Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W.Norton, 1998. Print.

Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia, 1891 – 1991: A History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

During this quarter, in addition to looking at the beginnings of civilization itself through Jared Diamond’s book, I examined the collapse of a society and type of government in Orlando Figes’ retelling of the end of the Russian monarchy. Although the development of civilization is not the same thing as the rise of a society or empire, some basic human features can still be found in the analogy even with the big differences between farming and a revolution.  The way that Diamond explains it, the development of agriculture was a combination of conscious and unconscious decisions made by humans as well as certain floral and geographical features to produce the outcome of a new way of life no longer based on nomadic hunting and gathering. One of his examples of these different factors was a human picking the biggest strawberry on the bush because it was  worth more time and effort than a smaller one would be and unintentionally redistributing the seeds from this strawberry into a place where it could grow . His tone suggests that this shift in food production had a certain inevitability to it, that it was always going to happen, but the correct collisions of factors over this period of time made this change occur during this era.  Figes demonstrates that the situation of the Russian working class would not be able to remain the same because of certain factors. The tenuous atmosphere also was a result of certain calculated and uncalculated decisions made by workers, politicians, and leaders. As is human nature, each individual in this group wanted something that was bigger and better than what they had. They were all reaching for the strawberry which they did not know could result in a dramatic change in the course of their history.

One of the ultimate differences between the food production shift and the Russian Revolution was the condition of the people at the start of these movements.  The nomadic hunter-gatherers did not know that their method for living could be improved upon so we can only assume that they were content with their lot in life and only decided to change when –almost by chance– they discovered a new way to live. On the contrary, the angst at the beginning of the revolutionary period in Russia was the result of the people knowing that they were not achieving their full potential and that something needed to be fixed. However, in order to fully understand what was wrong with the Russian government system, we need to further determine the origins of the angst of the Russian citizens at the time. While reading through the problems that the people had and the unfair treatment they were receiving, I realized that i could use my method for analyzing the degrees of civilization from my previous post to explain the people’s anger and desire for change. The problem was not simply that the Russian peasants and working class were lacking in embellishments (people in third world countries have poor lots as well but haven’t needed a revolt), but that the government and upper classes had a copious amount of them. It was this imbalance of embellishments and power between the lower and upper class that created the unstable and turbulent atmosphere. However, this still does not completely explain why the revolts were beginning at this time instead of much earlier when the same imbalance existed. The reason is most likely that at this point, citizens of western nations were no longer in the same state as the Russian citizens so the Russians saw that better was not only possible but common in other places. This knowledge of existing conditions came with increased literacy which is why in the development of anything it is necessary that people have the ability to know the full circumstances of which things are being made.

Yet, while we can say the revolution was due to the lopsided distribution of embellishments, we can break down the causes to something even more basic. The pattern that I noticed throughout this section of the book was that there were two things that really sparked anger within the people: an empty stomach and broken pride. Because food is one of the four basic necessities, people are more likely to protest when they do not have it. One specific example was when the strife extended to the Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Navy. Figes summarizes the concept  well when he states, “The mutiny began with a piece of maggoty meat.” The rotten meat had been shown to the doctor on board, and he had proclaimed that it was fine to eat. The sailors approached the captain with the matter, but the captain had the speaker shot and killed. The sailors revolted and were able to take control of the ship and sail it to a town full of rebels where they were treated like heroes. Figes explains that “the mutiny had been a minor threat. But it was a major embarrassment to the government” because it demonstrated that the revolution had made it to the center of the of “its own military machine”. The major reaction of both parties to the meat indicates the power of hunger as a catalyst for action. The pride element asserts itself both in the first revolt in 1905 and the second in 1917. The Russo-Japanese war lasted from 1904-1905 over disputes over land in Manchuria and Korea. During this time the Russian government put out propaganda portraying the Japanese as “puny little monkeys, slit-eyed and yellow-skinned, running in panic from the robust fist of a Russian soldier.” This propaganda boosted morale and created a great sense of nationalism, but when the Russians lost to the Japanese in 1905, the people’s pride fell as did their trust in the government. The posters and images had made the Japanese into a weak enemy so–to the Russian citizens–the defeat was a crushing blow and they blamed it on the government. In this case, propaganda had actually worked against the government and it would do so again in 1917 during WWI with  the anti-german mood and the Russians were suffering badly on the front. At this time, rumors and slander was also spread about the royal family due to their German heritage and their relationships with the  controversial figure of Grigorii Rasputin. It did not matter whether the information was true because “In a revolutionary crisis it is perceptions and beliefs that really count.” The war hysteria made it easy for people to believe what they heard which in addition to  the disaster on the front stirred up rebellion against their government. The let down of emotions and the absence of food have the potential to make the people forget their loyalties and recognize their oppression.

One of the biggest dissimilarities between the two books I’m reading is that Jared Diamond does not seem to place much value on the contributions of specific figures throughout history. For instance when describing Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Incan empire, Diamond did  not believe that the actions of neither the Incan leader or Pizarro himself affected the outcome of the situation and the same feeling of inevitability came up as if an individual’s decisions–no matter the station of the person–could change the outcome of the conflict. However, Orlando Figes seems to believe that certain figures during the Russian Revolution swayed the outcome dramatically. Of course part of this difference has to be attributed to the fact that Diamond’s focus is much larger and more indistinct than Figes’ , but it still begs the question can particular leaders determine the direction of history? I think this relates back to nationalism and the ideology of the people because we know that the beliefs of the people–true or not–can influence a movement or government, so we have to consider what builds this ideology. A lot of times an individual with the proper eloquence in speaking and enough force to follow through with action is what creates such an ideology. Figes states that “It was not Marxism that made Lenin a revolutionary but Lenin who made Marxism revolutionary.” Lenin’s total commitment to the cause and the change turned an idea into insurgency so is this proof that individuals can transform the course of history? Figes also claims that “Trotsky…was the real force behind the Soviet. He framed its resolutions and wrote editorials for Izvestiia.” Trotsky, in this assertion, reminded me of Thomas Jefferson during the American Revolution. Most people–or Americans at least–would agree that Jefferson with his rhetoric and George Washington with is military talent and charisma filled important roles in the success of America’s separation from Great Britain, but would there have been someone else that could have taken the role as scribe instead of Jefferson or commander to replace Washington that would have done an equal job? My question is do these leaders influence the course of history because they used unique talents to make a difference or was history always headed in one direction and it created roles that demanded to be filled as time passed? The best answer I can give is a mix of both because to only say one or the other would be ignoring major components of history. Situations do tend to create roles for a person to fill as seen by many power vacuums during crises, and the way a person fills them can probably fall on a pattern, but the choices a leader makes are unique to them so it cannot be too formulaic. The most prominent reason I have to say that an individual can make a difference is because I cannot say the Holocaust still would have happened if Hitler had been accepted into art school and had not gone into politics. Both books provide an interesting perspective on the plight of mankind and the repeating sequences of actions that people follow which hopefully will provide me with more insight into what the future holds as well.

-Haley McGeorge


Posted on March 31, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Clever use of synthesis to bring Diamond and Figes together. I imagine the same pattern holds in many different socially mediated situations where competition and survival are at stake. The second paragraph reiterates one of Diamond’s factors for why civilizations fail–too much divide between the rich and poor. This notion has also been highlighted in lieu of the 2008 stock market crash, where billionaires were seen as basically gambling with middle class retirement funds. I think Diamond reasons that at some point those who are taken advantage of will get angry enough they will storm the castle, much like the Russians were motivated to attack the aristocratic classes. The notion of the Russians being defeated by the Japanese seems echoed in their conflicts in Afghanistan, where again they might have had the superior armaments, but they were out fought. I’m sure geography played a larger role in their conflicts on the 80s, but in both cases they seemed to believe too much in their own power to really be successful. This might suggest complacency is dangerous when getting into high stakes conflicts. You make an effective distinction between looking at history on a macro level, like Diamond, and a micro level, like Figes. Certainly both have value but it would seem that starting on the macro level and working to narrow the scope makes more sense. I imagine that in this kind of arrangement entire decades or centuries can be linked together using the more specific events, and perhaps people, that changed the trajectory of history.


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