You say you want a revolution – Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991

Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 – Orlando Figes (London, 2014).


It’s a Pelican! It’s a Pelican! Despite the reason for this blog’s existence and my new sort-of iron discipline about not buying new books until I’ve cleared my backlog, I have actually read loads of Pelicans this year – you just haven’t heard about it because I’ve not been blogging much. In particular I am storming through the new run of Pelicans, and have now read 9 out of 14. A new book, enticingly called Think Like an Anthropologist is due out in August, so I am racing to get the others finished in time for that.

That said, I never thought I would read this particular Pelican. Long-time readers may recall my hesitation about Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991. Way back in my first post I brought up Figes’ infamous writing of positive amazon reviews for his own books, and negative ones for his rivals (which he first blamed on his wife…) Perhaps more unsettling from an historiographical (a fancy word meaning the practice of ‘doing history’) point of view was the apparent raft of factual inaccuracies in his books. Because of this, I refused on principle to get this book. My beacon-like morality outshining my voracious desire to have the full set. Also I studied the Russian revolution at A-Level and have subsequently read lots of stuff about it, making it potentially less useful to me than some of the other Pelicans, such as Ha-Joon Chang’s Economics: A User’s Guide and Robin Dunbar’s Human Evolution. However, earlier this year, a friend bought me the book as a gift. Quandary sidestepped!

The author contemplating whether or not to get Orlando Figes’ book.

It was an apt purchase in this, the centenary year of the Russian revolution (which has predictably led to a publishing bonanza). A hundred years ago this month, Russia was in the grip of the “July days”, a significant event in revolutionary history. You see there were two Russian revolutions in 1917. The first one, in February, resulted in the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of a “Provisional Government”. The July days were a series of spontaneous workers’ and soldiers’ uprisings against that government, which the Bolshevik party (led by Lenin) tried to take advantage of. The uprisings were crushed, Lenin had to flee Russia again (having only returned from exile in Switzerland) and many Bolsheviks were arrested. Their power seemed broken until a rapid resurgence which led to the October revolution of 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks (who became the Communists) to power.

Street fighting in Petrograd (St Petersburgh) during the ‘July days’, 1917

Anyway all this is admirably dealt with by Figes in Revolutionary Russia. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised as an historian (not sure if you knew that, I like to keep it on the down-low) to find Revolutionary Russia highly enjoyable. It’s a book that does exactly what it says on the tin, i.e. it’s “A Pelican Introduction”. If you want in-depth engagement with the frankly gigantic existing history of the revolution look elsewhere. This is a highly digestible, whistle-stop tour which actually does a cracking job of rendering a very complicated history understandable.

Figes tackles the thorny issue of periodisation head on, seeing the Russian revolution as a three-stage phenomenon. For Figes the first stage was the febrile and intellectual revolution which emerged from Bolsheviks who had spent years operating clandestinely. There was a fundamental harshness to Bolshevik thinking in this period, an unwillingness to compromise Bolshevik power and an authoritarianism typified by the forced grain seizures ‘War communism’ which was practised in the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) tempered by a cool-headed pragmatism as seen in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty (1918), in which Lenin took Russia out of the First World War, winning peace at the cost of vast territorial concessions, and the ‘New Economic Policy’ of the early 1920s which saw a return to smallholding and private ownership in a bid to boost the ailing economy.

Lazar Lissitsky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” (1919) – Perhaps the most famous Bolshevik propaganda poster from the Russian Civil War


The second phase of the revolution is typified by Stalin’s terrifying tenure as leader of the Soviet Union. Characterised by mass terror and huge purges within the Bolshevik party, and sweeping policies – collectivisation of agriculture, industrialisation – carried out with complete disregard for the populace of Russia. This period saw Russia in the grip of remarkable sweeping changes, a time of the fabulous stations of the Moscow Metro, new industrial cities like Magnitogorsk and Stalingrad, dizzying infrastructure projects like the Belomor Canal, and hard-fought victory in the Second World War (‘The Great Patriotic War’ as it was known in Russia). The planned economy reached new heights with the Five Year Plans, wildly ambitious plans for rapid industrialisation and production which prized quantity over quality. All of this came at the cost of millions upon millions of Soviet lives, but it energised the revolution. For younger generations it provided a new series of myths and experiences to cleave to, whilst many of the older Bolsheviks who had lived through the first phase, Lenin’s revolution, didn’t live through Stalin’s.


Sv--Five-Year plan in four years - (we) will complete! cut.png
Stalinist propaganda – “Let’s Compete the Five Year Plan in Four Years!”

Stalin’s shadow loomed large over Figes’ third, and final, phase of the revolution. The tenure of Nikita Kruschev as leader (1953-1964) led to the emergence of two competing interpretations which facilitated the eventual collapse of the revolution. Kruschev’s decision, in 1956 to publicly reveal the true horrors of Stalinism in a speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, was a game-changer. How could anyone continue to have faith in the Party or the revolution after that? It’s an interesting analysis if not an entirely convincing one. At the same time, the party apparatchiks and yes-men who flourished under Stalin and who typified the rule of Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982) led the Soviet Union into a period of ossification. It was left to Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) were designed to save the revolution but ultimately ended it.

Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (leader of East Germany) share a kiss in 1979

This structure is a logical one, and Figes is careful to show that each phase bled into the other, rather than there being a strict delineation. It was a shame, if perhaps inevitable, that so much more time was lavished upon Lenin and Stalin’s eras than all those who came after. In a book of twenty chapters, just three are dedicated to the post-Stalin decades, these were critical decades for the Russian revolution – and it felt as if the distribution of the focus could have been more even.

Nevertheless, Figes has produced a commendable short introductory history of Russia between 1891-1991. It is very accessible and equally enjoyable for those who already know the topic as it would be for a complete newcomer. While its originality of analysis (particularly given the author’s history) can be questioned, on its own merits it does the job. I give it four stars ****

If your interest is piqued and you want to read some more detailed books about the Russian revolution/Soviet Russia here are a few I’ve enjoyed over the years:






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