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12 October 2017updated 03 Aug 2021 7:10am

Ten Days That Shook the World is fizzy and fast, but never flippant

BBC Radio 4 dramatises journalist John Reed's account of the Russian Revolution.

By Antonia Quirke

A clutch of programmes marking the Russian Revolution opened soberly with Start The Week, recorded in Moscow. One contributor assured presenter Tom Sutcliffe that the overriding sentiment demonstrated by young people on his internet forum was “a hatred of Lenin”.

As a teenager I visited a pre-Glasnost Moscow with the nuns from my Manchester convent school – a peculiar party we made, hurrying through puddles across Red Square, cold as tundra melt ponds.

My strongest memory of the three-hour queue to see Lenin’s body – then still lying in state – was of the elderly women recumbent before him as we filed past, their knees calloused from praying. All that was missing from the air of Romish ceremonial (achingly familiar to me) was the incense.

These days, Vladimir’s been shunted into a tomb not far from the Kremlin-wall resting place of the American journalist John Reed, whose sensational, eyewitness account of the Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, is being dramatised, daily (BBC Radio 4, 9.45am).

It’s a fizzy, noisy adaptation. Reed wrote the book in just a few crazed weeks, a year after returning to America, having finally wrested his confiscated notes from the authorities. His descriptions appear in super-speedy voiceovers, alongside the gorgeously clichéd clack-clack of a typewriter – as though this were the NYC news station 1010 WINS. The chill fog and wind from Poland, the crowds thickening in the “sour twilight”, the prostitutes swathed in stolen furs, the muddied, long-haired peasants (“the depths of Russia have been stirred”).

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In one scene, in an old ballroom, members of the state council rifle through the London Times looking for reports, data analysis – any evidence that all this is happening. Proof, almost, that they are alive. Relief and rage simultaneously flood their hearts. There’s sweet cheek here too. When Trotsky first appears, he’s quizzed at the threshold of a meeting by a soldier with a Brummie accent (“The name rings a bell…”) but very quickly that moment passes, somersaulting into other scenes. Merriment, acid disappointment, exultance. It’s fast – but never flippant. 

This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled