It is history on an epic yet human scale. Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People's Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Many consider the Russian Revolution to be the most significant event of the twentieth century. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of that revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased. Within the broad stokes of war and revolution are miniature histories of individuals, in which Figes follows the main players' fortunes as they saw their hopes die and their world crash into ruins. Unlike previous accounts that trace the origins of the revolution to overreaching political forces and ideals, Figes argues that the failure of democracy in 1917 was deeply rooted in Russian culture and social history and that what had started as a people's revolution contained the seeds of its degeneration into violence and dictatorship. A People's Tragedy is a masterful and original synthesis by a mature scholar, presented in a compelling and accessibly human narrative.
This would be the same Lenin who shut down Russia's constituent assembly, who sidelined trade unions and had striking workers shot for desertion, who turned the country into a police state, built a chain of concentration camps and institutionalised terrorism as a matter of deliberate policy. Painful to see him held up as a beacon of humanitarianism by people who apparently haven't even understood Animal Farm. It's interesting, though, because even when I was growing up the far left was always quite cool in a way that the far right never was; its unelectability made it harmless, and it gained a certain cachet from its opposition to a string of unpopular Tory governments and by association with various cult figures like Morrissey or Alexi Sayle. It was always kind of a joke. People referred to each other with smiles as ‘fellow travellers’, ‘old Trots’ – and still do.
There was a feeling I had when I was reading this book; an uncomfortable, itchy feeling which made me fidget while I was reading, shift in my seat and scratch my nose or my neck every few minutes as I turned the pages. Eventually I realised what this sensation was: hatred. I just loathed the people responsible for prosecuting this grotesque experiment. Now I realise this is, of course, a pathetically inadequate response, but partly it came from a kind of surprise. A feeling that they had somehow got away with it, that their reputations are nowhere near as dismal as they should be. At one point, Orlando Figes offers in passing a suggestion as to why this might be so:
The Bolshevik programme was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment – it stemmed from Kant as much as from Marx – which makes Western liberals, even in this age of post-modernism, sympathise with it, or at least obliges us to try and understand it, even if we do not share its political goals; whereas the Nazi efforts to ‘improve mankind’, whether through eugenics or genocide, spat in the face of the Enlightenment and can only fill us with revulsion.
And perhaps there's something in this: inasmuch as reality has (in Stephen Colbert's words) a liberal bias; inasmuch as we are living, historically speaking, in a leftist world, there is a sense in which the Communist experiment seems like something that went wrong, not something that was wrong inherently. But the enormities of Lenin's politics were built-in ab initio; terror, Figes writes, was ‘implicit in the regime from the start…the resort to rule by terror was bound to follow from Lenin's violent seizure of power and his rejection of democracy’. And despite all the slogans of equality and democracy, the turnaround was much faster than I had ever realised.
None of the democratic organisations established before October 1917 survived more than a few years of Bolshevik rule, at least not in their democratic form. By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.
The thousand pages of Figes's history give plenty of scope for examining in detail what this meant for Russian citizens. It isn't pretty but it is instructive. There was the Civil War, with widespread terror on both sides; famine, exacerbated by shitty agricultural policy; and eventually the tightening grip of a one-party state. There are moments of acute revulsion and misery, alongside a recurring sense of absurdity: at one point, currency depreciation becomes so severe that it costs more to print the rouble than the rouble is actually worth; the post and telegraph service have to be made free because the state is losing money by printing and charging rouble notes for them. ‘The situation was surreal – but then this was Russia,’ Figes remarks, showing a grasp of the irony which this story demands.
Whole books have been written, of course, about the failure of the left outside Russia to accept the reality of what was happening there under Communism, or to blame it on a perversion of noble principles. What's so rewarding, and upsetting, and moving about this book is that it illustrates how naturally the consequences followed from the initial conditions, and how unimportant the political debate is compared with its effects on real people. There, as the title of the book suggests, Figes's summary is blunt.
Instead of being a constructive cultural force the revolution had virtually destroyed the whole of Russian civilisation; instead of human liberation it had merely brought human enslavement; and instead of the spiritual improvement of humanity it had led to degradation.
What makes it worse is that this whole catalogue of misery is in some sense being positioned only as a prelude. Looming up over the narrative is the lengthening shadow of the Georgian, Ioseb Jughashvili, alias Stalin, and where this book ends his story is just beginning.
Although this was written twenty years ago, in some ways it's become more relevant than ever, and not just because next year marks the revolution's centenary. In an impassioned final chapter, Figes calls for urgent reevaluation of the political capitalism of the West, pointing out that extremist rhetoric of the sort that fuelled the Bolshevik party is periodically going to prove popular ‘as long as the mass of the ordinary people remain alienated from the political system and feel themselves excluded from the benefits of the emergent capitalism. Perhaps even more worrying,’ he adds, ‘authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the void…’ Is this sounding familiar to anybody?
The author's view of the Russian Revolution is reflected in the book's title: conservative and critical. He considers the history of Russia in the early twentieth century to be a series of missed opportunities to prevent what eventually emerged, and he thinks the Russian people, and the world, would have been better off if it had been prevented. He might well be right. In any case his narrative provides many interesting details and observations of this period.
A powerful and convincing portrait of the madness and decay of Imperialist Russia to the total bloodshed of WWI and beyond. Portraits of all of the major figures - the inept tsar and his fat toady ministers, the futile attempts of the fledgling Duma, the insatiable drive for power of the Bolsheviks, and the intense suffering undergone by the masses of peasants.