The Russian revolution of 1917 - or the Great October Socialist Revolution, as it was known by generations in the Soviet Union - was perhaps the most momentous event in the history of the 20th century. Those who study Russian history will probably say that there were at least two revolutions, antimonarchist in February and Bolshevik in October, and that the first world war was the cause of them; and they may add that there was an earlier revolution in 1905, the result of which was the partial, mainly cosmetic liberalisation of monarchist rule. But what were the deeper reasons for all three revolutions, and what precisely happened in 1905 and in 1917?
Orlando Figes tries to answer these and many other questions. Depicting events in Russia on a truly epic scale, his book does not divide the warring parties into goodies and baddies, unlike the more or less traditional approach to the Russian revolution and civil war, in which books published in the Soviet Union glorified the just struggle of the Reds against cruel oppressors while western publications often did exactly the opposite. A People's Tragedy is a rare example of a balanced approach to the Russian revolution. Major social forces are presented as participants in the revolutionary drama. Even the most unsavoury characters are shown not just as political figures but as personalities, as humans with their weaknesses: the gallery of portraits includes a peasant, a general and a famous writer whose fortunes the reader can follow from prerevolutionary years through to the end of the civil war. The only absolute villain is perhaps Stalin.
The narrative starts in the 1890s when, according to Figes, Russia's revolutionary crisis really began, and ends in 1924. When necessary, though, Figes goes back to events that happened before 1890. He tries to find clues to the revolution in Russian history, national character, culture and political thought.
The skilful integration of the narrative with the pictures of the everyday life of various individuals plays an important role in the structure of the book. Some critics may blame the author for not following the rules of academic research, for trying to imitate Tolstoy, but are such accusations not more like compliments? Figes clearly has a deep understanding of Russian character and culture and has done a tremendous amount of work in Russian archives. He wants his reader to live the dramatic events and calamities he describes, not just learn historical facts and details, many of them previously unknown. Revolution, as presented by Figes, is not only a conflict of ideologies and social forces but also a human event; and this must be considered the author's most important achievement. Of course, such an approach also makes the book interesting reading for a nonspecialist.
Out of the many portraits of historical figures, that of Nicholas II, the last tsar, is perhaps the most compelling. Well educated and hard working, the most polite ruler in Europe, Nicholas was unable to cope with the task of ruling his vast empire. "I am not prepared to be a Tsar. I never wanted to become one. I know nothing of the business of ruling," he complained to his cousin, Alexander, in 1894. He could have made a great constitutional monarch but having accepted the role of autocrat of all the Russians he was obliged not only to reign but to rule. He considered it his duty to leave the empire to his son and heir in the same state as he had inherited it from his father Alexander III.
Even more than her mild-mannered husband, Alexandra, the empress, who was born in Germany and brought up by her grandmother, Queen Victoria, in Britain, believed that Russia could be ruled as it had been ruled by medieval tsars: that the country existed for the benefit of the Romanov dynasty rather than the other way round. Throughout his 22-year rule Nicholas ignored the lessons of history and pleadings of numerous advisers, including other members of the imperial family, which all pointed to the fact that the only way to save the monarchy was to grant a government accountable to the people. His diaries show how relieved he felt after his abdication in March 1917. He probably found it easier to abdicate than to turn himself into a constitutional monarch.
Nicholas was the most prominent victim of the revolution, and, according to Figes, the main person responsible for such a turn of events. His assessment of the last tsar is of particular importance at present, when the Russian Orthodox Church, amid much controversy, has decided to begin the process of canonising the Russian imperial family shot by Bolshevik executioners at Yekaterinburg in July 1918. This massacre was, of course, a horrendous act of barbarism - but can Nicholas, nicknamed Bloody by his subjects, be proclaimed a saint, even as an act of atonement?
Was the downfall of tsarist rule inevitable? Might tsarist rule have changed and saved itself? Figes's conclusion is that probably its downfall was not inevitable, that it was the tsar's own stupidity that caused it. Was Bolshevism the inevitable next step? Again probably not, says Figes, though centuries of autocratic rule and serfdom had formed a peculiar mentality ready to embrace communist slogans. Figes draws a direct line from serf culture to the despotism of the Bolsheviks and the subsequent Stalinism.
A People's Tragedy is a truly absorbing book, a must for every student of Russian history, written with great passion and demonstrating deep knowledge of Russia and the Russian language. There are a few minor slips - for instance, the name of Lake Ladoga is misspelled twice; and the word chertog, used in the Russian version of "The Marseillaise", is archaic for palace and not devil - but the author should be congratulated on his precise and vivid recreating of details of Russian life, which is of itself an achievement for a foreigner.
Millions of soldiers and civilians, the imperial family, many prominent Bolsheviks and finally Lenin himself were victims of this tragedy. Figes concludes that the Russian revolution was a vast experiment in social engineering that the human race was bound to make at some stage in its evolution. The experiment failed, but are the ideas behind it dead? Can we consider communism buried? In today's Russia, nationalism is filling the vacuum left by the collapse of communism. One can only hope that the lessons of history have been learned.
Dmitri Antonov is at the Centre for International Education, Moscow State University. He is director of studies, The Russian Language Experience, London.
A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
Author - Orlando Figes
ISBN - 0 224 04162 2
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 923