Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History
By Orlando Figes
Metropolitan Books, 2014, 336 pp.
Figes argues that the Russian Revolution lasted until the Soviet Union’s end in 1991. He begins with the famine of the early 1890s, which he sees as creating the pathway to the revolution in 1917, and then divides the century that followed into three generational phases. The first belongs to the “Old Bolsheviks,” the architects of Vladimir Lenin’s revolution, who were born in the 1870s and 1880s. The second phase began in the late 1920s, in the wake of Joseph Stalin’s collectivization program, and witnessed the monstrosity of industrialization through forced labor, the purges of the Great Terror, and the ravages of World War II. The third phase began with the Khrushchev era and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The history of each phase comes in large quaffs that go down smoothly. Figes argues that for all the jarring changes, Soviet leaders, including the last, Mikhail Gorbachev, “all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun.” It is a lucid and enlightening argument, although least compelling when Figes tries to find idealism even in the decaying entrails of the system during its final years. As he himself confesses, “what united [the third generation] was the preservation of the status quo.”