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Out of the Great Dark Whale* Eric Hobsbawm ​

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Post 14 Nov 2018, 16:30
I was surprised Eric Hobsbawm wrote a quite favorable review of A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. Its on my reading list, and I was just doing a scouting of it, to get a sense of it. Hobsbawm repeatedly contrasts it with Schama's French Revolution book, to its favor. He sees it as a serious work of academic historiography in contrast, despite playing into a lot of anti-communist tropes. As a serious historian and not a propagandist, Figes doesn't go for any revisionist rehabilitation of the Czarist regime, and recognizes the Bolshevik Revolution as a true revolution on the backs of the people, even if in his view they betrayed the hopes. And it was popular support alone that got them through the Civil War. Perhaps its his serious background on the social history of Russian peasantry that gives him perspective.

Having read both leftist and rightist accounts of the Revolution, it'll be interesting to take on this epic that has the endorsement of both Robert Conquest and Hobsbawm. ... -dark-whal

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.

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’.

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.
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