History trip: Orlando Figes on Revolutionary Russia

London F8“If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.”
(Pearl Buck)        

The event at Daunt’s magnificent bookshop in Marylebone High Street on May 15th was billed as a conversation between Oliver Bullough, author and journalist, and the historian Professor Orlando Figes. It was, however, rather more than that. It was both an occasion to mark the publication of Figes’s most recent book and a celebration of the relaunch of the Pelican Imprint. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991 is one of a series of books commissioned for the relaunch. The evening was history on two levels!

Pelican books, sisters to the famous Penguin paperbacks, were introduced in 1937 but discontinued in 1990. These distinctive paperbacks, easily carried in a handbag or a coat pocket, brought high quality non-fiction books within the reach of the general public, for whom, in the 1930s and 1940s, buying books was out of reach. Initially they cost little more than six old shillings. The slim volumes covered every subject and the authors became household names: amongst them, Vance

Packard, Richard Hoggart, Hans Eysenck, E.P. Thompson. Professor Figes’s contribution to the new series bears a slightly modified pelican symbol, but its plain blue cover, relatively small size and modest price ensure that it carries on the tradition of the famous imprint.

On the back cover of his book, Figes asks whether we still live with the consequences of the Russian revolution. On this evening in May 2014 with the annexation of the Crimea by Russia just two months old, this was a question the audience was eager to explore. Professor Figes explained that he wanted to offer a fresh perspective. The Russian revolution should be viewed, he felt, in a much broader timescale than the one usually adopted by historians. In his view, the starting point is the great famine of 1891 and the end point the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. He identified three cycles within this hundred years, each one led by a different generation of revolutionaries. In 1891, the famine, which cost 400,000 lives, provided a catalyst for change in an impoverished and backward country. The liberal intelligentsia initially challenged the stifling autocracy of the Tsarist regime, but a new generation of revolutionaries, born in the 1870s and 80s, emerged, one of them being Lenin. A second phase is represented by Stalin, intent on transforming the USSR into a modern industrialised state, capable of destroying capitalism at home and abroad. Gorbachev belongs to the third generation. He was anxious to return to the idealism of Lenin, but was dealing with a population that no longer identified with the revolution of October 1917 nor even with Stalin’s Great Patriotic War. Those who benefited from the regime – which included many of the middle classes – became unwilling to change. Just as the Tsarist regime became fossilized, just as Nicholas II failed to understand what was being asked of him as ruler, so did the Communist dictators who followed Stalin. Corruption and inertia characterized the period after Stalin’s death.

Pressed to comment on whether the regime of Vladimir Putin represented continuity with the one hundred year period he had made the basis of his analysis, Professor Figes agreed that many features of Tsarist autocracy were replicated, both in the Soviet era and again after the fall of the USSR. In particular, he argued that the economic problems of the modern state were not dissimilar from those experienced under the Tsars and Communist leaders alike, an example being the lack of investment in infrastructure. Putin’s ‘iron-fisted’ nationalism, his endorsement of the violence of Stalin’s regime as necessary to ensure the country’s modernization and the gathering around himself of a wealthy coterie of friends intent on preserving the status quo, all suggest that although the revolution may be dead, it lives on the mentalities of the people living in Russia today.