READ ´ A People's Tragedy The Russian Revolution 1891–1924

Orlando Figes ☆ 1 READ

READ ´ A People's Tragedy The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 Ü A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDYA new illustrated edition of the acclaimed history of the Russian Revolution 1891–1924The Russian Revolution was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century transforming a medieval autocracy into the world’s first ever experYed about the arrogance of the Tsarist regime and Lenin’s ‘pitiless contempt’ for the ordinary people in his pursuit of the Communist utopia He also reveals the clientelism and corruption of the Bolshevik system; despite claiming to represent the people the Bolsheviks were deeply suspicious of peasants and resorted to brute force in order to seize control of their crops and grain Yet fighting under the Red Flag – the symbol of ‘the people’ – gave the Red Army a decisive advantage and they defeated the remaining White Army troops in Siberia in 1922 Two years later Lenin died Confined to a wheelchair after several strokes he had lived his last few years effectively the prisoner of his successor Josef StalinBy the time the Revolution ended the death toll was in the region of ten million people – counting only the deaths from the Civil War famine disease and the Red Terror Russia had not become as Lenin had described it ‘the freest country in the world’ The reason for this Figes suggests was that centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule had left the common people unprepared to claim their place as citizens in a democratic society Instead they had become the servants of a new regime which in many ways resembled the old oneA PEOPLE’S TRAGEDY Winner of five international awards• The NCR Book Award• The Wolfson Prize• The W H Smith Literary Award• The LongmanHistory Today Book of the Year Award• The Los Angeles Times Book Award. In this work Figes makes two arguments that are not fully apparent until the conclusion First the Russian people were not betrayed by the Revolution Instead the devolution of the Revolution was in Figes's view the result of the inability of the Russian people to come to terms with democratic institutions He finds that the period between 1905 1914 represented Russia's liberal democratic revolution but it did not produce the reforms necessary to instill confidence in the Russian people Indeed the Bolsheviks were a veritable product of the Russian messianic tradition Second it was not the leaders of the Revolution who were necessarily at fault Figes admits that Lenin Trotsky Stalin Kerensky and numerous others arrived in 1917 with truly high minded noble goals Instead Figes argues that the goals of revolutionary leaders were outright unattainable and were doomed to failPerhaps Figes is right but I disagree with him on both accounts To me the first argument reeks of Western chauvinism with the implication that we Westerners could properly democratize due to our democratic heritage ignoring Germany's failures with democracy before 1945 and utter success after the development of fascism and authoritarianism in Spain and Italy France's difficult relationship with liberal democracy etc On his second point no pathway was a fait accompli for the Revolution Instead there were numerous decisions made some of which would have led to greater democratization some to authoritarianism than we saw even in the Stalinist period Perhaps the ideals of the Revolution were too great to be implemented in reality but Revolutionaries could have adopted policies that brought the Russian state closer to their ideals without abandoning them outright I think that the Russian Revolution was necessary and that it was not innately bad but I think Figes downplays the decisions that were made in his conclusion The last paragraph of the book however seems almost prophetic being written even before Putin took powerPerhaps even worrying authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Communism and in a way has reinvented it not just in the sense that today's nationalists are for the most part reformed Communists but also in the sense that their violent rhetoric with its calls for discipline and order its angry condemnation of the ineualities produced by the growth of capitalism and its xenophobic reject of the West is itself adapted from the Bolshevik tradition The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to restToday as we are well aware nationalism is the guiding ideology of the modern Russian state and it is rather authoritarian This fits further in Figes's view that Russians have not learned to be good liberals but I think it says about global patterns than something specifically Russian Although former Soviet states held the vanguard of resurgent nationalism it is now a global phenomenon ranging from Poland's Law and Justice to Turkey's AKP and India's BJP Even the American GOP and British Conservative Party have in many ways turned to authoritarian nationalism Yet there is nothing inevitable about this turn I find it uneuivocally bad but it is as we should be well aware not intrinsic to the Russian people


A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDYA new illustrated edition of the acclaimed history of the Russian Revolution 1891–1924The Russian Revolution was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century transforming a medieval autocracy into the world’s first ever experiment in mass socialism A People’s Tragedy is the definitive account combining a masterly overview of events with the personal stories of individuals their hopes and ordeals Translated into over 20 languages and winner of five international awards this is an unforgettable account of a pivotal era in historyThe epic history of the Russian RevolutionOn Sunday 9 January 1905 a crowd of 150000 workers and their families marched to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to petition the Tsar for food and material assistance More than a decade of famine caused by failed crops and government indifference had brought the Russian people to their knees Instead of succour however they were met with gunfire With 200 killed and 800 wounded the day would live on in infamy as Bloody Sunday the first day of the Russian RevolutionIn his acclaimed narrative history Orlando Figes goes back to the 1890s to explore the grievances that set the people on a collision course with the Tsarist autocracy Nicholas II Russia’s last Tsar was opposed to any form of modernisation and the rosy view he held of ‘his’ people bore little resemblance to the wretched existence of the Russian peasantry Moreover his wife Alexandra was. While I was halfway through this an ‘inspirational uote’ from Lenin happened to come up on my reddit feed Something from one of those early speeches about euality for all I left a comment to suggest – I thought uite mildly – that it was perhaps ethically uestionable to be uoting with approbation someone responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people – only to be downvoted into oblivion by other users ‘You're probably thinking about Stalin’ said one ‘Fuck off’ clarified another ‘Lenin was actually very socially liberal and kept his word about democracy for the people’This would be the same Lenin who shut down Russia's constituent assembly who sidelined trade unions and had striking workers shot for desertion who turned the country into a police state built a chain of concentration camps and institutionalised terrorism as a matter of deliberate policy Painful to see him held up as a beacon of humanitarianism by people who apparently haven't even understood Animal Farm It's interesting though because even when I was growing up the far left was always uite cool in a way that the far right never was; its unelectability made it harmless and it gained a certain cachet from its opposition to a string of unpopular Tory governments and by association with various cult figures like Morrissey or Alexi Sayle It was always kind of a joke People referred to each other with smiles as ‘fellow travellers’ ‘old Trots’ – and still doThere was a feeling I had when I was reading this book; an uncomfortable itchy feeling which made me fidget while I was reading shift in my seat and scratch my nose or my neck every few minutes as I turned the pages Eventually I realised what this sensation was hatred I just loathed the people responsible for prosecuting this grotesue experiment Now I realise this is of course a pathetically inadeuate response but partly it came from a kind of surprise A feeling that they had somehow got away with it that their reputations are nowhere near as dismal as they should be At one point Orlando Figes offers in passing a suggestion as to why this might be soThe Bolshevik programme was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment – it stemmed from Kant as much as from Marx – which makes Western liberals even in this age of post modernism sympathise with it or at least obliges us to try and understand it even if we do not share its political goals; whereas the Nazi efforts to ‘improve mankind’ whether through eugenics or genocide spat in the face of the Enlightenment and can only fill us with revulsionAnd perhaps there's something in this inasmuch as reality has in Stephen Colbert's words a liberal bias; inasmuch as we are living historically speaking in a leftist world there is a sense in which the Communist experiment seems like something that went wrong not something that was wrong inherently But the enormities of Lenin's politics were built in ab initio; terror Figes writes was ‘implicit in the regime from the startthe resort to rule by terror was bound to follow from Lenin's violent seizure of power and his rejection of democracy’ And despite all the slogans of euality and democracy the turnaround was much faster than I had ever realisedNone of the democratic organisations established before October 1917 survived than a few years of Bolshevik rule at least not in their democratic form By 1921 if not earlier the revolution had come full circle and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old oneThe thousand pages of Figes's history give plenty of scope for examining in detail what this meant for Russian citizens It isn't pretty but it is instructive There was the Civil War with widespread terror on both sides; famine exacerbated by shitty agricultural policy; and eventually the tightening grip of a one party state There are moments of acute revulsion and misery alongside a recurring sense of absurdity at one point currency depreciation becomes so severe that it costs to print the rouble than the rouble is actually worth; the post and telegraph service have to be made free because the state is losing money by printing and charging rouble notes for them ‘The situation was surreal – but then this was Russia’ Figes remarks showing a grasp of the irony which this story demandsWhole books have been written of course about the failure of the left outside Russia to accept the reality of what was happening there under Communism or to blame it on a perversion of noble principles What's so rewarding and upsetting and moving about this book is that it illustrates how naturally the conseuences followed from the initial conditions and how unimportant the political debate is compared with its effects on real people There as the title of the book suggests Figes's summary is bluntInstead of being a constructive cultural force the revolution had virtually destroyed the whole of Russian civilisation; instead of human liberation it had merely brought human enslavement; and instead of the spiritual improvement of humanity it had led to degradationWhat makes it worse is that this whole catalogue of misery is in some sense being positioned only as a prelude Looming up over the narrative is the lengthening shadow of the Georgian Ioseb Jughashvili alias Stalin and where this book ends his story is just beginningAlthough this was written twenty years ago in some ways it's become relevant than ever and not just because next year marks the revolution's centenary In an impassioned final chapter Figes calls for urgent reevaluation of the political capitalism of the West pointing out that extremist rhetoric of the sort that fuelled the Bolshevik party is periodically going to prove popular ‘as long as the mass of the ordinary people remain alienated from the political system and feel themselves excluded from the benefits of the emergent capitalism Perhaps even worrying’ he adds ‘authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the void’ Is this sounding familiar to anybody

SUMMARY A People's Tragedy The Russian Revolution 1891–1924

A People's Tragedy The Russian Revolution 1891–1924Mistrusted because of her German ancestry and her association with the disreputable healer Rasputin Following the fallout of Bloody Sunday a reluctant Tsar and his government established a parliament but the fledgling democracy was doomed ‘No package of political reforms could ever resolve the profound social divide’ in Russian society The hardship caused by the First World War was the final undoing of the Tsarist regime; a bread shortage in 1917 sparked the February RevolutionFiges brilliantly captures the terrible plight of the Russian people over the ensuing years as the Revolution was followed by civil war pogroms famine and persecutions led by the Cheka or secret police He captures the personalities of key figureheads such as Leon Trotsky – the great orator whose arrogance and Jewish background made him unpopular with his party – and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin the iron willed demagogue who ‘gave himself entirely to politics’ He also follows half a dozen other individuals whose lives were torn apart by the conflict They include the aristocratic General Brusilov a hero of the First World War who went over to the Red Army in 1920 and lived to regret it; the writer Maxim Gorky whose faith in his people was shattered by the hideous bloodshed of the Revolution; and the peasant writer Sergei Semenov who attempted to improve conditions in his village but was shot in the back by a jealous neighbour after years of intimidationFiges is eually clear e. Recent memory modern memory and then history We are all living in recent memory The oldest generation is the eye witness to modern memory When it passes on we will begin to receive the history from the events and people of that generation without the influence of contemporary bias or dialecticsIt has been almost a hundred years since the Russian Revolution and Civil War It is still too early for its pure history but reliable narratives unbound by predictable dialectics are finally beginning to emergeOrlando Figes' version is not perfect but it is one of best summaries available to get the average reader up to a moderate speed on a very complex subject After presenting an unsparing portrayal of the various layers of Russian society from 1891 up until Bloody Sunday 1905 Figes' Revolution of 1914 becomes but the inevitable bloody result What comes as a surprise to the reader is the deep depravity of the Russian soul It is black evil and violent regardless of class or party affiliation Sparing neither women nor children it wantonly murders tortures rapes pillages and executes without a drop of conscienceThis pitch black evil infected the souls of peasants and workers as well as generals nobels police and party apparatchiks It consumed the Tsar and Tsarina as well as Lenin Totsky and StalinIn the midst of these psychopaths Figes follows a small handful of spectators such as Maxim Gorky and General Brusilov the only WWI tsarist hero who eventually supported the Reds because they were the peoples' choice Those two somehow manage to maintain their balance decency objectivity and humanity while witnessing this terror unfold When Comrade Stalin's emissary Mercado paid a visit to Leon Trotsky at his Mexico City home to plunge an ice pick into his skull one can only hope the Angel of Karma was singing a hymn in the exiled revolutionary's ear with Leon's very own words from the Revolution We must put an end once and for all to the papist uaker babble about the sanctity of human life During the Revolution and Civil War Trotsky Lenin and Stalin did the very best that they could to abide by that dictum millions literally of heartless times with their cold blooded signaturesThe Revolution and Civil War replaced a totalitarian monarchy with a totalitarian police state run by bureaucrats The classes that were terrorized oppressed and executed before are terrorized oppressed and executed once again on an even larger scale As one revolutionary bemoaned afterwards Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not establish a dictatorship to safeguard the revolution they made a revolution to safeguard a dictatorship Enter Comrade StalinA basic understanding of the twentieth century reuires a grasp of the Russian Revolution that left its immense footprints across World War II the Cold War as well as the intellectual dialectics of labor and capital that have defined the many shades of politics we experience todayA People's Tragedy is a very good start towards that understanding