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Interpreting the Russian Revolution: The Language and Symbols of 1917

INTERVIEWER: How did this book come about?
ORLANDO FIGES: Through my friendship with Boris. I met him at a conference in St Petersburg in the early 1990s and thought his work was exciting - we all did. He is perhaps the most interesting historian of the revolutionary period to come out of Russia in the past twenty years. He was working then on Kerensky but was interested in the wider political culture of the Russian Revolution of 1917 - its language, symbols, songs, and public rituals - all the things that can be analysed to understand its ideology at a popular level. That is how he and I saw these things in any case. We wanted to get to the root of popular revolutionary ideas and how they functioned in the political context of 1917.

INTERVIEWER: Were these themes covered in A People's Tragedy?
ORLANDO FIGES: To some extent they were but I finished A People's Tragedy before I and Boris sat down to think about a book. He had come with his family to Cambridge - where I was then teaching - for a year. I was then finishing A People's Tragedy and he read the manuscript. That was the start of our conversation for the book. I introduced him to the works of those historians of the French Revolution who had seen mentalités as active forces of historical change, to the ideas of linguistic theorists such as Foucault and Bourdieu and to those historians who had made the 'linguistic turn' - looking at the ways in which language contributed to the formation of social and political identities as well as to the exercise of political power. And we then began to think about the ways these ideas and methods could be applied to the Russian context of 1917.

INTERVIEWER: How did you divide the work between yourself and Boris?
ORLANDO FIGES: Very easily. There were some themes that were clearly his (the 'symbolic revolution' or the cult of Kerensky, for example) and others that were mine - the essay on the peasants and on languages of class. Then there were chapters we co-wrote. It was a natural collaboration and enjoyable.

INTERVIEWER: Some of the most interesting chapters deal with Rasputin. I had always thought of him as a side-issue but you show that he played an important role.
ORLANDO FIGES: Yes, it’s easy to see Rasputin as a bit of colour in the Russian Revolution, stories of his orgies at restaurants, his legendary penis and so on. But what we tried to show was how important all the rumours of Rasputin were. In a revolutionary situation - especially in one in the middle of a war without a free press - what really counts is not what's true but what people think to be the truth. Rumours of Rasputin's influence, of the Empress' treachery, were hugely influential - they desacralized the monarchy, deprived it of its authority, and made revolution a patriotic act, uniting demoralized soldiers at the Front, who saw no point in fighting anymore for a 'German' dynasty at home, with citizens at home, who saw the removal of the monarchy as necessary for the continuation of the war.

INTERVIEWER: The cult of the leader also features in these essays. Kerensky, Lenin, Stalin - they had all cults of their personality. Is this about charismatic power or is it something else in Russian history?
ORLANDO FIGES: I think we'd veer towards the idea that it's something rooted in Russian history - the sacralization of Tsar-like power that runs through Russian political culture - from the cult of the 'father-Tsar' before 1917 to the cults of Lenin and Stalin. In Russian the words for the 'state' (gosudarstvo) and the 'monarch' (gosudar) are from the same root. Popular conceptions of power and the state essentially monarchical. Peasants. for example, found it hard to distinguish between the person of the monarch and the abstract institutions of the state. What is striking is how quickly the idea of monarchy resurfaced after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. One soldier in the crowd during the February Revolution told the British Ambassador George Buchanan, 'Yes, we need a republic, but at its head there should be a good Tsar.'

INTERVIEWER: You also explore the linguistic history and context of key revolutionary terms - 'democracy', 'the people', 'the bourgeoisie', the 'working class', etc. Why did you want to explore these?
ORLANDO FIGES: Looking at the way these terms were used and understood by ordinary people - in letters, speeches, village resolutions and so on - gets us to the heart of what we could call the 'popular ideology of the revolution' - the way the masses latched onto the ideas of the socialists in 1917. The word 'democracy', for example, was popularly understood to mean, not a set of governmental rules and institutions, as we would understand it now, but the common people - as opposed to the privileged élites or the bourgeoisie. The 'burzhooi' - the popular term for the 'bourgeoisie' - included anyone deemed not to work with his hands. It became a generic terms for 'enemies of the people'. Looking at the way these terms were used can tell us a great deal about the 'class' appeal of the Bolsheviks and their approach to politics. It gets us to the origins of the Terror.

INTERVIEWER:How important was the understanding of 'class' in 1917?
ORLANDO FIGES: It was the key to all political discourse within 'the democracy'. Perhaps not in the way that orthodox Marxist historians would have us look at class - as a socially exclusive category with antagonistic relations (the 'class war') defined by the relations of production - but certainly as a political category including the 'labouring people' whose struggle was defined by the demand for human rights. What workers wanted in 1917 - if you look at their demands in their own terms - is dignity at work, the right to vote, equality with the rest of society. These are essentially human goals - they were shared by workers, soldiers and peasants.

INTERVIEWER: Interpreting the Russian Revolution is a scholarly book. How does it sit with your other best-selling history books? Are there two types of Orlando Figes history?
ORLANDO FIGES: Of course not, there's just one! All my books are scholarly, based on research in archives, and I hope that even the most academic ones, such as this, are readable. I don't see a big divide between 'academic' and 'popular' history - in any case the gap has narrowed greatly in the past few years. It's really just a question of who can write good history - and to do that you must write well.

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