Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History by Orlando Figes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I received this book via Goodreads First Reads in exchange for an honest review.
The popular historical view of the Russian Revolution is the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 launching the world’s first Communist state; however Orlando Figes offers a new perspective on the Revolution not as a single but a continuous event covering a century of Russian history. In relating this new perspective Figes reveals how three generations viewed and lived the Russian Revolution before it and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Beginning with the famine of 1891, Figes describes how the catastrophe brought about the call for social change without a political outlet due to the autocratic rule of the Tsarist regime. In this climate revolutionaries abounded without a moderate counterweight that not even the political changes of 1905 could alleviate. These conditions resulted in the rise of the Lenin and the Bolsheviks espousing the vanguard party theory. Figes recounts the breakdown of the Tsarist regime allowing first the Revolution of February 1917 and the following political chaos that allowed for the October Revolution. And then how the Soviet system was created in the ensuing Civil War.
The next stage was the Stalinist period away as the founding generation of the Revolution was replaced by their heirs. Figes relates how Josef Stalin rose to power using the growing bureaucracy that typified the Communist-rule state then purged the country not only of anything appearing capitalist, but also his real and perceived rivals or ‘enemies to the state’. The terror and paranoia that entered Russian life during Stalin’s nearly 30 year rule, Figes shows reverberates to this day. However, in spite of the atrocities that have been given historical light Stalin is held in high regard by the Russian populace today.
In Figes view the final stage of the Revolution began in 1956 with Khrushchev’s “secret” speech denouncing Stalin. The speech energized the post-war generation then coming of age in the Soviet Union to steer the Revolution back to the policies of Lenin, however it also resulted in undermining the legitimacy of the ruling elite who had been loyal functionaries of Stalin. After Khrushchev’s downfall, the ‘generation of 1956’ slowly rose through the bureaucracy of the Brezhnev era until Gorbachev assumption of power. Figes then relates how Gorbachev in trying to bring reform, brought about the collapse of the Soviet system and Communist party. Figes concludes on how the aftereffects of the collapse still affect Russian psychology today as well as its view of the Revolution.
Figes makes a persuasive case that the Revolution was a century long historical event, his detailing of Russian society and government, both under the Tsarist and Communist regimes, is both concise and detailed. In relating a century-long historical epoch in around 300 pages, Figes carefully balanced when to go into detail and when to view things in broad strokes. Revolutionary Russia is a well-written and researched look at a defining historical event in the 20th century and a highly recommended read.