Makers of their own tragedy

Orlando Figes has written an account of the Russian revolution that spares no one: not the old regime, nor the Communists, nor the people. Andrew Marr spoke to the author about history's lessons
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"The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do is treat its citizens equally, and strive to ensure that their free activities are directed towards the general good. After a century dominated by the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism, one can only hope that this lesson has been learned. As we enter the 21st century, we must try to strengthen our democracy, both as a source of freedom and of social justice, lest the disadvantaged and the disillusioned reject it again.''

These are among the concluding words of a vast, hugely impressive history of the Russian revolution, A People's Tragedy, by Orlando Figes, which today won the 1997 WH Smith literary award. It tells the story of the greatest political upheaval of modern times, from the decay of Tsarism in the 1890s to its effective re-establishment under the monster Stalin in the Twenties. And it comes with a sting in the tail.

This is a remarkable book for many reasons. It is the fruit of years spent in the archive of the October Revolution and the Communist Party archives in Moscow. Figes got to know the key archives when they first began to open to outsiders in the late Eighties, and sat among the journalistic scavengers who came and went looking for spy stories. Unlike them, he befriended the underpaid Russian archivists and emerged with a grisly but fascinating treasure trove.

Out of that trove, he has made a book which can change the way we think about Russia and what is happening there today. It is a history studded with gleaming, vivid personal stories and vignettes. First intended to help general readers through the book, they became essential.

Though this is grim stuff, there are hilarious and poignant moments. For instance, there is a glorious account of the Bolsheviks going to open talks with the invading Germans in 1917. They decide to bring representatives of the Russian workers, soldiers, sailors, peasants and women with them for propaganda purposes. On the way to Petrograd's Warsaw railway station, they realise they have forgotten to bring a peasant.

What to do? As their car speeds through the city, they pass a bearded old man trudging home, pretend to give him a lift, and drag him off to Brest-Litovsk to make peace with the Germans. So the peasant, who was only trying to get home to his village, finds himself sitting drinking claret in Brest-Litovsk with Prince Ernst von Hohenlohe and discussing the future of mankind.

Throughout, Figes uses key observers who act as a kind of Greek chorus. There is Sergei Semenov, the idealistic and radical peasant leader, who migrates to the city under the Tsar, endures abuse and hardship trying to improve his village's lot, and ends up murdered by jealous rivals in 1922. Above all, there is Gorky, who had a love-hate relationship with Lenin, courageously abusing him for his murders and repression, surviving the horrors of starving Petrograd, fleeing abroad - and who eventually returned to be exploited, and perhaps murdered, by Stalin. Gorky's hopes and disillusion haunt the book.

All of that would have been remarkable enough. But this is also a history that goes beyond the conventional accounts of the revolution. We have grown used to the leftist version, in which Lenin is the betrayed, Christ- like hero and Stalin the bitter nemesis; and to rival histories from right- wingers which emphasise the reforms being carried on under the last Tsar - implying that, but for the Bolsheviks and some misfortunes in the First World War, Russia would have evolved into a benign, Western-style democracy.

Figes' thesis is bolder and less comfortable. His political angle is hard to discern from the book. It is certainly not right wing. No sentimental supporter of Tsar Nicholas could survive Figes' account of the old regime's anti-Semitism, brutality and bone-headed stupidity. The democrats and liberals were better people but awful politicians, who, as Figes told me, saw the revolution as if it was France in 1789, and made every wrong turning. Kerensky comes across as a Napoleonic buffoon; the White generals as hopeless; and Lenin, whom Figes clearly loathes, as a cruel if brilliant monster.

Figes doesn't think Lenin will ever regain his pre-Eighties reputation among leftish intellectuals, as the full story of his role and savage views spills out of the Moscow and St Petersburg archives. Nor does Trotsky emerge as his Western admirers would wish; the gourmandising and dandyish orator was not as important in the civil war, or in the Bolshevik party, as was thought.

So where is Figes coming from? When I met him yesterday he described himself to me as a Labour Party supporter and ''a bit of a Tony Blair man'', though he confessed, when it came to the revolution, to being mildly pro-Menshevik. But his main intention was to overturn old perceptions of how the revolution happened and what it meant, he insists.

Perhaps the most radical departure is that he portrays the Russian people themselves as a main protagonist in their own tragedy: the creators of anti-Jewish pogroms, of massacres, of civil war atrocities; enthusiastic participants in the Red terror, even - as famine stalked Russia - cannibals who ate children. The ordinary level of peasant village cruelty, the peasants' thirst for rough justice and their enthusiasm for authoritarian, Tsar- like leadership are constant themes in the 800-page book.

This has been misunderstood by some reviewers, Figes says, as anti-Russian bigotry. ''I am trying to grapple with the problem of violence, which was central to the revolution.'' The Russians thought of democracy as being synonymous with the victory of the labouring people. Once that was established, the problem of what to do with the rest, the bourgeoisie, was inescapable. Peasants would have happily turned them into peasants: but they were also vulnerable to the bloodthirsty rhetoric of the Bolsheviks.

So this is a story, to adopt another historian's title (about Scotland, as it happens) of ''no gods and precious few heroes''. Huge in scope, brilliant in vignette, dark and implacable in theme, it is a modern masterpiece. But does it matter now? Has it, really, any messages for the blander, safer-seeming world 80 years on?

Figes sees strong and ominous parallels between the Russia of 1917 and the Russia that has emerged since the 1991 toppling of Communism. Then as now, politics was mostly about being against people and ideas - against Kerensky, against the Mensheviks, against Yeltsin, against Zughanov - rather than for anything specific. Then and now, ''Russia seems unable to form a stable democratic and civic politics which doesn't fall into corruption and the alienation of ordinary people''.

Then as now, the toppling of the old order leads to utterly naive and over-optimistic beliefs about the future. For many in 1917, as Figes puts it, ''Socialism and democracy were magical words - there was a euphoric belief that by becoming the freest democracy in the world, Russia would suddenly become Western, that everything would be better - people would be richer, drunkenness would stop, people would stop beating their wives. The same after 1991 - a lot of people thought, Russia's a democracy, it's going to be Western, life's going to be much better.''

And then in Russia, as in many other countries, recently Albania, the reality came as a sickening shock, a betrayal. In conversation, Figes is scathing about the West's failure to offer the right help at the crucial time. Instead of focusing on the need carefully to protect the welfare state while democracy was created, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan sent Russia ''those monetarists who said that what Russia needs is mass unemployment and a shock economic programme".

So we screwed it up? I ask. ''We screwed it up. It was partly that political scientists have got no knowledge of history - for them history started 20 minutes ago - and economists are the same, on the whole. So the people who went in and advised the Reagan-Thatcher alliance on our behalf had no knowledge of Russian cultural (or any other) history, and certainly didn't expect a Russian backlash of the kind any historian could have warned about.''

Figes does not exonerate the Western left for what has happened: Russian- studies people were generally too close to the Soviet regime, he argues, and overestimated its capacity for reform. ''So Thatcher and Reagan had to go to people who had never had any contact with Soviet society and had turned their backs on it.''

This, it seems to me, is Figes' central assertion about history. This is why historians matter, and why we should honour the people in disorganised archives who burrow through individual life stories and weave them into bigger books, and remember what made people murderers and looters, sadists and cannibals, not so very long ago.

I began this with a quotation that is worth finishing. Figes continues by warning that the emerging societies of the ex-Soviet bloc may not become democratic: ''This is no time for the sort of liberal-democratic triumphalism with which the collapse of the Soviet Union was met in many quarters. Reformed (and not-so-reformed) Communists may be expected to do well electorally - and may even be voted back into power - as long as the mass of ordinary people remain alienated from the political system and feel themselves excluded from the benefits of emergent capitalism.

''Perhaps even more worrying, authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Communism ... their violent rhetoric, with its calls for discipline and order, its angry condemnation of the inequalities produced by the growth of capitalism, and its xenophobic rejection of the West, is itself adapted from the Bolshevik tradition. The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest.''

No one who has worked their way through this extraordinary book could help but be a little chilled by that. His view of Russia is bleak, I suggested yesterday. ''I think it is bleak. I'm afraid there is no other way of putting it.''

'A People's Tragedy: the Russian revolution 1821-1924' by Orlando Figes is published by Jonathan Cape, price pounds 20.