12 February 2016

The Horror of Being Human

A People’s Tragedy: 
The Russian Revolution 1891-1924
by Orlando Figes

This is probably the best single-volume work about the Russian Revolution ever printed in English. It was written after the Soviet archives were opened, making a vast mass of new material available to historians and significantly changing the story as it had been previously understood in the West. It is also the work of an author determined to depict what happened in Russia during those terrible years as fully and truly as possible, and to make his picture as free from bias and ideological distortion as possible.

Although the author has since covered himself with ignominy by committing certain unprofessional acts, the decline of his personal reputation should not affect critical appreciation of his work. This is a great book, and I do mean great.

Although it is well written and far from indigestible, I did not find it an easy book to read. The real difficulty was neither its awkward size nor the great mass of facts and statistics it contains, but the distressing and depressing nature of the story it tells. Every possible permutation of human injustice, callousness, venality, stupidity, viciousness, brutality and, to speak plainly, evil, occurs in it. Every atrocity you can think of was committed in Russia during those years, as well as every atrocity you could never think of. Every time we turn a page, thinking the depths of human depravity have been plumbed, another scene of the tragedy unfolds, and we find that we have not touched bottom yet. To reach the end of this book – and to know that the period it covers was merely the prelude to a longer and even bloodier tragedy, the reign of Stalin – is to find oneself despairing of human nature.

Yet, hard as it is, every adult who possibly can – it is no book for children – should read A People’s Tragedy. We need to know these facts, to remember this horror, to realize what we are capable of. Because the Russian Revolution was not made horrific only by its leaders, or only by the Bolsheviks, or, indeed, only by anybody: it was a collective effort, in which everyone from Lenin and the murdered Tsar to the humblest of the peasantry played their part. It was a plague of evil, of cruelty and oppression and despair and the thirst for blood, which infected almost everybody in Russia and even spread beyond the borders of that country.

It could have infected me, if I’d been there. It could have infected you.

And it could happen again.

Even as I write, citizens of the world’s richest and most comfortable countries, resentful at the expanding separation between – no longer the rich and the poor, for not many are really poor in those countries, certainly not as people in Tsarist or Revolutionary Russia were poor – but between the elite and the masses, are flirting again with ideologies and divisions some of us had thought discredited for ever by the horrors of the twentieth century. In less advanced countries, like this one, where the horror was never fully felt or comprehended, the danger is even greater. The Great Isms, those insatiable old ghouls, are rising once again, because people have begun to forget that, in Figes’s words,

The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do is to treat its citizens equally, and strive to ensure that their free activities are directed towards the general good. After a century dominated by the twin totalitarianisms of Communism and Fascism, one can only hope that this lesson has been learned.

Read this book – it will not be easy, but read it anyway. You need to. We all need to.

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