The Right Coast

March 10, 2006
A People's Tragedy
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The library of books about the Soviet Union has continued to grow since the USSR collapsed, but one of the best is "A People's Tragedy" by the young(ish) Cambridge historian Orlando Figes. It's a history of the formative early years of Soviet Communism, and especially of what life was like in Russia just before and just after the Bolshevik coup in 1917. The book is infinitely sad: full of detail about hard lives, both in the final years under the Czar and after the Communists sent the country careening down the road to famine, terror, Gulag, and mass death under Stalin. You will read on once you begin: Figes writes well, and throughout nearly 1000 pages his story captivates you the way a bad car crash captivates onlookers.

Figes concludes:
The Russian Revolution launched a vast experiment in social engineering -- perhaps the grandest in the history of mankind. It was arguably an experiment which the human race was bound to make at some point in its evolution, the logical conclusion of humanity's historic striving for social justice and comradeship...

The experiment went horribly wrong, not so much because of the malice of its leaders, most of whom had started out with the highest ideals, but because their ideals were themselves impossible. [S]ince the Soviet model has so often led to the same disastrous ends -- despite having been applied in different local forms and in such diverse places as China, south-east Asia, eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and Cuba -- one can only conclude that its fundamental problem is more to do with principles than contingencies.

The state, however big, cannot make people equal or better human beings. All it can do it to treat its citizens equally, to 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... [But worryingly], authoritarian nationalism has begun to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Communism, and in a way has reinvented it, not just in the sense that today's nationalists are, for the most part, reformed Communists, but also in the sense that their violent rhetoric, with its calls for discipline and order, its angry condemnation of the inequalities produced by the growth of capitalism, and its xenophobic rejection of the West, is itself adapted from the Bolshevik tradition.

The ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest.
Figes wrote in 1997. Much in his final paragraphs is even more true of today's Islamism than of the post-Communist secular nationalisms.

Do read "A People's Tragedy".