I’ve been reading Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution. I’m only two thirds of the way through, but a couple of things have struck me:
- The similarity of the Tsarist autocracy to the Communist dictatorship that followed it. Not just in the sense that they were both totalitarian, but the propaganda efforts that led to a Cult of Personality centred on the Tsar, the construction of a vast network of secret police and informers (the Okhrana) and the widespread use of terror and mass murder as a political weapon were all routine features of the Tsarist government.
- Figes is very critical of Lenin. Which is fine – the guy was deified for decades by left-wing historians, he deserved to be taken down a few pegs. But even through Figes’ negative viewpoint it is striking how inept or inadequate or deluded or simply overwhelmed by events every other political actor was, both in the Tsarist regime and the Duma and in the provisional government after the February revolution, and in the various other left-wing or Communist factions. They tended to see themselves as saviours of Russia, chosen by destiny. Napoleon was a popular model. And this heroic conception of themselves caused them to make catastrophic blunders. Lenin seems to have seen himself as almost an enemy of history (ironic given his belief in dialectical materialism). If he had historic models it was the Jacobins and the Paris Communards, and he knew he was very likely to wind up like them, executed by counter-revolutionary forces if he made any mistakes. Everyone else kept trying to seize their moment in history, and failing: Lenin was very, very cautious.
- The most interesting part of the story – I think – is the period just after the October revolution; Russian has descended into utter anarchy; Lenin and Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks have seized power, but they have almost no ability to govern or project force. The army, police and civil service are all on strike. Yet they are able, very quickly and methodically, to outwit and outmanoeuvre their rivals and enemies and establish a dictatorship.
- And then everything they touch is an unmitigated disaster! That leads to further disasters, until the country and economy is such a shambles that only brutal repression can keep them in power. Political acumen does not translate into ability in government.
- There are many quotable lines. I liked ‘The red terror did not come out of the blue.’ Also:
The time when the public lived in terror of the Cheka (the forerunner of the KGB) had still not arrived. Take, for example, the famous incident in the Moscow Circus. The humourless Chekists had taken exception to the anti-Soviet jokes of the clown BimBom and burst into the middle of his act in order to arrest him. At first the audience thought it was all part of the act; but Bim-Bom fled and the Chekists shot him in the back. People began to scream and panic ensued.