Orlando Figes’ bestselling A People’s Tragedy, first published nearly 20 years ago, is one of the most compelling of all accounts of the Russian Revolution. Figes ended his story in 1924 with the death of Lenin, which, he reckoned, seemed like a good idea at the time, as did many other historians of the subject.
Nobody saw it coming — this superb account re-creates in vivid detail the passing of the Soviet Union 20 years ago. So many moments are instantly identified as “the day the world changed” that it is easy to forget the relevant date — or indeed the event the label is supposed to describe. But it is no hyperbole to tag Christmas Day 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the last leader of the Soviet Union and the Red Flag was lowered from the Kremlin, as one of those dates. Very likely, future historians will judge it to be far more significant than 9/11.
In the 1980s, the Polish economist Bronislaw Kaminski used to make an observation that confused liberal, leftist and even some conservative intellectuals in the West. Communism, he argued, was not a good idea implemented badly, but a terrible idea implemented surprisingly well.