Mikhail Zygar is fascinated by individuals. The former journalist’s new history book, The Empire Must Die: Russia's Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917, explores the lives of a cast of characters from monks, painters and terrorists to ballet dancers, tsars and generals. It is the story of how these cultural and political luminaries shaped events at the turn of the century, and how the rise to power of Lenin’s Bolsheviks spelled the end of a blossoming civil society. For Zygar, the Russian Revolution was a “manmade catastrophe” that “plunged a vast, highly developed civilisation into the depths of Hades”.  

Zygar brings a reporter’s eye to history and The Empire Must Die is packed with the sort of fantastic detail for which any newspaper editor would kill. In one characteristic passage, he recounts a fight between influential, self-proclaimed holy man Rasputin and two other monks: “Iliodor and Rasputin roll head over heels down a flight of stairs, while the roughed-up Germogen screams blue murder.” In another, he describes how Grand Duchess Ella goes to visit the mortally wounded coachman of her dead husband Grand Duke Sergei, blown up by a revolutionary’s bomb earlier in the day, still wearing a bright blue dress and her “fingernails stained with blood”. At their last meal before the Bolshevik storm of the Winter Palace, Zygar tells us that the ministers of the Provisional Government holed up inside dined on “soup, fish and artichokes”.

Tsar Nicholas II with his children and nephews in 1915

One of a flood of books published in the centenary year of the Russian Revolution, The Empire Must Die stands out because Zygar is Russian (unlike the authors of most new works in English), and because of his unusual, newsy style. He says he spent no time doing research in the archives and offers no apologies for such an approach: “I am not a historian, but a journalist,” he writes in the Introduction, “this book was written according to the rules of journalism.”

Zygar made his name as a reporter for Kommersant newspaper and then as chief editor of Russian liberal television station Dozhd. But he quit in 2015 to work on 1917.ru, a social media project publishing the writings of key figures of the Russian Revolution in real time. Zygar’s career arc — from reporting to history — is not unique amid Russia's difficult climate for independent media and the politicisation of history, in which the past is understood as a proxy for contemporary debates. Filipp Dzyadko, former chief editor of Bolshoi Gorod, left journalism a few years before Zygar and in 2015 set up the history education site Arzamas

Zygar’s career arc — from reporting to history — is not unique amid Russia's difficult climate for independent media and the politicisation of history, in which the past is understood as a proxy for contemporary debates

An interest in contemporary Russian politics is a hallmark of The Empire Must Die, and Zygar draws direct parallels between events in the late tsarist period and Russia’s recent history. These are referenced in the footnotes: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s occasionally clumsy liberal waffling resembles that of pre-revolution Prime Minister Prince Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirsky; revolutionary priest Father Gapon’s confrontational protest tactics make him similar to opposition leader Alexei Navalny; outspoken writer and radical Maxim Gorky is like chess champion and Kremlin critic Gary Kasparov; and the failed counter-revolutionary coup organised by general Lavr Kornilov in September 1917 played the same role in destroying the Provisional Government as the 1991 coup attempt by Communist hardliner did for the Soviet Union. 

Perhaps less interesting and more irritating is Zygar’s use of contemporary terms to explain political and social phenomena from before the revolution. He uses the word siloviki, which refers to the hawkish military and security service officials around President Vladimir Putin, to describe factions jostling for power under Nicolas II, and anachronistically writes about “young hipsters” at the turn of the century and the “war on terror” unleashed after the 1905 revolution.

Famous 20th Russian figures. Image: Zygar's social media project 1917.ru

The Empire Must Die brings out the unpredictability of the events of 1917. Zygar makes clear that chaos in revolutionary Russia, as strikes cut communications, made effective decision making all but impossible. And he delights in highlighting how things could have turned out very differently: for example, contemporaries believed Lenin was so out of touch that his career was finished just days after he returned to Petrograd in 1917. “History is one long blunder,” Zygar writes, juxtaposing his history with decades of dogmatic Soviet historiography. 
The book’s main strength — and its main weakness — is a focus on individuals. This makes for an undeniably gripping and vivid read as Zygar gives expert political analysis and narrates the intrigues of the leading men and women of Russian politics and culture. He describes the wonderful intersections of famous names: Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy socialising together in Crimea, or revolutionary politician Alexander Kerensky, toppled by the Bolsheviks, asking Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev if he could return from exile to visit the Soviet Union half a century after he fled.

Zygar’s historical approach (and it’s limitations) is more understandable when you realise he is writing as much about modern Russia as he is about the dying days of tsarism.

And The Empire Must Die takes a particular delight in the tangled sexual relations of Russia’s elite: impresario Sergei Diaghilev was involved in a “love quadrangle” including his homosexual cousin Dima Filosofov; famous ballet dancer Mathilde Kshesinskaya not only had an affair with Tsar Nicholas II but cohabited with two grand dukes, one the cousin of the tsar, the other his uncle; and liberal politician Pavel Milyukov took money from his mistress to fund the activities of his Kadet Party where his wife was an active member. Things were no less complicated among the revolutionaries: Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, apparently enjoyed playing with the children of the woman she knew to be her husband’s lover, Inessa Armand. 

Leo Tolstoy riding at his Yasnaya Polyana estate in 1908. Image: project1917 / Facebook

But while this is all compelling, it is also limiting. Restricting the scope to Russia's leading lights, who mostly live in Moscow and St Petersburg, means ordinary Russians only appear as appendages of political leaders' ambitions. Zygar offers no explanation for why workers protested, soldiers deserted or peasants burnt estates to the ground (or, indeed, how such people experienced the revolution). This makes The Empire Must Die a work of “great men” history, where events are explained by the actions of a few individuals and dubious causality chains abound. In one example of many, readers are told how a 1910 falling-out between Nicholas II and his uncle Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich “directly affects the outcome of the First World War”.

Zygar’s historical approach (and its limitations) is more understandable when you realise he is writing as much about modern Russia as he is about the dying days of tsarism. The allegory, sometimes explicit, more often obtuse, is a call for self-reflection — and a warning against stumbling into catastrophe. 

The Empire Must Die: Russia's Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917 by Mikhail Zygar is published by PublicAffairs and can be ordered here

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