7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Detailed, but highly readable, account of one of the greatest disasters in history,
This review is from: A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Paperback)
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...