Staff Review: Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 – Orlando Figes

9780805091311by Jim

How about a little Russian Revolution on Christmas Eve? Ok maybe not every ones first choice for the night before Christmas but at some point you should really check this one out (I briefly tried to come up with Russian Revolution themed lyrics to Night Before Christmas… it didn’t go well). Books on the Revolution can be a little dense but if you want to read one that isn’t Orlando Figes’ Revolutionary Russia is for you. He takes a complicated series events that even people who are specialists in the subject have a hard time following and makes it very approachable.

Figes starts with a basic question: When does the Russian Revolution end? This is actually a hotly argued among scholars in Russian history. Some say it ended with the end of the Russian Civil War in 1922. Others say it ended with the rise of Joseph Stalin. Still others say the German invasion of Russian in 1941. Figes essentially says they are all wrong and that the revolution in one form or another extended from the 1891 famine to the fall of the Soviet Union. Granted the nature of that revolution developed and changes over time.

Not interested in the abstruse arguments of scholars? That’s ok because Figes narrative style has a lot to offer beyond his own theory. His Russian Revolution is one of larger than life characters both well known (Lenin, Trotsky, Nikolas II etc) and less well known Bolshevik operatives, middle class liberals, soldiers and peasants. It is also a revolution of great events: Two world wars, a civil war, famines, purges, failed revolutions and a lot of suffering. And in between he slips in some Marxist and Leninist theory without you even realizing he’s doing it. For example part of the reason the Bolshevik’s succeed was not that they were supported by the population over other revolutionary groups like the Mensheviks. It was because the other revolutionary groups were operating on a timetable set my Karl Marx which said there was no way Russia could have a revolution yet. The Bolsheviks took a short cut and, using a small cadre of highly motivated supporters who took advantage of organic unrest and did an end run around everyone on the left and the right.

Still not convinced? Well here’s Figes talking about his book and the study of the Russian Revolution in general.

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