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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Tragedy That Tarnished All

"A revolution is only a revolution when it arises as a natural and powerful expression of the people's creative force," wrote Maxim Gorky only months after Lenin's Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917. "If, however, the revolution is simply a release of the instincts of the people accumulated through slavery and oppression, then it is not a revolution but just a riot of malice and hatred."


Gorky's prescient words summarize what young Cambridge academic Orlando Figes presents in nearly overwhelming detail in his history: A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. Spanning over 30 years and half the continent of Europe, and filling more than 800 meticulously documented pages, Figes' history is a horrific story of greed, contempt, ineptitude and naked power-grabbing in which no one escapes condemnation. In the end, more than 10 million people are dead while one oppressive autocratic regime has merely replaced another.


If blame for this tragedy can be placed on any one person, Figes argues, then it is Tsar Nicholas II who must bear it. Nicholas ruled over a pressure cooker of seething political, social and ethnic tensions that had been simmering away for the entire 300-year rule of the Romanovs. A progressive leader might have been able to diffuse these tensions by introducing reforms to transform Russia into a modern constitutional monarchy.


But Nicholas was pathologically obsessed with the notion that he had to pass on his inheritance of inflexible autorcracy exactly as he had received it, and he steadfastly refused to relinquish any of his personal power. In the end, Nicholas so thoroughly wore away the authority of the thousand-year monarchy that the nation greeted his abdication in February 1917 with a spontaneous outburst of celebration.


"People kissed each other from joy and said that life from now on would be good," recalled one peasant. "The festivities went on for three days."


But the celebration was short-lived. Although the tsarist regime was immediately followed by two democratically oriented provisional governments, they faced a desperate situation and held on for just a few months. The Bolsheviks wandered, almost by chance, into the vacuum that the collapsing regime left behind.


Some Bolsheviks may have been motivated by the lofty ideals of communism, but their leader, Vladimir Lenin was not among them. The Bolshevik chief was maniacally consumed by the drive for personal power -- embodied, to be sure, in the guise of "party" rule -- and was willing to sacrifice everything to secure it.


"The terrible thing in Lenin," one comrade wrote, "was that combination in one person of self-castigation ... with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract hatred and cold political cruelty."


Lenin openly despised the Russian people, holding the working class in contempt and fearing the masses of the peasantry. At no time did he fool himself into believing that his regime had anything like a popular mandate to rule Russia. Instead, he set out from the beginning to impose his dictatorship by force and terror on an essentially hostile Russian nation.


Figes deftly depicts how quickly the Bolsheviks abandoned their ideological pretentions in order to bolster their grip on power. The revolution was, as Gorky wrote, nothing more than "a riot of malice and hatred," and the Bolsheviks quickly adopted the amoral policy of fanning the violence and societal breakdown. "Loot the looters!" was the party's slogan in the first two years after the October coup.


The Bolsheviks did not create the Terror; it was the product of centuries of oppression. However, they shamelessly encouraged the peasants to rise up in random violence in order to destroy all the basic institutions of the old regime -- the aristocracy, the Church, the police, etc. Every thug in every village across Russia was given license to loot, pillage, terrorize and murder. At the same time, the Terror shaped the future of the Bolshevik regime. Gorky wrote ominously about a crowd of children who cheered as one "kulak" was drowned in an icy river: "These are our children, the future builders of our life."


The one thing the Bolsheviks did well was wage the Civil War. And, as Figes demonstrates, nothing shaped the postwar regime so much as this success. Instead of disbanding the Red Army and allowing the ex-soldiers to stir up trouble in the countryside, they "dispatched it to the labor front" to rebuild the railroads and other parts of the economic infrastructure.


This practice worked so well that soon the Bolsheviks introduced general conscription of labor and by 1920 were already rounding up peasants into collective farms. Trotsky openly advocated "the right of the dictatorship to send every worker to the place where he is needed, according to the state plan." This is how the dream of a workers' paradise was transformed into the gulag.


Figes' books leaves no illusions unshattered. Those few who still think that Lenin was basically a good guy whose humanitarian dream was hijacked by Stalin will be devastated. Those who think that the White generals may have been Russia's salvation will be forced to confront their petty infighting and their ideology based on little more than anti-Semitism and the restoration of the aristocracy. And those who have grown used to thinking of the Russian people as the main victims of this national tragedy will be faced with their brutal, willing participation in it. This is a story without heroes.


As one might expect, given the massive bulk of this book and the vast material it encompasses, it is an uneven read. Most readers, I suspect, will not be enthralled by, for example, the intricate details of the theoretical infighting between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, but there is no way for Figes to avoid this material. On the whole, "A People's Tragedy" is a masterful account.


It is a timely one too. A great failure of the Bolsheviks was that they did nothing to soothe the popular rage that brought down the old regime, beyond venting some of it in an eight-year orgy of violence. That rage is still out there, as is the corruption, the economic inefficiencies and the widespread hatred of central government. Russia's still uninstitutionalized reforms remain dangerously vulnerable, and this is the unassimilated lesson of Russia's recent history.





"A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1917," by Orlando Figes. Jonathan Cape, 894 pages, ?25 or $37.50.