Reds is a funny historical epic. It’s about a pair of writers who, I think it’s fair to say, most people don’t know. It chronicles an event that, I think it’s fair to say, most people don’t understand. And perhaps most remarkably, it does so in a way that gives its audience more credit than it deserves.
It doesn’t go out of its way to contextualize the greater political changes afoot beneath the story of Louise and Jack, and while a discerning, attentive, and curious viewer won’t have trouble keeping up, the film arguably packs more of a punch if you understand the gravity of the “Ten Days That Shook the World” and how it shaped the Western response.
The Road to Revolution
The revolution that’s depicted during Reds’ first-half climax is actually the second that took place in 1917, but one has to go back more than 100 years to note the planting of the seeds of both revolutions.
Ironically, most would point to the inability to plant seeds—and thus grow enough crops to feed a population extremely divided by class—as a root cause. Also around this time, Napoleon invaded, and while his failure was enormous in terms of Russia’s sudden assertion of power among the international order, the government failed to capitalize. During the time before and after Napoleon’s defeat, Europe experienced previously unseen economic growth due to the Industrial Revolution. For decades following, Russia, led by an increasingly detached series of tsars, lagged far behind its counterparts because of its government’s failure to modernize.
The recipe is pretty clear: an enormous country that’s economically stagnant, geographically disadvantaged, and socially repressive. The powder keg just needed a spark. The failed war with Japan and the infamous Bloody Sunday protest-turned-massacre in 1905 nearly did it, but the eventual conflagration came from something even bigger.
Russia’s decision to get involved in World War I was actually a brief respite from the simmering tension. Nationalism swept over the country for a short while, but Tsar Nicholas II’s disastrous decision to lead Russia’s troops himself—he was a piss-poor military leader, and his wife Alexandra, who led the country in his absence, was equally bad or worse on the home front—was more than his flimsy government could handle.
In February 1917, the people of Petrograd [now St. Petersburg] walked out of the factories and the bread lines to demonstrate against the government. Thousands of soldiers, similarly disaffected, deserted their posts to join the protestors. Eight days later, 1,300 had been killed, but the tsar abdicated, and his son chose to leave the fate of the monarchy in the hands of the people.
The government that followed was populated mostly by center-leftists, but it failed to fulfill key promises that would address the needs of the people—chief among them jobs, food, and a turnaround on the war front. Meanwhile, Lenin, while in exile, began writing and organizing the still disaffected lower class and other sympathetic middle and upper class citizens. Eight months later, a second revolution occurred, and with Jack Reed and Louise Bryant looking on, the Bolsheviks seized power.
Aftermath of the Ten Days
It wasn’t a clean transition. The Bolsheviks [Reds] warred with the anti-communist Whites for almost five years before things finally settled down, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was officially recognized under communist rule.
While the nation still struggled economically through the war, a GDP boom followed afterward, and the new government did fulfill one major promise right away—withdrawal from the Great War. This, ironically, can be pointed to as one of the most direct causes of both the Cold War and communism’s ultimate failure to spread to Western democracies like the United States.
While the appetite for war in Russia was exhausted, America’s involvement was only just getting started in 1917. The public, which had previously been reluctant to get dragged in, ultimately supported the effort, and the image of a major power withdrawing at this time made the Bolshevik cause quite unpopular.
The governments of the Allied Powers ultimately sided with the Whites in the conflict following October 1917. While tensions remained cold for most of the rest of the century, tensions did in fact remain, despite the best efforts of people like Jack Reed and Louise Bryant.
Communism’s ultimate failure is depicted in the film as something that was doomed to be seized and controlled by the corrupt. Jack says it just needs time to get going. Time certainly wasn’t kind to the Soviet version of communism, but even as the film drifts away from politics and back toward its characters and their relationships, it feels optimistic about its ideals. That feels like a product of Beatty’s presence both on and off screen, but the wheels of history turn slowly. For that, Reds is a vital document, even if, at three hours, it still doesn’t get to everything related to this remarkable period.