Revolution! Let's storm some palaces.
A few years ago, I read a book called Tocqueville in America. Using letters and diary entries, the author, George Wilson Pierson, traces Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels through the young states and shows how he formed the ideas and opinions that became Democracy in America. De Tocqueville’s cover story for his trip to the U.S. was to investigate the American prison system in order to find out how their methods could be applied to France; his real reason for the trip, though, was to find out how democracy was working in this country, why it was working and whether it would succeed in France. And his answer was no, it would not—America, it seemed, had somehow come together with the right people, in the right place, at the right time and those circumstances could not be recreated in an old, established country like France.
In A People’s Tragedy, Orlando Figes makes a similar case that the Russian Revolution happened for a number of individual reasons, but not least the perfect stormish confluence of all these things—a succession of famines, a tsar in the 20th century with a yearning for 17th century absolutism, the first world war, factory life, a surge in education that created a faction of literate peasants, etc., etc. etc. I can’t tell you all the reasons because, well, this is a huge, detailed, comprehensive book. It runs basically from about 1890 to Lenin’s death and the rise of Stalin in 1924, but it also dips back to the 17th, 18th, and early 19th century to give additional background (emancipation of the serfs and all that). Again, I tell you, this is a big book. There is a lot of information in here. You’ve got October Revolutions, February Revolutions, July uprisings, Kronstadt uprisings (those Kronstadt sailors were a hard bunch who were always in the middle of something), world wars, civil wars, and peasant wars. There are Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and not just Social Revolutionaries, but left Social Revolutionaries and right Social Revolutionaries. Need a police force? I can give you the Okhrana from the Tsar and the Cheka from the Bolsheviks, neither of whose bad side you’d ever want to be on. And of course all the big historical names: Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, Lenin, Trotsky, Martov, Kerensky, Kornilov, Brusilov, Prince Lvov, Gorky, and everyone’s favorite nutty mystic, Rasputin.
I know, it’s a lot and that’s rather a useless catalogue I just gave you. Anyone can make a list, right? And that’s why it’s a good thing that Orlando Figes wrote this book and not me, because he does a fine job unreeling this huge story in an immensely readable way. You get to know not just the main players of the time period, but also see the lives of ordinary people. You learn why they turned in the political directions they chose, why some ideas worked and others didn’t. By doing that, Figes takes what could be very dry discourses on different theories (see the Spanish Civil War book I didn’t like at Cannibals, Communists, and Commanders) and makes it all instead very real.
Again, I’m not going to go into great detail about this book because there is so much to discuss (also, I’m rather tired), but I should mention a few things that jump out at me. One is how hard it is to govern a large country—the people in the peasant village in the southeast don’t much care what the politicians in the big urban center in the north are doing. Another is how long it takes people to change and how silly it is to try to force change—the Bolsheviks had a rather naïve belief that they could change people’s psychology within a few years just through architecture, working environments, language and propaganda disguised as art. It takes generations to change people, if that’s even possible, not a few years of communal living in a stripped down modernist house. Another thing that stands out is the sheer number of people involved in the events discussed here, most astonishingly the number of people dying. When a rebellion is suppressed, the deaths are not in hundreds but in tens of thousands; when famine strikes, the death toll is in the millions, and that’s probably not counting the number of people, uh, eaten; yes, Figes discusses, perhaps in too much detail, the covert cannibalism that accompanied the famine of 1921. Yuck. For example, he explains that apparently cannibalism of desperation can turn into cannibalism of desire, that is, a real taste for, well, people. I'm not sure what to do with this piece of information. I guess I'll just remind you all not to start because it can be hard to stop. Again, I say yuck. Anyway, it seems incredible sometimes that a country could lose so many people for so many different reasons and still keep going.
Figes does tend to indulge in, “now if this had happened then this would have happened and that never would have happened” type reasoning. He points out numerous places where, he suggests, if this group had reconciled with this group, or this army had joined up with that one, or the land had been divided this way, the revolution would not have occurred, or a democracy or milder form of socialism would have resulted. I don’t know enough about the time period and circumstances to make a judgment about his theories. However, I do know that you can if-then, if-then stories by making what appears to be logical choices but those logical choices don’t always happen in real life—the person you suggested should have been in charge might get sick and die before making all the right decisions, or might turn out to be as power hungry and bloodthirsty as those you’re trying to avoid, or the weather might be unusually cold and no one will vote, or there might be no rain and another famine might ensue. See what I mean? It all looks good on paper, but that’s about all you can say about trying to re-organize history along logical lines.
But that’s a small complaint in a big book. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. My only regret is that I didn’t take notes along the way because in a matter of days all this great information is undoubtedly going to become a big jumble of odd names and weird anecdotes in my rather giddy, foggy mind.
Warning: the Crimean War is on deck--Cardigan, Raglan, one Nicholas, one Napoleon, and a Nightingale.