The seismic political convulsions that have transformed Ukraine, and Russia’s unexpected aggression, have reignited concerns about the return of the Cold War and the resurrection of the Soviet era’s militant triumphalism.

Who better to explain where Russia has been and the forces that have shaped the modern Russian state than Orlando Figes, who, unique among historians, is absolutely in tune with his subject. The author of several widely acclaimed books on Russian history and culture, including “The Whisperers,” “Natasha’s Dance” and, most recently, “Just Send Me Word,” Figes is an elegant, lucid writer who has given us a refreshing new perspective on the antecedents behind today’s headlines.

In “Revolutionary Russia,” Figes argues convincingly that the Russian Revolution is best understood not as an outgrowth of World War I, or even the result of the 1905 upheavals, but as a 100-year cycle of violence in pursuit of a Utopian dream that began with the great famine of 1891. Moreover, he urges that the time has come to re-examine this history in light of Vladimir Putin’s clear efforts to resuscitate iron-fisted nationalism.

“Economically, [Russia] is a pale shadow of the powerhouse it was on the eve of the First World War,” he writes. “Seventy years of communism ruined it. Yet the authoritarian state tradition has revived Russia in a manner unexpected twenty years ago. This resurgence, based on Putin’s reclamation of the Soviet past, demands that we look again at Bolshevism … in the long arc of history.”

The author sets the template in three generational phases: Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who espoused the dream and set the pattern of terror and bloodshed to ensure it; Stalin, who molded the lasting structures of the state and built an empire on a mountain of corpses, and, finally, the generation of 1956, which excoriated Stalin’s crimes and sought to make the revolution work to remedy economic decline and mass disaffection.

Few writers have conveyed the splendors and horrors — indeed, the often grinding bleakness — of Russian history as well as Figes, and he is in full form here. His narrative abilities make the most complicated aspects of Soviet political intrigue understandable to those who are embarking on this journey for the first time. And there are many: A significant number of Americans weren’t yet alive when the Soviet flag was hauled down from the Kremlin in 1991.

“It will take many decades for the Russians to be cured of the social traumas and pathologies of the Communist regime,” Figes reminds us. “Politically, the revolution may be dead, but it has an afterlife” in the mentalities of the people swept up in its violence — and in their actions today.


Michael J. Bonafield, a former Star Tribune copy editor, is a longtime student of Russian affairs and has traveled to Russia five times. He lives in Apple Valley.