The revolution continues
BRITISH Parliamentarian George Galloway has often declared the saddest day of his life was the day the Soviet Union collapsed. And while many might disagree with the sentiment, the implosion of the superpower certainly did mark the end of an epoch.
One of Galloway’s compatriots happens to be arguably the greatest Western authority on Russian history of our time. Orlando Figes’ latest work maintains the fine form of his last half a dozen books on the nation that formed the core of the Soviet Union, and which is reasserting itself today.
Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 author Figes is a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London. His seven previous books on Russia have enjoyed robust sales around the globe, and have netted the Londoner several prestigious awards, including the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Today’s newly confident Russia, headed by former KGB spymaster President Vladimir Putin – The Man The West Can’t Quite Figure Out – is making a lot of headlines this year. Indeed, the steely Putin is a man forged by the Soviet Union, and his nation is the heir to the vast collapsed state, so this illuminating release is timely.
Figes concise and detailed look at the origins of the world’s first Communist state explains why the author sees the revolution as a decades-long continuum rather than a static and fixed event. And the how it ended fizzled out at the end of the last century, to the barely disguised glee of the world’s remaining superpower (and the chagrin of Galloway and countless left-wingers the world over).
The long enduring conventional wisdom and historical narrative is that the Russian Revolution took place in October 1917, and launched the world’s first Communist state.
However Figes sees this as an overly simplistic view, and moreover, wrong. The “correct” perspective he offers here is that the revolution was continuous phenomena covering a century of Russian history, and which unfolded in three “movements”.
Delving deep, Figes identifies the period 1891-1922 as the first movement. The Russian famine of 1891 provided a catalyst for revolutionary change in impoverished 19th-century Russia. This nationwide disaster led to calls for reform that had no political outlet due to the autocratic rule of Tsar Alexander III. And in time, drawing from a widespread sense of oppression and neglect, Lenin and his Bolshevik peers were able to build up a revolutionary power-base.
Figes examines the breakdown of the Tsarist regime that enabled, firstly, the Revolution of February 1917, and subsequently, the political chaos that spawned the October Revolution.
He also describes the impact the following civil war had on the revolution and the new state – one seen so menacing by the West’s capitalists and industrialists that armies from the United States, France, Italy, the British Empire, and others intervened, though with little effect. By 1922, Bolshevik victory was complete.
The second stage, led by the heirs of the founding generation of the revolution, was the age of Stalin. Figes stays close to the conventional history of how Josef Stalin rose to power through force and terror, eliminating both real and imagined rivals and “enemies to the state” with chilling ruthlessness. Despite the paranoia of Stalin’s three-decade-long rule, Figes notes that Stalin is held in high regard by many Russians today, akin to mainland China’s present-day bittersweet affection for Chairman Mao Zedong.
Stalin’s greatest achievement was spearheading victory over Nazi Germany during World War II, and the fascist invasion had a profound impact. “The Second World War did not interrupt the Revolution. It intensified and broadened it,” Figes writes. “Bolshevism came into its own during the war – with its military discipline and cult of sacrifice, its willingness to expend human life to meet its goals, and its capacity to militarize the masses through its planned economy, it was made to fight. The Revolution was reforged and toughened by the war.”
The third movement of the Revolution started in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death, with General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s speech denouncing his dictatorial predecessor. And from here “the generation of 1956” drew closer to the revolution’s original purity while also making liberalising moves across the police state.
This generation rose through the bureaucracy of the Leonid Brezhnev era and guided the revolution until Mikhail Gorbachev, both a great and a reluctant reformer, assumed power.
Figes sees the Cold War as simply a continuation of the Russian Civil War that was internationalised by the interventionist forces of the West. And also asserts that the global ambitions of the revolution’s leaders remained basically unchanged, from their first attempts to extend hegemony westwards into Europe and until the fateful foray into Afghanistan on the cusp of the 1980s.
Gorbachev’s unwitting role in the Soviet Union’s demise is cleverly related here. And his attempts to tinker with and reform the USSR brought about its collapse, even though, notes Figes, many of the Soviet Union’s final leader’s initiatives were conceived by the party many years earlier but just not implemented.
In the last section of the book, the author reflects on the trauma of the collapse, which still affects the Russian psyche today. And he also dwells on lingering Russian perceptions of its revolution that shook the world, and how, during a few brief periods, the Soviet Communist Bloc looked in danger of consigning capitalism to history instead of itself.
This is an outstanding book, and regardless of the reader’s political stripe, Galloway’s line on the demise of the Soviet Union will seem more relevant and poignant after reading these 336 captivating pages.