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The Channel One series opens with an armored train steaming through the snow-covered Russian countryside, a metaphor for Trotsky and his revolutionary power, barrelling through the expanse of Russian history. From there, the first episode jumps among the Odessa prison where Trotsky was held under the Tsar, his exile in frozen Siberia, and the political salons of turn-of-the-century Paris.

After the screening, I talked with Ernst, who, as the head of Channel One, enjoys a status and influence close to that of a government minister. In , I wrote about Ernst when he oversaw the opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics , in Sochi, a proud spectacle of Russian history and culture. Presidential election has been roundly dismissed on the network. But Ernst is also a man of diverse, art-house tastes that are often more eclectic than that of the average viewer of Channel One.

He is also brutal: in one scene, he orders the execution of one in every ten men from a unit that deserted a Civil War battle.


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Yet he is shown to consistently act from a deep and passionate idealism; the show does not give in to the easy trope of slandering him as a power-hungry cynic. I asked Ernst whether he considered such energy noble or dangerous.

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And revolution is the same—terrible, but natural. One scene shows a sharp exchange between a young Trotsky, then still known as Lev Bronstein, and the warden of the Odessa prison, Nikolay Trotsky, from whom Bronstein later takes his revolutionary alias. The two clash over the sources of power and authority, and whether the Russian people would actually benefit from freedom. In this view, revolutionary violence was distinct precisely because it was discriminate rather than indiscriminate so that, as many examples show, brutal landowners were treated worse than those who had treated the peasants better.

Similarly, cruel army officers might be executed and replaced by other officers in whom the men had greater confidence. Criminals caught in the act might be subject to summary justice - often out of all proportion to the crime but often likely to bear some symbolic relationship to what they had done. While it would be foolish to romanticize popular violence, not least because the innocent could be caught up along with the less innocent, there did seem to me to be a distinction. Most examples of political riot from the US ghettos to the fall of Kinshasa bear this out with particular groups of property owners, for instance, having been targeted more than others because of their record of oppressing those who had become rioters and looters.

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The evidence suggests that the Russian revolution was no exception. The self-organizing activity of the masses attracted far more of my attention than of Figes who concentrates on its self-destructive tendencies. Another point of similarity which led to profound differences lies in the desire of both of us to present something of the experience of the individual to balance the otherwise heavily structural argument required to analyse a vast revolution in a massive country.

In my own case, two elements came to bear on this. First, I had been impressed with the work of my friend and former colleague Edward Countryman who, in his excellent history of the American revolution, had prefaced his account with thumbnail sketches of the lives of four very different individuals. I resolved to do the same though, in the event, pressure of space and time reduced the number to two.

Secondly, I was dissatisfied with the way in which much social history compiled its facts in a sometimes traditional shoe-box fashion, that is diverse information from a wide range of places presented in quick succession and with little reference to the immediate context. History is not an exact science so such a style of argument is inevitable but I wished to balance it by giving greater prominence to the sequence of revolution in a number of microcosms - emphatically not intended to be typical but to show the revolution in one place.

In the end I was not as successful at this as I had wished. Only well-known examples - like the Putilov factory and the Kronstadt naval base - provided sufficient information to make it possible to return frequently to show the development of the revolution in one spot.

In the end, only the Putilov factory was an ongoing reference point. I did, however, try to supplement this by using less well-known areas and episodes - the Romanian Front, the Caucasus, the Makhno movement - as minor narratives providing a counterpoint to the more established ones.

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However, the most difficult aspect here was, predictably, to find a village with a continuous chain of evidence. I did eventually find one but it fitted too awkwardly into the structure of the book and, rather than include it as an appendix to an already overlong book, it was excluded with a view to using it separately in some other context.

Here, Orlando Figes was much more successful than I, not only in persuading his publisher to accept a much longer account, but in filling that extra space with extensive anecdotes. Perhaps the least familiar example he uses is the long feud between Grigorii Maliutin and Sergei Semenov, two peasants from the same village, one a traditionalist the other a modernizer, which he uses to excellent effect. However, here, too, an initial similarity between Figes and myself ended up in a vast difference, in this case in the balance between structural argument and anecdote..

Incidentally, there is an amusing contrast in the related issue of eyewitness evidence. A consequence of this is that, having carefully selected the voice for a given moment, Figes does not enter into criticism of his sources or present a variety of points of view. Each saw what they wanted to see.

In other words, eyewitness evidence needed as much careful criticism as any other. Incidentally, at this point, Figes and I even came to quite different conclusions about the weather at the time of the February revolution! There are many other points of similarity and difference. One can say with some certainty that neither of us is a Leninist though our presentation of Lenin has little in common, Figes tending to see him as almost congenitally Machiavellian and cruel where, for me, he was naive, had a catastrophically unbreakable self-confidence and was fanatical in a well-meaning sort of way - notably his total devotion to his concept of popular liberation.

We would, I think, both agree that love for humanity in the abstract obliterated his tenderness for actual individuals. In fact, Lenin thought this was a virtue. There was, of course, a long tradition of such argument in Russia, not only by populists who idealized the peasantry but by many others from Turgenev, via Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn to contemporary historians such as Danilov, Kabanov and Maliavskii. Following the trend started among historians of the French revolution in the eighties, Figes attacks the assumptions of those who had been arguing that revolutionary violence was often rational and political in its selection of targets.

For Figes, common criminality, bloodlust, a desire to loot and pleasure in wanton destruction are at its heart, not the inarticulate, instinctive politics of an illiterate and uneducated society. In this view, revolutionary violence was distinct precisely because it was discriminate rather than indiscriminate so that, as many examples show, brutal landowners were treated worse than those who had treated the peasants better.

Similarly, cruel army officers might be executed and replaced by other officers in whom the men had greater confidence. Criminals caught in the act might be subject to summary justice - often out of all proportion to the crime but often likely to bear some symbolic relationship to what they had done. While it would be foolish to romanticize popular violence, not least because the innocent could be caught up along with the less innocent, there did seem to me to be a distinction.

Most examples of political riot from the US ghettos to the fall of Kinshasa bear this out with particular groups of property owners, for instance, having been targeted more than others because of their record of oppressing those who had become rioters and looters. The evidence suggests that the Russian revolution was no exception. The self-organizing activity of the masses attracted far more of my attention than of Figes who concentrates on its self-destructive tendencies. Another point of similarity which led to profound differences lies in the desire of both of us to present something of the experience of the individual to balance the otherwise heavily structural argument required to analyse a vast revolution in a massive country.

In my own case, two elements came to bear on this. First, I had been impressed with the work of my friend and former colleague Edward Countryman who, in his excellent history of the American revolution, had prefaced his account with thumbnail sketches of the lives of four very different individuals. I resolved to do the same though, in the event, pressure of space and time reduced the number to two.

Secondly, I was dissatisfied with the way in which much social history compiled its facts in a sometimes traditional shoe-box fashion, that is diverse information from a wide range of places presented in quick succession and with little reference to the immediate context. History is not an exact science so such a style of argument is inevitable but I wished to balance it by giving greater prominence to the sequence of revolution in a number of microcosms - emphatically not intended to be typical but to show the revolution in one place. In the end I was not as successful at this as I had wished.

Only well-known examples - like the Putilov factory and the Kronstadt naval base - provided sufficient information to make it possible to return frequently to show the development of the revolution in one spot. In the end, only the Putilov factory was an ongoing reference point.


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  8. I did, however, try to supplement this by using less well-known areas and episodes - the Romanian Front, the Caucasus, the Makhno movement - as minor narratives providing a counterpoint to the more established ones. However, the most difficult aspect here was, predictably, to find a village with a continuous chain of evidence. I did eventually find one but it fitted too awkwardly into the structure of the book and, rather than include it as an appendix to an already overlong book, it was excluded with a view to using it separately in some other context.

    Here, Orlando Figes was much more successful than I, not only in persuading his publisher to accept a much longer account, but in filling that extra space with extensive anecdotes. Perhaps the least familiar example he uses is the long feud between Grigorii Maliutin and Sergei Semenov, two peasants from the same village, one a traditionalist the other a modernizer, which he uses to excellent effect.

    However, here, too, an initial similarity between Figes and myself ended up in a vast difference, in this case in the balance between structural argument and anecdote.. Incidentally, there is an amusing contrast in the related issue of eyewitness evidence.

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    A consequence of this is that, having carefully selected the voice for a given moment, Figes does not enter into criticism of his sources or present a variety of points of view. Each saw what they wanted to see. In other words, eyewitness evidence needed as much careful criticism as any other. Incidentally, at this point, Figes and I even came to quite different conclusions about the weather at the time of the February revolution! There are many other points of similarity and difference.