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Down below, on velvet armchairs

Orlando Figes, 9 November 1989

Russia’s Rulers Under the Old Regime 
by Dominic Lieven.
Yale, 407 pp., £27.50, June 1989, 0 300 04371 6
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... The 215 men appointed by Nicholas II to the State Council, Russia’s highest legislative body, between 1894-1914 comprised the social and ruling élite of the old regime on the eve of its destruction. All the top aristocrats, government ministers, civil servants, judges, provincial governors, generals, admirals, church leaders and conservative academics retired to its comfortable velvet armchairs in the Mariinsky Palace ...

Looting the looters

Orlando Figes, 26 September 1991

The Russian City between Tradition and Modernity, 1850-1900 
by Daniel Brower.
California, 253 pp., £18.95, July 1990, 0 520 06764 9
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St Petersburg between the Revolutions. Workers and Revolutionaries: June 1907-February 1917 
by Robert McKean.
Yale, 606 pp., £27.50, June 1990, 0 300 04791 6
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... When the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace on the night of 25 October 1917, they discovered one of the largest wine cellars ever known to the world. During the following days, crowds went on a drunken rampage through St Petersburg. Shops were looted, and well-to-do houses robbed. Sometimes their owners were tortured or killed for sport. Mikhail Uritsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders of the October uprising, was dragged from his sleigh, stripped naked, and left to continue his journey on foot as he returned one snowy night from a meeting with Lenin ...

Diary

Orlando Figes: In Moscow, 19 January 1989

... When I returned to Moscow last June, it was clear from the start that the atmosphere of the place had changed considerably since my previous visit in the winter of 1985. Even the customs officials at Sheremetevo Airport behaved differently. The enormous influx of tourists since Gorbachev came to power must have softened their attitude, for they were no longer interested in the old ritual of spilling out the contents of my bags, and trying without any knowledge of English to tell which of my bedtime novels could be deemed ‘anti-Soviet ...

Days of Reckoning

Orlando Figes, 7 July 1988

Stalin: Man and Ruler 
by Robert McNeal.
Macmillan, 389 pp., £16.95, June 1988, 0 333 37351 0
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... What is Stalin?’ an Old Bolshevik asked Trotsky in 1925. After a moment’s consideration came the reply: ‘the outstanding mediocrity in the Party’. Trotsky’s contempt may in part be explained by the wounds which his own pride had suffered from the growth of Stalin’s influence among the party rank and file after Lenin’s death in January 1924 ...

Witness Protection

Lewis Siegelbaum: Communist Morality, 10 April 2008

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia 
by Orlando Figes.
Allen Lane, 740 pp., £25, October 2007, 978 0 7139 9702 6
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... had been executed as an ‘enemy of the people’ in January 1938. Their mother died in 1992. Orlando Figes tells in piecemeal fashion the stories of hundreds of such families across the 700 pages of his book. The Whisperers brings Stalinist Russia squarely into the ‘era of the witness’ (as the French historian Annette Wieviorka has called ...

Out of the Great Dark Whale

Eric Hobsbawm, 31 October 1996

A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 
by Orlando Figes.
Cape, 923 pp., £20, August 1996, 0 224 04162 2
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... 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 ...

Ruling the Roast

David A. Bell: A Nation of Beefeaters, 25 September 2003

Beef and Liberty: Roast Beef, John Bull and the English Nation 
by Ben Rogers.
Chatto, 207 pp., £17.99, April 2003, 9780701169800
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... not the country as a whole. Closer to the English in this respect are the Russians, who, as Orlando Figes has observed, collectively have an endless capacity for commenting on how Russian they are. It is easy to imagine a Russian counterpart to Beef and Liberty, although its proper subject would not be a national meat, but ...

The First New War

Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Crimea, 25 August 2011

Crimea: The Last Crusade 
by Orlando Figes.
Penguin, 575 pp., £12.99, June 2011, 978 0 14 101350 3
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... a friendly discussion. All this was the background to the Crimean War of 1853-55, the subject of Orlando Figes’s admirable book. The war was at once the most dramatic episode in the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, the bloodiest war waged between European powers in what was a largely peaceful century after 1815, and the only time during that ...

What’s Left?

Sheila Fitzpatrick: The Russian Revolution, 29 March 2017

October: The Story of the Russian Revolution 
by China Miéville.
Verso, 358 pp., £18.99, May 2017, 978 1 78478 280 1
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The Russian Revolution 1905-1921 
by Mark D. Steinberg.
Oxford, 388 pp., £19.99, February 2017, 978 0 19 922762 4
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Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890 to 1928 
by S.A. Smith.
Oxford, 455 pp., £25, January 2017, 978 0 19 873482 6
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The Russian Revolution: A New History 
by Sean McMeekin.
Basic, 496 pp., $30, May 2017, 978 0 465 03990 6
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Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution 
by Tony Brenton.
Profile, 364 pp., £25, June 2016, 978 1 78125 021 1
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... February and October revolutions than in the post-October path towards terror and dictatorship. Orlando Figes, author of a widely read study of the revolution, The People’s Tragedy (1996), devotes a lively essay to showing that, had a disguised Lenin not been admitted without a pass to the Congress of Soviets on 24 October, ‘history would have ...

Laid Down by Ranke

Peter Ghosh: Defending history, 15 October 1998

In Defence of History 
by Richard J. Evans.
Granta, 320 pp., £8.99, October 1998, 1 86207 068 7
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... are converted into Post-Modernists – Simon Schama, Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davis and Orlando Figes. But Evans never cites an instance of these authors even borrowing the Post-Modernist label, let alone one showing that they conceive of themselves as working on behalf of an intellectual cause known as Post-Modernism (this despite his concern ...
Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia 
by Orlando Figes.
Allen Lane, 729 pp., £25, October 2002, 0 7139 9517 3
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... The title of Orlando Figes’s impressively wide-ranging book refers to a scene in War and Peace in which Natasha Rostov, the finest product of the European education favoured by the Russian aristocracy for more than a century, visits the far from luxurious home of a distant relative. He is a nobleman living in the country with his serf ‘wife’, Anisya; he has, it seems, abandoned that superior attitude to the Russian ‘people’, the narod, that generally characterises his class ...

Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh

Michael Wood: Tolstoy’s Malice, 22 May 2008

War and Peace 
by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
Vintage, 1273 pp., £20, November 2007, 978 0 09 951223 3
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... and Peace, its ‘triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity’, as Orlando Figes puts it in an afterword to Briggs’s translation. As we have seen, the human interest may not be so warm, and I find it hard to see an affirmation of life in the book, as distinct from an immense understanding of it – even with the serenity ...

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