The Dim-Post

June 4, 2016


Filed under: books — danylmc @ 11:54 am

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.


  1. It is beginning to resemble the autocratic antics of Key and some of the ministers–especially the outright lies an stupidities they seem to think people will swallow!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Comment by A M Thom — June 4, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

  2. KDS in the very first comment? Hilaweus!

    Comment by Clunking Fist — June 4, 2016 @ 2:33 pm

  3. CF, not sure that qualifies as KDS.
    Just some nonsense, quasi-Godwinism.

    Comment by Gregor W — June 4, 2016 @ 8:52 pm

  4. That’s a great book. I’ve got Figes’ Crimea burning a hole in my bookshelf, hoping to pick it up later this month.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 4, 2016 @ 9:46 pm

  5. Also, if you’re interested in the thesis of continuity between Czarist autocracy and Leninist autocracy, you should check out pretty much anything by Richard Pipes, since he makes the comparison explicit and explores it theoretically. Although he’s quite a neoliberal himself.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 5, 2016 @ 7:35 am

  6. That first post by A M Thorn is straight out of stuff comments.

    Cheers for the heads up on that book, I’ll put it in the queue after the one I’m reading about the unification of Germany. I’ve always thought the average russian just thought “here comes the new boss, just like the old boss ” when the communists took over. There wouldn’t have been much if any positive change in their lot.

    Comment by Cliff Clavin — June 5, 2016 @ 7:44 am

  7. I haven’t ready any books about the Russian Revolution but have seen the film Burnt By The Sun which was set in the 1930s. An excellent film about post-revolution Russia..

    Comment by Ross — June 5, 2016 @ 8:48 am

  8. Is China now in the same position as Tsarist Russia was ? Can rapid industrialisation, increasing prosperity and freedom be compatible with the old regime? And what might take its place? Unlike in Russia there are no apparent alternatives which is partly a reflection of the reality that modern China is still considerably more effectively centrally controlled than was Tsarist Russia. I guess one way the Chinese regime could deflect attention from itself is by trying to focus the nation on external threats.

    Comment by Tinakori — June 5, 2016 @ 10:29 am

  9. Where is Sanctuary? Im waiting for him to arrive and demonstrate just how much he knows about pre and post tsarist russia so that we can all be very impressed with the depth and breadth of his extensive knowledge.

    Comment by Helmet — June 5, 2016 @ 10:26 pm

  10. @Helmet: Surprisingly, he’s not a fan. From two years ago:

    “Imperial Russia was a completely backward radically reactionary state. If you want to know how “industrialised” the place was, in 1914 just 10% of the population was literate. Because the tiny Russian elite refused to be taxed in a modern sense, the state relied on feudal taxation – poll taxes, excise duties – and was chronically short of money. Imperial Russia fell out of the ranks of the Great powers after it’s defeat in the Crimean war (where the medieaval attitude of the aristocracy to the serfs is best summed up by the issuing of a post-war contract to a British firm to tidy up the battlefields by removing the skeletons and grinding them down to bone meal), and despite an economic “boom” in the 1890s – from a very low base – remained a fundamentally backward country defeated by Japan in 1905. When the Great War started, the Tsarist regime barely lasted two years, with the Russian army collapsing in the Summer of 1916 after suffering around 2 million dead in less than 24 months fighting – a figure indicative of a regime whose attitudes had not changed from that of the Crimea.”, comment #43

    For the record, he’s wrong about 10% literacy in 1914 and he’s wrong about Russia no longer being considered a Great Power post Crimea. He’s right about casualties, but it is, typically of Sanc, misleading data – while Russia had lost 2 million by 1916, France and the UK had lost roughly twice that at the same point.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 6, 2016 @ 4:50 pm

  11. Yeah, I think 2014-Sanctuary is definitely wrong: Russia was far from finished after the Crimean War. On the contrary, that defeat provided the stimulus for the liberal internal reforms that swiftly replaced a feudal, agrarian economy with a rapidly-industrialising one. The half-century before 1917 saw massive railway construction, huge mining projects, mass urbanisation, and the birth of a tradition of political radicalism that flourished long before 1917. It is totally wrong-headed to say that the attitude of the Tsarist regime didn’t change between 1855 and 1917: the Tsarist regime actually showed itself to be remarkably adaptable, especially under far-sighted and pro-active tsars and politicians. Russia did lose to the Japanese in 1905, but this is a tribute to the superb military and bureaucratic organisation of the Meiji empire and not an indication of the weakness of Russia at all. Russia was still powerful and prestigious enough to summon the Hague Convention of 1899, and still influential enough to create a major headache in the Balkans. The Russian state may still have been backward by the standards of Western Europe, but it was certainly still a great Power and it showed every sign of following its own course towards modernity. It might very well have done so, had the war and revolution not intervened (something you can’t really say about the Ottomans or the Austro-Hungarians).

    As for grinding up soldiers’ bones for bone meal – the English and French did the same thing 40 years earlier after the Battle of Waterloo. Were these nations also ‘mediaeval’? I think it’s probably time to set aside the Cold War idea of Russia’s peculiar Sonderweg (newly attractive in the Putin era, to be sure) and instead look more closely at the ways Russia’s historical development has always been part of a wider European and global context.

    On a related note, please please do not check out anything by Richard Pipes.

    Comment by Higgs Boatswain — June 7, 2016 @ 2:03 am

  12. @Higgs: I don’t personally agree with Pipes but I think given Danyl’s take on the Russian revolutions he would find Pipe’s work very intellectually rewarding.

    Comment by Ortvin Sarapuu — June 7, 2016 @ 5:17 am

  13. The main thing I got from Figes’ books were how awful everyone was – the Tsarists, the White Russians, the Bolsheviks, even the peasants. The only exceptions were the democrats, who seemed okay but completely ineffectual.

    Comment by helenalex — June 13, 2016 @ 2:08 pm

  14. The main thing I got from Figes’ books were how awful everyone was – the Tsarists, the White Russians, the Bolsheviks, even the peasants.

    The peasants are consistently revolting.

    Comment by Gregor W — June 13, 2016 @ 2:32 pm

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