A People's Tragedy

Orlando Figes

Illustrated by Neil Gower

The award-winning history of the Russian Revolution (1891-1924), with a new introduction by author Orlando Figes

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A People's Tragedy

The Russian Revolution was one of the most extraordinary events of the 20th century, transforming a medieval autocracy into the world’s first ever experiment in mass socialism. A People’s Tragedy is the definitive account, combining a masterly overview of events with the personal stories of individuals, their hopes and ordeals. Translated into over 20 languages, and winner of five international awards, this is an unforgettable account of a pivotal era in history.

Production Details

A People

Two volumes bound in buckram

Blocked with a design by Neil Gower

Set in Minion with Albertina display

1,096 pages in total

Frontispiece in each volume

82 pages of illustrations including 8 in colour

Book size:10" x 6¾"

The epic history of the Russian Revolution

On Sunday 9 January 1905, a crowd of 150,000 workers and their families marched to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg to petition the Tsar for food and material assistance. More than a decade of famine, caused by failed crops and government indifference, had brought the Russian people to their knees. Instead of succour, however, they were met with gunfire. With 200 killed and 800 wounded, the day would live on in infamy as Bloody Sunday, the first day of the Russian Revolution.

‘Combines dramatic powers, absorbing narrative and magisterial scholarship … A magnificent tour de force’

In his acclaimed narrative history, Orlando Figes goes back to the 1890s to explore the grievances that set the people on a collision course with the Tsarist autocracy. Nicholas II, Russia’s last Tsar, was opposed to any form of modernisation, and the rosy view he held of ‘his’ people bore little resemblance to the wretched existence of the Russian peasantry. Moreover, his wife Alexandra was mistrusted because of her German ancestry and her association with the disreputable healer Rasputin. Following the fallout of Bloody Sunday a reluctant Tsar and his government established a parliament, but the fledgling democracy was doomed. ‘No package of political reforms could ever resolve the profound social divide’ in Russian society. The hardship caused by the First World War was the final undoing of the Tsarist regime; a bread shortage in 1917 sparked the February Revolution.

‘The most moving account of the Russian Revolution since Doctor Zhivago’

Figes brilliantly captures the terrible plight of the Russian people over the ensuing years, as the Revolution was followed by civil war, pogroms, famine and persecutions led by the Cheka or secret police. He captures the personalities of key figureheads such as Leon Trotsky – the great orator whose arrogance and Jewish background made him unpopular with his party – and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the iron-willed demagogue who ‘gave himself entirely to politics’. He also follows half a dozen other individuals whose lives were torn apart by the conflict. They include the aristocratic General Brusilov, a hero of the First World War who went over to the Red Army in 1920 and lived to regret it; the writer Maxim Gorky, whose faith in his people was shattered by the hideous bloodshed of the Revolution; and the peasant writer Sergei Semenov, who attempted to improve conditions in his village but was shot in the back by a jealous neighbour after years of intimidation.

‘An engagingly written and well-researched book. . . . will stand for some time as a standard of historical scholarship’

Figes is equally clear-eyed about the arrogance of the Tsarist regime and Lenin’s ‘pitiless contempt’ for the ordinary people in his pursuit of the Communist utopia. He also reveals the clientelism and corruption of the Bolshevik system; despite claiming to represent the people, the Bolsheviks were deeply suspicious of peasants and resorted to brute force in order to seize control of their crops and grain. Yet fighting under the Red Flag – the symbol of ‘the people’ – gave the Red Army a decisive advantage, and they defeated the remaining White Army troops in Siberia in 1922. Two years later Lenin died. Confined to a wheelchair after several strokes, he had lived his last few years effectively the prisoner of his successor, Josef Stalin.

By the time the Revolution ended, the death toll was in the region of ten million people – counting only the deaths from the Civil War, famine, disease and the Red Terror. Russia had not become, as Lenin had described it, ‘the freest country in the world’. The reason for this, Figes suggests, was that centuries of serfdom and autocratic rule had left the common people unprepared to claim their place as citizens in a democratic society. Instead, they had become the servants of a new regime which in many ways resembled the old one.

A People's Tragedy: Winner of five international awards

The NCR Book Award
The Wolfson Prize
The W. H. Smith Literary Award
The Longman/History Today Book of the Year Award
The Los Angeles Times Book Award

With over 120 photographs and artworks and a new introduction by the author

Our edition contains 40 pages of plates in each volume, sourced by our award-winning picture research team. The author has also been closely involved and contributed many images from his collection. The best pictures from the original edition have been retained, along with compelling new images. They include a photograph of prisoners being shipped to Siberia in a cage, taken by playwright and author Anton Chekhov in 1890, and child soldiers of the Red Army in 1922. A colour plate section is devoted to artworks and artefacts including a White Army regiment badge, an Imperial porcelain plate transformed into a propaganda piece, and a Civil War poster recruiting Muslims to fight with the Bolsheviks.

‘Orlando Figes has taken the chance to display the very experience of revolution as it affected millions of ordinary Russians’

About Orlando Figes

Born in London in 1959, Orlando Figes was a history lecturer and Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge for ten years and now teaches at Birkbeck College, London. In a new introduction written exclusively for this Folio Society edition, he describes working in the Soviet archives in the early 1990s as they began to open up to the public. While other researchers were hoping for new insights into Trotsky or Lenin, he chose to focus on the personal archives of minor figures. ‘By focusing on them it was my intention to convey the Revolution’s tragic chaos, which engulfed so many lives.’

‘Huge in scope, brilliant in vignette, dark and implacable in theme, it is a modern masterpiece’


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Review by jonesmill on 23rd Jan 2016

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

" I am reading the first volume, and so far, enjoying the humanity in the writing. This is an excellent Folio set and worthy of a place amongst the best."

Review by pedro7 on 12th Jun 2013

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 3/5

"Having always had a great interest in the Russian revolution I got this as soon as it came out but I have to admit I did not enjoy it.It was ,for me, an academic work which went into far too much det..." [read more]

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