Book Summary and Discussion: "Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History"
Throughout historian Orlando Figes' book, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, the author provides an interpretation of the Russian Revolution that highlights the event's longevity. Whereas most historians recognize the Revolution as an event that lasted a few years, Figes counters this assessment and proclaims that the Revolution occurred over the course of an entire century rather than a few simple years. As Figes argues, the Revolution did not begin in 1917, nor did it end in 1924 with the death of Vladimir Lenin as most historians suggest. Rather, he posits that radical changes began occurring as early as 1891 during the Great Russian Famine. Far-sweeping, revolutionary changes in the social, economic, and political realms continued to occur throughout Russia from this point on, he contends, and lasted nearly a hundred years before finally dissipating with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Figes' interpretation goes directly against most accounts of the Revolution which focus primarily on the early 1920s and the leadership of Lenin as an endpoint for the revolutionary period. Furthermore, his book expands both the size and scope of the revolutionary years to include events and individuals (such as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Gorbachev) who were once viewed as outliers to the revolutionary era. In this sense, Figes’ account largely serves as an expansion of the research first began by historians Sheila Fitzpatrick, Adam Ulam, and Richard Pipes, who each sought to trace the origins and expanse of the Revolution beyond the scope of 1917-1924.
Figes' account offers a top-notch interpretation of the Russian Revolution. His steadfast devotion to primary documents and archival materials, combined with his impressive focus on secondary literature offers an account of the Revolution that is unparalleled in the academic community.
This book also fits nicely with Figes' other work, A People's Tragedy, as both discuss the Revolution's overall causes and effects in a dramatic and profound manner. One clear downfall of this book, however, lies in its lack of sufficient detail. Figes' attempt to describe nearly 100 years of Revolution in less than 300 pages makes parts of this work feel unfinished or too short. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but more attention to detail would have certainly benefited this book.
Overall, I give Figes' book 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone that is interested in early Soviet and Imperial Russian history. As a graduate student who specialized in the field of Russian and Ukrainian history, I found this work to be very informative and easy to read. As such, it is a book that can be equally appreciated by both scholars and non-academics alike. Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity. You will not be disappointed.
Questions to Facilitate Group Discussion:
1.) Did you find the author's thesis and main argument(s) to be persuasive and well-argued? Why or why not?
2.) What were some of the strengths and weaknesses of this work? Are there any areas of the book that could have been improved upon by the author? Why or why not?
3.) Was Figes' work organized in a logical and convincing manner?
4.) What type of primary and secondary source materials does the author rely upon? Does this help or hinder his overall argument? Why or why not?
5.) Were your surprised by any of the facts and figures presented by Figes?
6.) Who was Figes' intended audience for this piece? Can both scholars and non-academics appreciate the contents of this work? Why or why not?
7.) Do you agree that the Russian Revolution should be understood as an event that spanned nearly a hundred years?
8.) In what ways did Figes challenge modern scholarship with this work? Does his book offer a unique perspective to current historiographical works? Does this book offer any new additions to current scholarship that are profound?
9.) Would you be willing to recommend this book to a friend or family member? Why or why not?
Do you agree that the Russian Revolution was an event that lasted nearly 100 years, as Figes proclaims?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Fitzpatrick, Sheila. The Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lieven, Dominic. The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I & Revolutions. New York: Viking, 2015.
Pipes, Richard. Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1993.
Pipes, Richard. The Russian Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Radzinsky, Edvard. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II. New York: Anchor Books, 1993.
Smith, Douglas. Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.
Ulam, Adam B. The Bolsheviks: The Intellectual, Personal and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia. New York: Collier Books, 1965.
About the Author
Orlando Figes is a British historian who is considered an expert in the field of Russian history. He is currently a Professor of History at Birkbeck College (University of London), and received his PhD from Trinity College at Cambridge in 1984. In the past two decades, Figes has published eight award-winning books. His work, A People's Tragedy, garnered Figes numerous awards, including: the "Wolfson History Prize," the "WH Smith Literary Award," the "NCR Book Award," the "Longman/History Today Book Prize," as well as the "Los Angeles Times Book Prize." The Times Literary Supplement has also listed A People's Tragedy as "one of the hundred most influential books since the war."
Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Larry Slawson