Out of the Great Dark Whale
- A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes
Cape, 923 pp, £20.00, August 1996, ISBN 0 224 04162 2
The great revolutions of the modern world never cease to be controversial, inside or outside their countries, as the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution recently demonstrated. In France the anniversary produced a massive attack on the Revolution and its legacy from neo-liberal historians and ideologues; outside France it produced Simon Schama’s passionate manifesto against violence in the form of a history of the Revolution as a catalogue of horrors. And historians today are a good deal nearer to the Russian Revolution than to the French, especially when we take into account the fact that the Soviet regime to which, for the whole of its 84 years, no human being was indifferent, has been dead for barely five years.
Until they are a few mental light-years away from them, the major temptation of historians confronted with such events is either to denounce or to defend them, to deprive them of historical options or to wish them away. Much of the historiography of the great revolutions is a choice between ‘like it or not, nothing else could have happened’ and ‘but for avoidable errors or accidents none of this need have happened.’ As the title of Orlando Figes’s history of the Russian Revolution indicates, he sees it as a tragedy; and from time to time – particularly in the course of the year 1917 itself – he is tempted into ‘if only’ speculations. But he is far too good a historian, not least of Russia and of revolutions, to construct dreams about tsarist Russia or for Schama-like denunciations of revolutions as such. The Russian Revolution, with all its brutality and excess, will not be wished away by retrospective (or prospective) denunciation. It must be understood.
In this very impressive piece of history-writing Figes has tried to make us understand it by re-creating, but also explaining, the experience of Russia from the famine of 1891, which he regards as the effective beginning of the final crisis of tsarism, to the death of Lenin. A People’s Tragedy combines analysis, narrative and exploration of the lives of those who experienced the eruption of the volcano and were for the most part consumed by it. Perhaps Figes’s most successful narrative device is to have chosen five such careers and followed them through to the end: those of the liberal nobleman Prince Lvov, first prime minister after the February Revolution of 1917; General Brusilov, the Tsar’s finest general, who joined the Red Army out of patriotism; Dmitri Oskin, one of his peasant soldiers from Tula who became a Bolshevik cadre; the revolutionary writer Maxim Gorky; and the peasant Sergei Semenov, a Tolstoyan activist in a village not too far from Moscow. The photographs of these five, together with Lenin, Trotsky and Alexandra Kollontai, make up the section of Figes’s extremely well-chosen illustrations headed ‘Dramatis Personae’. Unlike Schama’s Citizens, however, A People’s Tragedy asks to be judged not only as dramatic narrative, but as historical analysis.
Figes demonstrates that, whatever the speculations of counterfactual history, in practice the tsarist system was doomed by its defects – among them, a tsar spectacularly unqualified to rule. The failure of the 1905 Revolution did not gain tsarism much time, and in any case Nicholas II sabotaged his most capable minister, Stolypin; and even his reforms, in Figes’s view, were not ‘capable of stabilising Russia’s social system after the crisis of 1905’. By 1912, urban Russia, he argues (following Leo Haimson’s pioneering work), was ‘on the brink of a new and potentially more violent revolution’. The 1914 war may initially have postponed such a revolution, but thereafter accelerated it. The idea that tsarist Russia was on the road to a flourishing liberal capitalism, and was diverted only by the war, is a fantasy; as is the post-1991 idealisation of tsarism and its institutions, including the Orthodox Church – Figes has absolutely no doubt of that. As he points out, ‘it is telling ... that none of the White leaders in the Civil War embraced monarchism as a cause, despite the efforts of the many monarchists in their ranks. The White leaders all realised that politically it would be suicide for them to do so.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 18 No. 23 · 28 November 1996
Eric Hobsbawm’s review of Orlando Figes’s A Peoples Tragedy (LRB, 31 October) overlooks a number of important inaccuracies and errors of interpretation. These are not simply factual mistakes – although there are plenty of those. On page 146, to take one example, Figes gives the publication date of Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia as 1893: in fact Lenin did not start work on the book until January 1896; it wasn’t published until 1899.
More worryingly, Figes’s errors are often the result of his desire to make a case against the Russian Revolution in general and Lenin in particular. Here, for instance, is a typically dubious piece of research used for polemical purposes. In his Reminiscences of Lenin Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying after listening to Beethoven’s Appassionato: ‘I can’t listen to music often, it affects my nerves, it makes me want to say sweet nothings and pat the heads of people who, living in this filthy hell, can create such beauty. But today we mustn’t pat anyone on the head or we’ll get our hands bitten off; we’ve got to hit them on the heads, hit them without mercy, though in an ideal world we are against doing any violence to people.’ Clearly Lenin is saying that in a dangerous world one is obliged to be hard in spite of one’s instincts. But for Figes this remark proves that ‘Lenin had no place for sentiment in his life,’ and to sustain this interpretation he simply alters the quotation from Gorky so that it reads: ‘It makes me want to say kind, stupid things, and pat the heads of people. But now you have to beat them on the head, beat them without mercy.’ Lenin now looks as if he is simply interested in beating people over the head for the sheer hell of it. Moreover Figes makes this alteration without indicating in the conventional way that he has done so.
This is not an isolated slip of the pen. Take Figes’s treatment of the Bolshevik organiser Shliapnikov’s comment that the Bolsheviks became a ‘vanguard of a non-existent class’. Shliapnikov made the statement in 1921, after the Civil War, the international blockade, military intervention by more than a dozen foreign armies and famine had decimated the Russian working class. Figes makes it seem as if the statement had been made in 1918, so bolstering his contention that mass support for the October Revolution evaporated almost immediately. Or what of the claim that the music produced during the Civil War was ‘rather comical’? Perhaps, but it is not a contention that can be proved by citing Shostakovich’s Second Symphony, as Figes does, since it was written in 1927, years after the Civil War had ended. Neither can Zamyatin’s We be used as evidence of New Economic Policy discussions of Taylorism since, although it was not published until later, it was written in 1920, four years earlier than Figes claims.
Where Figes isn’t distorting the record, he often flatly contradicts himself. For instance, on page 460 we are told that ‘the October Revolution was a coup, actively supported by a small minority of the population.’ But on the previous page we have been told that ‘the revitalisation of the Soviets … coincided with their radicalisation from below, as factories and garrisons recalled the Mensheviks and SRs in favour of those Bolsheviks, Anarchists and Left SRs calling for the assumption of Soviet power.’ Figes admits that by August 1917 the Bolsheviks had already won control of the Soviets in lvanovo-Voznesentsk (the Russian equivalent of Manchester), Kronstadt (the key naval base outside Petrograd), Ekaterinburg, Samara and Tsaritsyn. In September, Riga, Sartov and Moscow followed. Then came Petrograd, where Trotsky replaced the chairman. This was the mass base of support for the Revolution, even though the Government had so few supporters by October that very little force was needed for the Soviets to take power.
Figes’s case against the Bolsheviks is often maintained less by historical argument than by personal innuendo. We are told, for instance, that Lenin was a ‘physical coward’, a ‘demagogue’, someone who never admitted that he’d married his wife in church (he did so in order to enable her to accompany him in exile), ‘ignorant of everyday work’, a ‘cultural philistine’ who used ‘crude and violent language’. In one passage we are told that ‘Lenin did weight training to build up his muscles. It was all part of the macho culture (the black leather jackets, the militant rhetoric, the belief in action and the cult of violence) that was the essence of Bolshevism.’ Figes mentions the Bolsheviks’ black leather jackets seven times – compared to just three references to, and no quotation from, State and Revolution. Other Bolshevik leaders are damned by the same method. It is supposed to be relevant that Alexandra Kollantai, the Bolshevik Commissar for Social Welfare, had a partner younger than she was; ‘she was old enough to be his mother,’ sniffs Figes.
Vol. 18 No. 24 · 12 December 1996
John Rees (Letters, 28 November) is irritated by my less than flattering portrait of his hero Lenin in A People’s Tragedy. But this does not justify his underhand attempt to portray my book as full of factual errors and distortions. There is nothing wrong with my book’s dating of Shostakovich’s Second Symphony (1927) or the publication of Zamyatin’s We (1924), four years after it was written. What is wrong (even dishonest) is Rees’s claim that I discussed the first as part of the music of the civil war, and the second in the context of the New Economic Policy. As for my use of the quotations by Lenin (on the need to beat people without mercy) and Shliapnikov (on the disappearance of the working class), neither merits the charge of distortion, although in the first I did miss out some dots. But then, even in the space of his short letter Rees has shown how easily one can misquote.
He quotes me as writing that ‘the October Revolution was a coup, actively supported by a small minority of the population,’ and claims that this contradicts my earlier argument about the swing to the left in several major city Soviets. But in fact I called October an ‘insurrection’ (not a revolution) and made it clear (in a clause Rees hides with dots) that the swing to the left was in response to the Kornilov Affair. It was a rejection of the coalition with the ‘bourgeoisie’, a call for a socialist government by the most militant sections of the Soviet movement, but this hardly made it, as Rees claims, a mass base of support for the Bolshevik seizure of power.
Trinity College, Cambridge