by Orlando Figes
It's a measure of how satisfying A People's Tragedy is that my biggest complaint about this meaty read is actually rather insubstantial and petty: over the course of its 824 pages of text, Figes refers to Russia as a "backwards peasant" country often enough for me to have taken note of its repetitiveness as political shorthand. That being said, it's not like I can take issue with the historian's use of the term because so much of Part One, "Russia Under the Old Regime," draws attention to the disconnect between the urban and the rural ways of life and to the extreme economic divide between the haves and the have-nots in the major cities and out in the provinces in the years leading up to the revolution. A description of the income gap in the "typical provincial city" of Kishinev, for example, leads Figes to conclude that "these were the two faces of every Russian city: the one of imperial power and European civilization, the other of poverty and squalor of Asiatic proportions" (43). An unduly harsh critique? Maybe but only in the wording because in addition to the economic disparities, Figes also touches on the cultural polarities in the two Russias evident in terms of "how the intelligentsia - steeped in the culture of Western Europe - saw (with some disgust) the backward life of the Russian provinces" (43-44). He draws from Chekhov's Three Sisters for a choice literary example of this mindset. Later, he adds this too much information style nugget about Russia's equivalent of the culture wars:
It was still a common practice in some parts of Russia for a peasant bride to be deflowered before the whole village; and if the groom proved impotent, his place could be taken by an older man, or by the finger of the matchmaker. Modesty had very little place in the peasant world. Toilets were in the open air. Peasant women were constantly baring their breasts, either to inspect and fondle them or to nurse their babies, while peasant men were quite unselfconscious about playing with their genitals. Urban doctors were shocked by the peasant customs of spitting into a person's eye to get rid of sties, of feeding children mouth to mouth, and of calming baby boys by sucking on their penis (95).
Since it might be a bit of an anthropological tease to share a passage about peasant sex without a bookend one about peasant violence, it's fortunate that in the ensuing pages Figes has two long paragraphs about the particularly bloodthirsty nature of peasant violence in the Russian countryside: "Adulterous wives and horse-thieves suffered the most brutal punishments," he writes. The latter, for example, "could be castrated, beaten, branded with hot irons, or hacked to death with sickles. Other transgressors were known to have had their eyes pulled out, nails hammered into their body, legs and arms cut off, or stakes driven down their throat. A favourite punishment was to raise the victim on a pulley with his feet and hands tied together and to drop him so that the vertebrae in his back were broken; this was repeated several times until he was reduced to a spineless sack" (96). I'll stop there since I assume you get the sadistic picture, but what's the point of all this? For Figes, at least a part of his examination is an attempt to understand whether a preexisting culture of violence or the revolution was to blame for the violence that went haywire once the revolution started:
It is difficult to say where this barbarism came from - whether it was the culture of the Russian peasants, or the harsh environment in which they lived. During the revolution and civil war the peasantry developed even more gruesome forms of killing and torture. They mutilated the bodies of their victims, cut off their heads and disgorged their internal organs. Revolution and civil war are extreme situations, and there is no guarantee that anyone else, regardless of their nationality, would not act in a similar fashion given the same circumstances. But it is surely right to ask, as Gorky did in his famous essay 'On the Russian Peasantry' (1922), whether in fact the revolution had not merely brought out, as he put it, 'the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people'?
The quote above is from page 96 and ends with the opinions that "this was a cruelty made by history": "the violence and cruelty which the old regime inflicted on the peasant was transformed into a peasant violence which not only disfigured daily village life, but which also rebounded against the regime in the terrible violence of the revolution." Later on in A People's Tragedy, Figes will talk about both urban manifestations of violence--i.e. the exceptional cruelties in the city centers perpetrated by revolutionaries and reactionaries alike--and about how, once they'd made their grasp for power, the Bolsheviks needed peasant support to maintain the revolution but never really trusted the peasants as true ideological partners due to their urban biases. But what's the rush, comrade? On to the urban violence in the next post and, with any luck, a push to get to Part Two, "The Crisis of Authority (1891-1917)," before I lose my Russian Revolution edge.