Review of “A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924,” by Orlando Figes
Nobody could fail to be impressed by Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: the Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (Jonathan Cape) – but 924 weighty pages don’t necessarily add up to a good book.
Orlando Figes has written a most impressive book. Elaborately researched, rigorously structured, coherently argued, it presents an overwhelmingly comprehensive view of one of the most important and complicated of all modern events. Figes’s knowledge of Russia is astonishing, and he is able to use that knowledge to address larger questions of the very nature of history. Tolstoy put to us the notion that history is determined not by singular leaders but by the small significant gestures of unnamed men among the ranks, and Figes has balanced the fact of the revolution’s great personalities with an extraordinary attention to the human context that allowed the fabric of a whole society to rip open.
It has been unfashionable for some time to talk about national character: the rhetoric of national character has been too readily adopted by the right wing to serve the purposes of racism and prejudice. Nonetheless, different national groups are different. Figes argues rationally that the Russian revolution was possible in Russia because of the country’s position at the beginning of this century; and he explains also how the country came to be in that position, placing considerable emphasis on the Russian personality. His arguments are untrammelled by ‘political correctness’ and they have the ring of truth.
Figes proposes that the revolution went from 1891 to 1924. This decision is not quite so radical as he would have us believe: one can speak of the Russian Revolution as having occurred in 1917, as having started with Peter the Great and ended with Boris Yeltsin, as having begun only when Stalin rose to power; and though the arguments for 1891-1924 are convincing enough, they are also predictable. The effect of choosing these particular dates is that Figes tells the story of two tragedies that occurred in rapid sequence. The first is the demise of the nobility; the second, the brutal horror of the revolution itself and the dehumanisation of an entire population. Figes demonstrates the mounting inevitability of these events.
The naïve folly of tsarist circles seems almost incredible as Figes narrates it: one feels the revolution brewing and squirms watching one ludicrous decision following the next in the name of a debased autocratic philosophy.
The misery and cruelty of the Russian peasants is also narrated with skill, and one can feel how painfully and rapidly the idealism of the early revolutionaries gave way to chaos and disaster as the idea of a Communist revolution was conflated with a savage and enraged desire for anarchy. Figes spares no detail of the agony of the revolution. You knew it was a tragedy, but you had no idea how vicious a tragedy it was. There is no attempt here to tell the King Lear story of Nicholas and Alexandra; this is Coriolanus, unbearable and grotesque.
Figes has adopted a Tolstoyan convention of telling the stories of a few individuals of middling importance as a means of describing what ‘real people’ did in the course of the revolution and demonstrating how the views and actions of such people determined the awful disaster. There is something to be said for this idea, but ultimately it does not work well. The individual narratives, though emblematic in some ways, are not as prototypical as Figes would like; no real person ever was, nor could be, Pierre Bezukhov or Andrey Bolkonsky.
The individual-as-signifier strategy is effective in fiction, but the elements of people’s lives cannot be constructed with such subtle artistry, and this rich panoply of individuals amounts to neither a coherent theory of humanity nor a perfect description of a complicated period.
Further, Figes is simply not a good enough writer to bring these people fully to life. He provides much information about them, but the brilliance he might have achieved if he could make us love and hate them is absent. You can feel this book striving toward a novelistic engine, but it is never more than history. Even if you care nothing for the Napoleonic wars, you cannot stop rushing through War and Peace; if the events in A People’s Tragedy had not actually taken place, neither the writing nor the drive of universal insight would compel you through 924 pages (not including the wonderful photographs).
In fact, there is nothing here that is sufficient to drive you through so many pages. The reader’s tragedy to A People’s Tragedy is that the book itself is a difficult physical presence; it weighs at least a stone, and so is too heavy to carry outside, and it is so large and sharp that if you try to read it in bed, you will forever scar the flesh on which it must rest.
Nor is there enough pleasure here to distract you from that physical pain; this book is draggy and often monotonous, and a wish to extract knowledge from it must carry you across long stretches as unforgiving as any Siberian landscape. Figes is relentlessly enthusiastic about his own investigations, and includes a great deal of material that is irrelevant, distracting, and tedious. He gets high marks for research, but one wishes he had gone for editorial rigour instead. The armature of his arguments is completely obscured by the excess of trivia he has slathered onto it.
Figes also suffers from a failure to choose his audience. Some of the book seems to be directed at the general reader, and explains matters that anyone remotely familiar with this territory would know; in other places, he indulges in the most arcane arguments, settling picayune details by quoting pages of obscure statistics and wordy official edicts. The effect of this amalgamation of material is that parts of the book are dull for the specialist, and others are dull for the layperson.
The primary weakness of this book is simply arrogance. Figes’s accomplishment is enormous, but his apparent delight in that accomplishment outstrips it. He is officious and patronising and often self-aggrandising, and he presents the book’s banalities with the air of magnificence that only its real insights deserve. He writes as though his book were definitive.
The Russian Revolution does not lend itself to definitive writing: many theories about it are true, and though each new layer of discovered complexity is thrilling, further explanation amplifies and refracts what was known before, and does not replace it. Richard Pipes’s magnificent book on the revolution, published less than a decade ago, seemed to defer to and incorporate all that had come before, and Figes is at his most ridiculous when he argues with small points in Pipes’s account. Orlando Figes clearly has a grand and lucid mind, and when he has learnt a certain deference to his olders and betters, and indeed to his readers, whoever they may be, he might contrive to write a book that is as good as it is impressive.