Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History
By Anthony Figes
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
It all began with a bad harvest in 1891. Then the Tsarist government followed with a clumsy response. This is the starting point for Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History, by Anthony Figes. Figes, a noted professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London and “a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books”, has reinterpreted the history of the Soviet Union “as a hundred-year cycle of violence in pursuit of utopian dreams.” While many histories choose 1917, Figes turns the clock back to the cataclysmic famine of 1891. In less than three hundred pages (in the softcover edition), Figes traces the multiple revolutions leading up to the epochal October Revolution of 1917 and ending with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
It is a truism that all history is interpretation. Another wrinkle is that revisionist history is a necessary practice. History doesn’t stop moving, since it is dependent on time. Because of the Soviet Union’s rapid disintegration, politicians, policy makers, and historians scrambled to figure out what was happening. Hence Francis Fukayama’s notorious pronouncement about “the end of history.” History, like law, is based on the accumulation of evidence in support of its assertions. The disintegration of the Soviet Union offered a rare opportunity for historians, since its archives were now opened for public scrutiny. This history of the Soviet Union will be different from similar histories from the 2000s, from the 1990s, from the 1980s, and so on. When new evidence becomes available, it is good practice to offer a revisionist history.
History is also about perspective and since it is a product of the human intellect, perspective is subjective and based on the biases and subjective opinions of the individual. Case in point, Figes subtitles his book as “A History”, not “The History.” There are many histories, especially for a topic as gargantuan as the Soviet Union. In this instance, Figes attempts to re-calibrate the Master Narrative, the dominant history from which all sub-histories flow. (The difference between the Master Narrative and a nation’s foundational mythologies can get gray and muddy. Approach with caution and have ample evidence in hand before beginning a debunking campaign.)
Because of the violent nature of the Soviet Union, Figes asks, “How does one know when a revolution is supposed to stop?” Both the creation and disintegration of the Soviet Union occurred in a series of rapid (and occasionally confusing) steps. First there was the 1905 Revolution that occurred following the disaster of Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War. But that revolution ultimately failed. During the more disastrous Russian campaign during the First World War, waves of revolutionary followed. This included a military mutiny, massive worker strikes, and the installation of the short-lived democratic government under Kerensky. The Bolshevik revolution was a revolution based on Lenin’s principle of a political vanguard seizing the government in a coup d’etat to establish Communist rule.
Following the separate peace between the Bolsheviks and the German government, the Soviet Union devolved into a Civil War. Figes asserts that the culture of sacrifice and deprivation, coupled with a persecution complex due to internal and external threats, created a mold for how Soviet society would operate. This only became exacerbated under Stalin’s long reign of terror. Whereas Lenin instigated a “revolution of the vanguard” and created the Bolshevik state, Stalin’s series of purges, mass arrests, and ethnic cleansing operations operated under the rubric of a “revolution from the top.” He created a cult of personality and cemented his status as supreme leader.
Figes asserts that Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing the crimes of Stalin was “the beginning of the end” for the Soviet Union, since it began a culture of questioning the regime. The dominant mythology now began to shock cracks in the edifice. After the Thaw, the Soviet Union devolved into a gerontocracy with those wanting to preserve the status quo. This led to a culture of despair. One of the many ironies is that Brezhnev’s heavy-handed tactics revealed the Soviet Union’s Russian ethnic chauvinism. Despite the lip-service to Communism’s internationalist ideology, Communist regimes in Eastern Europe meant paying homage to Russian culture and doing what the Russians told you to do. As we’ve seen in the ethnic conflicts of the Post-Cold War world, ethnic resentment runs deep and cannot be completely extinguished by Communism’s internationalism.
When Gorbachev finally took power, he was from a generation that did not experience the Second World War, but was first Soviet leader since Lenin to have a university education. He spoke of himself as a Leninist and this was evidenced in his early idealistic crusades, especially his attempt to stamp out alcoholism. But the principles of glasnost and perestroika eventually became the means by which the Soviet Union unraveled. In the end, the Communist Party was unable to retain power once its mythologies proved to be nothing more than smoke and intimidation. When a nation cannot preserve its mythologies, it will wither and die. Figes concludes the book by comparing the Russian judgment against the Communist Party and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the end, the judgment was botched, intensified by Russia’s weak history of democracy. This partially explains the rise of Vladimir Putin and his ersatz Stalinistic rule.
The book can serve as curriculum text for an undergraduate history survey course, offering a broad overview of events, personalities, concepts, and ideologies. For those with no knowledge of Russian and Soviet history, this is a wonderful starting point. For professional historians, Revolutionary Russia may be thin gruel. Figes has written a pop history for mass consumption, so it is lacking in areas. The book offers little in term of footnotes, making it harder for certain assertions to be accurately verified. (Unlike academic specialist texts where nearly every sentence or paragraph is footnoted.)
It is difficult to assess the veracity of his assertions. And not being a Russian history specialist or Sovietologist, I am unable to distinguish between rock solid evidence and hearsay. This is especially challenging for historians aiming at writing books for a popular audience. How does the historian maintain a narrative momentum without getting bogged down in academic particulars?
But to cover one-hundred years in three hundred pages will involve some omissions and broad-stroke generalizations. Even with all those shortcomings, Figes still brings up new knowledge, at least to me, the non-specialist. While the bulk of the book follows unravels like a chronicle, he devotes specific chapters to Soviet pop culture and the international impact of Soviet foreign policy. One of the main tensions in Soviet history was whether Communism should be treated as an international or national phenomenon. (The journalist William Pfaff writes about similar ideas in his books, The Bullet’s Song, a volume devoted to “romantic violence and utopia.”)
Overall, Revolutionary Russia is a good introductory volume on the history of the Soviet Union. My only quibble is that Orlando Figes included a more comprehensive academic apparatus in support of his claims. Even for a popular history book, more footnotes isn’t necessarily a negative.
Out of 10/9.0