Friday, June 27, 2014

Orlando Figes' New Survey, Revolutionary Russia

One of the most highly regarded Russian historians working today, Orlando Figes has written a new survey of the entire Soviet revolutionary experience.  Entitled Revolutionary Russia:  1891- 1991, Figes' book covers the 100 year period between the great pre-revolutionary famine of 1891--a catastrophe which Figes says irrevocably divided the tsarist regime from Russia's intelligentsia--and ends with the formal collapse of the Soviet Union.  In some ways, such a broad survey of modern Russian history functions more like a textbook than a work of original research.  Even so, like Natasha's Dance before it, Figes' offers readers a wonderful narrative and many fresh perspectives on old controversies.  Figes' overall perspective on the revolutionary experience is of course profoundly negative.

Figes, who wrote another wonderful book on the horrific impact of Stalinism on private life, entitled The Whisperers, is naturally appalled by Stalin's record of economic mismanagement, military error, anti-semitism, and terror.  However, Figes' judgement against the Soviet regime places a lot of the blame for the Soviet Union's record of anti-humanism squarely on Vladimir Lenin.  Figes' describes the October Revolution as a military coup and claims that Lenin was almost eager to enter a Civil War in order to expand the Bolshevik base of popular support and undermine all other socialist or peasant party contenders for that support. Figes' perspectives on Bolshevik leaders isn't generally very original.  However, his analysis of Stalin does place new emphasis on the dictator's essential rationality.  Leaving aside questions of morality, Figes seems to argue that Stalin was almost always acting from rational motives.  Even with respect to the Great Terror, Stalin wasn't merely a victim to delusional paranoia. For one thing, the Soviet Union was in fact surrounded by two viciously expansionist enemies, Germany and Japan.   And certainly the Western allies didn't seem to be offering the Soviet Union a dependable alliance.   In this context, Stalin remembered the lessons he had learned from Lenin and the other Bolsheviks during the Civil War:  external enemies--i.e., the French, the Americans, the Japanese, and the British--often had internal counterparts--i.e., the bourgeoisie, the white army officers, and cossacks.

While Stalin understood that the majority of his victims were innocent, he was willing to trade the lives of many innocent people for the certainty that he would also condemn a few "real" spies and traitors from time to time.  The problem wasn't that Stalin was insane.  Instead, the problem was that Stalin had accepted the Bolshevik proposition that individual lives could be traded for the greater good.  Stalin's henchmen also accepted this logic, which was in fact but the radical expansion of Lenin's original approach to politics.  Lenin had of course advocated for the violent suppression of enemies, and often advocated for the use of force against the innocent as well.  Consider his interest in using hostages to enforce the good behavior of family members, or indeed consider his whole philosophy of making the children of the bourgeois and aristocratic classes suffer for the "sins" of their parents.

If Stalin's essential sanity seems hard to accepts in light of his policy of mass murder, consider the fact that Russians today continue to accept the logic of Stalinism.  As Figes points out in the conclusion of his book, when surveyed, a majority of Russians are expound two seemingly contradictory propositions:  first, that Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens;  and second, that Stalin was an efficient manager who helped to modernize the Soviet Union.

To conclude, Figes' new book is a wonderful introduction both to the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union as a whole.  However, the books real strengths are its coverage of the February and October Revolutions, as well as Stalinism and the Second World War.  The book is weaker when trying to explain the transition to the less brutal dictatorship of Khrushchev and his successors.  And perhaps runs out of steam when moving into the collapse of the regime.  It seems this weakness might stem from the lack historical distance from the subject matter, or indeed from the failure to analyze the collapse of the Soviet Union in light of what we know know about its Putin-dominated successor state. Figes' book is also primarily a political book, as opposed to a cultural history, which is somewhat surprising if one remembers Natasha's Dance, which was dominated by literary and cultural history.

A few quotes from the book:

"Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun."

"It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary."

"There is no God any longer.  There is no Tsar!"  Father Gapon.

"Everything has failed.  Let us build jails."  Mirsky.

"One would think that you are afraid a revolution will break out."  "Your Majesty," Bulygin replied, "the revolution has already begun."

"the commune existed because the peasants were poor, it served to distribute the budern of their poverty..."

"All revolutions are based in part on myth."

"The bread queues became a sort of political forum where rumours and ideas were exchanged by hungry citizens."

"The street generated its own leaders--students, workers, cadets, and NCOs, socialists whose names have never made it into the history books."

"The revolution of 1917 should be understood as a general crisis of authority.  There was a rejection not just of the state but of all figures of authority--judges, policemen, government officials, army and navy officers, priests, teachers, employers, landowners, village elders, patriarchal fatehrs and husbands.  There were revolutions going on in virtually every sphere of life."

"Take power, you son of a bitch, when it's handed to you!"  Krandstadt sailors to Chernov.

"insurrection is an art"  Marx

"Lenin's revolution was as much against the other Soviet-based parties as it was against the Provisional Government."

"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."

"You are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out;  go where you ought to go-into the dustbin of history!"

"We must make life so uncomfortable for them that they will lose their desire to remain bourgeois."  Lenin.

"For the vast majority of the Russian people the ending of all social privileged was the basic principle of the revolution."

"Lenin was prepared for a civil war and perhaps even welcomed it as a chance to build his party's power base."

"By 1920, 5.4 million people worked for the government.  There were twice as many officials as there were workers in Soviet Russia.."

"His political horizon is restricted, his theoretical equipment primitive..."  Trotsky on Stalin.

"Bolshevism has abolished private life." Walter Benjamin.

"Collectivization was driven less by economics than by politics and a general mistrust of the peasantry."

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