On A People's Tragedy

History is like a bundle of strings. I generally prefer pulling one to cutting the cord and looking at them all simultaneously. Authors and historians pick particular trends or ideas or chains of causation and trace them through history: mass incarceration in the latter half of the twentieth century, social welfare policy in the former, civil wars over millennia.

Histories of the other sort are much more difficult for me to read. They span all aspects of a particular time period. The time can be long or short, but the cross-section of society is broad. These histories cast enormous nets and trawl great swaths, pulling in music, politics, personal rivalries, diary entries, cuisine, and geography. At one point recently, I had four such books in progress. There was a history of post-World War Two Europe (933 pages), a history of the movement for Vietnamese independence culminating in the conflict with the U.S. (864 pages), another of the American Civil War (867 pages), and another of the Russian Revolution (1,024 pages).

Orlando Figes’s A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution (1891-1924) is a long slog through a brutal and fascinating time. The book is fascinating too, but largely by virtue of the subject matter. Like the other three such books (still in progress), I read it in large chunks over almost eighteen months.

Figes has a certain spark that other historians lack – or deliberately avoid. A People’s Tragedy is peppered with eloquent commentary – “Convinced that their own ideas were the key to the future of the world, that the fate of humanity rested on the outcome of their own doctrinal struggles, the Russian intelligentsia divided up the world into the forces of ‘progress’ and ‘reaction,’ friends and enemies of the people’s cause, leaving no room for doubters in between.” But it oscillates wildly between such lucid commentary and a fairly dry narrative style that unloads so much detail upon the reader that it becomes difficult to track what year he’s in.

Other historians focus on narrative and allow eloquence to ebb and flow rather than drain their reserves in great bursts. Tony Judt commented on the opinions of observers that forcible relocations were “a crime against humanity for which history will exact a terrible retribution.” He stated simply that “history has exacted no such retribution.”  Douglas Egerton said of Klan terrorism during Reconstruction that “Yet another school was gone, and a church, the focal point for Elizabeth City’s black community, was reduced to ashes, black veterans had been brutalized and disarmed, and the country had been taught the deadly price of hope.”

Figes dives deeply into numerous topics. It’s hard to emerge without a much stronger grasp on Tsarist Russia, the revolution, and the civil war that followed. But he wants the eloquence a bit too much. The narrative suffers and his insights often disrupt rather than flow naturally from the story he is ostensibly trying to tell – footnotes left scattered about the text. The massive volume is worth reading, but perhaps not for the reason Figes wishes it were.