Starting in spring of 2013 I became a little obsessed with the Russian Revolution. All my life I’d heard America’s rhetoric about the evils of communism, and always sort of wondered how something so idealistic could be so wrong.
I decided to finally educate myself, and picked up Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution. Whew. This 1,000-page tome took me two months to read… and I enjoyed every second of it. Talk about your epic stories: tragic heroes and cartoonish villains. Wars overlapping with wars, spanning countries and continents. Popular uprisings. Violent coups. Political shenanigans. Also, did you know that there were actually two Russian Revolutions, within the span of 8 months, followed by a 5-year Civil War?
And through it all, the people of Russia kept striving for something better. For peace. For representative government. For equality. As we know now, they didn’t get any of that. Instead they got Stalin. In this book, Orlando Figes walks you through the end of Tsar Alexander III’s brutal reign, the many missteps of his ill-prepared son Nicholas II, the crucible effect of WWI, the calamitous role of heir Alexei’s hemophilia, the corrupting influence of Rasputin, the February Revolution, the short-lived quasi-democratic Provisional Government, the return of Lenin, the October Revolution, and the subsequent civil war.
While covering the politics, Figes never loses sight of their impact on the people, and in fact the book focuses on it — the soldiers fighting on the front lines without boots or guns or respect; the women dealing with food shortages and upheaval on the home front; the peasants repeatedly beset by political activists trying to organize them for someone else’s gain; the children who were finally, slowly gaining access to education; and of course the workers, at the dawn of unionization, reading the words of Marx and Engels and awakening to their own exploitation.
As you can probably tell from my inability to resist rambling, I gobbled it all up. And at the end of the 1,000 pages, I was desperate to learn more. Luckily Figes wrote something of a sequel in The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.
And by that point, I was hooked but good. I read everything I could get my hands on — which, given how pivotal and how well-documented the Revolution was, there was plenty to find. Here are some of the books that were most influential to my research:
Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution
Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia.
Robert Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra
Robert Massie, The Romanovs: The Final Chapter (the book that directly launched Daughters of a Dead Empire into my brain)
Michael Kort, The Soviet Colossus: History and Aftermath
Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution
Roy Bainton, A Brief History of 1917: Russia’s Year of Revolution
Maxim Gorky, My Childhood
John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World
These are just some of the books I read for fun before and during the writing of Daughters of a Dead Empire. There were many more not mentioned here, and then additional books I looked up once I started revising, to do spot-on research. I’m hoping I’ll get the chance to include a proper bibliography in a published book.
It’s probably also worth mentioning some of the novels I read that influenced my mindset/approach. While writing DDE, I was part of a Russian literature book club so I got to read a ton of classics, but the most relevant here are probably:
The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev
The Inspector General, Nikolai Gogol
Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol (which features heavily in my book!)
Now, there’s a very heavy anti-Soviet bias to just about everything I read, especially the nonfiction — as I’m only reading histories written in English, that bias is pervasive in our literature about the Revolution. For example: many of these books allude to earlier historians “naive acceptance” of the idea that October was a legitimate revolution. Yet ALL of the books I read concurred that it was a semi-violent and unpopular coup. I haven’t been able to find any alternative English-language theories.
I did spend 3 months trying to learn Russian, towards a faint hope of someday being fluent enough to read it. :-) When that didn’t work out, I figured that my own liberal tendencies probably balanced out the conservative inclinations of Pipes and the like, to allow me a somewhat realistic impression of both the perks of the Revolution (increased literacy and access to education, slightly more representative government [than Tsarism], greater gender equality, more tolerance towards Jews), and its failings (mass murder, repression, totalitarianism).