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...
This is a masterpiece of historical exposition. I was mesmerized from the first page and it lasted right until the end, complete with characters who are followed throughout the entire story, quick and dense analyses of the forces behind events, and a full explanation of the consequences that inevitably followed.
The story begins with an analysis of the old regime, the last major one to survive in Europe. On top was the Tsar and the aristocracy, which dominated government and much of the bureaucracy. They owned most of the land, had the most education, and controlled the armed forces. There was a slim tranche that represented an urban middle class, a rising bourgeoisie that dominated commerce and the rudiments of a manufacturing industry, but they were too weak to have much political influence. All the rest, over 90% of the population, were peasants in primitive villages, most of them illiterate; though serfs until the 1860s (bound to the land under the total control of the gentry), they had recently gained some legal rights, including minimal self governance; they were a mix of reactionary conservatives and the disgruntled, who carried a simmering rage.
Nicolas II, the Tsar, was so ill-suited to his role that the socio-political forces he faced led to complete catastrophe. Rather than take an interest in the reforms needed - or even in the practical tasks of governing - he chose to live in a dream world in which he imagined the "people" loved him as the eternal soul of the entire country. After a series of assassinations and violent uprisings, he indulged in the idea that autocracy was the answer for the Russian Empire, egged on by his German wife, who believed he should rule as Ivan the Terrible had done. Because Nicolas II was suspicious of anyone who challenged his authority, he actively undermined the government and bureaucracy, preferring the fawning nonsense of manipulative courtiers and religious figures, such as Rasputin. As the social situation worsened, he remained studiously unaware of what should be done to protect Russian institutions and his office. After the 1905 revolution, the Tsar agreed to establish a Parliament, the Duma, but he did not choose to nurture or work with it, losing a significant opportunity.
Had there been peace, more peaceful political change might have eventually come, but Nicolas II chose instead to join in the Great War as a Western ally. This war - the first fully modern one that required both an industrial capacity and more flexible institutions - brought the situation to a head. Not only was the aristocratic military revealed as incompetent and uncaring of the lives of its peasant foot soldiers, but the catastrophic conditions under which the war unfolded completely undermined the support of the masses for the Tsar's autocratic government. The result was a revolution that forced him to abdicate in favor of a new parliamentary democracy, which was soon identified with Kerensky.
One of the weaknesses of coverage is the precise configuration of the institutions that emerged to fill the gap created by the collapse of the autocracy. First, the Duma remained unrepresentative and weak, particularly with the absence of any viable middle class. Second, there were the Soviets, which apparently were more spontaneous groupings that better reflected the revolutionary forces, though they varied widely in their composition and openness. It was here that the Bolsheviks (the "Reds"), Mensheviks, and various Social Democrats met to debate courses of action. Third, there were disparate groupings that might be seen as power centers, including conservative Aristocrats (the "Whites") and many others, such as ethnic groups, but few added up to any coherent force. I was never clear on how these interacted or what their powers were.
Nonetheless, the politics of the situation is very well covered. As the rage of peasants was unleashed in a series of violent movements that attacked and disenfranchised the landed gentry, the Duma appeared impotent to restore order to the situation. Meanwhile, as the war wreaked havoc on the economy, the Bolsheviks emerged as the only ones who clearly opposed continuing to fight (as well as the only party to endorse the aristocracy's destruction as wholly desirable as well as the takeover of industries by workers). This won them the political heart of many peasants, who identified the Reds as the only true force genuinely supporting the revolution. No one else seemed to understand these political facts in the civil war that erupted after the Bolsheviks seized power in the October 1917 coup - the Whites appeared to want to restore the monarchy and land rights of the aristocracy, which at this point was politically impossible and hence completely undermined their cause in the medium term.
It is at this point that the personal stories become important. Figes proves that Lenin was the dominant politician of his time, pushing the Bolsheviks to seize power and establish their own form of autocracy, improvising the whole time with decisions that would prepare the ground for the ambitious Stalin to take over the party apparatus and soon (with his ability to appoint cronies in key positions) the entire government. The portraits of these men and scores of others are compelling and fascinating in their quirky detail. Figes is of the opinion that, due to the institutions that Lenin set up, Stalin was an inevitable and natural outgrowth of all that followed, even though Lenin came to oppose him while on his death bed.
Once the Bolsheviks were in power, even though they withdrew Russia from the war (with great difficulty), they made a series of mistakes that plunged the country into famine, renewed civil war, and desperate anarchy that took years to set right. To keep themselves in power, they relied on terror in a similar manner to the Tsar, but with ideological purpose guiding their actions and a huge bureaucracy that they installed, often run by uneducated and inexperienced peasant revolutionaries. Figes covers this process well, but his explanations of the impact of Marxist theory were less than satisfying for me, perhaps due to my own ignorance of it (i.e. he goes on about the lack of a capiltalist class, a "stage" which had to be skipped).
Throughout the book, Figes exhibits an admirable skepticism, never indulging in romanticization of any of the characters or their ideas. Except for certain individuals, no class or group comes off well - not the peasants, not the revolutionaries, not representatives of the old regime. A very interesting analysis is offered regarding the mentalities of each group. Cut off as the vast majority was from the ideas in ferment to the west, there was a poverty of ideas under discussion, with few alternatives emerging organically from the society. Instead, the few ideas that did get into the country were viewed as exclusive panaceas rather than part of a mix that required compromise and negotiation; rather than an openness of mind, the lack of education and ignorance promoted rigid minds that rarely questioned opinions once they were adopted. For their part, the Bolsheviks disdained the peasants and workers, in whose name they established their dictatorship. I cannot due justice to the subtlety of Figes' ideas here, but it was one of the most interesting cultural aspects of the book for me. (For example, he views the search for philosophical answers to everything as a key to the appeal of the great Russian novelists of the 19C.)
This book is as satisfying an intellectual meal as the general reader could hope for. I simply could not stop reading it and almost never felt bogged down over its 800+ pages. It is an astounding achievement: for the first time in my life, I feel I truly grasp this revolution and all that it meant. While sometimes exhaustive in its detail, Figes never covers events to excess: there is always a purpose to his narrative, so that every single battle or political maneuver is not described; instead, significant or illustrative episodes are highlighted, a relief for lay readers.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
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.