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.
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. 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.
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.)
To bring this back to the modern era—writing from the midst of another Russia-blamed hacking scandal— I’m married to a Russian and have long-standing ties to Moscow, a city I love. I’ve been watching with horror as our foreign policy creates ever greater division between the U.S. and Russia, and as our election-cycle politics manufacture a Russian bogeyman to drum up support for our establishment political candidate. Spin on Syria, spin on the Ukraine, spin on computer-hacking… it might be useful now to defeat the opposition, but where will it get us?
It’s not quite a parallel, but, for example, the Figes book makes it clear that short-sighted and narrowly self-interested German and Allied policies towards Russia during WWI played a major role in the Bolshevik seizure of power. (Whoops, Cold War. Whoops, East Berlin.) Putin isn’t going anywhere—we’re making Putin more popular, in fact—but it’s still dangerous and careless to use another country like this, especially when that country is Russia.