When I was at university, we were constantly discussing „the revolution“. It became something like a sacred concept: Revolution good, opponents evil. Although I did not share the view, I learned a lot about a chapter in history that I had only heard about vaguely. But I only learned certain aspects: heroic, glorified.
Thirty years later, the British historian Orlando Figes re-tells the story with the knowledge of today, especially of course with access to archives. He does so in two related but distinct works: First, in the detailed 900-page study A People’s Tragedy 1891-1924, then in a condensed history of the Russian Revolution from 1891 to 1991, Revolutionary Russia. In the latter work, the revolutionary year 1917 itself is discussed rather briefly. Thus, while the two books certainly overlap, they do so only partially; mostly, they complement each other.
Even the run-up, including the 1905 revolution, is rather depressing: the unshakeably autocratic rigidity of the tsarist system; violent conflicts in the countryside; supply shortages during World War I, which also caused gigantic losses resulting in the war-weariness and rebelliousness of Russian soldiers – as well as their readiness to resort to violence.
The year 1917 is mainly presented as anarchist chaos: hunger riots, strikes, all kinds of armed gangs, shooting, plunder, torture, murder. In Orlando Figes’ narrative, Lenin and his Bolsheviks appear less as intellectual saviours than as reckless members of an armed gang. They won because they had the least – or more precisely, because they had no scruples at all. Execute, execute, execute. It was Lenin who introduced this mode of action and who made terror a means of Bolshevik politics. Figes paints a rather critical picture of the revolutionary leader, and I think rightly so. Lenin was the first of those horrible 20th century monsters.
And what about revered Marxism? The intellectual dimension?
„It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary“, the author comments dryly.
The armed coup of October 1917 was followed by civil war, terror, famine of unconceivable dimensions. Stalin was not a deviation but the logical consequence of what Lenin had initiated. And so it went on, in drastic form until 1953 (Stalin’s death), somewhat less drastically until the eighties.
„History is the science of human misery“, the French writer Raymond Queneau reportedly said. Nowhere does this become more bleakly visible than in the two books by Orlando Figes.
Recommended? – Yes, especially the shorter book. The first one requires stamina, and the reader has to put up with a lot of cruelty.
Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924, 100th Anniversary Edition (London: The Bodley Head, 2017). Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia 1891–1991: A History (New York: Picador, 2015).