A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924

by Orlando Figes


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On the brink of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, read the most vivid, moving, and comprehensive history of the events that changed the world

It is history on an epic yet human scale. Vast in scope, exhaustive in original research, written with passion, narrative skill, and human sympathy, A People's Tragedy is a profound account of the Russian Revolution for a new generation. Many consider the Russian Revolution to be the most significant event of the twentieth century. Distinguished scholar Orlando Figes presents a panorama of Russian society on the eve of that revolution, and then narrates the story of how these social forces were violently erased. Within the broad stokes of war and revolution are miniature histories of individuals, in which Figes follows the main players' fortunes as they saw their hopes die and their world crash into ruins. Unlike previous accounts that trace the origins of the revolution to overreaching political forces and ideals, Figes argues that the failure of democracy in 1917 was deeply rooted in Russian culture and social history and that what had started as a people's revolution contained the seeds of its degeneration into violence and dictatorship. A People's Tragedy is a masterful and original synthesis by a mature scholar, presented in a compelling and accessibly human narrative.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780140243642
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/28/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 1024
Sales rank: 245,896
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.22(h) x 1.64(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Orlando Figes is the prizewinning author of A People’s Tragedy and Natasha’s Dance. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New York Review of Books.

Table of Contents

Notes on Dates


1 The Dynasty

i The Tsar and His People ii The Miniaturist iii The Heir

2 Unstable Pillars
i Bureaucrats and Dressing-Gowns ii The Thin Veneer of Civilization iii Remnants of a Feudal Army iv Not-So-Holy Russia v Prison of Peoples

3 Icons and Cockroaches
i A World Apart ii The Quest to Banish the Past

4 Red Ink
i Inside the Fortress ii Marx Comes to Russia


5 First Blood

i Patriots and Liberators ii 'There is no Tsar'
iii A Parting of Ways

6 Last Hopes
i Parliaments and Peasants ii The Statesman iii The Wager on the Strong iv For God, Tsar and Fatherland

7 A War on Three Fronts
i Metal Against Men ii The Mad Chauffeur iii From the Trenches to the Barricades


8 Glorious February

i The Power of the Streets ii Reluctant Revolutionaries iii Nicholas the Last

9 The Freest Country in the World
i A Distant Liberal State ii Expectations iii Lenin's Rage iv Gorky's Despair

10 The Agony of the Provisional Government
i The Illusion of a Nation ii A Darker Shade of Red iii The Man on a White Horse iv Hamlets of Democratic Socialism

11 Lenin's Revolution
i The Art of Insurrection ii The Smolny Autocrats iii Looting the Looters iv Socialism in One Country


12 Last Dreams of the Old World

i St. Petersburg on the Steppe ii The Ghost of the Constituent Assembly

13 The Revolution Goes to War
i Arming the Revolution ii 'Kulaks', Bagmen and Cigarette Lighters iii The Colour of Blood

14 The New Regime Triumphant
i Three Decisive Battles ii Comrades and Commissars iii A Socialist Fatherland

15 Defeat in Victory
i Short-Cuts to Communism ii Engineers of the Human Soul iii Bolshevism in Retreat

16 Deaths and Departures
i Orphans of the Revolution ii The Unconquered Country iii Lenin's Last Struggle



Images of Autocracy

1 St. Petersburg illuminated for the Romanov tercentenary in 1913
2 The procession of the imperial family during the tercentenary
3 Nicholas II rides in public view during the tercentenary
4 Nevsky Prospekt decorated for the tercentenary
5 Guards officers greet the imperial family during the tercentenary
6 Townspeople and peasants in Kostroma during the tercentenary
7 The court ball of 1903
8 The Temple of Christ's Resurrection
9 Trubetskoi's equestrian statue of Alexander III
10 Statue of Alexander III outside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
11 The imperial family
12 Rasputin with his admirers
13 The Tsarevich Alexis with Derevenko

Everyday Life Under the Tsars

14 The city mayors of Russia
15 A group of volost elders
16 A newspaper kiosk in St. Petersburg
17 A grocery store in St. Petersburg
18 Dinner at a ball given by Countess Shuvalov
19 A soup kitchen for the unemployed in St. Petersburg
20 Peasants of a northern Russian village
21 Peasant women threshing wheat
22 Peasant women hauling a barge
23 Twin brothers, former serfs, from Chernigov province
24 A typical Russian peasant household
25 A meeting of village elders
26 A religious procession in Smolensk province
27 The living space of four Moscow factory workers
28 Inside a Moscow engineering works

Dramatis Personae

29 General Brusilov
30 Maxim Gorky
31 Prince G.E. Lvov
32 Sergei Semenov
33 Dmitry Os'kin
34 Alexander Kerensky
35 Lenin
36 Trotsky
37 Alexandra Kollontai

Between Revolutions

38 Soldiers fire at the demonstrating workers on 'Bloody Sunday', 1905
39 Demonstrators confront mounted Cossacks during 1905
40 The opening of the State Duma in April 1906
41 The Tauride Palace
42 Petr Stolypin
43 Wartime volunteers pack parcels for the Front
44 A smart dinner party sees in the New Year of 1917
45 Troops pump out a trench on the Northern Front
46 Cossacks patrol the streets of Petrograd in February 1917
47 The arrest of a policeman during the February Days
48 Moscow workers playing with the stone head of Alexander II
49 A crowd burns tsarist emblems during the February Days
50 The crowd outside the Tauride Palace during the February Days
51 Soldiers receive news of the Tsar's abdication

Images of 1917

52 The First Provisional Government in the Marinsky Palace
53 The burial of victims of the February Revolution
54 A meeting of the Soviet of Soldiers' Deputies
55 Waiters and waitresses of Petrograd on strike
56 The All-Russian Congress of Peasant Deputies
57 Fedor Linde leads an anti-war demonstration by the Finland Regiment during the April Crisis
58 Kerensky makes a speech to soldiers at the Front
59 Metropolitan Nikon blesses the Women's Battalion of Death
60 General Kornilov's triumphant arrival in Moscow during the State Conference
61 Members of the Women's Battalion of Death in the Winter Palace on 25 October
62 Some of Kerensky's last defenders in the Winter Palace on 25 October
63 The Smolny Institute
64 The Red Guard of the Vulkan Factory

The Civil War

65 General Alexeev
66 General Denikin
67 Admiral Kolchak
68 Baron Wrangel
69 Members of the Czech Legion in Vladivostok
70 A group of White officers during a military parade in Omsk
71 A strategic meeting of Red partisans
72 An armoured train
73 The Latvian Division passing through a village
74 Two Red Army soldiers take a break
75 Red Army soldiers reading propaganda leaflets
76 A Red Army mobile library in the village
77 Nestor Makhno
78 The execution of a peasant by the Whites
79 Jewish victims of a pogrom
80 Red Army soldiers torture a Polish officer

Everyday Life Under the Bolsheviks

81 Muscovites dismantle a house for firewood
82 A priest helps transport timber
83 Women of the 'former classes' sell their last possessions
84 A soldier buys a pair of shoes from a group of burzhoois
85 Haggling over a fur scarf at the Smolensk market in Moscow
86 Traders at the Smolensk market
87 Two ex-tsarist officers are made to clear the streets
88 Cheka soldiers close down traders' stalls in Moscow
89 Requisitioning the peasants' grain
90 'Bagmen'; on the railways
91 The 1 May subbotnik on Red Square in Moscow, 1920
92 An open-air cafeteria at the Kiev Station in Moscow
93 Delegates of the Ninth All-Russian Party Congress
94 The Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Commissariat for Supply and Distribution in the Northern Region
95 The Smolny Institute on the anniversary of the October coup

The Revolutionary Inheritance

96 Red Army troops assault the mutinous Kronstadt Naval Base
97 Peasant rebels attack a train of requisitioned grain
98 Bolshevik commissars inspect the harvest failure in the Volga region
99 Unburied corpses from the famine crisis
100 Cannibals with their victims
101 Street orphans in Saratov hunt for food in a rubbish tip
102 The Secretary of the Tula Komsomol
103 A juvenile unit of the Red Army in Turkestan
104 Red Army soldiers confiscate valuables from the Semenov Monastery
105 A propaganda meeting in Bukhara
106 Two Bolshevik commissars in the Far East
107 The dying Lenin in 1923

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Few historians have the courage to attack great subjects; fewer have the grasp to succeed. This is a book that lets the reader look into the face of one of the major social upheavels of history. . . . A People's Tragedy will do more to help us undersand the Russian Revolution than any other book I know."
—Eric Hobsbawm, The London Review of Books

"I doubt there is anyone in the world who knows the revolution as well as Figes does."
—Norman Stone, The Sunday Times (London)

"An engagingly written and well-researched book. . . . Will stand for some time as a standard of historical scholarship."
—Steven Merritt Miner, The New York Times Book Review

"Huge in scope, brilliant in vignette, dark and implacable in theme, it is a modern masterpiece."
—Andrew Marr, The Independent

Customer Reviews

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A People's Tragedy: A History of the Russian Revolution 4.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Far and away the best book ever written on the Russian Revolution. It is exceptionally well written and researched.
quizshow77 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fairly detailed narrative, with some interpretation, of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It ostensibly starts with a famine that occurred in 1891, although in reality it provides an overview of events and trends in Russia for two or three decades before that, and continues through Lenin's death in 1924, again briefly mentioning the arc of Soviet history after that.The author's view of the Russian Revolution is reflected in the book's title: conservative and critical. He considers the history of Russia in the early twentieth century to be a series of missed opportunities to prevent what eventually emerged, and he thinks the Russian people, and the world, would have been better off if it had been prevented. He might well be right. In any case his narrative provides many interesting details and observations of this period.
FPdC on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the best account of the Russian Revolution I have read. It is a brilliantly written book, organized in four parts, and giving a panoramic view of the Revolution. It starts with a description of the social actors at the end of the Old Regime (Part 1), and then proceeds with the history of the last phase of the tsarist autocracy, in particular the two great crisis at the turn of the century: the 1891 famine and the 1905 revolution (Part 2). The remaining two thirds of this 900+ pages work deal with the core events of the 1917 revolutions until the signing of the Teatry of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918 and the start of the one party dictatorship (Part 3), and the civil war years and the first phase of the Communist regime up until the death of Lenin in 1924 (Part 4). This great overview is not only a monumental piece of scholarship but also a remarkably sensitive one, in which the author make us understand the events and their participants in their own terms, although not refraining from pointing out the short sightedness, callouseness, or sheer cruelty, of some of their actions. A piece of historical writing of the highest caliber about the most important and seminal historical event of the twentieth century. Compulsory reading!
fourbears on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm not so sure he called it "the people's tragedy" because it was a failure "of the people" so much as because it was a tragedy "for the people". The Russian peasants and workers were by and large uneducated and particularly uneducated politically. Many (as shown in the war) didn't ever even identify themselves with a country. They didn't fight for a country but for the Tsar who was to them a sort of a god, at the very least a father who took care of them from high places. Most had little experience of anything but their own villages and what education they had had taught them nothing of government or nationhood. In the US Civil War many soldiers had never left their tiny rural communities before but they'd been taught a sense of nationhood with its attendant benefits and values. That never happened in Russia. Civics for Russian peasants was "the Tsar will take care of you". The makers of the revolution were intellectuals. The Liberals (Kadets, etc.) were mainly upper class (enlightened sons of nobles and government officials) influenced by ideas outside Russia, though most wanted a constitutional monarchy, maybe like Britain. Most didn't want "revolution" in the sense of major upheaveal and violence. The more radical parties, including the Bolsheviks, tended to come from lower classes, but they too were intellectuals, knowledgable about Russia's revolutionary history, steeped in European ideas about how society should be organized (more influenced by Marx and the Paris Commune experience than ideas of constitutional monarchy) who had lived most of the time before WWI in internal or external exile. None of them really represented "the people" and the Bolsheviks who ultimately come to power promised "the people" (both workers and peasants) everything they wanted (redistribution of land, local governments, a share in running factories and farms, etc. etc.) but then took it all back when they'd consolidated power.The people had no chance and I think that's the main message of Figes' book. They rallied to the cause at first because they were promised the world and weren't canny enough to recognize it wasn't possible and certainly not likely that the new regime would relinquish enough power to deliver on promises. Many rebelled--viciously--when they saw the reality and they ended up oppressed from a different end of the political spectrum. They were seen as participating in their own hoodwinking, no question, but given their past not much else was predictable. It seems to me that Marx was probably right about the level of sophistication among the people needed for a revolution in the name of the people. It's true that Figes frequently talks about what might have been done to avert one tragedy or another, but just as often he demonstrates how that was just not in the cards given the nature of the groups involved or the circumstances. The Bolsheviks ruled "in the name of the people" but the "people" who rallied to their cause were converted into apparatchiks who benefited from the power of the state and joined the new oppressors. Everyone else was outmaneuvered from early on by a government that was pretty heartless from the onset.What I found most interesting about this book was that Figes presented Lenin as cold and committed primarily to ideas (never to people) and was perfectly willing to sacrifice any constituency that got in the way. I think there was a generation or two of historians, both Western and Russian, who wanted to think that Lenin was an idealist and that if he had not died, he would have moderated the state (as with The New Economic Policy--NEP) into a more reasonable state that was maybe centrally planned but allowed for a certain amount of economical entrepreneurship, real power to the people, etc. etc. Figes pretty much destroys that illusion by quoting secret directives and writings of Lenin (available only since the fall of the USSR) in the 20ies which shows him as hard, cold, intellectual and wily and NEP as
OldWahoo More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the best history book I have read over the last several years. Figes knows his stuff and presents it in a fast paced narrative that is hard to put down. Figes hints that the tragedy of the October revolution would lead inexorably to a larger tragedy under Stalin. I hope he will write a sequel dealing with the Stalin years.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The author gives fascinating insight to those interested in how this horrific event evolved from the autocratic leadership of the tsars ruling Russia for 300 years. The movement ostensibly geared toward the betterment of the people resulting in a nation at war with itself is thoroughly depicted in this detailed description of the 20th century's first great tragedy. This book is a must read for all those interested in the ins and outs of all facets of this epoch tragedy.