‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes

Figes A People's TragedyThe Russian Revolution is one of those pivotal events in world history. Did anyone see it coming? Did anyone, at the time, realise the implications for Russia and the rest of the World? I doubt it very much. I studied the Russian Revolution at school but have read surprisingly little about it since then, but I had always wondered how it was that the Bolsheviks in particular managed to gain power over such a vast country; after reading Figes’s book I think I have my answers: luck, brute force and lack of a coherent opposition. It took a long time to get to this answer though as the book is physically large and runs to over 800 pages (+100 or so pages of notes) and due to its size I could only read it during weekends as it is too bulky to read on my workday commute; as such it took me nearly three months to read—but it was a fascinating three months and I would recommend this book as a brilliant one volume history of the Russian Revolution.

The full title of the book is A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and in the introduction Figes justifies starting his narrative in 1891 as this was when ‘the revolutionary crisis really started, and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the tsarist autocracy.’ And he ends it in 1924 with the death of Lenin when the revolution was basically over. At first I thought that Figes was spending too much time on the early period but I soon began to appreciate the time spent on this preliminary material. Part One, of this four part book, covers Russia under the Tsarist regime; and if we think that life during the revolution was hard and brutal then we only have to refer back to these early chapters to realise just how brutal life could be for the majority of people under the Tsars. Russia was basically a medieval society for the peasantry where the lifestyles of the urban aristocrats would have seemed totally alien to them. Figes summed up this split in Russian society thus:

Only a few miles from any city centre one would find oneself already in the backwoods, where there were bandits living in the forests, where roads turned into muddy bogs in spring, and where the external signs of life in the remote hamlets had remained essentially unchanged since the Middle Ages. Yet, despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers.

Figes devotes time to describing the nature of Tsarist Russia, especially to Tsar Nicholas II’s reign. Figes portrays Nicholas as a man who was unsuitable to run Russia, especially during such turbulent times. He could be described as an ineffective ruler but he still believed in his autocratic right to rule; he was wary of competent ministers and any form of democracy and worked against these whenever he felt he could.

In a sense, Russia gained in him the worst of both worlds: a Tsar determined to rule from the throne yet quite incapable of exercising power. This was ‘autocracy without an autocrat’.

Of course, we find out about the Tsar’s household, Rasputin etc. But an interesting chapter, ‘Red Ink’, was on Russian literature during this period, how Marxism came to Russia and Lenin’s involvement in the Social Democratic Party and subsequent split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. From the outset Lenin proposed ‘a centralized and conspiratorial party of professional revolutionaries’. Although it’s more complicated than this, the essential difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks is that the Mensheviks were more pro-democracy and were happier to compromise with the liberals and bourgeoisie whereas the Bolsheviks were more intransigent and bullish. Once the revolution had started these differences became more marked. In fact, reading this book made me aware of just how much Lenin orchestrated events. I had assumed beforehand that he was more of an opportunist but instead he had a plan, or rather a method, to gain power and hold onto it by whatever means necessary.

‘It all began with bread’—and so the February revolution errupted. As with other revolutons and wars details of events are very complicated with rapidly changing allegiances and power struggles. An added complication was that the revolution occurred whilst Russia was at war with Germany and her allies in the First World War. A Provisional Government was established which lasted until October when we had the Bolshevik take over. Figes explains why and how the Bolsheviks were succesful:

Everybody cursed the Bolsheviks but nobody was prepared to do anything about them.

But the crux of the Bolshevik success was a two-fold process of state-building and destruction. On the one hand, at the highest levels of the state, they sought to centralize all power in the hands of the party and, by the use of terror, to wipe out all political opposition.

As if the revolution and the Bolshevik takeover wasn’t enough there was then a civil war that lasted several years. This was an incredibly brutal war between Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, national groups, Whites, Social Democrats, peasant groups etc. The Bolsheviks used whoever they could to gain power and turned against them as soon as they felt they were safe enough. Terrible atrocities were carried out by all sides and Figes lists a whole load of tortures and abuses; the Bolshevik secret police organiation, called the Cheka, was particularly brutal and sadistic in its activities and had such a level of independence that even Trotsky didn’t feel safe from them, however, Figes points out that many of the Cheka’s techniques were borrowed from the Tsar’s police force. Of course whilst reading about the chaos and suffering involved in the Russian Civil War it was difficult not to draw comparisons to what is going on currently in Syria where it is equally difficult to see how any diplomatic solution can be succesful.

One criticism of the book is that I didn’t really find out much about the main Communist leaders, Lenin, Trotsky & Stalin; early on in the book Lenin was portrayed as a cowardly clerk who seems to be absent whenever the important events are occurring but then turns in to a tyrant once the revolution is imminent; Trotsky has power but seems to be unpopular with everyone and Stalin appears only near the end of Lenin’s life to take over. It’s probably unfair to expect Figes to cover a lot of biographical information but I felt that it would have been useful to know what they were doing during the important events. Another criticism is that I had little understanding of how the decisions were made during this early period of rule. At times it appears that Lenin issues orders to everyone whilst other times decisions were made at Politburo meetings.

I think it’s fair to say that Figes doesn’t particularly admire many of the people who were involved in the events in this book as they are often portrayed as violent and/or incompetent but the one exception is undoubtedly Maxim Gorky, the writer and early Bolshevik supporter. Excerpts from Gorky’s letters and books are used throughout the book; his comments on events, his criticisms of the Tsar, Lenin and revolutionary abuses are very humane and often prescient. He not only wrote articles and books but he often tried to help people through his connections with Lenin or by giving people food and shelter during these difficult times. In the end the civil war was too much for him and he had to flee Russia. His words in a letter to Romain Rolland in 1921 sum up his feelings:

I feel very tired: during the past seven years in Russia I have seen and lived through so many sad dramas—the more sad for not being caused by the logic of passion and free will but by the blind and cold calculation of fanatics and cowards…I still believe fervently in the future happiness of mankind but I am sickened and disturbed by the growing sum of suffering which people have to pay as the price of their fine hopes.

If you can cope with the constant descriptions (and photographs) of brutality then this book is a brilliant one-volume book of not only the Russian Revolution but the whole period leading up to it.



Filed under Figes, Orlando, Non-fiction

11 responses to “‘A People’s Tragedy’ by Orlando Figes

  1. Thank you for this review. I appreciate your thorough coverage of the book. NIcholas II made just about every bad decision he could have made: his British cousins were more circumspect about easing up on power. What a delightful blog you have!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thank you Gubbinal. Nicholas certainly couldn’t see the advantages of allowing some democracy and reforms. If he had relinquished some power he may have survived I guess.


  2. Superb review of this book.

    This sounds very good. The Russian Revolution was indeed a pivotal point in human affairs. It affected so much of what was yet to come.

    I think that any comprehensive book about this subject would have to be long. It is such a big topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      The book could have easily been twice the size. Figes’s style is perfect for this type of book, i.e. he assumes you don’t know much about the subject beforehand but he doesn’t dumb things down.

      There are a huge number of photographs as well. I know we can look on the internet now when we’re reading but I still like to have them in the book.


  3. Excellent review.! This is a book on Russia I’ve yet to read (though I’m pretty sure I have it somewhere). I’m interested to hear about his thoughts on Gorky, particularly as I’ve heard mixed things about him. Obviously I need to give this a go!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan

      Thanks. Of course after reading this book I now want to read more on the revolution, the Soviet Union, Lenin, Stalin, Soviet era fiction and emigre fiction such as Gorky, The White Guard, Sholokhov, Bunin, Gorky etc. I think I read one or two books by Gorky but that would have been years ago…possibly ‘My Childhood’.

      If you have a copy of the Figes book then I’d recommend reading it. Of course the centennial is approaching; I wonder how it will be ‘celebrated’ in Russia…or elsewhere!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I toyed with getting this book but was a bit put off by the length.
    One book I would recommend that gives a flavour of the revolutionary ferment (pre *the* revolution, because there was more than one as you know) is Petersburg by Andrei Bely. (https://anzlitlovers.com/2012/07/15/petersburg-by-andrei-bely-translated-by-john-elsworth/) Set in 1905, it’s not *about* the revolution but it’s inseparable from it and it shows why there was enough popular support for it. And it’s a jolly good story which swirled around in my head as I walked the streets of St Petersburg when I was there in 2012!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jonathan

    Oh yes, Bely’s book is another one to read.

    The Figes book is very readable and it was only the physical size that slowed me down as I didn’t fancy lugging it backwards and forwards to work. I did look to see whether it was available on kindle but it wasn’t.


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