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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
The first thing you might ask, looking at the title, is why does a history of the Russian revolution start in 1891 and end in 1991? Eighteen ninety-one saw a major famine - and the failure of the Tsarist autocracy to tackle it meant precipitated a crisis of authority from which it never recovered. Eighteen ninety-one was the first nail in the coffin of autocracy; but 1991 was the final nail in the coffin of the Soviet revolutionary experiment. Hence the span of a 100 years. The revolution did not begin and end in 1917. It had antecedents before that year, and consequences well beyond it, consequences that we still live with today.

The demise of the autocracy was all but guaranteed after 1891, though the triumph of the Bolsheviks in 1917 was not. The Bolshevik seizure of power was a coup against the background of a genuine social revolution (the Soviets were local workers' councils and not the Bolsheviks' invention). There is an interesting discussion on the continuities (and departures from) the first phase of the Bolshevik experiment in the 1920s and Stalin's `great break' of the 1930s. Was Stalin necessary? According to the author, he was not. The New Economic Policy might well have succeeded, and modernised Russia at far less human cost then Stalin's breakneck industrialisation.

Was Stalin an inevitable consequence of the system Lenin founded? Here is the answer seems to be a qualified `no.' There were marked discontinuities between the 1920s and 1930s (with the latter period socially far more conservative than the former) and the personalities of the two men were different. Lenin could be brutal but observed limits. Murdering fellow Bolsheviks for thinking differently was out of the question - Stalin decimated the old Bolsheviks. The NKVD in the 1930s was the hammer of the old revolutionary movement. But Stalin certainly felt he was upholding Leninist principles of political action - the ideological continuities between the two men cannot be overlooked. Having said that, it is hard to envisage Lenin orchestrating the sorts of grotesque spectacles Stalin and his henchmen did during the years of the Great Terror in 1937-8. The question will be perennially debated, as long as historians carry on writing about the Russian revolution.

In later years, the revolutionary fervour of the first two decades dimmed. Soviet leaders concentrated less on grandiose transformations of human nature and break-neck modernisation and more on raising living standards and other bread and butter issues (although these utopian pretensions were never entirely shed). The system ossified as the years ground on and the country fell further and further behind its advanced capitalist competitors. The Soviet Union's revolutionary passion was all spent in the 1980s - its population cynical, disaffected and many of them drinking themselves to death. But there was little overt opposition. Most at least had the basics in life guaranteed and did not want to see the system collapse. The long years of stagnation in the 1970s and early 1980s did not mean that the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 was foreordained - it was Gorbachev's (who, like Stalin, considered himself to be fulfilling Lenin's vision) failure to control the reform process that did for the Soviet Union, in the last analysis.

Overall, this book is one historian's frequently opinionated summary of Russian/Soviet history from 1891. It is well written and entertaining enough. But if you want an introduction to the subject, it should be complemented by other surveys of the subject; for example, Sheila Fitzpatrick's `The Russian Revolution'. But it is a decent effort. Four stars.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 9 June 2015
A few issues with this book. Firstly, although Figes’ premise is that the revolution must be understood as a whole, from 1891 to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, he doesn't really follow up on this claim very well. Stalin's death occurs at the end of Chapter 16; the breakup of the Soviet Union is covered in chapter 19. 38 years of history are covered in just 44 pages; the preceding 62 years had 244. It feels like these are only tacked on to allow Figes to include the final chapter, a rather moralistic and handwringing look at the legacy of the USSR, mostly in terms of what Figes thinks should have happened but didn't (e.g., human rights trials, a “truth and reconciliation commission”), and the “disturbing” observation that most Russians don't think negatively of Communism.

This is, however, quite in fitting with the rest of the book. Figes' ideological bias is clear throughout, holding the USSR to outrageous double standards. For example, he complains that the USSR hadn't joined the League of Nations, preferring to act alone; a few pages later, he complains that it joins the League of Nations, in the face of the threat of fascism. He notes that the Western powers were unwilling to ally themselves with the USSR against Germany during the 30s (indeed, for all intents and purposes Britain and the USA found themselves on the same side as Germany in the Spanish Civil War); he further notes that the USSR was not in a position to fight Germany alone. Yet, then, he goes on to criticize Stalin for signing a nonaggression treaty with Germany, laying the blame for World War 2 not on Hitler, or on the Western democracies intent on appeasing Hitler, but (explicitly) on Stalin.

He also has a habit of using statistics without context, particularly in relation to the gulags and “great terror”; large numbers sound impressive but without setting them in proper relation they're mere sensationalism. For example, he quotes the gulag population in the 1930s as being around a million, without noting that, as a percentage of the total population, this is significantly lower than the liberal, democratic, “land of the free” United States even in the 2010s.

The back of the book contains a “further reading” section. Worryingly, it contains a number of works by Robert Conquest, whose wild claims regarding the extent of the “terror” have been thoroughly debunked, and yet somehow he's still taken seriously as a historian; he belongs in the same category as the author of the Hitler Diaries. On the other hand, it doesn't include anything by that other well-respected historian of Russia, Robert Service. I wondered why, briefly, and then remembered this http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/apr/23/historian-orlando-figes-amazon-reviews-rivals. I presume Professor Figes still holds a grudge.
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on 29 June 2015
It was hard to rate this one. It is a great overview of the Russian Revolution and covers a full 100 years. But because of this large timespan the book is actually quite sparse of detail. This is especially true when compared to Figes' other books, which are full of detail and much bigger reads (and awesome). That being said, this is a good overview and covers the whole period from the famine in 1891 to the downfall of Communism and does help the reader to see the greater sweep of recent Russian history rather than an intense focus on one particular time period.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 2 June 2014
Anyone fascinated by the Soviet Union will receive a unique insight into the complex background machinations and intrigues that resulted in the Soviet Union's remarkable achievements and failures. If this were fiction you simply would not believe it. This is no dry history book but an easy to read and hard to put down book.
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on 19 December 2014
This book was very good at giving an overview over the whole period of the existence and build up to the USSR. What it lacked in the very fine detail, it made up for with it's brilliant narrative and interspersing of quotes and figures.

A very highly reccommendable book!
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on 27 April 2015
A fantastic summary of the USSR written in a wonderful style. I found this really easy to read. As a teacher I have found it an invaluable source of information and have recommended it to my pupils.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 5 October 2014
Did exactly what I wanted. It is no doubt too brief for the specialist or someone with some knowledge of the subject. Coming to the topic for the first time I found it an excellent overview and, with the extensive further reading list, provides plenty of scope for further detailed reading of specific areas.
This is the place to start.
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on 29 July 2015
FANTASTIC HISTORIAN, VERY CLEAR ON EXPLANATION, HELPS YOU UNDERSTAND RUSSIA WHICH IS A DIFFICULT THING EVEN THOUGH I LIVED THERE FOR 5 YEARS
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 10 October 2014
I really enjoyed the way it was told - like a story more than just "here are the facts - congratulations now you know them" kind of way. It really helped me understand more about Russia since I desperately needed something good for History. Now I can confidently show my teacher that I know my stuff and he'll be impressed (something that he was not last year - HEEY IMPROVEMENT!)
No, but seriously - if you need to study the Tsars, the revolution, the people, the policies, the government/dictatorship and all the bits in between then look no further cause this book has everything!
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on 1 March 2015
Succinct and clearly written , like all his books.
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