Many a wise ancient employed allegory to elucidate meanings obscured by platitude, and so I thought, why not use the trick in this book review?  The fact is, only the history of World War II is more densely populated with hacks than the history of the Russian “Revolution”—initial capital being part of that old scam—and if one wishes to cut through the confusion, a strong cleansing agent, such as a kick in the shins or a wild allegory, is required forthwith.

In October 1967, a disorderly mob of 100,000, consisting of individuals who fancied themselves radicals, liberals, black nationalists, university professors, and women, converged on Washington, marching to the Pentagon in protest against the Vietnam War.  There were few war veterans among their number, though over the next five years membership in Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) would increase to 25,000—admittedly, less than one percent of those who had served in Vietnam.

Now, imagine if the U.S. government had stopped prosecuting deserters.  Moreover, imagine that the soldiers, deserting in ever greater numbers, had been leaving the front with their weapons and ammunition about their persons, and that it was they, together with the alleged professors, liberals, and women, who spearheaded that march on Washington.  I dare say that a few thousand VVAW members armed with AK-47s and ready to use them, particularly in the presence of 100,000 civilians shielding them from police or army reprisal, would have spelled the end of the presidential regime in America.

“Presidential regime?” I hear you cry.  “What in blazes is that?!”  Well, Orlando Figes, echoing his myriad precursors, is unabashed when it comes to the platitude “tsarist regime.”  He does not see the term as antihistorical, in that, like my deliberately antihistorical invention of a presidential regime in America, it obscures rather more than it describes.  As his own narrative now and then makes clear, no year in the period 1891-1917—socially, culturally, and above all politically—was like any other, and yet, to Figes, the Soviet propaganda words czarism and czarist carry historically valid meaning.

“Revolution!”  Just as there had been no such thing as the czarist regime, there had been no revolution that overthrew it.  The government of Nicholas II collapsed in February 1917 under the aggregate weight of military failure in World War I, whereupon the Provisional Government that had assumed the czar’s authority collapsed in its turn.  The pressure of trainloads of marauding armed deserters, whom neither the army nor the government had either the will or the ability to court-martial or to pacify, was too great for a largely westernized, liberal social order to sustain.  It is this pivotal moment in history that my parable was meant to drive home for the reader.

The Armies of the Night is an account of the march on Washington by Norman Mailer, who was among the few hundred protestors arrested that day.  I recall a passage in which the famous novelist told of his inhumane treatment in jail—namely, being served canned, rather than freshly squeezed, orange juice for breakfast, which burned his throat.  The treatment was indeed inhumane by “czarist” standards, as Lenin, while in prison, insisted on and had been given his special brand of mineral water, on the grounds that no other kind suited his peculiar digestion.  For comparison, I quote what Figes tells us of prison conditions in Russia after 1917:

Each local Cheka had its speciality.  In Kharkov they went in for the “glove trick”—putting the victim’s hands in boiling water until the blistered skin could be peeled off.  In Kiev they fixed a cage with rats to the victim’s torso and heated it so that the rodents ate their way through the victim’s body to escape.

It is clear, in other words, that any liberal regime—of Nicholas II, of the Weimar Republic, of the shah of Iran, and indeed our own “presidential regime” of today—depends to a very great extent on such deterrents to anarchy, mutiny, and insurrection that, while not straying into totalitarian inquisition territory, are somewhat more credible than orange juice from concentrate or the wrong kind of mineral water.  No such measures, alas, had been put into place either by the reigning Romanovs or their democratically elected successors when armed deserters began to converge on the capital, St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd to distance Czar Nicholas from his cousin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who had unleashed the internecine war.

It is easy to imagine Norman Mailer as Lenin or, better yet, Trotsky, who foolishly left us a written record of his shocked surprise at the onset of the “Revolution” that he would later claim he and his comrades had made.  Of course, like both of these accidental beneficiaries of an unexpected collapse of legitimate authority, Mailer would not have lasted long in the White House, or in whatever analogue of the Kremlin he and his equally loquacious cronies would have picked to hang their shingle on.  A meaner, sterner figure (Tom Hayden?  Abbie Hoffman?  Timothy Leary?  Remember them?) would soon arrive at the door to sweep their mismanaged good fortune, and the country along with it, into his pocket.  Anybody who has watched gangster films knows exactly how that happens.

Thus the thesis put forward by Figes in his title, Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991, is by definition an antihistorical fiction, because the first part of this period, 1891-1917, ought to be the story of Russia, whereas the second, 1918-91, should be the story of what happened to Lenin’s loot.  Try as the author might (and why try in the first place, I wonder?  So that a publisher can say, “Hey, that’s exactly 100 years!  Neat!”?), jamming the two disparate halves into a single mythopoeia of a “revolutionary” epoch is an absurd undertaking.  Yet Figes insists:

Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun.  Their means of rule altered over time, of course, particularly after Stalin’s death, when they gave up on the use of mass terror, but they always saw themselves as Lenin’s heirs, working to achieve the same utopian goals envisaged by the founders of the Soviet state: a Communist society of material abundance for the proletariat and a new collective type of human being.  That is why I think a good case can be made for the Revolution being treated as a single cycle of one hundred years, ending with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991.

In truth I cannot decide whether the above ratiocination is merely ignorant, or ignorant and laughable.  Stalin pursuing the “utopian goals” of “a Communist society”?  Stalin hated communism, drowned communists in their own blood, shut down the Communist International, reopened 20,000 Russian Orthodox churches, and shortly before his death was set to have himself crowned czar by the Patriarch of All the Russias—none of which, incidentally, ought to surprise the sensible historian of whatever nation or epoch.  Did Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French and king of Italy, remain faithful to the “utopian goals” of those Jacobins from whom he had taken power?  Was the Corsican upstart so very different from the Georgian just because he had no mustache and better table manners?

And then, of course, there is that dastardly phrase “they all believed,” without which hardly a volume or an article on the Soviet epoch can be found in any library.  William James published his Principles of Psychology at the beginning of the period Figes is considering, yet it is as if this revolutionary work—no quotation marks there—has never seen the light of day.  It is little more rigorous than an old wives’ tale to speak of what Lenin and his fellow gangsters “believed” in 1891-1917, and what the heirs to their loot “believed” in their turn in 1918-91, in the absence of a comprehensive definition of what these people needed to believe, as well as to say they believed, in order to reconcile their aims with their conduct.

In short, to paraphrase the caliph who ordered the library of Alexandria burned, the facts contained in this book are useless because widely known, and the ideas, seeing as they do not bear scrutiny, are worse than useless.  The book need not be burned, of course.  But not buying it would give some small boost to the discipline of history.


[Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (New York: Henry Holt and Company) 309 pp., $28.00]