Out of the Great Dark Whale

Eric Hobsbawm

  • 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.’

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