A few months ago, Russia celebrated the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution. The events that preceded and happened during the two revolutions of 1917 are described in The Empire Must Die, a new book by Mikhail Zygar. The book was originally published in the Russian language, but it has also been translated to English.
Mikhail Zygar is one of the most notable Russian journalists. His previous book, All The Kremlin's Men, is considered the best description of Putin’s Russia. Two years after the book was released, he started working on the history of the Russian Revolution.
The book takes a different approach to the history: instead of describing events, it focuses on the people who were involved in those events. With the story starting in 1899, The Empire Must Die features a wide range of characters from the famous writers such as Leo Tolstoy to the yet unknown revolutionaries including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin — everyone takes part in the history of revolution.
Despite having many characters, the book centers around one idea: the future of Russia. Tsar Nicholas II wants Russia to become an even more prosperous empire, while keeping the absolute monarchy and continuing the “sacred mission” of Russia — conquering Constantinople (modern Istanbul) from Ottoman rule. The tsar also wants to have an analogue of the British Raj: he plans to expand the Russian Far East. Nicholas II genuinely believes that his divine rule will help Russia become a glorious empire, and his ministers will serve him unquestioningly.
Not everyone supports the tsar’s political ambitions. The revolutionaries want nothing but the abolition of the absolute monarchy. The same opinion is supported by the lesser nobles, who demand more privileges. Even the typically apolitical businessmen start discussing about the possible constitution. This is where the conflict takes place.
As the story goes on, the tension starts rising exponentially. The book covers major events, such as the Russo-Japanese War, with great details and facts that were unknown to the public. With each page, we see how the rumors of the revolution slowly become a reality. We see the discussions and debates within the Imperial Government and the revolutionary movement. We see how Lenin and Trotsky, initially being unknown revolutionaries, turn into the leaders of the Bolsheviks. We see how Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin, while arguing with left-wing parties, says his famous words, “You, gentlemen, are in need of great upheavals; we are in need of Great Russia.”
Even though everyone knows how the story ends, it is still intriguing to read the book. The Empire Must Die resembles Game of Thrones: the events take place in different parts of Russia, Europe, and even the Americas. The characters change with the same, if not higher, frequency, and definitely not the least of them are killed. In a few pages, people who seemed important in the history are forgotten by everyone. But unlike the books by George R.R. Martin, this game of thrones was real. This is perhaps the most terrifying part of the book: as many as 10 million people died in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. The revolution that promised to end the oppression turned out to be the opening of Pandora’s box, with each event being worse than its precursor: the Russian Civil War, famine, The Great Purge, and then World War II.
The author compares the fall of the Russian Empire with the collapse of Rome: “It was a tectonic fault that brought the civilization into hell. Modern Moscow resembles its imperial period as much as the modern Mexico resembles the Mayans.” He surprisingly reveals that almost no one changed their views on the revolution. “Tsarist officer regrets that he did not punish enough. The revolutionary regrets that he did not assassinate enough … All of them sent their own Atlantida to the bottom, yet no one blames himself.”
The Empire Must Die clearly indicates that politics is about finding a compromise between the people who have power. The Tsarist government, and later the provisional government, was trying to reach a compromise. But the problem was that some players did not accept compromises; they wanted to play the game by their rules.
By writing this book, the author wanted to convince people that history is not predetermined; the events that happened were not necessarily supposed to occur, if not for the concatenation of circumstances. As he says, the characters were planning and estimating their actions, thinking that they controlled the situation. But they were horribly wrong. Yet people tend to forget these mistakes, thinking these actions were planned since the very beginning.
Upon finishing the book, the enthusiasm that was driving me to read more turned into the feeling of desolation. A feeling that at some moment the revolution could have been avoided and millions of lives could have been saved was present throughout the book. But the dim light at the end of the tunnel was blocked by the darkness of terror.