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Ideas Matter

A PEOPLE'S TRAGEDY: A History of the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924. By Orlando Figes . Viking: 923 pp., $39.95

March 16, 1997|MARTIN MALIA | Martin Malia is the author, most recently, of "The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991."


Not so long ago, popular presentations of the Russian Revolution, even in "capitalist" countries, were cast in the heroic mode, a view that descended from John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World" and Sergei Eisenstein's "October" to Warren Beatty's "Reds." And on a more scholarly level, professional Sovietology told a story of solid Communist achievement: 1917 was a genuine workers' revolution and the resulting Soviet regime, though, fallen into grievous sin under Stalin, had nonetheless created a viable "modern" society, a perspective that emerged in the 1970s in reaction against the "Cold War" thesis of Soviet "totalitarianism" and which during Gorbachev's perestroika was prominent on the "McNeil-Lehrer News Hour." This "revisionism," moreover, purported to speak the language of "value-free" social science and grounded its explanations not in the surface phenomena of party politics or of Soviet ideology but in the deeper processes of social history.

With communism's fall between 1989 and 1991, this optimistic social science perspective was irreparably compromised. For it turned out that the Soviet system had never been "modern" after all, but only a primitive means of sweating a servile population to furnish the wherewithal for an imitation superpower. The time has therefore come for the revision of revisionism. So the October Revolution is now seen as the origin of a disaster, and 20th century Russia is increasingly presented in the tragic mode. Orlando Figes' "A People's Tragedy" is a key item in this much-needed revision of revisionism.

His book, however, is still focused on social process: As the author declares a bit militantly, "We are all social historians now." Fortunately, this is not entirely true--as will later be made clear by a discussion of Marxism's crucial role in the revolution. For the moment, suffice it to express satisfaction that his social history is hardly that of his predecessors. Indeed, he has stood their approach quite on its head.

For a start, his book wears its social science lightly, indeed often employing procedures more usually found in a novel or a Ken Burns television documentary. Diaries and letters of representative social types are interwoven with the political narrative leading from the old regime to the new; by the end, we know each figure as a personality. Thus Prince George Lvov, leader of his zemstvo (elected local administration), briefly applied his liberal principles as head of the provisional government of 1917 only to wind up with the Whites and to die an emigre in Paris. Another squire, Gen. Alexis Brusilov, was moved by Russian patriotism to serve first the czar, then the provisional government and, finally, the Red Army. The proletarian writer and humanitarian intellectual Maxim Gorky had a love-hate relationship with Lenin under the old regime and an equally ambivalent attitude toward the new regime that Bolshevism had built and so, wound up its prisoner under Stalin.

On a lower social level, we follow the peasant Semen Kanatchikov from the village to the factory, to Marxism and Bolshevism, and then to a career as a middling Soviet cultural apparatchik. On a parallel track is another literate peasant, Dimitry Os'kin, who was freed from the village by service as a noncom during World War I and who moved up to Red commander during the civil war and ended up a Soviet military bureaucrat. Very different is another peasant, however: the Tolstoyan Sergei Semenov, who struggled to wrest his village from its hidebound elders and thus welcomed Prime Minister Petr Stolypin's program of 1908 for dissolving the rural commune; his dreams were fulfilled when the revolution gave the peasants all the land, but the old order had its revenge when the kulak elders murdered him in 1922. And Figes passes up no occasion to illustrate the brutality, squalor and mayhem of Russian peasant life.

It is with his analyses of rural Russia that Figes really stands the erstwhile revisionists on their heads. The old social history was the upbeat history of the working class moving toward self-awareness and an October liberation. Figes' social history is decidedly downbeat and focuses on the peasantry moving toward vengeful revolt ending in Bolshevik tyranny. The workers, of course, are present in this story, but they are hardly the motive force of the revolution. Nor are they very different sociologically and psychologically from the peasantry out of which they came. Figes dismisses the once-passionate debate over whether the revolution was made by class-conscious proletarians or by raw rural recruits to the factory by saying that the autocracy made both groups revolutionary.

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