Top critical review
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Biased and opinionated
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.