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Reading the Revolution

Sean Sheehan
Metahistory, by Hayden White, Johns Hopkins University Press, 480 pp, £22, ISBN: 978-1421415604 The Russian Revolution 1905-1921, by Mark D Steinberg, Oxford, 400 pp, £19.99, ISBN 978-0199227624 Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928, by SA Smith, Oxford, 472 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198734826 A People’s History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner, Pluto Press, 304 pp, £12, ISBN: 978- 0745399034 October, by China Miéville, Verso, 384 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1784782771 Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932, by Natalia Murray and John Miller, Royal Academy of Arts, 336 pp, £26, ISBN: 978-1910350447 Petrograd 1917: Witnesses to the Russian Revolution, by John Pinfold, Bodleian Library, 304 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1851244607 Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, Myths, ed Ekaterina Rogatchevskaia, The British Library, 224 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0712356787 A plethora of print has appeared this year in response to the centenary of the Russian Revolution but, before delving into the many new books on the subject, it pays to bear in mind another birthday book: the fortieth anniversary edition of Hayden White’s Metahistory. In this seminal work “the past” is a construct, a set of politically and socially determined discursive practices mediated by language, ideology and aesthetics. For Hayden White, the two discourses of literature and history may be seen as ontological cousins; the writing of history, besides being based on empirical research, is seen to crucially engage with and depend on the imaginative faculty. The consanguinity is very close: “The differences between a history and a fictional account of reality are matters of degree rather than of kind.” Facts do not speak for themselves – “the documentary record does not figure forth an unambiguous image of the structure of events attested in them” – and the historian has to prefigure what set of events will count as knowledgeable. For White, this is a poetic act and is “constitutive of the structure” that will be offered as an explanation for what happened and why. Plot, taken as a temporal ordering of events and driven by a compulsion for narrativity, is common to fiction and historiography and in both cases is usually understood to involve causal links and a consideration of motives. For White, the work of the historian in arranging events and sorting them into a hierarchy of meanings involves an essentially literary dimension. Although historical facts themselves are not invented, they are constructed in so far as their meaning and significance is shaped into…



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