Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, by Orlando Figes, Pelican, RRP£7.99, 496 pages/Metropolitan Books, RRP$28, 336 pages
Anybody watching the news on the Ukraine crisis in recent weeks will have seen a black, blue and red tricolour with a double-headed eagle flying above occupied government buildings. But I doubt this will have been widely identified as the flag first designed for the Donetsk-Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic – a state inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution that declared independence from Ukraine in February 1918. Although it only survived for a few weeks, and was soon occupied by the German Kaiser’s forces, many east Ukrainians still see it as a heroic moment in their history.
Orlando Figes finished this Pelican introduction before the Ukraine crisis but the importance of 1917 in the politics of the region today bears out his thesis: the Russian Revolution should not be seen as an event confined to the revolutionary years alone; rather, 1917 dominated Russian politics until the fall of the USSR in 1991, and its after-effects are with us still.
Figes identifies three cycles in Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, each associated with a particular generation. The first were those who came to be called the “Old Bolsheviks”, born in the 1870s and 1880s, who launched the October revolution amid wartime chaos. Their “utopian ideals and austere Party culture of military unity and discipline”, shaped both by their struggle against a repressive tsarism and by the subsequent civil war, had an enormous influence on the future Soviet state.
The second generation came of age during Stalin’s “revolution from above” of 1928-32. Enthused by the promise of socialist modernity, they pushed through collectivisation of agriculture and forced industrialisation, while benefiting from the regime’s expansion of education and white-collar jobs. They then matured into the conservative “Brezhnev generation” who became so resistant to change after the 1960s.
Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to reform the repressive Stalinist system and return to the ideals of 1917 inspired the third revolutionary generation, the “sixties people” (shestidesiatniki). This was the project that initially underpinned Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, and its failure led to the collapse of the Soviet system.
Figes’s framework is both insightful and convincing. It allows him to focus not only on the major figures but also on the broader social support mobilised during successive revolutionary cycles. At the same time it helps us to understand some of the mysteries of Soviet history – such as why Gorbachev was willing to go so far in undermining the bureaucracies that held the Soviet system together. Only his roots in the Russian revolutionary tradition can explain his radical, seemingly suicidal policies.
Figes integrates his analysis into a highly readable story, and as in his previous, longer work on the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy (1996), he shows himself to be a master of historical narrative. Readers will find themselves absorbing a great deal of information and insight with very little effort.
Some historians (myself included) will disagree with his analysis of particular episodes. For instance, was the Soviet Union’s takeover of eastern Europe after 1945 really part of a grand revolutionary project as he suggests, or was it motivated by a mixture of insecurity and great-power imperialism? But generally Figes tells us how his views differ from those of others – and he does so deftly, without getting bogged down in academic disputes.
On Lenin’s death in 1924, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live”, and his words featured on countless propaganda posters. In one sense, the fall of the Soviet Union proved him wrong. The world of 1917 no longer exists: neither the Donetsk separatists nor Vladimir Putin are Marxist-Leninists, and it is inconceivable that Angela Merkel will emulate the Kaiser and invade eastern Ukraine to rid it of Russian influence. But Lenin’s legacy survives nonetheless, and Figes’s introduction will make a major contribution to informed public debate on this crucial episode in world history.
David Priestland is author of ‘The Red Flag: Communism and the Making of the Modern World’ (Penguin)