A review of the book “Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991” by Orlando Figes

This is a work that covers a century of revolutionary history in a main text of just over 400 pages written by the well-known British academic Orlando Figes who teaches at Birkbeck University in London. It has the strengths and weaknesses of any non-fiction book that seeks to cover so much ground in such concise fashion. It puts the Russian Revolution in context by describing how it came about and what the consequences were so long as the Communist regime survived and it is written in a very readable and accessible style. But necessarily it races through the decades and is quite light on detailed facts, dates, and quotes.

Figes believes that the seeds of the Russian revolution are to be found in the famine of 1891 which, together with cholera and typhus, killed half a million people by the end of 1892 and then the ‘Dress Rehearsal’ of 1905 when there was a wave of strikes and demonstrations following the massacres of ‘Bloody Sunday’. But he explains the weakness of Tsar Alexander II and the powerful personality of Vladimir Lenin, plus the catastrophy of the First World War, as further vital ingredients in the success of the two revolutions of 1917 – the first, a social democratic revolt against the monarchy, in February and the second, a Bolshevik assault on the Provisional Government, in October.

Figes writes that “Few historical events have been more distorted by myth than those of 25 October 1917” and argues that “The Great October Socialist Revolution, as it became known in the Soviet Union, was in fact such a small-scale action, being in reality no more than a coup, that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd”. Meanwhile the result of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with the Germans was that Russia lost territories occupied by 34% of its population (55 million people).

When covering the following civil war, Figes notes that “The totalitarian state had its origins in War Communism, which attempted to control every aspect of the economy and society” and he argues that “This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy”. In chapters titled “The Revolution’s Golden Age?” and “The Great Break” respectively, Figes writes favourably of Lenin’s reformist New Economic Policy (NEP) and critically of Stalin’s Five Year Plan. Dark days followed with a widespread famine in 1932-33, in which up to 8.5 million died of starvation or disease, and the Great Terror of 1937-38, in which around 1.5 million were arrested and some 680,000 executed.

The Second World War and specifically Operation Barbarossa could have finished the Communist experiment and Figes underlines that “The invasion was the gravest threat to the revolution”, but at the last moment Stalin held his nerve and then a mixture of terror, coercion, patriotism and the cult of sacrifice enabled the USSR to defeat the Nazi war machine, although at staggering human cost (8.6 million in uniform alone). Figes records that “Stalin presented the military victory as a triumph for the Soviet system rather than the people’s achievement”.

The death of Stalin and his denunciation by Krushchev is narrated in a chapter titled “The Beginning Of The End”, the post-Krushchev era is covered in a chapter titled “Mature Socialism”, and the efforts of Gorbachev to renew the Leninist revolution leads to him being dubbed “the last Bolshevik”. Figes notes that “Nobody expected the Soviet regime to come to an end so suddenly. Most revolutions die with a whimper rather than a bang.”

In a downbeat summary, Figges opines that: “The collapse of the Soviet system did not democratize the distribution of wealth or power in Russia. After 1991, the Russians could have been forgiven for thinking nothing much had changed, at least for the better. No doubt many of them had thought much the same after 1917.”


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