Revolutionary Russia 1891–1991 by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes’ title presents the essence of his argument: The Russian Revolution should be looked at over a much longer period than historians, and the interested public, usually give it. Revolutions succeeded in February and October of 1917 because they had been brewing for a long time; the Soviet Union claimed to be a revolutionary state of one kind or another throughout its existence. In his previous book on the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy (where I started learning about the revolution), Figes chose Lenin’s death in 1924 as his endpoint. For a narrative history focusing on the revolution itself, that’s a reasonable time to run down the curtain. Revolutionary Russia is less of a narrative and more of a polemic. He wants readers to take a longer view of who and what wrought the revolution in Russia, and what the revolution wrought in Russia and the world. “In this telling the Revolution starts in the nineteenth century (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 autocracy) and ends with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.” (p. 1) As part of his argument, Figes considers the Cold War as, in a sense, “a continuation of the international civil war started by the Bolsheviks in 1917. … Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun.” (p. 3)

“International civil war” is an unfortunate choice of words, not to say an apparent contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it could mean “a series of civil wars within various nations,” which is certainly one of the ways that early communists hoped that the world revolution would come about. It might also mean that the leaders of the Soviet Union considered Europe as a whole and thought of class war within Europe as a civil war. In that sense, it’s telling that Figes has chosen Revolutionary Russia rather than, say, The Russian Revolution for his title. He wants to consider Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union as a state actor that remained, or at least claimed to remain revolutionary long after the Bolsheviks had consolidated power in most of the remains of the Russian Empire.

One advantage of Figes’ approach is that it lets him reach reasonably far back for the stirrings that would become the Russian Revolution in 1917. He chooses the famine year of 1891, when meteorological catastrophes brought a harvest failure, and starvation came to Russia’s southeast “from the Ural mountains to Ukraine, an area double the size of France with a population of 36 million people.” (p. 7) Cholera and typhus followed, killing half a million by the end of 1892. Government attempts to cover up the extent of the disaster convinced the public that there was a conspiracy to keep the facts hidden. Worse, the government waited crucial weeks to ban grain exports, so food that could have lessened the famine was sold abroad. Unable to meet the burdens of the crisis, Russian autocracy turned to the public for help. “It was to prove a historic moment, for it opened the doors to a powerful new wave of public activity and debate which the government could not control and which quickly turned from the philanthropic to the political.” (p. 8) Much of this activity was coordinated by the zemstvos, local councils that were largely run by liberal gentry. Chekhov and Tolstoy joined the relief campaign. “Tolstoy blamed the famine on the social order, the Orthodox Church and the government: ‘Everything has happened because of our own sin.'” (p. 8) The critique echoes in Father Dmitry’s assessment of Soviet society decades later. During the famine crisis, professionals such as doctors, teacher and engineers organized and began to demand influence over public policy. Marxist ideas entered Russian discourse. At the same time,

the under-government of the localities was in fact the system’s main weakness. For every 1,000 inhabitants of the Russian Empire there were only four state officials at the end of the nineteenth century, compared with 7.3 in England and Wales, 12.6 in Germany and 17.6 in France. The regular police, as opposed to the political branch, was extremely small by European standards. For a rural population of 100 million people, Russia in 1900 had no more than 1,852 police sergeants and 6,874 police constables. For most intents and purposes, once the peasants had been liberated from the direct rule of their landowners, with the abolition of serfdom in 1861, they were left to look after themselves. (p. 11)

Three years later, in 1894, zemstvo leaders “presented a list of political demands to Nicholas II on his ascension to the throne, following the premature death of his father, Alexander III.” (p. 9) Nicholas flat out refused, asserting the absolute nature of Russian autocracy. These two aspects set the stage for escalating waves of confrontation. Nicholas and his conservative allies were unwilling to bend; their methods were unable to meet Russia’s needs; technology and social change gave power to additional parts of society; the system did not change to meet new realities. Then the Great War came and stretched the capabilities of all of Europe’s old land empires beyond their capacities. In the end, they all fell.

Figes spends the first third of the book on the time through the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in early 1918. He covers the late 19th century, the incomplete revolution in 1905, the war, the February Revolution and finally Lenin’s Revolution, as he titles the chapter on the Bolshevik seizure of power. Noting the territorial losses to the Empire under Brest-Litovsk, Figes writes “As a European power, Russia was reduced to a status on a par with seventeenth-century Muscovy. But Lenin’s revolution had been saved.” (p. 107) Viewed from Warsaw, Riga, Tallinn or Kiev, the retreat of Kremlin might have looked different.

The role of famine in starting Russia’s path to revolution is ironic. During the Civil War, Bolshevik requisitions produced famine conditions in the Volga region. Rather than turn to the public for assistance, the communists increased their use of violence. “Villages were burned. Tens of thousands of hostages were taken, and thousands more were shot, before the resistance was subdued.” (p. 124) Once in power, of course, they caused famine on a much greater scale. Collectivization killed millions and put millions more into exile, with ruinous effects on agriculture; “the number of cattle in the Soviet Union fell by half from 1928 to 1933.” (p. 154)

War helped to bring the revolution; the Second World War provided the Soviet system with a boost of legitimacy and made the USSR a superpower. Moscow gained dominion over the lands lost to the Russian Empire in 1918, and added more in Central Europe. Figes argues that Soviet conquest in Eastern and Central Europe was a revolutionary act.

That was the logic of a system built on revolutionary imperatives: the individual counted for nothing. In Western armies strategic decisions were generally reached by calculating the gains to be made by a manoeuvre against the likely cost in casualties. In the Red Army no such calculation was ever really made. Military objectives were set regardless of the cannon fodder they consumed. This was particularly true in the final stages of the war when Stalin pressed his generals to do all they could to reach Berlin before the [Western] Allies. Only by considering this criminally wasteful rationale can we explain the extraordinary losses of the Red Army during the Great Patriotic War — 8.6 million in uniform between 1941 and 1945 — a daily rate of losses twice as high as the [Western] Allied casualties on D-Day. (p. 227)

One of the down sides of ending his book in 1991 is that Figes does not give as much consideration to the continuities that reach beyond 1991. It makes sense to end a study of the revolution with the demise of the state that it produced, but just as the Russian Revolution has a pre-history prior to 1917, it has an afterlife beyond 1991. Figes spends about 10 pages on judgement, the title of his final chapter, concluding that “It will take many decades for Russians to be cured of the social traumas and pathologies of the Communist regime.” (p. 296) Any such “cure” would have to separate what was specifically communist from what was more generally Russian about the regime. That is, some imperatives, and some tendencies among Russia’s leaders did not change when the hammer and sickle came down from the Kremlin’s towers. Assessing the current state of the country in his introduction to the book, which was published in 2014, Figes wrote “Russia has become very much weaker as a power in the world. … Russia is no longer an aggressive state. Russia does not start foreign wars.” In February and March of that year — while the book was in production — Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine, and fomented rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern districts. Russia’s role in revolts and civil wars did not end with the collapse of communism.

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