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 novelty of his account of Russia before 1917 – and indeed of the Revolutionary years themselves – lies in his treatment, not of tsarism and its crises but of the forces subverting it, and particularly the peasants and their urbanised sons and daughters, who made up the overwhelming bulk of the Russian people. Since the book which earned Figes his deservedly high reputation as a Russian historian was Peasant Russia, Civil War: The Volga Countryside in Revolution (1917-21), this is not surprising. There is nothing particularly new about his account of the organised and politically conscious revolutionaries – how could there be, when so much has been in print for so long? – although lay readers and even non-specialist historians will discover much they did not know or had not thought of: for instance, that ‘Marxism, as a social science, was fast becoming the national creed’ in the early 1890s. Essentially a social historian, he may have deliberately avoided the narrative history of the small, illegal revolutionary sects and their quarrels, but general readers may find it confusing that such figures as Stalin and Bukharin enter the stage virtually without prior introduction in 1917, or that the Socialist Revolutionaries are casually, and of course correctly, referred to after 1905 as ‘the peasants’ party of choice’, without anything being said about how they achieved this position within four years of their foundation.
Lenin, of course, is introduced early and remains centre-stage throughout. It is plain that Figes dislikes him acutely, as he does the Bolshevik Party Lenin shaped and dominated. If he has a hero on the left, it is Maxim Gorky, whose paper New Life was consistently critical of Lenin until, last of the opposition papers, it was closed down in 1918. Figes’s unsympathetic portrait of Lenin, even allowing for the debt to Volkogonov’s muck-raking biography, probably reflects the post-Soviet mood, though it also corresponds to some contemporary impressions. Even here what is new is not the biographical detail but the curious emphasis, perhaps derived from a polemical essay by Gorky, on Lenin’s ‘noble background’ as ‘one key to his domineering personality’, which helped him run a party distinctly lacking in members with the sense of guilt that elsewhere Figes sees as the psychological inspiration of the Revolution. (Whether he also wishes to imply that guilt for a privileged youth was a major motivation in Lenin’s political development remains obscure.)
On the other hand, guided by Gorky, who had no illusions about the great dark whale of the Russian people from whose belly, like Jonah, he had somehow emerged, Figes has made an extremely important contribution to our understanding of the Russian masses who, in the end, made the Revolution. The point is not that the Russian peasants were ignorant, backward, barbarous and brutal, or brutalised; nor that they were increasingly split by the advance of education between the multiplying numbers of literate young, for whom modernity was the key to social betterment, and the elders, who controlled the institutions of the village community and wanted to hold the outside world at bay – both groups being revolutionary in their different ways. It is that the Russian poor had a powerful ‘moral order or ideology to substitute for the tsarist state’. This, Figes argues convincingly, was expressed in customary peasant law. Luckily for the historian, several compendia of such laws were produced, for legal reasons, after the liberation of the serfs, and he has been among the rare scholars to consult them. In the minds of most Russians, this was the programme of revolution.
Russian peasants did not believe in the private ownership of the means of production, i.e. the land – which belonged to God only and could neither be bought nor sold. Every family had the right to support itself from the land, which the community guaranteed by sharing it out equally. Labour and only labour gave this right (the celebrated ‘labour principle’). Consequently, whatever the state or the law said, the gentry, and any other authority outside the village’s own (in practice, that of its senior patriarchs), were usurpers and had no rightful place in the order of things. All outside authority was distrusted on principle. The village adapted to authority’s existence by setting up ‘a dual structure of administration: a formal one with its face to the state, which remained inactive and inefficient; and an informal one, with its face to the peasants, which was quite the opposite’. It applied the same technique to the Soviets, until Stalin made that impossible. The ideal was volia, ‘freedom’ – effectively, an anarchy of villages recognising no superior government. And this is what Russia briefly became after the fall of the Tsar in 1917. Figes is not inclined to idealise the ways in which such villages ran their affairs amid ignorance, suspicion, brutality and backbiting. Their most ruthless enemies came from within. Bolshevism, as Figes shows, appealed to young countrymen who, having experienced life in the city or the Army, ‘came to reject the “dark” and “backward” ways of the old peasant Russia’. But in 1917 the village was as revolutionary as the city.
A People’s Tragedy shows clearly that the Revolution of 1917, contrary to the fashionable histories which treat it as some kind of putsch, was a revolution of the masses, even though its outcome was to be very different from the one they wanted. It is this nationwide upheaval of the masses which distinguishes the Russian Revolution of 1917 from the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, in its first five years it was one of the few revolutions, in this or any other century, whose course was determined, in the last analysis, by support or opposition at the grassroots. Figes has no trouble understanding the central fact of 1917: that until October, and for some months after taking over, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had no power, except that based on their ability to win mass support by finding words for what the average worker, peasant and soldier wanted.
Moreover – and this is perhaps one of the most original aspects of the book – Figes argues that the Bolsheviks won, not merely by offering bread, peace and land – until the end of the Civil War, they brought no peace and little enough bread – but because they recognised that the Russian poor also wanted equality and revenge against the burzhooi, a term used as a general form of abuse against anyone who did not look like a peasant, worker or soldier. Social levelling, and not necessarily economic improvement, was what the vast mass of the Russian poor, urban or rural, expected from the Revolution. The very Terror, he argues, which, through the Cheka and its descendants in the Moscow Lubianka, was later to become the regime’s central institution, was not imposed on Russia from the Kremlin. Originally, it ‘erupted from below’.
Figes’s research on the Civil War has shown, to most historians’ satisfaction, that the Reds won out over the Whites, in spite of a comparable ruthlessness, brutality and terror against peasants and workers being shown on both sides, because the workers and peasants, who necessarily both constituted the armies and were their victims, rejected the side that would bring back the days before the Revolution. Perhaps military genius might have won the war for the White forces. In its absence, the Civil War was fought between armies ‘which could count neither on the loyalty of their mostly conscript troops nor on the support of the civilian population within the territories they claimed to control. Most people wanted nothing to do with the Civil War: they kept their heads down and tried to remain neutral.’ And yet, as Figes sees, being
able to fight under the Red Flag gave the Bolsheviks a decisive advantage. Its symbolic power largely accounts for the fact that the peasants, including hundreds of thousands of deserters, rallied to the Red Army during the Whites’ advance towards Moscow in the autumn of 1919. The peasants believed that a White victory would reverse their own revolution on the land. It was only after the final defeat of the Whites that the peasant revolts against the Bolsheviks assumed mass proportions. This same ‘defence of the revolution’ also helps to explain the fact that many workers, despite their complaints against the Bolsheviks, rallied behind the Sovietregime during Yudenich’s advance towards Petrograd.
After the Red victory in the Civil War it was to be the anti-Bolshevik peasant revolts in the Russian heartland which forced the U-turn of the New Economic Policy on Government and Party.
Thus, in its first five years the Revolution brought about the triumph of peasant Russia and at the same time created the party/ state dictatorship which, within a decade, was to ‘liquidate’ peasant Russia by a combination of collectivisation, mass exodus and gulags. By the time Lenin died, Figes believes (with a modicum of exaggeration), ‘the basic institutions, if not all the practices of the Stalinist regime were in place.’ But until these institutions were turned against the peasantry under Stalin, the tragedy of the Russian people in this terrible century could not yet be seriously seen as something that came to its victims from outside and above.
Shortly before Lenin’s death and two years before his own death in exile, Prince Lvov changed his mind about the Bolshevik Revolution, against which he had supported foreign intervention and the White armies. ‘Russia has changed completely in the past few years,’ he wrote:
To be sure the Government is hostile to the people ... it deceives the people and turns them into slaves, but nonetheless ... the people support Soviet power. That does not mean they are happy with it. But at the same time as they feel their oppression they also see that their own type of people are entering into the apparatus, and this makes them feel that the regime is ‘their own’.
Unlike more conservative historians, Figes does not reject Lvov’s judgment.
A People’s Tragedy, though it doesn’t have the stylistic bravura of Schama’s best-selling Citizens, is far superior in historical understanding. Its chief weakness lies in an exclusive concentration on what went on in Russia itself. It lacks comparative perspective. For instance, while Russian peasant movements clearly had much in common with peasant agitations from China to Peru, the total rejection by the Russian peasants of the right of anyone other than actual cultivators to possess the land, if true, is exceptional, an anomaly that needs to be recognised.
What isn’t clear is how far the analysis applies outside the Great Russian heartland. Nor does Figes consider such problems as those of the pastoralist peoples for whom ‘land’ meant something quite different from what it meant to peasant cultivators (a theme familiar from films about the American Wild West and not irrelevant in some regions of Russia). On the other hand, revolutionary intelligentsias as described here, with all their emotional and intellectual singularities, are not peculiar to Russia, though the extraordinary originality of the Russian intellectual contribution, which is not stressed in this book, sets it apart from the generally very derivative productions of pre-revolutionary Third World intelligentsias.
Concentration on Russia has also led Figes to neglect the almost immediate global impact of the 1917 Revolution, which is, after all, what was to make it, in his own words, ‘one of the biggest events in the history of the world’. As such it had two faces. The revolution which looked inward transformed Russia. It may well be called the tragedy of a people. The revolution which looked outward became, for better or worse, the central event of 20th-century history. But except perhaps during the Second World War, the tragedy of the Russian people had little to do with the global impact of the October Revolution and the USSR. From 1917 to the present, this has been the bitter paradox of the Russians, the victim-people of our century.
These, and other possible reservations and disagreements, cannot diminish one’s admiration for Figes’s achievement, which unites readers as widely different in their views as the present reviewer and Robert Conquest. Few historians have the courage to attack great subjects, fewer have the grasp to succeed. This is a book which lets the reader look into the face of one of the major social upheavals of history, as terrible and awe-inspiring as the natural cataclysms to which they have been compared ever since 1789. From 1917 to the present, nobody has had any trouble judging it; indeed, it has been impossible not to do so. What is hard is not judgment but understanding. A People’s Tragedy will do more to help us understand the Russian Revolution than any other book I know of written since the end of the Soviet Union.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.