A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes, Cape pounds 20
Sunday 29 September 1996
What he has produced is not a critical essay or "new interpretation". That sort of approach is no longer so urgently needed. Instead, he has written a gigantic, panoramic chronicle of the entire generation of Russian revolution, from the failure of Tsarist reform to the death of Lenin, which seeks in a quite traditional way to lay out before the reader the course of events.
To achieve this, and to maintain a sense of structure through a vast volume of nearly 1,000 pages, Figes has mastered and organised his material with astounding talent. It would not have been possible to write this book without the opening of the Soviet archives, but the new documents are skilfully blended with older and more familiar accounts; Figes has resisted the temptation to let "fresh revelations" interfere with the flow of his account. Best of all, Figes establishes a set of individual memoirs or biographies - Prince Lvov, Maxim Gorky, the tragic General Brusilov among them - whose voices and comments recur throughout. None of them is more effective than the story of the self-taught peasant reformer Sergei Semenov, struggling through the years to find a path to justice and improvement between Tsarist reaction, Bolshevik brutality and the savage resistance of villagers to change. Semenov, eventually murdered by his own neighbours in 1922, is the nearest thing to a hero in these pages.
The Semenov passages help Figes to the book's most valuable achievement - putting the struggle of the Russian peasantry back into history. Theirs was the voice nobody wanted to hear, and for which everyone - the well- born Narodniks who "went to the people" in the countryside, Stolypin's reformers and finally the Bolsheviks, substituted a ventriloquised voice mouthing opinions which were felt more suitable. They are also the one class which the Revolution irrevocably destroyed, far more completely than the bourgeoisie, although that destruction took place after the time- span covered by Figes. The peasantry are constantly present in the Figes narrative, in their terrible squalor but also in their millennial hopes and dreams, down to the 1921 famine and the colossal uprisings which followed - episodes effectively blacked out of official history for the next 70 years.
Figes also restores the true scale and intensity of the February Revolution of 1917, which overthrew the Tsardom. Communist and liberal historians alike have conspired to present February as a moderate, almost constitutional affair, only a prelude to the "real" revolution of October. But February in fact was the grand, decisive explosion of the masses which transfigured the Russian people; an event whose frenzy and ferocity overthrew the past with a speed unrivalled even by the 1789 Revolution in France.
Reading Figes, the reasons for the Bolshevik victory a few months later become much clearer; the explosion shattered all conventional politics, left and right, so that only an extreme, totally untried programme put forward by a small group absolutely intent on the seizure of power could magnetise the hopes roused by the revolution. Figes emphasises the divisions and hesitations in the Bolshevik camp, and the relative insignificance of the coup which was afterwards promoted to "the Great October Revolution". But in retrospect there was no other force capable of picking power off the street.
Dealing with the venerable question of whether the revolution could have been avoided, Figes is not always consistent. He concludes that : "the outcome could have been different", and that "during the last decades of the old regime, a public sphere was emerging which, given enough time and freedom to develop, might have transformed Russia into a modern constitutional society". But his narrative in detail shows that the necessary supplies of time and freedom were not there; it was not the outbreak of the First World War but the insoluble contradiction between swelling popular anger and the flinty obstinacy of the power system which doomed the projects for gradual reform.
Figes brilliantly describes the black-leather, pistol-packing machismo of Bolshevism, and its ancestry in the character of Rakhmetev, the New Man hero of Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? - ruthless, ascetic, addicted to weight-lifting and a diet of raw steak. But Figes also displays a rather English habit of trying to deconstruct revolutionaries by probing their subconscious motives. What matters about subversives with upper-class origins is not whether they were driven by guilt about their families but whether they judged the situation rightly and acted usefully.
Figes detests Lenin, and confirms what became clear many years ago: that he personally initiated the Bolshevik tradition of dealing with opposition by mass-murder. The man who could not bear Alexandra Kollontai's view that sex should be as casual as drinking a glass of water was casual enough about ordering the spilling of lakes of blood. Yet Figes's theory that Lenin's non-Russian ancestry (Kalmyk, Jewish, Swedish, German) helps to explain "his often-expressed contempt for Russia and the Russians" lapses into absurdity.
The other old exam-question is how "Russian" the Revolution was: whether it was essentially an import, or merely a repeat of ancient Russian cycles of autocracy, revolt, cruelty and submission. The Polish poet Aleksander Wat, who spent many years in Soviet prisons and exile, used to say that while the Germans were entirely to blame for Hitlerism, a regime which sprang from their own traditions and which they supported with enthusiasm, Soviet Communism was an alien system resisted by the Russian people and imposed on them only by terror. Much to his credit, Figes does not entirely buy either of these interpretations.
In calling his work "A People's Tragedy", he is saying both that the Revolution was authentic and Russian and that the common people who made it - from the 1880s to the February eruption in 1917 - were cheated of their hopes. They had rebelled against privilege and in the name of a pre-industrial vision of equality; after February, they wanted "a social revolution which was centred on the popular ideal of Soviet power as the negation of the state and its replacement by the direct self-rule of the people".
But those who usurped this ideal for the cause of a centralised party dictatorship were authentic too; "Bolshevism was a very Russian thing," says Figes, and "the Bolshevik Terror came up from the depths." The Soviet system closely resembled the Tsarist state in its methods. The difference was that the Tsarist elite was perceived by its subjects as alien, both socially and even ethnically, while the Soviet ruling class - even allowing for dislike of the Jews it included - was visibly Russian and plebeian. In saying this, Figes is deliberately and precisely contradicting the new wave of right-wing Russian historians, for whom the old regime was as Russian as buckwheat porridge while Communism was no more than a Jewish- German conspiracy launched by the envious West.
But the point and the value of this first post-Communist history of the Revolution do not lie in analysis. Orlando Figes has taken the chance to display the very experience of revolution as it affected millions of ordinary Russians - those who took part in it, those who fought against it and those who became its innumerable victims (10 million dead in the course of those 30 years? As many again? It will never be known). He has tried to rescue these people, not just from oblivion but from the insolent Western assumption that all that happened was done by one small clique or another at the head of things. Anyone who reads this book will know how false that is. The Russian people made their own Revolution and were its main actors. Its perversion, after 1917, was their tragedy but not their fault.
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