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A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 Paperback – March 1, 1998

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Written in a narrative style that captures both the scope and detail of the Russian revolution, Orlando Figes's history is certain to become one of the most important contemporary studies of Russia as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. With an almost cinematic eye, Figes captures the broad movements of war and revolution, never losing sight of the individuals whose lives make up his subject. He makes use of personal papers and personal histories to illustrate the effects the revolution wrought on a human scale, while providing a convincing and detailed understanding of the role of workers, peasants, and soldiers in the revolution. He moves deftly from topics such as the grand social forces and mass movements that made up the revolution to profiles of key personalities and representative characters.

Figes's themes of the Russian revolution as a tragedy for the Russian people as a whole and for the millions of individuals who lost their lives to the brutal forces it unleashed make sense of events for a new generation of students of Russian history. Sympathy for the charismatic leaders and ideological theorizing regarding Hegelian dialectics and Marxist economics--two hallmarks of much earlier writing on the Russian revolution--are banished from these clear-eyed, fair-minded pages of A People's Tragedy. The author's sympathy is squarely with the Russian people. That commitment, together with the benefit of historical hindsight, provides a standpoint Figes take full advantage of in this masterful history. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Packed with vivid human detail and incident, British historian Figes's monumental social and political history spans Russia's entire revolutionary period, from the czarist government's floundering during the famine of 1891 to Lenin's death in 1924, by which time all the basic institutions of the Soviet dictatorship?a privileged ruling elite, random terror, secret police, torture, mass executions, concentration camps?were in place. Figes dismantles any number of myths surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, a military coup rammed through at Lenin's insistence ("hardly any of the Bolshevik leaders had wanted it to happen until a few hours before it began"). Using diaries, letters, memoirs and archival documents, Cambridge don Figes provides masterful portraits of cynical, power-hungry Lenin, driven by an absolute faith in his mission; Alexander Kerensky, weak-willed, vain democratic leader, the self-styled savior of Russia; writer Maxim Gorky, plagued by the fear?and later by the terrible realization?that the "people's revolution" was a descent into barbarism; Tolstoyan peasant reformer Sergei Semenov; and dozens of lesser-known figures. In this vibrant magnum opus, Figes illumines the manifold sources of Russia's failure to take a democratic path. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 1024 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (March 1, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014024364X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140243642
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (116 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #39,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Rarely, one stumbles across a book that is of such surpassing excellence, and whose scholarship is worn so lightly, that you know, reading it, that you will never be able to forget it, and what you learn from it. Figes' A People's Tragedy is this rarity. I have read many books about the Russian Revolution, but no book has the sweep, the clarity, the balance, and the heartbreak of this. I literally had to put it down every so often because the sheer tragedy of what I was reading was more than I could bear.

First, Figes briskly deals with all those things you thought you knew about the Russian Revolution, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Kerensky - the liberals, the Bolsheviks, the Tsar. Again and again, I realized I had picked up myths either promoted by those who lost, or those who consolidated, the Revolution. The mythmaking machine was going full tilt from 1917 onwards (particularly during the Stalinist and Cold War Years) and this book would be irreplaceable if only for stripping away so much that you thought you knew - which was wrong.

Second, by starting the book in 1891 (with a famine which revealed the incompetence of the Tsarist beaurocracy) and ending with the death of Lenin in 1924, Figes permits himself a sweep of events that makes what actually happened even more dramatic than it was. Again and again, you not only read about, but hear from the survivors of, mistakes, errors, misconceptions - indolence, arrogance, foolishness, well-meaning idiocy - in a way that, as a human being, is more than heartbreaking. Again and again, the Revolution might never have happened, a democracy might have developed, steps taken could have been taken back - but they weren't.
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Format: Paperback
I live and work in Russia, and have been studying the place for 12 years or so. In all that time, because I focus on the here and now, I have always felt that I lacked a real grasp of the history, which I try to fill in from time to time. This book is brilliant on the forty years or so that lead up to 1917. Figes brings you into the two worlds of the revolutionaries and the aristocracy.
He is not starry-eyed about any of the participants. He is very clear about how the monarchy failed to reform in time, failed to listen to good advice, and basically brought about its own downfall. He also describes how the Tsarist secret police was just as nasty as its Bolshevik equivalent. All of Russia's totalitarian machinery was in place long before the revolution.
He also describes how Russia's peasant culture usurped the Marxist ideals of the revolutionaries. This was a crude egalitarian culture, that punished people who became rich, by stealing or confiscating their property, that tolerated drunken layabouts, and that was generally happy to see no improvement in its standard of living over the course of the 19th century. These Russian peasants deeply distrusted the Bolshevik Jews, especially those who came from the cities to "educate" them.
The accounts of the revolution are breathtaking, and all those famous events, like the Cruiser Avrora, are put in their place, as well as descriptions of how the military was mobilised to the side of the Bolsheviks. Figes' history of the First World War, and how it fit into the revolution, was also first-rate.
So I would recommend this as a starter to anyone looking to get a grasp of the detailed history of the Bolshevik revolution.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
As a person only familiar with the basic outline of the Russian Revolution, I found this book simply entrancing. I have long intended to read a work on this crucial event and period in world history; I am glad this was the volume I selected.

While the length and subject matter of this book is somewhat daunting, Figes presents this history in a highly readable fashion without skimping on fascinating detail. Part of how he does this is by interspersing historical detail with personal histories of both famous and everyday Russians. Figes foes beyond just describing the key events but analyzes why they happened and how it impacted the Russian people at all levels of society. Importanty, Figes also stresses how the history of Russia formed its people and how these people formed the Revolution and the resulting disaster of Bolshevism. He goes into great detail concerning the other key political groups of this era. Figes scope and knowledge of his subject matter is amazing. I feel much wiser for having spent a couple weeks plowing through this important tome.

I would say if you read only one book on the Russian Revolution, this is the one. However, this is the only book I have read on the subject. So, with that qualification, I will say that--in my opinion--this is a darn good book for someone looking to better understand one of the most important events of the twentieth century.
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Format: Paperback
I picked up this book by Orlando Figes on a whim. The Russian Revolution is an interesting topic so I figured that one day I'd get around to reading this massive book. I finally read it over Christmas break, and I must say that this is an excellent history book. One of the best I've ever read, actually. It is a real page turner, something very rare for a scholarly book of this size and scope. Figes certainly has the education to pull off this type of history: he was educated at Oxford and has written other works concerning Russia.
Figes goes against the grain with this book. In opposition to such scholars as Richard Pipes (author of another huge tome I own but have yet to read), Figes believes that the Russian Revolution was in fact a "bottom up" revolution. Figes proves that the peasantry in Russia were sick to high heaven of a system that degraded them to a status of barely human. To the peasant, the most important thing was land and freedom from the state. All government forms, from the tsarist state to the Bolsheviks, were judged by how much autonomy the peasants earned under them. Figes actually seems to measure the success and failure of each government according to how the peasants received them. Not surprisingly, the tsarist system was a dismal failure. It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback with history, but the tsarist regime was pathetic. The list of the problems confronting Tsar Nicholas is too numerous to list here, but what is important to note is that this regime failed them all. Land reforms were desperately wanted, but the Tsar denied them. Nationalism in the peripheral states around Russia was not only denied, but a program of Russification was instituted that caused more problems than were necessary. The list could go on and on. The problem was power.
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