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It is history on an epic yet human scale. Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People's Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Many consider the Russian Revolution to be the most significant event of the twentieth century. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of that revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased. Within the broad stokes of war and revolution are miniature histories of individuals, in which Figes follows the main players' fortunes as they saw their hopes die and their world crash into ruins. Unlike previous accounts that trace the origins of the revolution to overreaching political forces and ideals, Figes argues that the failure of democracy in 1917 was deeply rooted in Russian culture and social history and that what had started as a people's revolution contained the seeds of its degeneration into violence and dictatorship. A People's Tragedy is a masterful and original synthesis by a mature scholar, presented in a compelling and accessibly human narrative.
923 pages, Paperback
First published August 26, 1996
The Bolshevik programme was based on the ideals of the Enlightenment – it stemmed from Kant as much as from Marx – which makes Western liberals, even in this age of post-modernism, sympathise with it, or at least obliges us to try and understand it, even if we do not share its political goals; whereas the Nazi efforts to ‘improve mankind’, whether through eugenics or genocide, spat in the face of the Enlightenment and can only fill us with revulsion.
None of the democratic organisations established before October 1917 survived more than a few years of Bolshevik rule, at least not in their democratic form. By 1921, if not earlier, the revolution had come full circle, and a new autocracy had been imposed on Russia which in many ways resembled the old one.
Instead of being a constructive cultural force the revolution had virtually destroyed the whole of Russian civilisation; instead of human liberation it had merely brought human enslavement; and instead of the spiritual improvement of humanity it had led to degradation.
Rasputin’s assassin and alleged homosexual lover, Felix Yusupov, claimed that his prowess was explained by a large wart strategically situated on his penis, which was of exceptional size. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that Rasputin was in fact impotent and that while he lay naked with many women, he had sex with very few of them. In short, he was a great lecher but not a great lover. When Rasputin was medically examined after being stabbed in a failed murder attempt in 1914, his genitals were found to be so small and shriveled that the doctor wondered whether he was capable of the sexual act at all. Rasputin himself had once boasted to the monk Iliodor that he could lie with women without feeling passion because “his penis did not function.”
But Russia's prospects as a democratic nation depend to a large extent on how far the Russians are able to confront their own recent history; and this must entail the recognition that, however much the people were oppressed by it, the Soviet system grew up in Russian soil. It was the weakness of Russia's democatic culture which enabled Bolshevism to take root. This was the legacy of Russian history, of centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule, that had kept the common people powerless and passive. 'And the people remained silent' was a Russian proverb -- and it describes much of Russian history. To be sure, this was a people's tragedy but it was a tragedy which they helped to make. The Russian people were trapped by the tyranny of their own history.Ah, well, I guess the book deserves four and a half stars. It kept me on the edge of my toes for eleven long days of reading the book.