A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

Exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In order to tell the story of the Russian Revolution, Figes begins three decades earlier, in 1891, with the famine that could be seen as starting the journey towards revolution; and continues up to 1924, the year that the first dictator, Lenin, died. This is a huge work, massive in scope, meticulously researched and delivered with a level of clarity that makes it surprisingly easy to read and absorb, even for someone coming to the subject with no previous knowledge. It’s divided into four sections that thoroughly cover each period, looking at all the different parts of society and how they were affected at each point. It’s very well written, remains largely free of academic jargon and, to my joy, contains all the relevant information in the main body of the text, meaning no flicking backwards and forwards to notes. The notes at the back are mostly reserved simply to give information about the extensive sources Figes has used.

It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

The first part describes society as it was at the point where revolutionary ideas were still in their infancy. Figes describes the Romanov dynasty in some depth – Nicholas II’s autocratic style of rule, the influence on him of Alexandra and, through her, Rasputin, and the methods of government that were in force, with all power still concentrated in the hands of a relatively small class of nobles. He shows what life was like for the peasants, still nasty, brutish and short, but with some more liberal landowners making efforts to provide education for the young. He takes us into the new industrial centres, beginning to suck people in from the villages including those newly educated peasants – places which appalling working and living conditions made ripe for the revolutionary ideas beginning to circulate via the intelligentsia. The church, which Figes suggests never had a solid grip even on the peasant classes, was weakened further as people moved to the cities where there weren’t enough churches to serve the rapidly expanding population. The army, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly out of date – Nicholas loved to parade his cavalry and to see his officers in smart uniforms, but wasn’t terribly interested in the less romantic motor vehicles and new weapons being incorporated into the armies of the bordering nations, west and east.

Nicholas II and his cavalry

Part 2 covers the period from 1891 to just before the revolution proper began. Again Figes ranges widely, often using the stories of individuals to add a human face to the political history. The famine of 1891, due largely to failures in policy, eventually forced the Tsar to appeal for voluntary groups to provide aid to the starving masses. The liberal intelligentsia dived enthusiastically into this, and thus began some of the organisations which would become political protest movements. But still Nicholas rejected reforms, leading to increasing radicalisation of the disaffected. The 1904 war against Japan, which Nicholas expected to win easily, highlighted the weakness of the army, while the eventual loss was a national humiliation which further undermined the monarchy. The 1905 revolution arose from all of these factors, further aggravated by the brutal force used to disperse protest marches. Although this revolution failed, Figes shows how it hardened attitudes and consolidated the various factions which would play major roles in the years to come. Figes explains these factions well, including their various policy aims, which is a great help in understanding the confusion of personalities and groups that feature in the events of 1917. And finally this section takes us up to the early years of WW1, showing the terrible losses and huge hardships suffered by soldiers and civilians.

As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

The third section concentrates on the revolutionary year – from February 1917 to the signing of the peace of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. This is basically the period covered in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and while Trotsky’s massive account is obviously more detailed, this one has the huge advantage for the reader that Figes has done the groundwork of explaining all the different groupings and factions. So where Trotsky lost me a little in the mid-section, Figes manages to keep a level of clarity throughout the confusion of this year. It seems to me that Trotsky’s history must have been one of Figes’ major sources for this section, and the two accounts complement each other well, I found. In retrospect, I suspect it would have been better to read them the other way round though – this one first, then Trotsky. Figes gives what feels like a less biased account, not unnaturally, dismissing the idea of the coup as ‘bloodless’ and showing some of the horrors that took place, along with an almost complete breakdown of any kind of social order. He also discusses the issues of Lenin’s return on the ‘sealed train’ and German funding of the revolution, suggesting that the Germans did indeed provide gold but that Lenin and his comrades were not at any point acting as German agents.

Lenin gives a speech

Part 4 tells the complex tale of the Civil War that followed the revolution – the various factions within the Whites, all fighting for different aims, and thus never really consolidating as a unified force; the former Allies, primarily Britain, providing support for the Whites in an attempt to destroy the Bolsheviks; the growth of the Red Army under Trotsky’s leadership to huge numbers of men, but without sufficient equipment to keep them supplied; the forced conscription, massive brutality and violent anti-Semitism inflicted by both sides.  Figes then goes on to describe Lenin’s regime after the war, including the huge rise in bureaucracy that allowed the major players in the regime to begin to form their own fiefdoms and power bases. He also shows the country in a state of ruin, the cities depopulated, the villages racked by famine and starvation, until eventually Lenin was forced to turn back towards a form of capitalism, prompting accusations of betrayal by those who were still fanatical about the ideals of the revolution.

Some animals are more equal than others…
Starving Russian children in the Volga region circa 1921 to 1922

Figes concludes that the people brought about their own tragedy. The country’s social and economic backwardness and lack of real belief in democracy meant that they opened the door for what was essentially a return to tsarism in a different form. And he warns, prophetically when you remember this book was first published in 1996, that the fall of the USSR would not necessarily lead to an embracing of democracy in the former states, or in Russia itself.

The book is generously illustrated with over a hundred plates. Some are the usual portraits of the main players, but many show the ordinary people of the cities and villages and, often, the real horrors they endured. Some are indeed upsetting – the ones relating to torture or cannibalism for instance – and while I found those pictures, and Figes’ vivid and unsparing descriptions of the events behind them, hard to take, I didn’t feel either were gratuitous or sensationalised – they are an essential part of the historical record, and that’s the way in which Figes presents them.

Orlando Figes

This is an exceptional book – one of the best broad scope histories I’ve read. It’s brilliantly written and well laid out, making it easy to read and understand despite the immense complexity of the subject. It is an exemplary mix of the political, the social and the personal, so that I came away from it understanding not just the politics and timeline of events, but how it must have felt to have lived through them. Should you ever be struck with a sudden desire to read an 800-page history of the Russian Revolution, then without a doubt this is the one to read. My highest recommendation.

NB This beautifully produced, special centenary edition of the book was provided for review by the publisher, Bodley Head.

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