Orlando Figes' New Introduction to the Centenary Edition of A People's Tragedy

Posted on 17th February 2017 by Sally Campbell
Continuing our sequence of posts inspired by the events that swept Russia a century ago, we’re pleased to present, in full, Orlando Figes’ new introduction to what has to be his most highly-regarded work - A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, re-released this year in an appropriately stunning new edition. ‘Elaborately researched, rigorously structured, coherently argued, it presents an overwhelmingly comprehensive view of one of the most important and complicated of all modern events.’ – The Guardian
Photo: Red Square, Moscow (c) Kanuman

It is hard to think of an event, or series of events, that has affected the history of the past one hundred years more profoundly than the Russian Revolution of 1917. A generation after the establishment of the Soviet system, one-third of the human race was living under regimes modelled, more or less, upon it. The fear of Bolshevism was a major factor in the rise of fascist movements, leading to the outbreak of the Second World War. From 1945, the export of the Leninist model to Eastern Europe, China, South-East Asia, Africa and Central America engulfed the world in a long Cold War, which came to an uncertain end only with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. ‘The revolution of 1917 has defined the shape of the contemporary world, and we are only now emerging from its shadow, ‘I wrote in the Preface to the first edition of A People’s Tragedy in 1996. Today, in 2017, that shadow still hangs darkly over Russia and the fragile new democracies that emerged from the Soviet Union. Its presence can be felt in the revolutionary and terrorist movements of our age. As I warned in the final sentence of A People’s Tragedy, ‘The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest.’

That was not how it appeared to many in the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was a widespread feeling, in the West at least, that the Russian Revolution was over, its false gods toppled by democracy. In that moment of democratic triumph and triumphalism, Francis Fukuyama wrote his influential book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he announced the ultimate victory of liberal capitalism in its great ideological battle against communism. ‘What we are witnessing,’ Fukuyama wrote, ‘is not just the end of the Cold War, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’

When I was working on A People’s Tragedy, between 1989 and 1996, there was, for sure, a liberating sense for me, as a historian, that my subject need no longer be defined by Cold War ideological battles. The Russian Revolution was becoming ‘history’ in a new way: with the collapse of the Soviet system, it could at last be seen to have a complete historical trajectory – a beginning and a middle and, now, an end – which could be studied more permissively, without the pressures of contemporary politics or the limiting agendas of Sovietology, the political-science framework in which most Western studies of the Revolution had been written when the Soviet Union was alive.
Meanwhile the opening of the Soviet archives enabled new approaches to the Revolution’s history. Mine was to use the personal stories of ordinary individuals whose voices had been lost in the Cold War-era histories (both Soviet and Western), which had focused on the abstract ‘masses’, social classes, political parties and ideologies. Having worked in the Soviet archives since 1984, I was sceptical that startling revelations about Lenin, Trotsky or even Stalin were yet to be found, which is what the new arrivals in the reading rooms were mostly looking for. But I was excited by the opportunity to work with the personal archives of the Revolution’s minor figures – secondary leaders, workers, soldiers, officers, intellectuals and even peasants – in much larger quantities than had previously been allowed. The biographical approach I ended up adopting in A People’s Tragedy was intended to do more than add ‘human interest’ to my narrative. By weaving the stories of these individuals through my history, I wanted to present the Revolution as a dramatic series of events, uncontrolled by the people taking part in them. The figures I chose had one feature in common: setting out to influence the course of history, they all fell victim to the law of unintended consequences. By focusing on them, my aim was to convey the Revolution’s tragic chaos, which engulfed so many lives and destroyed so many dreams.
My conception of the Revolution as a ‘people’s tragedy’ was also meant to work as an argument about Russia’s destiny: its failure to overcome its autocratic past and stabilise itself as a democracy in 1917; its descent into violence and dictatorship. The causes of that democratic failure, it seemed to me, were rooted in the country’s history, in the weakness of its middle class and civil institutions and, above all, in the poverty and isolation of the peasantry, the vast majority of Russia’s population, whose agrarian revolution I had studied in detail in my first book, Peasant Russia, Civil War (1989).
When A People’s Tragedy came out, some reviewers thought the book too bleak in its assessment of the Revolution’s democratic potential. Part of this reaction had its origins in the Marxist view of October 1917 as a popular uprising based on a social revolution that lost its democratic character only after Lenin’s death, in 1924, and the rise of Stalin to power. But part of it was rooted in the democratic hopes invested in post-Soviet Russia by a wide variety of interested parties, ranging from those veteran idealists, the Russian intelligentsia, who wanted to believe that Russia could yet become a flourishing democracy once it had been freed from its Stalinist inheritance, to Western business leaders, more pragmatic but ignorant of Russia, who needed to believe the same, in order to put their money into it.
Those hopes proved short-lived, as Russia under Vladimir Putin, elected President in 2000, reverted to a more authoritarian and familiar form of rule. The causes of this democratic failure were similar to those in 1917, as I had identified them in A People’s Tragedy, but with one important difference. Unlike the downfall of the Tsarist system in February 1917, the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 was not brought about by a popular or social revolution, leading to the democratic reform of the state. It was essentially an abdication of power by the Communist élites, who, at least in Russia, where there were no lustration laws like those in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states to keep them out of public office, were soon able to recover dominant positions in politics and business with new political identities. Spared any public scrutiny of its activities in the Soviet period, the KGB, in which Putin had made his career, was allowed to reconstruct itself, eventually becoming the Federal Security Service (FSB), without substantial changes in its personnel.
As in 1917, the drift towards authoritarian government under Putin was enabled by the weakness of the middle classes and public institutions in post-Soviet Russia. Subjected to the pressures of the market, the intelligentsia proved far smaller and less influential than it thought it was and lost its credibility as the people’s moral voice, a role it had assumed since the nineteenth century: it lived in a world of books at a time when power and authority were increasingly defined by the state-controlled mass media. In the quarter of a century since the collapse of the Soviet regime, meanwhile, the development of public bodies in Russia has been pitifully weak. Where are the professional societies, the trade unions, the consumer organisations, the real political parties? The problem for democracy in Russia lies as much in the weakness of civil society as in the state’s oppressive strength.
But the biggest problem for the democratic project in 1991, as it had been in 1917, was the simple historical fact that the Russians had no real experience of it. Neither the Tsarist nor Soviet governments had given them a taste or even an understanding of parliamentary sovereignty, government accountability or legally protected liberties. The popular conception of ‘democracy’ in 1917 was not as a form of government at all, but rather as a social label, equivalent to ‘the common people’, whose opposite was not ‘dictatorship’ but instead ‘the bourgeoisie’. On this basis, for the next six or perhaps seven decades, people could believe that the Soviet system was ‘the most democratic in the world’ insofar as it provided, more or less, universal employment, housing, health care and social equality. In such a view, the economic crisis that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet system undermined the credibility of the capitalist versions of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ that were offered in its place.
For the majority of ordinary Russians, especially for those of a certain age who identified themselves as ‘Soviet’, the 1990s were little short of a catastrophe. They lost everything: a familiar way of life; an economic system that guaranteed security; an ideology that gave them moral certainties, perhaps even hope; a huge empire with superpower status and an identity that covered over ethnic divisions; and national pride in Soviet achievements in culture, science and technology. Struggling to adapt to the harsh realities of the new capitalist way of life, where there was no great idea, no collective purpose defined by the state, they looked back with nostalgia to the Soviet period. Many yearned for the mythic past they remembered or imagined under Stalin, who, they believed, had presided over times of material plenty, order and security, the ‘best times in the country’s history’. According to a poll of 2005, 42 per cent of the Russian people, and 60 per cent of those over 60 years of age, wanted the return of a ‘leader like Stalin’.
From the start of his regime, Putin aimed to restore pride in Soviet history. This was an important part of his agenda to rebuild Russia as a great power. The rehabilitation of the Soviet past, including Stalin, sanctioned Putin’s own authoritarian government, legitimising it as the continuation of a long Russian tradition of strong state power, going back before 1917 to the Tsars. The order and security provided by the state, according to this myth, are more highly valued by Russians than the Western liberal concepts of human rights or political democracy, which have no roots in Russian history.
Putin’s historical initiative was popular in Russia, particularly when it gave encouragement to nationalist feelings, patriotic pride about the Soviet victory of 1945 and nostalgia for the Soviet Union. When he declared to the Russian Federal Assembly in 2005 that ‘the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century’, Putin was articulating the opinion of three-quarters of the population, who, according to a poll in 2000, regretted the collapse of the USSR and wanted Russia to expand in size, incorporating ‘Russian’ territories, such as the Crimea and the Donbass, which had been ‘lost’ to Ukraine. In 2014, volunteers with neo-Soviet flags would cross the border from Russia to fight for the return of these two Ukrainian territories.
The positive rewriting of Soviet history also came as a relief to those Russians who had resented the ‘blackening’ of their country’s history in the glasnost period, when the media was full of revelations about ‘Stalin’s crimes’, which undermined the Soviet textbook version they had learned at school. Many had been made uncomfortable by the questions they had been forced to ask about their families’ actions in the period of Stalin’s rule. They did not want to listen to moralising lectures about how ‘bad’ their country’s history was. By restoring pride in the Soviet past, Putin helped the Russians to feel good as Russians once again.
His initiative began in schools, where textbooks deemed too negative about the Soviet period were denied approval by the Ministry of Education, effectively removing them from the classroom. In 2007, Putin told a conference of history teachers:
"As to some problematic pages in our history, yes, we have had them. But what state hasn’t? And we’ve had fewer of such pages than some other [states]. And ours were not as horrible as those of some others. Yes, we have had some terrible pages: let us remember the events beginning in 1937, let us not forget about them. But other countries have had no less, and even more. In any case, we did not pour chemicals over thousands of kilometers or drop on a small country seven times more bombs than during the entire World War II, as the Americans did in Vietnam. Nor did we have other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance. All sorts of things happen in the history of every state. And we cannot allow ourselves to be saddled with guilt . . ."
Putin did not deny Stalin’s crimes. But he argued for the need not to dwell on them, to balance them against his achievements as the builder of the country’s ‘glorious Soviet past’. In a manual for history teachers commissioned by the President and heavily promoted in Russian schools, Stalin was portrayed as an ‘effective manager’ who ‘acted rationally in conducting a campaign of terror to ensure the country’s modernization’.
Polls suggested that the Russians shared this troubling attitude to the Revolution’s violence. According to a survey conducted in 2007 in three cities (St Petersburg, Kazan and Lenin’s birthplace, Ulyanovsk), 71 per cent of the population thought that Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB) in 1917, had ‘protected public order and civic life’. Only 7 per cent believed he was a ‘criminal and executioner’. More disturbing was the survey’s finding that while nearly everyone was well informed about the mass repressions under Stalin – with most acknowledging that ‘between 10 and 30 million victims’ had suffered – two-thirds of these respondents still believed that Stalin had been positive for the country. Many thought that, under Stalin, people had been ‘kinder and more compassionate’. Even with knowledge of the millions who were killed, the Russians, it appeared, continued to accept the Bolshevik idea that mass state violence can be justified to meet the Revolution’s goals.
In the autumn of 2011, millions of Russians watched the TV show The Court of Time (Sud vremeni), in which various figures and episodes from Russian history were judged in a mock trial with advocates, witnesses and a jury of the viewers, who reached their verdict by voting on the telephone. The judgements arrived at in this trial by state TV do not hold out much hope for a change in Russian attitudes. Presented with the evidence of Stalin’s war against the peasants and the catastrophic effects of forcible collectivisation, in which millions died of starvation and many more were sent to the Gulag camps or remote penal settlements, 78 per cent of the viewers nonetheless believed that these policies were justified, a ‘terrible necessity’ for Soviet industrialisation. Only 22 per cent considered them a ‘crime’.
Politically the Revolution may be dead, but it has an afterlife in these mentalities, which will continue to dominate the Russian polity for many years.
So how should we commemorate the Revolution during its centenary? In 1889, to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution, the Eiffel Tower was inaugurated at the entrance to the Paris World Fair of that year. The tower symbolised the values of the Third Republic derived from 1789. No such landmark could be built in Russia, where the commemoration of the October Revolution has divided Russia since the downfall of the Soviet regime. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin replaced the 7 November Revolution Day with a Day of Accord and Reconciliation, ‘in order to diminish confrontations and effect conciliation between different segments of society’. But Communists continued to commemorate the Revolution’s anniversary in the traditional Soviet manner with a demonstration in massed ranks with red ban- ners. Putin tried to resolve the conflict by establishing a Day of National Unity on 4 November (the date of the end of the Polish occupation of Russia in 1612). It took the place of the 7 November holiday in the official calendar from 2005. But the Day of National Unity did not catch on. According to a 2007 poll, only 4 per cent of the population could say what it was for. Six out of ten people were opposed to the drop- ping of Revolution Day. Despite Putin’s efforts to reclaim the positive achievements of the country’s Soviet past, there is no historical narrative of the October Revolution around which the nation can unite: some see it as a national catastrophe, others as the start of a great civilisation, but the country as a whole remains unable to come to terms with its violent and contradictory legacies.
Likewise, no consensus could be achieved on what to do with the founder of the Soviet state. Yeltsin and the Russian Orthodox Church supported calls to close the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow, where Lenin’s preserved body has been on display since 1924, and bury him next to his mother at the Volkov Cemetery in St Petersburg, as he had wanted for himself. But the Communists were organised and vocal in resisting this, so the issue remained unresolved. Putin was opposed to removing Lenin from the Mausoleum, reasoning that it would offend the older generation of Russians, who had sacrificed so much for the Soviet system, by implying they had cherished false ideals.
With such division and confusion, the commemoration of the Revolution will probably be muted in Russia in 2017. That too seems most likely in the West, where the Russian Revolution has retreated in our historical consciousness, partly as a result of declining media interest since the end of the Cold War, as our focus has been redirected to the Middle East and the problem of Islamic extremism; and perhaps in part because our growing concern about human rights, which dominates our moral discourse about political change, has led us to be less understanding of the emotive force of other values, such as social justice and wealth redistribution, which fuel revolutionary violence.
But as events in recent years have shown, the age of revolutions has not
The colour revolutions’ in the Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and the Lebanon,
the Arab Spring and Ukraine’s Euromaidan remind us of the power of mass protest to bring down governments, usually with violence. In all these movements there are lessons to be learned from comparisons with 1917. Their use of social media to organise the crowds, for example, would have been appreciated by Lenin. As the Jacobins were for the revolutionaries of the nineteenth century, so the Bolsheviks became a model for all the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century, from China to Iran, as well as for the terrorists of our own age. All the methods used by ISIS – the use of war and terror to build a revolutionary state, the fanatical devotion and military discipline of its followers, and its brilliant use of propaganda – were first mastered by the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.
We should not complacently suppose that revolution could not pose a threat to Western liberal democracies. The recent rise in populist mass movements across Europe should remind us that revolutions can erupt unexpectedly: they are never far away. Europe’s history in the twentieth century demonstrates how fragile democracy has been. If it won its great ideological battles against fascism and communism, it did so only narrowly, and its victory was by no means preordained: it could have turned out otherwise. As I wrote in the final paragraphs of A People’s Tragedy in 1996, ‘we must try to strengthen our democracy, both as a source of freedom and of social justice, lest the disadvantages and the disillusioned reject it again’.
London, January 2017




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