A people's tragedy : the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

by Orlando Figes

Paperback, 1998




New York, N.Y. : Penguin Books, 1998.


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Widsith
While I was halfway through this, an ‘inspirational quote’ from Lenin happened to come up on my reddit feed. Something from one of those early speeches, about equality for all. I left a comment to suggest – I thought quite mildly – that it was, perhaps, ethically questionable to be quoting
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with approbation someone responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – only to be downvoted into oblivion by other users. ‘You're probably thinking about Stalin,’ said one. ‘Fuck off,’ clarified another. ‘Lenin was actually very socially liberal, and kept his word about democracy for the people.’

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?
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LibraryThing member CindyBytes
A People's Tragedy is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. However I gave it 4 stars instead of 5 only because my eyes glazed over some of the political text. That is my shortcoming and not the fault of the book. If my patience were better I would probably learn a lot more, but I'm more
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interested in the personal and social than the political history, though it has a healthy balance of all three. I especially enjoyed reading the revolutionary's romance with the common Russian peasants and their illusions there of. The romance lasted until they come face to face with these harden and suspicious people. I've read a lot of Russian history - including surfs of the earlier years, but not a whole lot about the peasants during the late 19th and early 20th century. There are plenty of interesting facts that I wasn't previously aware of, and of course a lot about Lenin too. If you want a precise, definitive, blow by blow perspective, with all the players on the stage (who were involved in the Russian Revolution), I couldn't recommend a better book.
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LibraryThing member FPdC
This is the best account of the Russian Revolution I have read. It is a brilliantly written book, organized in four parts, and giving a panoramic view of the Revolution. It starts with a description of the social actors at the end of the Old Regime (Part 1), and then proceeds with the history of
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the last phase of the tsarist autocracy, in particular the two great crisis at the turn of the century: the 1891 famine and the 1905 revolution (Part 2). The remaining two thirds of this 900+ pages work deal with the core events of the 1917 revolutions until the signing of the Teatry of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918 and the start of the one party dictatorship (Part 3), and the civil war years and the first phase of the Communist regime up until the death of Lenin in 1924 (Part 4). This great overview is not only a monumental piece of scholarship but also a remarkably sensitive one, in which the author make us understand the events and their participants in their own terms, although not refraining from pointing out the short sightedness, callouseness, or sheer cruelty, of some of their actions. A piece of historical writing of the highest caliber about the most important and seminal historical event of the twentieth century. Compulsory reading!
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
Surely this must be the definitive account of the Russian Revolution's origins and course of events. A deserved prize-winner.
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Part of the gradual unravelling of the real experiences and social forces of the Russian revolution. And the human stories at the heart of the changes.
LibraryThing member fourbears
I'm not so sure he called it "the people's tragedy" because it was a failure "of the people" so much as because it was a tragedy "for the people". The Russian peasants and workers were by and large uneducated and particularly uneducated politically. Many (as shown in the war) didn't ever even
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identify themselves with a country. They didn't fight for a country but for the Tsar who was to them a sort of a god, at the very least a father who took care of them from high places. Most had little experience of anything but their own villages and what education they had had taught them nothing of government or nationhood. In the US Civil War many soldiers had never left their tiny rural communities before but they'd been taught a sense of nationhood with its attendant benefits and values. That never happened in Russia. Civics for Russian peasants was "the Tsar will take care of you". The makers of the revolution were intellectuals. The Liberals (Kadets, etc.) were mainly upper class (enlightened sons of nobles and government officials) influenced by ideas outside Russia, though most wanted a constitutional monarchy, maybe like Britain. Most didn't want "revolution" in the sense of major upheaveal and violence. The more radical parties, including the Bolsheviks, tended to come from lower classes, but they too were intellectuals, knowledgable about Russia's revolutionary history, steeped in European ideas about how society should be organized (more influenced by Marx and the Paris Commune experience than ideas of constitutional monarchy) who had lived most of the time before WWI in internal or external exile. None of them really represented "the people" and the Bolsheviks who ultimately come to power promised "the people" (both workers and peasants) everything they wanted (redistribution of land, local governments, a share in running factories and farms, etc. etc.) but then took it all back when they'd consolidated power.The people had no chance and I think that's the main message of Figes' book. They rallied to the cause at first because they were promised the world and weren't canny enough to recognize it wasn't possible and certainly not likely that the new regime would relinquish enough power to deliver on promises. Many rebelled--viciously--when they saw the reality and they ended up oppressed from a different end of the political spectrum. They were seen as participating in their own hoodwinking, no question, but given their past not much else was predictable. It seems to me that Marx was probably right about the level of sophistication among the people needed for a revolution in the name of the people. It's true that Figes frequently talks about what might have been done to avert one tragedy or another, but just as often he demonstrates how that was just not in the cards given the nature of the groups involved or the circumstances. The Bolsheviks ruled "in the name of the people" but the "people" who rallied to their cause were converted into apparatchiks who benefited from the power of the state and joined the new oppressors. Everyone else was outmaneuvered from early on by a government that was pretty heartless from the onset.What I found most interesting about this book was that Figes presented Lenin as cold and committed primarily to ideas (never to people) and was perfectly willing to sacrifice any constituency that got in the way. I think there was a generation or two of historians, both Western and Russian, who wanted to think that Lenin was an idealist and that if he had not died, he would have moderated the state (as with The New Economic Policy--NEP) into a more reasonable state that was maybe centrally planned but allowed for a certain amount of economical entrepreneurship, real power to the people, etc. etc. Figes pretty much destroys that illusion by quoting secret directives and writings of Lenin (available only since the fall of the USSR) in the 20ies which shows him as hard, cold, intellectual and wily and NEP as a necessity of the moment to keep power only. That information undermines the notion that (1) Russia might really have developed into a successful government of and for the people had Lenin not died when he did and (2) it was Stalin who was the primary architect of the repressive state which
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LibraryThing member quizshow77
This is a fairly detailed narrative, with some interpretation, of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It ostensibly starts with a famine that occurred in 1891, although in reality it provides an overview of events and trends in Russia for two or three decades before that, and continues through
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Lenin's death in 1924, again briefly mentioning the arc of Soviet history after that.

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.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
An astonishing and grand overview of one of the most defining events of the 20th century - the Russian Revolution.

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
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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.
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