A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

Book review by by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Figes, Orlando. A People’s Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.

This is a whopper of a book--824 pages of text, several inserts of black and white photographs, plus almost 100 pages of notes, bibliography, and index, but it is well worth the work of wading through it. It is the story of the 1905 and 1917 revolutions that shook Russia to its core. It begins with the reign of Nicholas II, the czar who, with his family, was murdered in a farmhouse basement and ends at the time that Joseph Stalin became the communist dictator.

This book has the expected military campaigns of World War I and the Civil War, fought in part simultaneously. But Figes sees very clearly that Russia, in addition to experiencing a change of government, also endured a social/cultural revolution of mythic proportions. He tells about what was going on with Lenin, Trotsky, Gorky, and a huge number of others in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The revolutionaries hated the czars and their determinedly autocratic government even while they emulated them in many ways, and sought to implement high-sounding but untried socialist ideas.

Figes comments that, during the revolution's formative period under the czars, censorship was so tight that only ideas here and there filtered in from the west (like Karl Marx's Das Capital). The result was that the intelligentsia, who mulled revolution for years, were not exposed to the ferment and discussion which softened rigid opinion in the west. They'd grab onto something and embrace it as if it were the absolute truth. They rarely saw many sides of an issue and it never occurred to them that something that sounded marvelous in theory might not work in practice. The result was that they moved the country from one hard-line system to another.

The author also considers the people in the countryside and what their experiences were, and this is what makes it an excellent choice for German Russian readers. He takes the reader into the Russian peasant villages for a look around. The peasants, many of them serfs freed only in 1861, had for centuries been terribly abused and, yes, exploited by the wealthy classes. They weren't too unhappy when Lenin proclaimed "loot the looters," and gave them license to kill, destroy, and take whatever they wanted from their neighbors. Though there was not a sharp division of classes within the villages (communist theory notwithstanding), they took glee in destroying the nobility and kulaks, those they saw as wealthy and privileged, for the sheer pleasure of bringing them down to their level. They did this whether or not they received any benefit from it. The soldiers in the armies, most of them also peasants, misinterpreted the idea of liberty and pillaged both their officer corps and the villages through which they passed. Poorly trained, led and equipped, they died by the thousands in the battles and of disease.

Figes humanizes the movements covered by the book by focusing in a storytelling fashion on a number of real individuals--revolutionaries, a writer, workers, a man of the gentry who adjusted to the new realities, and several peasants who broke the mold (and some who didn't).

This was a terrible time to be alive in Russia; some ten million persons died across the revolutionary period, and there was great suffering. Lenin's Cheka, the secret police, ran rampant, torturing and killing those they saw as counterrevolutionaries. Prisons overflowed. Again and again, villages were attacked. Jews, pegged as scapegoats for shortages and things that went wrong, were the victims of pogroms that involved horrible suffering. Peasants, forced to give up produce without pay, struck back in the way they had always dealt with their oppressors. They dragged their feet, reduced production to subsistence levels, kept to their old beliefs and superstitions, and held to their conviction that the land belonged to the people who labored on it. Lenin and his co-rulers didn't understand them and applied the blunt tool of force to try to get them to do what they wanted.

Somehow, simultaneously, elementary schools were established in the villages and more people than ever learned to read and to raise their expectations. Soldiers (those who survived) returning from European campaigns had seen a better way of life and sought to abandon the land for jobs in the cities. People survived through primitive trading even when it was totally forbidden, as per communist theory.

An interesting element in the book is that Figes notes many points at which the worst aspects of the revolution could have been averted across the whole period. Several of the czars, including Nicholas II, could have instituted a constitutional monarchy, with a constituent assembly, as did countries in western Europe, and they could have relinquished power to the zemstvos, and soviets, the regional and local governing bodies that existed in the countryside. They could have moderated policies and treated their people with more respect. The Bolsheviks could have paid the peasants for their grain instead of requisitioning it, and they could have reined back their secret police. It was almost as if the leadership of the country under both systems had a death wish, time and time again choosing the most destructive options in defense of some abstract principle.

Figes often inserts a note indicating that other historians interpret events in ways other than his and gives his reasons for saying what he does. The pictures, black and white photographs, are excellent, taken during the events treated in the book. A weakness of the book is that Figes does not bring the Orthodox Church into very sharp focus. While he refers to it often, and it is clear that it was always around having a say, one feels that, somewhere in the background, it must have been a stronger player in what was going on.

So where do the German colonies fit into all this? The author frequently mentions non-Russian nationalities, not including Germans in the lists. Only once does Figes mention Germans specifically, and then he makes just an incidental reference to the people in the Volga colonies. The reader feels that he always knows that they were there, wanting to govern themselves, pressing to retain their culture and language, the target of attacks because they were relatively wealthy, and "sitting on" supplies of grain. It almost seems that he doesn¹t want to call attention to colonial Germans because readers might not readily differentiate between them and the Germans attacking during World War II. The reader with some background in the history of the Germans in Russia will readily know where and when they were affected by what was going on.

So, get this book from your library, put a bigger bulb in your light fixture, grab a couple of sofa pillows to brace it up on your lap, and get some cooling gel to treat the strain in your shoulders (we're talking commitment). But do not be put off by its size and length because, at the end, you will have an excellent feeling for the "buzz" behind some significant experiences of the Germans in Russia; you¹ll understand many things better.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller