martes, 20 de mayo de 2014

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 (Penguin Books, 1997)
by Orlando Figes
England, 1996

These days we call so many things a 'revolution' - a change in the government's policies on sport, a technological innovation, or even a new trend in marketing - that it may be hard for the reader of this book to take on board the vast scale of its subject at the start.  The Russian Revolution was, at least in terms of its effects, one of the biggest events in the history of the world.  Within a generation of the establishment of Soviet power, one-third of humanity was living under regimes modelled upon it.  The revolution of 1917 has defined the shape of the contemporary world, and we are only now emerging from its shadow.  It was not so much a single revolution - the compact eruption of 1917 so often depicted in the history books - as a whole complex of different revolutions which exploded in the middle of the First World War and set off a chain reaction of more revolutions, civil, ethic and national wars.  By the time that it was over, it had blown apart - and then put back together -an empire covering one-sixth of the surface of the globe.  At the risk of appearing callous, the easiest way to convey the revolution's scope is to list the ways in which it wasted human life: tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917; thousands died in the street fighting of that year; hundreds of thousands from the Terror of the Reds - and an equal number from the Terror of the Whites, if one counts the victims of their pogroms against Jews - during the years that followed; more than a million perished in the fighting of the civil war, including civilians in the rear; and yet more people died from hunger, cold and disease than from all these put together.
(A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924, xv)

To the unsuspecting reader confronted with then Cambridge lecturer and now University of London professor Orlando Figes' unexpected but somewhat blandly worded "apology for the vast size of this book," at 800-pages plus what Figes calls "the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period in a single volume" (xv), it will be understandable if the scope of the work rather than its narrative immediacy is what grabs your attention first.  It is indeed a heavy book in more than one way.   However, it didn't take long before I was in the grip of Figes' writing, his style in this terrific political and social history of his.  Chapter 1, "The Dynasty," offers up several quotable moments that give the lie to the notion that nonfiction writing is by nature more impersonal and/or drab than fiction writing.  On the anecdotal level alone, for example, you have your choice of highlights: a sneering Tsar Alexander III is quoted as saying that he "despised the bureaucracy and drank champagne to its obliteration" at one moment, and on the very same page Bertrand Russell is cited explaining "Bolshevik despotism" as somehow "the right sort of government for Russia" in these footnoted words to one Lady Ottoline Morrell: "If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky's characters should be governed, you will understand" (7).  Impeccable logic!  A passage on Tsarevich Alexis, the haemophiliac, occasions the comment that "haemophilia was so common in the royal houses of Europe that it had become something of an occupational hazard" (27), and another one on Rasputin, the Romanov spiritual adviser often accused of being a charlatan or a degenerate, inspires the remark that "his disgusting physical appearance merely added piquancy to his moral charms" (29). The liveliness of the writing aside, though, Figes is at his best doing the sort of subtle, sophisticated causal analysis that professional historians often don't get enough popular credit for:

The Romanov dynasty presented to the world a brilliant image of monarchical power and opulence during its tercentenary.  This was no simple propaganda exerciseThe rituals of homage to the dynasty and the glorification of its history were, to be sure, meant to inspire reverence and popular support for the principle of autocracy.  But their aim was also to reinvent the past, to recount the epic of the 'popular Tsar', so as to invest the monarchy with a mythical historical legitimacy and an image of enduring permanence at this anxious time when its right to rule was being challenged by Russia's emerging democracy.  The Romanovs were retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future (6).

"Retreating to the past, hoping it would save them from the future" is a great line not least because of the way the Romanovs' dynastic "tragedy" serves as a point of departure for the larger Russian tragedy or tragedies covered by Figes in this book.  On the beginning of the end for the dynasty and its supporters, he explains: "Instead of embracing reform they adhered obstinately to their own archaic vision of autocracy.  It was their tragedy that just as Russia was entering the twentieth century they were trying to return it to the seventeenth" (14).  A good stopping point?  Good enough for now.  In any event, more on Part One of A People's Tragedy, "Russia Under the Old Regime," before too long.

Orlando Figes

12 comentarios:

  1. I like Figes a lot; he is very readable and interesting. Natasha's Dance, his cultural history of Russia, I particularly liked. I should read this: for a long time I've wanted to read something about the post-revolution civil war period, but very few books seems to cover it.

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    1. Obooki, I'd like to read Natasha's Dance or The Whisperers sometime in the next several months or so and more Figes in general down the road. I agree that he's a very interesting writer. Just so you know, the civil war period history spans about a quarter of this particular book and includes some of the work's most riveting moments in my opinion.

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    2. Natasha's Dance, unfortunately, seems full of errors - even I could spot a few, but the meticulous Pushkin biographer T.J. Binyon went further: "Poor Pushkin receives the scurviest of treatments. Barely a statement about the poet is without error; the climax is reached on page 87, where 16 lines of Professor Figes's prose contain eight egregious mistakes."

      Figes could be great if he were less vain and sloppy.

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    3. Alex K, thanks for your two comments on this post. I can understand how the "sloppy" thing might rub you the wrong way. Nobody wants to nor should have to put up with that in a peer reviewed publication. However, do you think Natasha's Dance is so sloppy that people shouldn't even bother reading it? Or do you have another recommendation for a similar cultural history of its scope? A lot of people whose judgement I trust, like Obooki above, have raved about it or at least said very nice things about it. As far as your vanity charge against Figes, I'm not sure how that matters in terms of A People's Tragedy unless you're responding to the author photo I published! For me, it's a great achievement in the sense that it handles a tremendous amount of material in a frequently arresting way--and Figes doesn't come off as vain in it in any way that I can remember. I don't see how the vanity charge has any bearing on this book.

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    4. I was referring to Figes' past habit of writing pseudonymous Amazon reviews praising himself and berating his fellow Russianists. He has repented since but an aftertaste lingers on.

      As a haphazardly educated Russian, I'm familiar with many - but by far all - of the bits and pieces Natasha's Dance is made of. I was awed at the scope of the work but when I came across one or two claims that were obviously wrong, I started wondering if Figes' knowledge of Russia was solid and if his logic was not akin to Khlestakov's "incredible lightness in thoughts".

      The Whisperers is worth reading for the source material, provided mostly by researchers from Russia's Memorial Society.

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    5. Figes' Amazon escapades, from what little I've read about them, don't put him in a good light at all and are totally inexplicable to me given how great I think his A People's Tragedy is. Is/was he really that insecure? Despite his poor judgement in terms of writing those reviews, though, I can't take it out on his book. It's not like he was accused of plagiarizing it.

      Thanks, by the way, for sharing your opinions of Natasha's Dance and The Whisperers. The material in the former will be a lot less familiar to me than it was to you, but I appreciate hearing your concerns about its flaws nonetheless. As for The Whisperers, it's news to me that much of the source material was provided by other researchers; however, that's a good thing to know ahead of time as well. P.S. I hope to visit your blog soon--have been a bit busy lately, but I'm glad to make the acquaintance of a Russian reader since my knowledge of Russian history and literature is a bet sketchy and could use the help. Cheers!

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  2. It must be a tremendous read, Richard, thanks for bringing my attention to it.

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    1. Miguel, tremendous indeed--easily one of the best histories I've read in the last ten years or so, and this is coming from a guy who's not even particularly interested in the Russian Revolution as a topic (Figes has made me want to read more on the matter, of course).

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  3. Some killer lines there - sounds great. I've been meaning to tackle some of my mountain of non-fiction that I've been ignoring over the past few years. I just started a history of Britain in the 70's - a bit smaller scale than this but relevant to something I'm working on. Perhaps after I get through El Supremo and my current project I'll tackle a nice big history book.

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    1. I myself have been stockpiling a lot of history the last couple of years without really reading much along those lines, Séamus, so this was a long overdue treat for me. Have a couple of other works which, like this Figes book, have come highly recommended as great pieces of historical writing, so hopefully I'll be able to share another momentous nonfiction title or two before the end of the year. In the meantime, happy reading with that Brit '70s history book of yours as well as the history-damaged Yo el Supremo!

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  4. "haemophilia was so common in the royal houses of Europe that it had become something of an occupational hazard"

    It would be helpful to explain that the gene was Queen Victoria's gift to European royalty. The way to avoid it was not to marry her female descendants.

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    1. Figes actually does mention how/why Alexis became a haemophilia victim, but I didn't think it was necessary to mention that to convey my appreciation for the line about how the malady had become an "occupational hazard" in Europe.

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