Pathways into Russia’s tumultuous past

Staying In

Pathways into Russia’s tumultuous past

Bríd Conroy

A Tragedy is an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress. My first book choice this week, ‘A People’s Tragedy’, by Orlando Figes, published by Bodley Head, recounts the events of 1917/8 in Russia when the workers and soldiers began to rise up against the Tzar and his government of the time.
Figes starts off with Russia pre World War I, when the Tzar thought he could control and micromanage every aspect of Russian life. For him it was perfectly acceptable, to live in absolute splendour, while the peasants and workers lived in abject poverty. It was perfectly acceptable to send those same workers and solders to the slaughter, when World War I broke out. But the people had had enough and began to rebel.
The book continues to divulge in great detail, the day-to-day changes in St Petersburg as events began to unfold in 1917. The Russian army reverting to mutiny and the Tzar realising his days were numbered, tried to do too little too late by handing over state power to a provisional government, the Duma (Russian Parliament).
At the same time, grassroots community assemblies were being formed called Soviets. These were dominated by soldiers and urban industrial proletariats. Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks were the strongest of these Soviets. They campaigned for an end to the war while the parliament chose to continue to fight the Germans.
We realise the shocking truth of how it could have been so different if the Parliament had reformed quicker, or not continued the war. Then Lenin and the Bolsheviks may never have seized control. Russia way back in 1917 had the beginnings of a democracy.
However, the Russian people were in a sense betrayed, by handing over power to another regime which would inflict the ‘Red Terror’ and civil war on those self same peasants, workers and soldiers.
Figes posits that the ‘The Ghosts of 1917 have not been laid to rest’, and I can’t help but agree as I call to mind images of the palaces constructed by Vladimir Putin, the current President of Russia....
‘The Borodino Field’, by Robert Kershaw, published by The History Press tells the story of two other invasions on Russia – Napoleon and his Grande Armee in 1812 and Hitler and his Nazis in 1941. What is so great about this book is the detail surrounding the Borodino Field, where the Russians on both occasions, realising that all would be lost if the armies were to succeed past Borodino, put up a heroic defence of the Motherland, with Moscow being just a few short miles away.
The book alternates between timeframes and battles and details how the same obstacles impeded the two invasions. Both armies were miles from their lines of supply due to the vastness of Russia. The winter of course was on the side of the Russians. The utter pointlessness of both wars is laid out. Napoleon’s 135,000 marching troops were no match for the Russians on their home territory. The Nazis had planes but no fields to land them in.
However, if the Bolsheviks had not existed and Hitler had not hated the Bolsheviks, Europe could be a very different place today.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.