8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 12 March 2013
Whoever reads this account of the Russian revolution will surely feel that after the tercentenary celebrations of Romanov rule in 1913 there was nothing actually carved in stone on the wall of fate. It is with hindsight that we can mouth the still prevailing Marxist perception of history where feudalism had to make way for capitalism with imperial aspirations which in turn must bow out when the workers of the world unite. In actual fact in 1913 we have a scenario where "the side" that makes the least mistakes is the side that must eventually prevail. Time and again it is shown that there were opportunities missed that could have changed the course of history.
Orlando Figes admits it took him six years to write his physically unwieldy 900 page tome which covers the social history of the period 1891-1924 as much as the political events that shaped it. It might have benefitted being conceived as two volumes, but either way it must be granted that Figes is not dry or dull and where he occasionally gives way to a narrative account his book becomes highly entertaining. For non-historians it is possible to get a bit confused after the October Revolution with all the balooning buraucratic changes that the Bolsheviks bring about in order to consolidate the Leninist position : apart from the trades unions and the Soviets where the grass-roots of the Party lay, there were the staff of the Central Committee, with nine departments, together with a Party Secretariat and a special organization bureau (Orgburo), the Cheka - or secret police - often somewhat independent of the Party itself, and Sovnarkom, the Council of the People's Commissars.
If only Tsar Nicholas had had a more flexible attitude vis à vis his status and divine right to rule absolutely; if only the German born Tsarina had not alienated many liberals by her interference in affairs of state and her blind faith in Rasputin; if only the World War where the Tsar felt obliged to commit Russia's participation had not weakened so terribly the Imperial regime; and later .... if only the Whites engaged in the civil war had been less reactionary in their views concerning the need to overthrow the land reforms in full and without compromise. If only !!! And the Bolsheviks who eventually took power could reflect on their mistakes which at times had alienated them from their very own supporters - the peasants, industrial workers and the soldiers - yet by the time Lenin died Stalin had all but taken control of the Party and he was not someone known for showing remorse !
This is a great study in the origins and perpetuation of tyranny and shows how the Russian people liberated themselves from one regime only to be enslaved by another - ironically carrying out their programmes in the name of the people they subjugated.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 23 April 2014
It’s a good time to re-visit the Russian Revolution, as we creep closer to the 100th anniversary, and with the distance of 20 years since the fall of Soviet Communism, better able to see how much of it was ‘Russian’ rather than ‘Revolutionary’.
This account, which only takes us as far as Lenin’s death in 1924, is at over 800 pages, not a book for those with short attention spans (or weak wrists) and the detail of factional fighting is best understood by readers who already know the story in outline. But it’s certainly not a slog – Figes style is easier than that of many academic historians, the story is inherently a gripping one and is enlivened with deadpan episodes of low farce amongst the tragedy. My favourite is when loyalist soldiers fight their way to the Winter Palace to support Grand Duke Mikhail in a last effort to save the monarch - only to be turned away because their boots were too dirty and it was feared they might damage the floor.
This is old fashioned history in several ways. For one thing, Figes write unashamedly from a point of view – that the triumph of Communism was a tragedy. And he is surely right to so – one could not more write dispassionately about the outcome than about the Nazi seizure of power, two dictatorships with equal claim to be the greatest source of human suffering in all history.
Old fashioned too in assuming that what individual leaders do can shape history. Indeed, what is particularly satisfying is the effortless way Figes combines analyses of the long term economic, social, and intellectual trends that made the downfall of the monarchy and triumph of Bolshevist tyranny probable, with sharp portraits of the foolishness and brutality of the main players, Nichols and Lenin especially, which made those outcomes all but inevitable. Throughout the book, one keeps asking oneself ‘if only’ – if only Russia had had a reforming Czar (or one without a proto-facist Czarina), if it only it had kept out of the First World War 1, if only the Left factions had realised that they were supping with the Devil.....could Russia have taken a less destructive path? It seems unlikely. A sense of rather Russian doom hangs over the story from the start (Figes is wonderfully un-PC in believing it such a thing as National Character).
Although I knew the story in outline already, there is much here that was new to me – the utter lack of support for the Car after 1905, the lack of any organised State at local level in Russia before the Revolution, the gangster nature of early communist power (Figes describes some provincial communist as more like heavily armed mafia than a political group), Lenin’s bouts of indecision, his personal cowardice and uncontrollable rage, the fatal naivety of the liberals and non Bolshevist left, the violent reaction against the Communist dictatorship in its early years from their own sailors, peasants and workers (that in Lenin’s view came nearer to destroying it than the White Armies did), the awesome growth in bureaucracy after the Revolution, and the pathological sadism that seems to have been part of Russian national character.
It is all truly a depressing monument to human folly – the only human being to come out of it with any sense of decency, intelligence and integrity in these pages is Gorky, and even he sold his soul to Stalin in the end.
The book is equipped with a serviceable suite of maps, much needed if you don’t know your Omsk from your Tomsk.
Perhaps the one thing missing from the book is a real understanding of Stalin, who arrives on stage ready made, as it were, it the final pages. But then he was the most enigmatic - and most successful - of all the great dictators of that tragic century.
It is, sadly, a book with many resonances today. Here’s one such: a footnote on page records that between 1917 and 1920 Kiev was occupied by 12 different regimes – including the Russian Provisional Government, Polish, German, Whites, Ukrainian nationalist of various hues, and finally Bolshevist Russian. Plus ca change...
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 10 August 2013
By far the best account on the Russian Revolution I've ever read. Blows away the arguments of marxist apologists for the revolution - that the revolution was somehow 'betrayed' by Stalin. Instead Figes irrefutably describes how mass violence was an integral part of the psyche of Lenin and the Bolshevik movement right from the start. The author brilliantly combines a thorough analysis of social and political factors which shaped the revolution, alongside [all too often painful] personal accounts of the lives of individuals who lived through it. My only regret was the book concludes with the death of Lenin and doesn't go on to describe the rule of Stalin.
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 22 September 2009
I've always wanted to make some sense of the chaos of Russian History in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and this book comes as close to this as it is humanly possible. In addition to providing a rich and detailed view of the events in the period under consideration Orlando Figes manages to answer convincingly such questions as "Who is the main villain behind the disasters that befell Russia in this period", and "Why, for all their failings, did the Bolsheviks ultimately prevail". One comes away from this book with the distinct feeling that history is not the product of random forces, but the result of follies and miscalculations of some of the actors of history as well as insights and audacity of others.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 7 May 2012
this was a long and sometimes tough read but also a fascinating one. what Figes has done here is give the world a complete account of a very long and complicated event in human history that is still misunderstood today. the russian revolution was a huge event in the 20th century, one whose legacy we still live with today. standing apart from other authors Figes has gone an extra mile here in not just writing about 1917 but does an entire history of russia from 1891 to 1924 in giving a total story of how the ideals of the revolution built and how the desire for change began. his writing style in engaging (and very witty in some parts) with there rearly being any dry moments as he tells an incredible story of human suffering, endurance and ultimately tragedy. if anyone here ever wishes to learn anything on russian history then this book is mandatory reading as it not only tells the story of the revolution but also of russians in general. be cautious as well because in parts this is a quite shocking book with many hideous stories of torture, cannibalism and human degradation that will shock any reader as we see just how cruel and animalistic we are capable of becoming. Figes has shown that if we are to ever learn from the revolution we must come to terms with what happened and that still has not happened as he says in the final sentence of his work
"the ghosts of 1917 have still not been laid to rest"
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 April 2011
I have to say that this book was a massively impressive account of one of the most important events in twentieth century (maybe even World) history. After finishing it, I could not help but feel that I had read the definitive work on the subject, even though I have in fact read no others to compare it to.
There was an enormous amount of detail (as you would expect from nearly 1000 pages) but I felt that the breakdown of the book into sections, then chapters, then passages was just enough to make it accessible to a general reader such as myself. Admittedly, the section on pre-1917 may have been a bit much for people who just want the 'action' phase, but I guess that the author invested so much into those years in order to make it a 'complete' account.
I felt that the personal accounts, as well as some of the more outrageous stories (such as the 'misunderstanding' between Lenin and Dzerzhinsky that resulted in the needless execution of many prisoners), really added to the readability of the book, helping to break up potentially dense paragraphs. I am glad that the author did not go all 'biographical' when talking of Lenin and Trotsky, because there are plenty of good books on those individuals, and to include irrelevant information about their whole lives would have somewhat overloaded this book.
I did have some basic knowledge of the revolution (through school and college) prior to reading the book, which helped me through it. However, I do not feel this was essential (although there's bound to be websites that provide a quick summary of the revolution before you start this, should you require). Also, I would advise people to stick with this book (it took me over a month to finish), as its over 900 pages and covers over 30 years of history, so you're bound to find certain parts that don't interest you as much as others.
In summary, I could not really fault this book (although I'm sure some experts in the field probably could, as with any book) and would recommend it to anyone with a genuine interest in early twentieth century/Russian history.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 17 January 2013
this book makes easy to understand a part of history in which so many have made difficult, he has captured the true happenings of the revolution with a perspective that is unbiased unlike others before him
50 of 59 people found the following review helpful
on 4 May 2004
Having already read "Natasha's Dance", "A People's Tragedy" had a lot to live up to - it did. In this superb book, Figes describes the social forces and events that led to, then ruined, the democratic revolution in Russia. The book achieves a rare balance between the stories of the great personalities who helped shape the revolution, and the lives of the common people who felt its effects. He is even-handed, taking to task both left- and rightist interpretations of the revolution and the motivations of those involved; it is this impartiality that condemns both the old tsarist regime and the new Bolshevik dictatorship. "A People's Tragedy" is long, but is an enthralling, if grim, read throughout.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on 9 June 2009
I have recently finished 'A People's Tragedy' and read it as part of ongoing revision and research for my AS History Paper on Russia in Revolution.
I thought that it was a stunning book that left out little and offered a thorough examination of events with Figes concluding on his own opinion on matters that would be heavily argued between the right and left of the historical world!
This allowed for clearer reading (and should not be a criticism of him) and also meant that I could compare my own interpretation of events with his.
Do not let the number of pages out you off at all! If you want to learn about the Russian Revolution in it's entirety from the late Tsars to the death of Lenin then this is the book for you!
53 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2006
This is a long book, for those looking for short sharp read look elsewhere because you won't find it here. What you will find is a book that humanises an often sterile topic. by bringing out human examples again and again Figes does not just cater for the undergraduate historian searching for information but also personalises the plight of the russian people in such a way that is both captivating and informative, making it a good read for any audience. This is no harry potter, you won't find people reading it around a swimming pool but if you have the time it is well worth it. Most importantly do not be put off by its size. the author assumes little prior knowledge whilst at the same time allowing the learned reader an even more in-depth look at the chaos and brutality of imperial Russia and beyond. For beginners and scholars alike this book is second to none and a must for anyone with an interest in the soviet union. To understand any nation especially one governed by rigid ideals one must understand the events and context in which those ideals were introduced, moulded, and ultimately distorted.