The Operatic Theory of History

Paul Seabright

  • Rebirth of a Nation: An Anatomy of Russia by John Lloyd
    Joseph, 478 pp, £20.00, January 1998, ISBN 0 7181 3862 7
  • Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia by David Remnick
    Picador, 412 pp, £20.00, October 1998, ISBN 0 330 36916 4

The current crisis in Russia and the near-unanimous pessimism it has generated about the country’s prospects make this an unfortunate time to be reviewing two books with titles as upbeat as Rebirth of a Nation and Resurrection. Curiously, though, neither book has dated as much as one might have expected since the events of last August – which is to say that the crisis has told us little we did not know, at least in outline, before.

Crises that evolve rapidly can easily steal the headlines from those that develop over years. In Russia, one of the most remarkable, though least remarked, developments in the last decade has been a collapse in the birth rate, fertility having almost halved in nine years, falling from 2.2 births per woman in 1987 to 1.3 in 1996. A demographer somewhere may prove me wrong, but I believe this to be the fastest collapse in peacetime fertility in recorded history (less rapid, but still dramatic falls have been taking place in other states of the former Soviet Union). John Lloyd intends no irony in his title, but his book covers a time when Russians have abandoned birth in a big way. A new Russia may be in the process of being born, but new Russians are not.

Far more serious than the refusal to reproduce is the collapse in male life expectancy, which, at around 57 years, is at the level of sub-Saharan Africa; the 14-year gap between men and women is now the largest in the world. Demographic changes as dramatic as these are a challenge to any single author hoping to explain the turbulent character of the country’s transition from Communism to God knows what. In most countries in most times, average fertility changes only slowly, since it is the aggregate of millions of individual, idiosyncratic and unco-ordinated decisions. The extraordinary movement of these statistical aggregates in Russia alerts us to many millions of personal upheavals running right through society. Many historical revolutions, although momentous events for those who live in the capital city or get caught up in ensuing wars, have been unremarkable for the rest, who have just got on with their lives. I recall discovering, in a bundle belonging to my wife’s family in the Corrèze in Central France, a letter dated July 1789 which talked of the weather, the forthcoming harvest and various family illnesses, and never once mentioned events far away in Paris. In Gerhardie’s novel Futility, the Revolution of 1917 (which he had witnessed) is merely a surreal and melancholy backdrop to domestic and social events played out according to an idiosyncratic and wholly unrevolutionary logic.

Unlike the events of 1917, the Russian revolution of the Nineties has not required a civil war to bring home its effects immediately to the entire population. That population is much more urbanised than it was in 1917, and most economic activity is heavily industrialised, even when it takes place on the land. Many Russian firms have complex links with suppliers and customers that extend over long distances and have proved extremely vulnerable to disruption. Demand for the products of most such firms has collapsed, and even when they do manage to sell their output it is a whole new challenge to make sure they are paid. The Government’s method of controlling expenditure in order to fight inflation has not been to make fewer promises to special interest groups, but to make many of the same promises and then to decline to pay the bills of those who are in the weakest position to complain. Unemployment has risen surprisingly little given the scale of the economic collapse, but when many of the employed are not being paid the observation is somewhat metaphysical. Around half of Russian families, according to a recent survey, depend for a substantial fraction of their food requirements on what they can grow themselves. There can be very few families in the country who have not seen their lives overturned by the changes of recent years.

It would be hard for any one book to do justice to the scale of this upheaval, and neither of these two really tries to do so. Although less stylishly written. Rebirth of a Nation is much the larger in scope. Nevertheless, it recounts a largely metropolitan drama, with a cast of energetic, nimble, ambitious people whose actions seem unpredictable as they occur but almost inevitable with hindsight. It is a journalist’s book in the best sense of that term, drawing on a richly-stocked diary of contacts, full of paradoxes and provocative thumbnail sketches, unsparing in its judgments while remarkably affectionate in its portraits. Lloyd conveys an exhilarating combination of social contingency (individuals matter and events would have been radically different with different people in positions of power and influence) and psychological determinism (it is hard to see how these individuals, being who they were, could have done otherwise than they did). At times the narrative comes uncomfortably close to opera: Tsar Boris, who has come to power heroically atop a tank in defence of the common people, finds himself surrounded by courtly intrigue and tragically succumbs to vanity, vodka and a sense of his own invincibility; from time to time, a chorus of workers and peasants laments. It shares with the operatic theory of history a capacity to make endlessly interesting the manipulations and compromises of a confused struggle for political and economic power.

This indeed is primarily a book about a few hundred key figures in the shaping of modern Russia. ‘The masses,’ writes Lloyd, ‘did not participate in the convulsions of the new Russia, except as the object of them.’ I suppose it all depends what you mean by ‘participate’. When you have not been paid for many months, it must take extraordinary ingenuity and courage just to survive. And the life-expectancy statistics are a reminder of how many have not. With the exception of a couple of brief portraits in Chapter 21, the drama of those who have survived, and the desperate strategies they had to employ to do so, are largely absent.

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