Vast in scope, based on exhaustive original, and written with passion, narrative skill and human sympathy, A People's Tragedy is the definitive account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation.
It is a history on a truly epic and yet human scale. Orlando Figes lays out a panorama of Russian society on the eve of the revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces ere erased so violently. The huge canvas of war and revolution is supplemented by miniature histories of individuals, pieced together from their private writings, in which Figes follows the fortunes of people like the patriotic general Brusilov, the progressive peasant Semenov and the critical socialist Maxim Gorky as they saw their hopes die and their world crash into ruins.
From the 1891 famine, which politicized society and set it on a course of collision with the Tsarist dynasty, to the Revolutions of 1917, the Civil War and the death of Lenin in 1924, Figes thus unfolds a brilliant and novel perspective on the century's most important event. He depicts he revolution as a tragedy - both for the Russians as a people and for so many individuals whose lives became caught up in the storm.
Yet he also shows that the major social forces - the peasantry, the workers, the soldiers, and the subject peoples of the empire - were not just the victims of the Bolsheviks but were also actors in their own complex revolutionary tragedies. Orlando 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 own degeneration into violence and dictatorship.
Extract from the Preface:
The narrative of A People's Tragedy weaves between the private and the public spheres. I have tried to emphasize the human aspect of its great events by listening to the voices of individual people whose lives became caught up in the storm. Their diaries, letters, and other private writings feature prominently in this book. More substantially, the personal histories of several figures have been interwoven through the narrative. All of them had hopes and aspirations, fears and disappointments, that were typical of the revolutionary experience as a whole. My aim has been to convey the chaos of these years, as it must have been felt by ordinary men and women. I have tried to present the revolution not as a march of abstract social forces and ideologies but as a human event of complicated individual tragedies. It was a story, by and large, of people, like the figures in this book, setting out with high ideals to achieve one thing, only to find out later that the outcome was quite different. This, again, is why I chose to call the book A People's Tragedy. For it is not just about the tragic turning-point in the history of a people. It is also about the ways in which the tragedy of the revolution engulfed the destinies of those who lived through it.
Extract from the chapter 'Lenin's Revolution':
When the Bolsheviks took control of the Winter Palace, they discovered one of the largest wine cellars ever known. During the following days tens of thousands of antique bottles disappeared from the vaults. The Bolshevik workers and soldiers were helping themselves to the Chateau d'Yquem 1847, the last Tsar's favourite vintage, and selling off the vodka to the crowds outside. The drunken mobs went on the rampage. The Winter Palace was badly vandalized. Shops and liquor stores were looted. Soldiers and sailors went around the well-to-do districts robbing apartments and killing people for sport. Anyone well-dressed was an obvious target. Even Uritsky, the Bolshevik leader, narrowly escaped with his life, if not his clothes, when his sleigh was stopped one freezing night on his way home from the Smolny. With his warm overcoat, pince-nez and Jewish intellectual looks, he had been mistaken for a burzhooi.
The Bolsheviks tried in vain to stem the anarchy by sealing off the liquor supply. They appointed a Commissar of the Winter Palace - who was constantly drunk on the job. They posted guards around the cellar - who licensed themselves to sell off the bottles of liquor. They pumped the wine out onto the street - but crowds gathered to drink it from the gutter. The tried to destroy the offending treasure, to transfer it to the Smolny, and even to ship it to Sweden - but all their efforts came to nothing. Hundreds of drunkards were thrown into jail - in one police precinct alone 182 people were arrested on the night of 4 November for drunkenness and looting - until there was no more room in the cells. Machine-guns were set up to deter the looters by firing over their heads - and sometimes at them - but still the looters came. For several weeks the anarchy continued - martial law was even imposed - until, at last, the alcohol ran out with the old year, and the capital woke up with the biggest hangover in history.
A People's Tragedy was published in 1996 to critical acclaim:
Eric Hobsbawm in the London Review of Books:
'Few historians have the courage to attack great subjects, fewer have the grasp to succeed. This is a book that lets the reader look into the face of one of the major social upheavals of history…A People's Tragedy will do more to help us understand the Russian Revolution than any other book I know.'
Neal Ascherson in The Independent on Sunday:
'This book is not just a history; it is an item of history…Orlando Figes has taken the chance to display the very experience of revolution as it affected millions of ordinary Russians.'
Andrew Marr in The Independent:
'Huge in scope, brilliant in vignette, dark and implacable in theme, it is a modern masterpiece.'
In 1997 A People's Tragedy was awarded five major literary prizes: the Wolfson History Prize, the NCR Book Award, the W.H. Smith Literary Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award.
A People's Tragedy has been translated into over twenty languages.