The Colour Red

August 24, 2015 § 1 Comment

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

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

The Russian words for “red” and “beautiful” share the same root; hence the colour red having the most complimentary connotations. To the Bolsheviks it signified the blood of the workers. Yet after reading A People’s Tragedy it is difficult not to imagine the very soil of Russia taking on a red hue: the amount of blood spilt is nauseating. The Bolsheviks may have considered themselves atheists and non-believers, yet the fact remains that they were religious fanatics and fundamentalists. Fervent advocates of Marxist-Leninist ideology, they believed that whatever the cost may be it was worth paying in order to build a socialist utopia.

Understanding the Russian substratum is vital if one is to comprehend the course history took. For this reason A People’s Tragedy bears the subtitle 1891-1924. The famine at the turn of the century was to lay the groundwork for the volatile future to follow. The outcome of the revolution is a curious blend of chance and the inevitable. Russia’s history, and that of her immediate neighbours, could have been altered drastically had events taken a different turn; occasions for which there were many. And yet, looking back at the years leading up to the revolution, there is a strong suggestion that such an outcome was possible only in Russia.

You may ask yourself: why bother? Why bother with an event that took place a century ago? What bearing does it have on the world today? Truth be told I never ask myself those questions. I wish to acquire knowledge simply for the sake of acquiring it. Because it lends me perspective and helps me understand the world around me. That, is thrilling and I derive immense pleasure from it.

Here is why the Russian revolution does matter. At a given point in time, close to two-thirds of the human population lived under a Communist regime. The propensity for violence and the absolute disregard for human life, that sadly lingers, was germinated in the centuries prior to 1917 and inherent in peasant life, yet truly blossomed during the Revolution; the Civil War; and the Terror. By the time WWII broke out, to most Russians human life had lost all dignity and sanctity. This to a degree explains the savagery of the Eastern Front. That the Soviet Union collapsed is a fact today, but it seemed, at the time, that it would last forever. And when it did collapse most Russians were left wondering: “Did we suffer so much only to end up impoverished and constantly reminded by foreigners how ghastly life was?” In the meanwhile a handful, namely the oligarchs, amassed a vast amount of wealth leaving many with the feeling that they had been duped. Enter Putin. His particular brand of nationalism infused a languishing society with a sense of pride and vitality: that they need not be ashamed of their past. That the sacrifices they had made had forged a powerful nation. Russia can hardly be accused of suffering from stage fright: over the two and half decades since the dissolution of the Soviet Union she’s claimed centre stage on many an occasion. The key to understanding Russia today is the Revolution. The seismic changes it brought about echo to this day.

A People’s Tragedy is an apt choice of title: that it was a tragedy is a fact that very few will deny. That it occurred as a result of the decisions and actions of not a select few but invariably the majority of Russians, is often overlooked.

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