36. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes

12 Oct

Orlando Figes A People's Tragedy

Since Russia is in the news, I thought I’d re-read A People’s Tragedy, a door-stop history book on the Russian Revolution by the English historian Orlando Figes. The book was published in 1997 and took advantage of the sudden ’90s-era political freedom in Russia to unearth previously unavailable archival material.  It’s one of those wonderful history books that goes both macro- and micro-, outlining the wide sweep of the politics and using the stories of ordinary people swept up in extraordinary events to make the material come alive.

Figes starts in 1891 with the tercentenary celebration of the Romanov empire. He argues that Russian society was rapidly modernizing and democratic forces were growing, but unfortunately the last Tsar’s response to these trends was to double down on a 17th-century vision of his own holy, Godlike rule. The more pressure there was for democratic reform, the more autocratic Nicholas became. The whole extremely bizarre Rasputin episode, in which the tsarina became best friends (and allegedly, but probably-not-really lovers) with a peasant holy-man, made sense in this view, as an exemplar of the tsar’s self-imagined close relationship with the common Russian people. Never has there been a more disastrous effect from a person drinking his own Kool-Aid.

Romanov Family

The story of the Revolution, from the popular uprisings against the Tsar, through the establishment of provisional democracy, into civil war and finally the Bolshevik dictatorship has to be one of history’s most terrifying. Figes’ title A People’s Tragedy reveals his take on the events: He believes that both the Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power were, in broad strokes, the will of the Russian people. By his account, the peasantry, the soldiers, and the urban working classes participated en masse, if not in organized political parties, then in the marches, strikes, insubordination, riots and land seizures that tore down the old order and opened the doors for the Bolsheviks. In its second half, the book details what followed Bolshevik seizure of control: famine, pogroms, looting, vandalism, bestial tortures by all sides, police-state brutality and millions dead. The book’s photo-plate sections gave me actual nightmares. Figes concludes that the uprising backfired massively on the very peasants and workers who supported it.

(I am told that there is much to contest in this version of events; Figes book is just one historian’s conclusions. And as an Englishman writing in the ’90s he has a preachy “Russians have a lot to learn about democracy” tone. He also really likes to mock the female revolutionaries and soldiers; a story about a women’s battalion that had seen active duty on the Eastern Front becoming “hysterical” during the relatively non-eventful siege of the Winter Palace seems hard to credit.)

Again and again reading this book I had cause to reflect on how fragile the social order is, and how terrible the results can be when it breaks down. If we’re ever inclined to think “let’s just destroy the system and see what happens next,” let’s please think twice, or read this book first.


3 Responses to “36. A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, by Orlando Figes”

  1. Zlatko Anguelov October 12, 2016 at 8:27 am #

    The fact that you are married to a Russian has to be irrelevant when you interpret a book on Russia. But it has obviously colored your perception about the author’s objectivity and trustworthiness, which, as shown in your fourth paragraph, is 100% correct: Yes, there is no doubt “… that both the Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power were, in broad strokes, the will of the Russian people”, the same way American democracy is the will of the American people. It is incorrect to say “[The author] believes …” The author, actually is CONVINCED by the historical facts. Explaining Putin away as a benign dictator is too much of an illusion, from which the majority of Western intelligentsia has suffered throughout the 20th century, and, apparently, continues to be under the spell of in this century. There is no more evil in the world today than Russia, because of two reasons: a) the paternalistic mentality of the people and b) the possession AND further PLANNED IMPROVEMENT of its nuclear arsenal and military. Domestically, ordinary Russians are religious, sentimental, and full of malignant chauvinism (they call it patriotism), pumped by the sense of unfulfilled greatness that prophets of different walks of life permanently brainwash them with. Those of them who have the means to go abroad turn these same domestic qualities into arrogant, self-serving, very nasty behavior of tourists or home owners, Not to mention the rich Russians who think that they can cheat every Western person and law. Russians politicians lie shamelessly, no matter what. Unfortunately, the beautiful Russian intelligentsia, of which there are remnants here and there, is no longer representative of this nation. I’m sorry to say it, but as a person grown with Western values you should not be deluded about Russia, which has been, and keeps being, the danger of the world. I have spent the first half of my life in the Soviet Empire and speak out of experience.

    • An Anthology of Clouds October 18, 2016 at 12:57 am #

      Hi Zlatko, thanks for commenting! I am always really pleased to get comments from people who don’t entirely agree with me or have criticisms. Not to be a total dork, but it’s nice to hear that people are reading and having an intellectual response to the things I write, and it’s nice to have debate on the blog. I like your point about saying ‘was convinced’ vs. saying ‘believes’. You have the editor’s touch, which I miss in this anything-goes Internet world.

      I don’t agree with you about some of the rest of it, though. I don’t think there’s an objective way to read. Of course we bring our life experiences and preconceptions in. And though I am not at all a fan of Vladimir Putin, and I have my own personal reasons to understand why you say some of the things you do about Russians, this kind of divisive rhetoric is exactly what’s been frightening me lately. I think that whenever we start believing that other large groups of people are evil… we’re being used, and usually to evil ends. Sometimes we do have good reasons to hate each other, but that was what was so chilling to me about the Figes book. The Russian Revolution seems like a great case study in what happens when people en masse decide to start acting on that hatred. The veneer of society is so thin. Things could get so much worse. And the world is already so frightening that hatred is a luxury we really don’t have.

      Heavens knows I want an American foreign policy towards Russia that defuses its capacities for malignant chauvinism and prevents a nuclear confrontation. But whipping people up to despise the Russians (as is happening in the U.S.) seems like a stupid way to go about that. If that makes any sense. America practices its own foreign policy chauvinism, grossly mismanages the Russians (among many other peoples) and creates danger the world over. So as a person with Western values, I don’t think I ought be throwing stones.

      You are in Bulgaria, right?

      • Zlatko Anguelov October 18, 2016 at 7:48 am #

        Thanks for your thoughtful and balanced response. No, I’ve left Bulgaria 24 years ago, and I’m a citizen of Canada and the U.S. and still keeping my European identity. Currently, I commute between our homes in the UK and Spain. All this to assure you that my assessment of the Russians is not hatred, and is grounded in Western values. In my youth I visited Russia many times – as an admirer of Russian culture, not to mention that I grew up with the great Russian novelists. But slowly and irreversibly, the OBJECTIVE situation of my native country as a vassal to the Soviet CP dickheads turned me from love to contempt and resentment. Two of my kids still visit their mother (married to a Russian businessman) in Moscow, but I’m never going to put my foot in this country. As a matter of principle. I don’t know how to hate, and I’m totally with you on the point of NOT throwing stones to anybody. Yet, this shouldn’t blind our eyes to the truth that Russians hate the rest of the world as if it owes them something, as if Russia’s greatness is entirely dependent on the West’s recognition of it as a military power, and not as a cultural power. The masses in Russia are so manipulable as to accept and be pliable to whatever Putin feeds them as anti-western propaganda, and at the same time their intelligentsia and nouveau riches find the West as the only place to emigrate to and escape Russian reality. The only meaningful way to stand by my values and not propagate what may be perceived as hatred is to stay away from Russia and to support U.S. policies that are aimed at peaceful solutions to all conflicts in which the Russian government is currently involved as an overt or covert aggressor – and that includes Syria, the EU, and Ukraine.

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