Orlando Figes ranks among the best writers who happen also to be professional historians. His first block-buster, "A People's Tragedy," is a perfectly...moreOrlando Figes ranks among the best writers who happen also to be professional historians. His first block-buster, "A People's Tragedy," is a perfectly splenid synthesis of hundreds of monographs that convey bits and pieces of the history of Russia's revolutionary epoch, 1895-1924, beginning with the great famine and ending with Lenin's death and Stalin's incipient rise to autocratic power - deservedly translated into 20 or so languages.
His latest, The Crimean War, provides a thorough introduction to the pivotal events of 1853-56, years which may well mark the final break of certain elements the Russian intelligensia with tsardom. That's my tentaive conclusion, in any case. And that conclusion accords with much that I have been reading lately about Alexander Herzen and his times. So for now, at least, it appears to me that one could use that war, and this book, as a point of departure for the study of revolutionary socialism in the Russian Empire.
Figes' account of the diplomatic circumstances of the war and its antecedants are very much on the mark as far as I can tell, and his portrait of Nicholas I - as autocrat - illuminates the sources of the intelligencia's conversion to oppositionist ideologies of every variety.
I have to admit that I skipped over no fewer than 200 pages, perhaps a third, of the book. I can barely stomach diplomatic history, but detailed accounts of marches, skirmishes, battles, the dying and the dead, soldiers' depradations, looting, etc., etc., I can not read. Really if you've read one, your've read them all, and I can't really care about this trench or that redoubt. But I'm sure that persons who are eager to read such material will find his narratives gripping.
I do wish that he had written at least a chapter or two, rather than 7-10 pages, on the consequences in Russia of Russia's defeat. He hints that after the Tsar signed the Treaty of Paris, Nicholas' thinking subjects began to reconsider the rationale for the autocracy and all its institutions. I only hope that these consequences serve as the point of departure for his next book. (less)
I find Herzen a most personable and approachable man. I admire his great personal confidence and independence of mind, one entirely unafraid of confro...moreI find Herzen a most personable and approachable man. I admire his great personal confidence and independence of mind, one entirely unafraid of confronting shop-worn ideas and contradicting the pious of whatever faith. And through it all - and I do mean all - a close observer of revolutionary Europe and European revolutionaries and socialists. I now understand fully his vaunted rejection of abstractions and disembodied notions of "freedom" and "justice." And I can read books such as Venturi's "Roots of Revolution" with a keen sense of the person behind and beyond the analysis of his political journalism.
It is quite easy for me - a historian - to forget the contents of each publication in the flood of writing he produced, but I will say that once I have even a finger-tip grasp of the man. I can form a mental image of him, and can imagine his conversation and his endless diatribes as if he were actually present. It's exactly that sort of "net" that I need to catch and hold even a small fraction of all the information about him that other biographers and analysts have collected in thousands and thousands of pages of historical narrative.
Just a few more words upon finishing this book. Herzen clearly represented a "third" way to socialism. As I wrote, he rejected all abstractions and disembodied laws of history. "Liberty, equality, fraternity," abstract human rights and the laws of historical materialism were so many excuses for yet more and different varieties of autocracy. As far as I can tell in my early study of this man, he may well have drawn upon or created Russian anarchism. Now in the Russian sense, anarchism did not imply no government or the absence of regulated behavior. It meant, however, a complete de-centralization of authority and allocation of all authority to forms of government and regulation that are the product of the most localized forms of "national life," the Russian village and commune in the country-side, for example, workers soviets in urban areas, with the possibility of association of highly localized authorities, i.e. All Russian Soviets of This, That and the Other, the All-russian Congress of All and Sundry. It also connoted the continuing and continuous accountability of elected authority to its electorate. The Kronstadters must have drawn much of their "constitution" from Herzen, or conversely perhaps Herzen merely codified peasant traditions that most Kronstadters knew from their lives as peasants.
Toward the middle of the book I finally detected the strand of thought, a vitalism, I suppose, that became progressively central in Herzen's memoirs (He wrote them over many years.) - namely his thoughts about human life - in general - whatever that may be, "national life," in particular, and the highly multiform and very untidy instantiations of culture that "life" generates. I suspect that if I read the book again, I would collect all this material and attempt to make sense of them in some more or less systematic fashion - most likely in direct contradiction to Herzen's defense of the particular and the individual. But it seems to me that his approach to socialism rejected the dictates of "reason," which created the terror of the French Revolution, the results of "analysis," e.g. Marx's "scientific" laws of history and historical change that ultimately generated Bolshevism and the one-party state, which Herzen would have cursed with every charged particle in his body had he lived to see it. He appears to have thought that each nation or ethnic or cultural collective generated forms of society and government by some undefined "natural" process fueled by local "life" in one form or another. In Russia in particular and perhaps elsewhere that process created a form of socialism - the peasant commune - quite appropriate for the people of that time and place. No international revolution of workers and peasants for him.
Of course the book is well worth a second or third reading, and I suspect that I've only noticed the bleeding obvious about which scores of graduate students have covered thousands of pages with their citations and comments. I just might try to find one or two hundred.
Throughout it all, Herzen remained a "mensch," apparently sociable, approachable, generous, even club-able - if that's a word - a way of life facilitated, I suspect, by his ownership of vast inherited wealth. I would very much have like to have known the man - in his day or any other.
A final word on the translation. I can't see how one could ask for clearer, more fluent English prose. I think the world owes Ms. Garnett a great debt of gratitude for this book as for so many others.
Paul Avrich does not disappoint, but how could he? This story is full of drama with not so wonderful heros and just plain awful villians. For me a thr...morePaul Avrich does not disappoint, but how could he? This story is full of drama with not so wonderful heros and just plain awful villians. For me a thrilling read. As I've written before, I'm a historian for good reasons - You just can't make this stuff up.(less)
Now this book should be a page-turner if there ever was one. Decades ago, when I was earning advanced degrees in history, I really enjoyed my research...moreNow this book should be a page-turner if there ever was one. Decades ago, when I was earning advanced degrees in history, I really enjoyed my research in the history of agriculture, especially the history of farming practices and technologies, as I do still. The reason is, I suppose, that I was made, i.e. I'm physically constituted, to be, a farmer of the Scottish highlands. I'm altogether tireless at unremitting labor out in the cold, the wet and the nearly dark.(less)
This volume is part of the Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies series, a series I have come to admire. It includes Gerstein's volume, "K...moreThis volume is part of the Cambridge Russian, Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies series, a series I have come to admire. It includes Gerstein's volume, "Kronstadt, 1917-1921," a wonderfully exciting book for those who know that fact is stranger than fiction, as in "You can't make this stuff up!" It also includes Galai's book, a masterful account of the liberation movement that helped bring about the 1905 uprising, and as far as I can tell, just about the only book in English on the subject. It is rather stern stuff, however. Clear and convincing but hardly graceful. It grew out of his dissertation, and it shows. Then again not every scholar needs to be a great teller of tales.
The best account in English (that I'm aware of) of this significant event in the early history of the Soviet Union, an event that accelerated Lenin's...moreThe best account in English (that I'm aware of) of this significant event in the early history of the Soviet Union, an event that accelerated Lenin's decision to end War Communism and to establish a New Economic Policy (NEP) but that also provided the pretext for liquidating every variety of political dissent, for assuring single-party rule once and for all (unitl 1990, that is), and establishing the prerequisite conditions for the Stalinist state. Paul Avrich writes clearly, precisely and fluently. His prose, in which he captures a truly thrilling story, makes for a page-turner.(less)
I'm on page 45, and I've adjusted to the author's style and pace. Quite interesting so far. I think he will ultimately attempt to show that Stalin's "...moreI'm on page 45, and I've adjusted to the author's style and pace. Quite interesting so far. I think he will ultimately attempt to show that Stalin's "terror" in the late 1930s was one of several occurrences of such "mobilization," and that the use of terror derives IN PART from one of several strands of Bolshevist ideology. But I certain that he won't re-interate the findings of Cold War Westerners. We'll see.(less)
Of course, this books deserves the praise that critics have heaped upon it since its publication in 1971. I can think of no other history of Soviet po...moreOf course, this books deserves the praise that critics have heaped upon it since its publication in 1971. I can think of no other history of Soviet politics up to Bukharin's execution in 1938 that even approaches it in completeness and clarity. The outlines of that history are immediately evident, and one can consult other works for all the details.
I do have one criticism of the book, however. In his introduction Cohen writes: "The real question is whether either of these party leaders [Trotsky and Bukharin] represented a viable programmatic alternative to Stalinism in the 1920s."
First of all, the words "the real question" raises a red flag for me whenever I encounter them. Historians consider questions in their hundreds and thousands - all of them "real" in the sense that they exist in the minds of practicing historians. I suspect that Cohen meant: "the only question of interest to me," and like the arrogant academic that he is, he considers all other questions trivial - of no interest to "real" historians.
Secondly, I don't understand why he formulated the "real" question as he did. Bukharin and Trotsky covered hundreds and thousands of pages with words, words, words. In the sense that those words constituted "programs," which Cohen does not define, they did formulate alternative programs. Moreover, Bukharin's ideas WERE public policy and the foundation of funded government programs until about 1927 or so, when Stalin decided differently, when he began to liquidate the old Bolshevik party and to complete his highly successful project (of ten years) to gain personal control of the party apparatus and internal security/police organization. I assume Cohen means that the Central Committee COULD have CONTINUED to adopt Bukharin's ideas after 1927-9 as party/governmental policy and subsequently implemented in approved and funded "programs." Perhaps. [So could a Romanov restoration, I suppose - however remote the possibility.] But not on any planet he shared with Stalin, once Stalin decided differently. Throughout it all Bukharin remained intent on preserving his independence, which meant he remained largely uninvolved in the nasty struggles for power, the tedium of creating and establishing himself in a position to exercise "real" control [rather than to rely on persuasion] within the communist party and in the Soviet state so that he might actually implement his "program.". He remained a "maverick," a "loner." This is not to say that he didn't have his followers and admirers. He did - by the millions. But neither he nor Trotsky seemed to recognize that other persons pursued other goals, quite indifferent and entirely unmoved by their brilliance. They seemed not to understand, if their behavior indicates understanding, that the force of their ideas alone would be insufficiently powerful to compel anyone to act as their ideas suggested. Fools - the both of them. So whatever can Cohen mean when he writes of "programmatic alternatives?" Between 1927 and 1938 in seminar rooms or at a podium perhaps, but certainly not in the Kremlin - once Stalin had firm control of the party apparatus and internal security/police organizations. And Bukharin never seemed to recognize that he might have acted otherwise. But perhaps he couldn't. Now that suggests really interesting questions - How could and why did Bukharin ignore the politics of power in the 1920s?
Lastly, Cohen states the "real question" in his introduction and then seems to forget that he ever posed it until he raises it again in his epilogue - in a "thus we see" manner. I had been anticipating that he would discuss the "Bukharin alternative" every chapter or so when he offered his analyses of milestone events, but he didn't - just straight, brilliantly insightful commentary on political issues and the temporary alignment of political factions, wonderfully fluid. Perhaps Cohen had spent so much time in Bukharin's company - which would have been entirely delightful - that he also came to believe that he need not explain himself, that the answer to his question is so patently obvious to the attentive reader that he needn't formulate it.
But these are small points, I suppose. It remains an entirely indispensable book for the interested. And when I read it again, I'll just skip over the introduction and the epilogue not that I've vented.(less)
The standard overview of this subject, i.e. serfs and serfdom in Russia, since its publication. A surprisingly readable book nonetheless - but then ag...moreThe standard overview of this subject, i.e. serfs and serfdom in Russia, since its publication. A surprisingly readable book nonetheless - but then again I am highly interested in labor and agricultural history - in short, how folks have made a living and the conditions under which they make a living. It's also essential reading, I suspect, for those of us who are interested in the political history of the Russian Empire during the second half of the 19th century and into the first quarter of the 20th. So I would recommend this book to anyone who plans to read Franco Venturi's Roots of Revolution, among many other books of this topic. I would recommend it even to readers who want to understand Russian literary history of the same period, e.g. Gogol's Dead Souls is incomprehensible without background knowledge of the type that Blum's book provides.
12/01/2010. I've just finished Gogol's Dead Souls - again - and I am struck by the number of terms and references related to serfs and serfdom that appear in the novel and that the author does not explain, but that Blum treats in detail. (less)
I've been reading Russian/Soviet history lately, Alexander Rabinovitch's three unsurpassed studies of the revolution in St. Petersburg, and W. Bruce L...moreI've been reading Russian/Soviet history lately, Alexander Rabinovitch's three unsurpassed studies of the revolution in St. Petersburg, and W. Bruce Lincoln's three volumes on Russia's revolutionary background, that nation's experience of WWI, revolution and civil war. Master story-tellers the both of them. So I'm taking break from the thrill of such writing by picking up Surh's monograph. He writes good, solid, academic prose, and his book is much needed, but for the life of me - and I hold a Phd in the subject - I don't understand how he managed to eliminate from his book every suggestion that human beings actually experienced the uprising of 1905. I'll recover from my current befuddlement with the information I need to appreciate other narrative accounts - Trotsky's for example - more fully. But in exchange Surh demands - and gets - his pound of flesh. This too shall pass.
It helps a great deal to read Galai's "The Liberation Movement in Russia, 1900-1905," before taking on this door-stop.(less)
After p. 180 I am not sure that I can read much more of this book. To be sure Taubman's book is a splendid example of the biographer's art and craft, f...moreAfter p. 180 I am not sure that I can read much more of this book. To be sure Taubman's book is a splendid example of the biographer's art and craft, fully deserving of the aclaim and prizes, including the Pulitzer, that various critics bestowed, etc., etc. It's just that the subject is so very uninteresting. I have read tens of biographies of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Bukharin, among the many Old Bolsheviks whose fascinating lives are told and documented in wonderfully engaging and powerful books. I was entirely surprised that K's life could have been so dull. This is NOT to say that his life was uneventful, because it was. It is to say, however, that the biography of one of Stalin's creatures, whom he advanced as he liquidated the old Bolshevicks and with them the Bolshevick Party and state, is singularly one dimensional. That dimension, of course, was the gamesmanship of survival, of remaining one of Stalin's pets. Not altogether a challenge for the likes of K. - on the whole a singularly vacuous man, who could tell himself anything and believe whatever thoughts he concocted, who lived a life entirely untroubled by conscience. He was, of course, pruitanical, berating drunkards and the unfaithful, while he calmly signed the death warrants of hundreds to thousands. Just the sort of man, the uneducated, unreflecting, rather stupid, submissive and entirely sincere nullities that Stalin placed and kept in power. Of course, I understand that K. initiated and drove the de-Stalinization of the USSR - such as it was, so it might be that I skim over the pages of his biography that narrate his life before Stalin's death and skip the years between 1953 and 1956 altogether. We'll see. But none of this is Taubman's fault. I'm just wondering how he could summon the energy to write such a wonderful book of such a shallow, self-aggrandizing, narcissistically inflated, vapid but cunning non-entity.
I couldn't read another page - for now. Something apart from this book will have to prompt me to pick it up again. Maybe Lawrence Friedmans' "Kennedy's Wars."(less)
Tucker's book is a wonderful example to superlative scholarship. My only comment is that I would have preferred that he limit the repetition of his ps...moreTucker's book is a wonderful example to superlative scholarship. My only comment is that I would have preferred that he limit the repetition of his psychoanalysis of Stalin to once per 100 pages rather than once per 10 pages. That bit get tedious, after its first 50 to 60 appearances. I have had trouble finishing the book, not because of Tucker's writing, but it becomes harder and harder to tolerate Stalin - especially after having read five or six or seven biographies already. But I will finish. (less)
I have admired Robert Tucker's work for decades now, and I am glad at long last to take up the first of his two volume study of Stalin. After reading...moreI have admired Robert Tucker's work for decades now, and I am glad at long last to take up the first of his two volume study of Stalin. After reading about 200 pages, I would say that Montefiore's recent (2009) book, "Young Stalin," has superceded Tucker's work in its account of events, but then again how could it not. Tucker published this book in 1973, well before the opening up to Western historians of many archives that preserve relevant documents. Tucker's subject, however, which isn't Montefiore's subject, is the development of the dictatorial personality in Stalin, and I'm not aware of any extended work that is so successful as Tucker's. At this point, it's clear from Tucker's account that Stalin didn't set out to become the monster he became. To be sure, he was quite aggressive. He possessed extraordinary gifts of duplicity, intrigue and treachery. Nonetheless, young Stalin was not the old Stalin. I am reading this volume eagerly, and I look forward to reading the second volume, which should recount the further transformations in Stalin and the circumstances in which they occurred from 1928 until his death in 1953, when the young Stalin morphed into a murderous dictator. The change in tone of biography between 1973 and 2009 is quite striking, and I have noted this change in many books. Tucker writes in a very dispassionate, analytical voice, while Montefiore presents an exciting (and deeply researched and richly documented) narrative along with so much sensory detail that one can almost see the story unfolding as if in a movie. (less)