nov. 7, 1917, Bolshevik revolution makes forceful and pertinent listening. This is particularly true of Jack Hrkach's narration. Hrkach brings to immediate life the already suspenseful narrative of the day-to-day incidents recorded by Reed, a journalist who was not only lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time but also a superb reporter, a committed socialist writing for the masses.

George Kennan, who was probably our best-informed Russian specialist, once wrote: "Reed's account of the events of that time rises above every other contemporary record for its literary power, its penetration, its command of detail. It will be remembered when all the others are forgotten." And A. J. P. Taylor, the English historian, has observed that "Reed's book is not only the best account of the Bolshevik revolution, it comes near to being the best account of any revolution. Revolutions are tumultuous affairs, difficult to follow while they are on."

Reed's own experiences were also tumultuous, and never more so than when he rode out with a contingent of Red Guards and some sailors from Tsarskoye Selo to find the front where Kerensky, with his corps of cadets, was attempting a counterattack. Stopped at a checkpoint by revolutionary soldiers, everyone was allowed to proceed except Reed, whose pass, issued directly by the Revolutionary Staff itself, was different from the others.

After the soldiers had consulted among themselves, they led Reed to a wall and placed him against it. Realizing that they planned to execute him on the spot, Reed protested vociferously, showing them his pass again, only to discover that none of them could read. He finally persuaded them to take him to the only house nearby, where a terrified woman reluctantly read aloud "The bearer of this pass, John Reed, is a representative of the American Social-Democracy, an internationalist . . ." Still not entirely satisfied, the soldiers took him to their regimental officers' club, its members in full uniform wearing their imperial decorations.

The publishing history of "Ten Days That Shook the World" carries its own significance. When the book appeared in Russia in a later edition with a brief introductory paragraph written by Lenin himself, it became part of the official Soviet propaganda. And when Eisenstein celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution in 1927 with a film, he gave it Reed's title and based his script loosely on the book itself, thus giving it further official authority.

However, with Stalin's rise to power, all this changed. Reed's heroes are Lenin and Trotsky, with Stalin receiving almost no mention, and in a complete (and characteristic) reversal, the book was banned.

When, in 1964, Penguin Books asked A. J. P. Taylor to write an introduction, the Communist Party of Great Britain, holder of the copyright, raised so many objections both to his first version and a revision in which he had tried to meet the party's objections that it was published without any prefatory matter. Not until 1977, with the expiration of the copyright, was Taylor's judicious commentary made available. In it he made useful distinctions between what Reed had actually participated in and what he had created from reports.

Born into a wealthy Portland, Ore., family in 1887, Reed graduated from Harvard in 1910, a member of that remarkable class that included, among others, T. S. Eliot, Walter Lippmann and Heywood Broun. His first book, "Insurgent Mexico" (1914), included an account of his joining up with Pancho Villa, and is available on cassette, narrated by Frank Muller. "The War in Eastern Europe" (1916) collected his articles on World War I.

Reed returned to Russia after the publication of "Ten Days That Shook the World" in 1919 and died there of typhus in 1920. He was buried in the Heroes' Grave in Red Square and commemorated by a plaque in the Kremlin wall.

Reed has remained relatively unknown to younger generations of Russians because of Stalin's ban. As far as is known, his plaque remains in place, a memorial to his vivid record of the 1917 revolution, vividly narrated here by Jack Hrkach.


Recorded Books, 270 Skipjack Road, Prince Frederick, MD 20678. Toll-free: 1 (800)638-1304. Fax: 1 (301) 535-5499. "Ten Days That Shook the World": 7 cassettes. Purchase: $49.95; rental: $16.50. "Insurgent Mexico": 5 cassettes. Purchase: $36.95; rental: $13.50.


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