Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917 Hardcover – 1 Oct 1999
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Compared to the gargantuan, award-winning study of the Russian Revolution,A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, which consolidated Figes' reputation as one of the foremost authorities on the subject, this volume appears almost as an afterthought, running to less than 200 pages. Appearances, though, are by design deceptive, something the authors prove in their comprehensive analysis of the cultural manifestations and struggles that defined the events of 1917. Spin-doctors are taken to be a late 20th- century phenomenon, but there is little new under the sun. The rumour mongers who flooded Petrograd with tales of court debauchery, Rasputin and Germanic "dark forces", significantly helped Tsar Nicholas II bring about his own downfall, but what did not disappear with the hapless monarch were Tsarist attitudes. The workers, the peasants, the people (all terms endlessly defined and argued over) still demanded an authoritarian figure, which in turn allowed a cult of personality to develop, raising and then dashing characters such as Kerensky and Kournilov. In truth, Russia was a rather ugly patchwork of sects and divisions who were united only by their obeisance to a brutal creed of "them" and "us", though who was who remained ambiguous at best. "Bourgeois" meant all things to all men and when corrupted to the word "Burzhooi" was applied by peasants to all selfish, foreign, wealthy or educated persons, or in other words, not themselves. "Democracy" lost its constitutional gladrags in the mêlée, being used by the populace as the diametrical opposite to "bourgeois". Clothes, songs, flags and language became potent, stirring symbols (even prostitutes courted men with the cry "share some fraternity!"), as all sides struggled to define a lexicon of battle and to lay sole claim to the emblems of revolution. Figes and Kolonitskii dissect the semiotics of revolution with a thoroughness that does not prove intrusive to what is a fluid and commanding sociological text. From disparate, gabbling voices they've pieced together an alternative, mellifluous history of the symbolism endemic in 1917 Russia, which proves a small, but not slight, coda to its mammoth predecessor.--David Vincent
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The author does an outstanding job drilling into the details and developing 'the backstory' that provides the real color of the events and makes this timespan extremely interesting.
The book is particularly good examining how rumors circulated around Petrograd and Russia about the Imperial family, especially a supposed relationship between the Tsarina and Rasputin and how they undermined the people's confidence in the Tsar.
The book is also very good in examining how symbols and words meant different things to different segments of Russian society, and how the Bolsheviks specifically avoided trying to publically define what each symbol and word meant to them, and therefore let the population believe that whatever they defined something as, the Bolsheviks believed that too and supported it. Figes and Kolonitskii at the end of the book detail how this tendency to let people define something for themselves led to many people defining certain words quite broadly, which led to reprisals against certain people that were defined as too rich or too educated that even the Bolsheviks would not have condoned.
Unfortunately, this book does have some methodological problems. At certain points, Figes supports his argument with nothing more than a citation from his own book, which is a highly dubious practice in scholarly works. The book also in its opening chapter on rumors, doesn't make clear that specific factual evidence of how widespread rumors about the Imperial family is only published evidence from AFTER the February 1917 revolution. The authors assume that because this explosion of anti-Imperial literature occured right after the Tsar was deposed, it must have been wide spread via word of mouth before February 1917. It's a reasonable assumption, but they don't support it well, and also do not make it clear that this published evidence comes after February 1917, not before.
Otherwise however, this is a very good book and extremely readable, unlike other works of the post-moderism genre.
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