by Orlando Figes
If Orlando Figes were a novelist instead of a historian, then Maxim Gorky (né Alexei Peshkov, 1868-1936) would probably be one of his most well-rounded recurring characters. If A People's Tragedy were a novel instead of a history, then I could probably expect that the movie tie-in might draw a little more traffic to these posts about the book. But back to reality, eh? Gorky, last seen pondering "the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people" in his essay "On the Russian Peasantry" from 1922, is one of several figures--most of them famous, a couple of them not--"interwoven through the narrative" to "emphasize the human aspects of [the] great events" depicted in the telling of the revolution story (xvii). As luck would have it, Figes gives the writer Gorky a fine novelist's introduction:
In his first eight years Gorky had experienced more human suffering than the literary Count [Tolstoy] would see in the whole of his eight decades. His grandfather's household in Nizhnyi Novgorod where he had been brought up after the death of his father, was, as he described it in My Childhood, a microcosm of provincial Russia - a place of poverty, cruelty and cholera, where the men took to the bottle in a big way and the women found solace in God. By the age of nine, Gorky had already been put out to work, scavenging for rags, bones and nails, and occasionally thieving timber from the banks of the Volga. Then his mother had died and his grandfather had sent him out into the world to fend for himself. Like countless other abandoned orphans, Gorky had roamed around the booming industrial towns of the Volga, a shoeless street urchin dressed in rags. He had worked as a dish washer on a steamboat, as a stevedore, a watchman, a cobbler's assistant, an apprentice draughtsman, an icon painter, and finally as a baker in Kazan, where [the peasant organizer Mikhail] Romas had found him and taken pity on the lad after he had tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the chest (84).
Memorable, no? In any event, Gorky's and other writers' disappointment with village life leads Figes to posit that "the enigma of the peasant stood at the heart of the problem of Russia's national self-identity. The 'Peasant Question' was the starting point of all those interminable debates (they fill the largely unread pages of nineteenth-century Russian novels) about the future of Russia itself" (88). Beyond this, a more important (and less acerbically worded) historical irony in terms of the backdrop to the revolution was that "the vendors on the city streets were mostly peasants by origin, as were the cabmen, doormen, hauliers, builders, gardeners, dustmen, draymen, hawkers, beggars, thieves and prostitutes. Russia's towns and cities all remained 'peasant' in their social composition and character" (88). And so what? Figes argues that, "despite living so close to the peasants, the educated classes of the cities knew next to nothing about their world. It was as exotic and alien to them as the natives of Africa were to their distant colonial rulers. And in this mutual incomprehension, in the cultural gulf between the 'Two Russias', lay the roots of the social revolution and its tragic destiny" (88-89).
Given the considerable amount of "anti-peasant" material mentioned in these last two posts, I should probably stress that Figes' conception of a "cultural gulf" in what he elsewhere brands a "backwards peasant" Russia isn't without nuance. In fact, two of the things I most appreciate about his approach as a writer are his sense of balance and his willingness to give credit to or take issue with fellow historians by name without mincing words. Here, for example, he underscores another aspect of the peasant question while challenging Harvard professor Richard Pipes on a point of contention:
It is mistaken to suppose, as so many historians do, that the Russian peasantry had no moral order or ideology at all to substitute for the tsarist state. Richard Pipes, for example, in his recent history of the revolution, portrays the peasants as primitive and ignorant people who could only play a destructive role in the revolution and who were therefore ripe for manipulation by the Bolsheviks. Yet, as we shall see, during 1917-1918 the peasants proved themselves quite capable of restructuring the whole of rural society, from the system of land relations and local trade to education and justice, and in so doing they often revealed a remarkable political sophistication, which did not well up from a moral vacuum. The ideals of the peasant revolution had their roots in a long tradition of peasant dreaming and utopian philosophy. Through peasant proverbs, myths, tales, songs and customary law, a distinctive ideology emerges which expressed itself in the peasants' actions throughout the revolutionary years from 1902 to 1921. That ideology had been shaped by centuries of opposition to the tsarist state (98).
All well and good, you say, but what about that post on the topic of urban violence during the old regime that I promised to you on Thursday? Hmm, I don't seem to have written the piece that I was thinking about after all. Fortunately for all concerned, I have sufficient time and space left for exactly three anti-historical fiction soundbites. On the tsarist police state, symbolized by the Fortress of Peter and Paul in Saint Petersburg where Maxim Gorky figured among a long line of distinguished guests, Figes writes: "This constant battle with the police state engendered a special kind of mentality among its opponents. One can draw a straight line from the penal rigours of the tsarist regime to the terrorism of the revolutionaries and indeed to the police state of the Bolsheviks. As Flaubert put it, 'inside every revolutionary there is a policeman'" (124). On the tolerance for violence among some parts of the public who had the most to lose, he adds: "Justifying violence in the name of revolution was not exclusive to the revolutionaries. Among the educated élite there was a general cult of revolutionism. The Russian 'intelligentsia' (a Russian word by derivation) was less a class than a state of mind: it meant by definition a stance of radical and uncompromising opposition to the tsarist regime, and a willingness to take part in the struggle for its overthrow" (125). And finally, on the effects of the revolutionary terror writ large, Figes has this, ahem, slightly longer soundbite to offer:
It has been estimated that over 17,000 people were killed or wounded by terrorists during the last twenty years of the tsarist regime - more than five times the number of people killed in Northern Ireland during the twenty-five years of 'the troubles'. Some of the terror was little more than criminal violence for personal gain. All the revolutionary parties financed themselves at least partly by robberies (which they euphemistically termed 'expropriations'), mainly of banks and trains, and there was little to stop those who did the stealing from pocketing the proceeds. This was bad enough for the moral climate of the revolutionary parties. But it was not nearly as damaging as the cumulative effect of years of killing, which resulted in a cynicism, an indifference and callousness, to the victims of their cause (124-125).