Review of A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes

A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution
by Orlando Figes
Hardcover, 912 pages $39.95, Paperback $19.95
Published by Viking Pr
Publication date: March 1997
ISBN: 0670859168

Since the archives of the Soviet Union were opened in 1990 and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist in 1991, there has been a plethora of literature on the October Revolution and the role of Lenin himself. Whether it was a revolution at all, and whether Lenin was really so humane as he has been made out to be later, these are the questions that are being raised. The October Revolution is being termed as no more than a coup and Lenin as a precursor of Stalin- the roots of Stalinism are increasingly been seen to be inherent in Leninism.

None of the above views are in themselves very new. Right wing historians have indeed, maintained these for a long time. The newly opened archives- at least the studies based on them- have tended to be more strident in reiterating these opinions, but more than that it is the collapse of the Soviet Union itself that has made these historians sound more credible. Many of them have felt vindicated- Adam Ulam and Richard Pipes, for example. The book under review, however, is by a historian who is still in his thirties and therefore cannot be said to belong to the tribe of old Soviet bashers. That the thrust of his arguments tends to be more critical of the Russian Revolution needs to be taken seriously, though cautiously.

Orlando Figes is a Cambridge lecturer and brings his acumen forcefully to the front in this monumental work. His style is narrative and reminds one more of Tolstoys’s War and Peace rather than a historical treatise. It is definitely a work of social history, but it also allows a peek into the life of about half a dozen individuals whose fate was intertwined with the Russian Revolution. They are Prince Lvov, Kerensky, a peasant Semyenov, Gorky and Oskin- a peasant soldier turned Socialist Revolutionary- turned Bolshevik. Gorky as we all know, was the great Russian writer, but he was also a severe critic of the Bolsheviks both before and after the Revolution. Prince Lvov, an aristocrat and a patriot, was the Prime Minister in the first Provisional government. Figes’ traces their lives along with his basic theme, some times with insightful observations, for example, about Prince Lvov he observes: His (Prince Lvov’s) hair turned white in the four months that he was the Prime Minister. That one statement says a lot about the tension that engulfed the times. Similarly Kerensky emerges as a hesitant, self styled Napolean of the Revolution, increasingly isolated from the course of events underway.

Figes contends that the revolution by the Bolsheviks was theirs for the asking- the old monarchist order had completely collapsed- Tsar Nicolas fiddled while the Russian army was slaughtered in the World War, a war in which the ordinary Russian had no stake. The soldiers- recruited from the large mass of peasants, fled from the army in millions. They were fighting, unlike their German enemies, not for the Russian nation, but for ‘God’ and his representative on earth- the Tsar. The concept of Russian nationhood was alien to them. That is the reason, Figes avers, that as the revolution progressed the peasant- soldiers were drawn to the Bolsheviks call for hands off the war and their “internationalism”, though their understanding was far different from the Bolsheviks concept of proletarian internationalism, rather than towards the Mensheviks or the monarchists, both of whom stood for the continuation of the war. The Russsian villages were Asiatic- almost self- contained units and the peasant outlook quite narrow. As one peasant- soldier asked: “Why are we fighting the Germans ? My village has no quarrel with them.”

This, combined with their call for all power to the Soviets- analogous to the traditional village committees, made the Bolsheviks the sole contenders for power. The Mensheviks did not realize that Russia was not in the situation where it could follow the gradual evolution from feudalism to capitalism and then to socialism. Their incapacity to make a decisive shift in their politics after the fall of the Tsar and go all out and seize the initiative proved to be their Waterloo. The Socialist Revolutionaries, on the other hand, placed too much faith in the abstract “power of the masses” and failed to take on the mantle of leadership. It was only the Bolsheviks, rather Lenin alone, who was capable of realizing that Russia was the center of all major contradictions at that time- between imperialism and people, between autocracy and liberty and simultaneously between capitalism and the working class. Armed not only with this theoretical understanding, ‘the man who lived politics all 24 hours of the day’, proved to be the rallying point for the Bolsheviks to seize power, despite the reluctance of the rest of the leadership. Trotsky was later to remark, famously, that without Lenin, there would have been no Russian Revolution.

The otherwise unattractive Lenin was a dominating figure among the Russian intellectuals as well as the politicians- both of these groups tended to overlap in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia. In his own personal relations with comrades, he was even affectionate and lovable. Yet, one émigré writer called him an “evil genius”. Plekhanov was respected, and Martov was loved, but it was only Lenin that the people followed. On his part, within the Boshevik party, Lenin cajoled, got angry, screamed and threatened his colleagues specially when he stood in minority with the other leading Bolsheviks opposing him. He, like Gandhi, generally had his way.

Orlando Figes uses a great deal of choice phrases to describe Lenin. For example, he writes, “When it came to putting himself at physical risk, Lenin had always been something of a coward.” He promptly forgets to follow this up with any convincing proof. There is definite evidence, though, that Lenin did have a streak of violence in him, and not only ordered executions but personally vilified and chased away his opponents from Russia after he came to power.

Figes has not cited many such incidents, but one “oversight” which he narrates is particularly frightening. He writes:

“In 1919, during a session of the Sovnarkom, Lenin wrote a note and passed it to Dzerzhinsky: ‘How many counter- revolutionaries do we have in prison?’ Dzerzhinsky scribbled: ‘about 1500’, and returned the note. Lenin looked at it, placed a cross by the figure and gave it back to the Cheka boss. That night 1500 Moscow prisoners were shot dead by Dzerzhinsky’s orders. This turned out to be a dreadful mistake, Lenin had not ordered the executions at all: he always placed a cross by anything that had read to signify that he had done so and taken it into account. As a result of Dzerzhinsky’s simple error, 1500 people lost their lives.”

There is increasing evidence, however, and which the author presents, indicating that Lenin was instrumental in creating the Cheka, the precursor of the NKVD and the KGB, as ‘a state within a state’. It is still debatable whether what might have been a temporary tool in the hands of a genius would have brought about the devastation that it later did in the hands of a sheer mediocrity like Stalin.

Figes devotes considerable space to the terror, killings and murders that took place during the and specially after the Bolshevik “seizure” of power. The accounts are gory enough to make future revolutionaries shudder from the thoughts of attempting a revolution at all. Figes is brutal, and one might say at the expense of being a termed a sadist, that he is at his very best in describing the mass violence- medieval in form and content, thinly veiled then as the offensive against the counter- revolutionaries. The author’s thrust on the violence justifies the title of the book.

He recounts a number of incidents which were quite bizarre when they happened. For example, there were widespread anti- Semitic feelings and violence among the people and inevitably a number of anti- Jew pogroms took place during and after 1917. Some Bolshevik supporters wrote on the walls: “Down with Kerensky, the Jew, Long Live Trotsky.” In reality, Trotsky was a Jew, and Kerensky was not. One can only wonder what Trotsky must have felt.

In another case, one enthusiastic Uzbek paper translated the Bolshevik slogan of “Workers of the World, Unite!” to “Tramps of the world, Unite !”. The slogan appeared on top of the daily’s title head.

The book is too vast in scope as well as detail that a review like the present one cannot even claim to touch the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of difficulties too in a text like this where the extremely well read author has quoted profusely from hundreds of sources. The brashness of his youth shows clearly in the rather eclectic treatment of the subject throughout the text. But the sheer volume of the information makes up for any slackness in analysis.

There cannot be any doubt that Figes’ book marks the start of a brilliant career for the author and is central to the debate that he has brought into sharp focus. If 1991 marked the fall and defeat of the socialist experiment, it also marked the start of a new debate on its genesis and the viability of socialism. For all those who still dare to dream of a better future for humanity, this book is a call to critically examine their beliefs. For those whom events and age have made turn cynically to their socialist and communist youth, it is a call to come to terms with their past.

26 May 1998
The Tribune 7 June 1998

Author: bhupinder singh

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

2 thoughts on “Review of A People’s Tragedy : A History of the Russian Revolution by Orlando Figes”

  1. The October Revolution is being termed as no more than a coup and Lenin as a precursor of Stalin- the roots of Stalinism are increasingly been seen to be inherent in Leninism.

    One thing that makes me curious is that how big the support base was for the October revolution? I think it is now accepted that the main and the only popular revolution was the one happened in February when keresnky govt came to power and that the october revolution was basically a coup by Lenin and his power-hungry followers…

    I also remember reading in Eric Hobsbawm’s the age of extremes… He says that the only positive outcome of the bolshevik revolution and russian industrialisation was the defeat of hitler and that in retrospect the human costs of twenties and thirties in Russia might be justified in a way.

    very informative and balanced review. thanks.

  2. I personally feel that the October Revolution was a great movement forward and the Stalinist developments should not cast a shadow on the events in 1917.

    Kerensky’s Feb revolution was half baked and everyone failed to realize the immediacy of the pull out from the War.

    It was only Lenin, and Trotsky, who realized the importance of the situation and carry out a social revolution. It was certainly not a ‘coup’. “Revolution was lying in the streets of St Petersburg”, as Trotsky was to comment later.

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