A People's Tragedy, summary notes


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

Summary Notes and Quotes

May be helpful to understand that Figes appears to have written this book on a model similar to Tolstoy’s War and Peace: with lots of characters emblematic of issues at time, for example, Prince Lvov exemplified Liberal Radicals, (member of the KADETs) and Semenov was a peasant trying to implement land reforms.

Gorky (name means ‘bitter’ (1868-1936) is the hero of book: an orphan brought up by grandmother and a street child. He became a successful writer and journalist, who adopted name ‘bitter’ because he wanted to speak bitter truth about what was going on, however ‘bitter’ the experience.  He supported revolution and Lenin was tolerant of him. He spent two periods in exile: Capri 1906-13 and Sorrento 1921-8. His apartment in Petrograd was a Bolshevik staff room.


1)    The Dynasty

i)    The Tsar and his People

This chapter explains how Russia is a feudal society and begins with the celebrations of 300 yrs. of Romanov dynasty from 1613 to 1913.

“In the mind of ordinary peasant the Tsar was not just a kingly ruler but a god on earth...Father Tsar of folk tales Tsar Batiushka”. (OF= Orlando Figes) Pg. 11

“The Romanov regime fell under the weight of its own internal contradictions”. Figes Pg. 14

ii)    The Miniaturist (Refers to mindset and approach of Tsar Nicholas II)

Reign started with fair in May 1896 at Khodynka where 1,400 killed and 600 wounded by stumbling into military ditches where they suffocated. Pg. 18

Pobedonostsev was tutor for Nicholas and against democracy. He was Prof of Civil Law Moscow State Univ., Head of Synod, against Jews and passed May Laws about Jewish ‘Pale’ 1882

Nicholas II was described as the Chief Clerk of empire “devoting all his energies to routine minutiae of his office without stopping to consider broader policy issues”. Pg. 21

iii)    The Heir

Haemophilia passed from German wife Alexandra.

Rasputin symbol of Tsar’s belief in holy trinity- God, Tsar and People – which he thought would help him to recast regime in mould of 17 century Muscovy. Pg. 34

2)    Unstable Pillars

i)    Bureaucrats and Dressing Gowns

Russia dominated by ruling elite from landed aristocracy. Noblemen made up 71% of top Civil Service ranks.

Iurii Samrin. (Russian thinker 1819-76 advocating abolition of serfdom) commented ”the bureaucrat is just a nobleman in uniform, and the nobleman just a bureaucrat in a dressing gown”.

Very bureaucratic.

“Civil Service becoming just as much as path to nobility as nobility to Civil Service…Russia was still agrarian kingdom and its’ ruling elite still dominated by richest landowning families”.  (OF) Pg. 36

Great Reforms

Zemstvos were established in 1864, (these were elected assemblies of local government dominated by gentry at provincial and district level).  These operated thru judicial reforms, public jury trials for all estates, except peasants who were under customary law.)
1865 new laws censorship, autonomy Universities 1863, reforming primary schools 1863, modernising military…


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