A PEOPLE’S TRAGEDY

A History of the Russian Revolution, Penguin, 1996.

These days we call so many things a ‘revolution’ — a change in the government’s policies on sport, a technological innovation, or even a new trend in marketing — that it may be hard for the reader of this book to take on board the vast scale of its subject at the start. The Russian Revolution was, at least in terms of its effects, one of the biggest events in the history of the world. Within a generation of the establishment of Soviet power, one-third of humanity was living under regimes modelled upon it. The revolution of 1917 has defined the shape of the contemporary world, and we are only now emerging from its shadow. It was not so much a single revolution — the compact eruption of 1917 so often depicted in the history books — as a whole complex of different revolutions which exploded in the middle of the First World War and set off a chain reaction of more revolutions, civil, ethnic and national wars. By the time that it was over, it had blown apart — and then put back together — an empire covering one-sixth of the surface of the globe. At the risk of appearing callous, the easiest way to convey the revolution’s scope is to list the ways in which it wasted human life: tens of thousands were killed by the bombs and bullets of the revolutionaries, and at least an equal number by the repressions of the tsarist regime, before 1917; thousands died in the street fighting of that year; hundreds of thousands from the Terror of the Reds — and an equal number from the Terror of the Whites, if one counts the victims of their pogroms against Jews — during the years that followed; more than a million perished in the fighting of the civil war, including civilians in the rear; and yet more people died from hunger, cold and disease than from all these put together.

All of which, I suppose, is by way of an apology for the vast size of this book — the first attempt at a comprehensive history of the entire revolutionary period in a single volume. Its narrative begins in the 1890s, when the revolutionary crisis really started, and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the tsarist autocracy. And our story ends in 1924, with the death of Lenin, by which time the revolution had come full circle and the basic institutions, if not all the practices, of the Stalinist regime were in place. This is to give to the revolution a much longer lifespan than is customary. But it seems to me that with one or two exceptions, previous histories of the revolution have been too narrowly focused on the events of 1917, and that this has made the range of its possible outcomes appear much more limited than they actually were. It was by no means inevitable that the revolution should have ended in the Bolshevik dictatorship, although looking only at that fateful year would lead one towards this conclusion. There were a number of decisive moments, both before and during 1917, when Russia might have followed a more democratic course. It is the aim of A People’s Tragedy, by looking at the revolution in the longue durée, to explain why it did not at each of these in turn. As its title is intended to suggest, the book rests on the proposition that Russia’s democratic failure was deeply rooted in its political culture and social history. Many of the themes of the four introductory chapters in Part One — the absence of a state-based counterbalance to the despotism of the Tsar; the isolation and fragility of liberal civil society; the backwardness and violence of the Russian village that drove so many peasants to go and seek a better life in the industrial towns; and the strange fanaticism of the Russian radical intelligentsia — will reappear as constant themes in the narrative of Parts Two, Three and Four.

Although politics are never far away, this is, I suppose, a social history in the sense that its main focus is the common people. I have tried to present the major social forces — the peasantry, the working class, the soldiers and the national minorities — as the participants in their own revolutionary drama rather than as ‘victims’ of the revolution. This is not to deny that there were many victims. Nor is it to adopt the ‘bottom-up’ approach so fashionable these days among the ‘revisionist’ historians of Soviet Russia. It would be absurd — and in Russia’s case obscene — to imply that a people gets the rulers it deserves. But it is to argue that the sort of politicized ‘top-down’ histories of the Russian Revolution which used to be written in the Cold War era, in which the common people appeared as the passive objects of the evil machinations of the Bolsheviks, are no longer adequate. We now have a rich and growing literature, based upon research in the newly opened archives, on the social life of the Russian peasantry, the workers, the soldiers and the sailors, the provincial towns, the Cossacks and the non-Russian regions of the Empire during the revolutionary period. These monographs have given us a much more complex and convincing picture of the relationship between the party and the people than the one presented in the older ‘top-down’ version. They have shown that instead of a single abstract revolution imposed by the Bolsheviks on the whole of Russia, it was as often shaped by local passions and interests. A People’s Tragedy is an attempt to synthesize this reappraisal and to push the argument one stage further. It attempts to show, as its title indicates, that what began as a people’s revolution contained the seeds of its own degeneration into violence and dictatorship. The same social forces which brought about the triumph of the Bolshevik regime became its main victims.

Orlando FIGES, excerpt from the Preface.