Pavel Koshkin: “The Review on Zygar’s Book — The Empire Must Die”

File Photo of Revolutionaries Marching in Moscow in 1917, adapted from image at

Subject: the review on Zygar’s book — The Empire Must Die
Date: Thu, 9 Nov 2017
From: Pavel Koshkin <>

The Empire Must Die: Understanding Russia’s political theater between 1917 and 2017
The main goal of Mikhail Zygar’s new book is to prove that every member of society can contribute to the development of a country’s history and make difference.
By Pavel Koshkin
Former editor, Russia Direct

100 years ago the Bolsheviks organized a military riot that overthrew the Provisional Government, seized the power in the city and the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg on October 25-26, 1917 (November 7-8, according to the New Style calendar). It was a series of events that turned in the October Revolution and had a great impact on Russian and global history. It was 10 days that shook the world, in the words of American journalist John Reed.

100 years after these ominous events Russia celebrated them with a large-scale and stunning light show. It depicted the 1917 February and October revolutions in a nutshell – vividly and concisely. The performance took place in central Saint Petersburg – symbolically, in front of the Winter Palace. Until recently the authorities have been reticent about expressing their position toward the 1917 revolution, yet now their take seems to be clear. “Russia is destined to live through ordeals, humiliations, schisms; but out of these humiliations it will emerge as new and great in a new way,” a narrator quotes Alexander Blok’s famous article “The Intelligentsia and the Revolution” during the light show.

“Without glory fell / Two-headed eagle. / Tsar! – you were wrong,” read another narrator quoting poetess Maria Tsvetaeva’s famous piece of poetry in response to Nicolas II’s abdication in the early March, 1917.

The key idea of the Nov. 4-5 light show seems to echo the besieged fortress narrative that the Russian authorities have been rigorously promoting since the Russian-Ukrainian conflict and the ongoing confrontation between the Kremlin and the West. The show highlights that the enemies surround Russia, which needs to restore its power and assume the leading role in the world.

The light performance implies that the weak leader (Nicolas II) is wrong and the country always needs a strongman who could prevent the catastrophe. The light show – with all its swag and visual excellence – is a good example of the authorities using history and literature in their political goals, which inevitably leads to distortion and cherry-picking.

“Today’s authorities see Russia as a great power: being a superpower, an empire is good for them. But 1917 is the year when the Russian empire collapsed <…> Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot associate himself either with weak emperor Nicholas II, or revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Alexander Kerensky. They failed to turn Russia in a superpower and that’s why they cannot be seen as the good role models for Putin,” said Mikhail Zygar, a well-known Russian journalist and the author of the project “1917.Free History”, in his Aug. 21 interview to JRL.

Recently he wrote a book on the Russian 1917 revolution that sheds light of the events of this ominous year and present a totally different narrative. The Empire Must Die: Russia’s Revolutionary Collapse, 1900-1917 has been translated in English and available in bookstores since Nov. 7. It is an attempt to look at the most controversial period of the Russian history objectively, from the point of view of Zygar’s generation. It is an attempt to depoliticize history and the 1917 revolution.

This book was released in the right moment, when Russia is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the February and October revolutions, when the country is facing basically the same internal and external challenges (inequality, increasing unpredictability, social and political unrest, corruption, ossified bureaucracy).

Basically, Zygar depicted the same problems, the same characters and realities that are common for today’s Russia. The only difference between the present and the past is the historical, political and social context. In his interview to Russia Direct, Zygar described his previous book All The Kremlin’s Men as a historical chronicle. The Empire Must Die can also be seen as a historical chronicle that portrays the Russian Tsar’s court from the inside. He focuses on the political, economic, social and cultural environment around the Russian ruler, not the Tsar himself. Likewise, the main character of All The Kremlin’s Men is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s environment, people that surround him, not the president himself.

That’s why these two books should be viewed as two parts of one narrative like the one in the Back To The Future movies – as two “mirror” universes of the Russian history: 1900-1917 and 2000-2015 (the time span Zygar depicts in All The Kremlin’s Men).

Between 1917 and 2017

Although Zygar warns against drawing parallels between 1917 and 2017 and argues that it is not correct, one cannot resist comparing the past and the present. “Every situation is unique, but there could be the same problems. And we should analyze the past to draw lessons, not parallels,” admitted Zygar in an interview to JRL.

Indeed, the problems of Russia have been the same since 1900 and Zygar tries to highlight it in his detached narrative. When one reads his description of the March 4 student protest in 1901 in central Saint Petersburg and its cruel crackdown, one should remember the 2010s protests in modern Russia when people took to the streets to express their indignation about the alleged fraud during the 2011 parliamentary election and Putin’s third presidential term.

In March and June 2017 the large-scale protests repeated and this time primarily young people, including high-school students, took to the streets to support Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny and express their frustration about the rampant corruption within the higher echelons of power. All these rallies – both in May 2013 and March 2017 – were cracked down, with hundreds detained, arrested and sometimes injured. Likewise, in March 1917, students, officers and celebrities came together to defend their human rights, and in 30 minutes about 500-600 men and 100 women were arrested, with three killed, 62 man and 34 severely injured and 54 law enforcement officers wounded, as Zygar wrote.

1917 was the time when the Russian civil society emerged and then re-emerged in 2010s. The March 1917 protest brought together people from very diverse communities and it was the first large-scale political rally in Russia. “There are not only students here [near the Kazan Cathedral in St Petersburg], but also big city celebrities, for example, two socialist writers <…> There are not only young people in the beaten crowd, but also the big city elite,” wrote Zygar.

The Empire Must Die also indicates that the authorities have been using the same ways of dealing with protests. Not only do they use the explicit violence, but also more subtle ways of keeping opposition at bay – for example, the creation of a counter-protest. In 2014-2016, it was the anti-Maidan movement or other pro-government rallies that usually coincided or came shortly after the opposition protests. The anti-Maidan activists and the like declare war on opposition and color revolutions.

Similarly, after the assassination of Emperor Alexander II well-known Russian politician and minister Sergei Witte – before having become famous – initiated the secret society “The Saint Bodyguard” intended to fight with the opposition. In the early 1900s, Sergey Zubatov, the head of Moscow secret police, fought with the political unrest and the revolutionary movement by creating an alternative and distracting the population: He tried to indoctrinate workpeople and involve them in the pro-government rallies and demonstrations like the one that took place on February 22, 1902 in the wake of student protests. This rally brought together 45 thousand people to commemorate the killed Emperor Alexander II. “The manifestation pursues the obvious political goal: It is in the wake of other student unrest when Zubatov organizes it to show that workers are loyal as never before,” explains Zygar.

Zubatov’s tactic looks like the one used by well-known Vladislav Surkov, who was among those who initiated the fight against the color revolutions in Russia and started campaign against the Western influence. Ironically, Zygar even describes Zubatov and Surkov in the way in his books: He sees them as romantics and philosophers who turned into the advocates of a strong state. Both of them are very smart, they betrayed their romantic convictions and juvenile idealism to become statists, they use very subtle ways to whitewash the regime and deal with the opposition, and they are something in between. “Vladislav Surkov resembles the romantic character from the 19th century novel,” reads All The Kremlin’s Man. “He [Zubatov] is not only the policemen, but also the main romantic in the government service,” echoes The Empire Must Die.

Another Russia’s perennial problem raised by Zygar in his new book is the ossified conservatism and the fear before the Western “deleterious” influence. This fear was embodied in the figure of Konstantin Pobedonostsev, described as “the minister of the Church” by Zygar. He was the adviser to three Tsars and the chief spokesman for reactionary positions. He and his supporters denounced democracy as ineffective and dangerous for Russia. Moreover, he believed that the key problem for the country was education, because the most disloyal part of the population was well-educated people, including students, professors and some officials.

Today conservatism is manifested in the activity of Russia’s State Duma, the Orthodox Church, the pseudo-expertise of reactionary philosopher Alexander Dugin. One of the recent examples of such thinking is the statement of an Orthodox cleric – metropolitan Hilarion, who said in July 2017 that the Oxford education is harmful for young people because they come back to Russia with “exaggerated expectations” about Russia. Ironically, these words seem to be also reminiscent of Nicolas II’s 1895 statement: In response to the proposal to increase the role of civil society in Russia and build democracy, he described this idea as “senseless dreams”.

Another similarity between the present and the past that Zygar’s book reveals is the obsession of the political elites with foreign policy at the expense of resolving the domestic problems: in their attempt to explore the Far East of Russia, Nicolas II and his close advisers conduct expansionist policy in north-western China, seized Manchuria in 1900, launched the Russian language support in this region and the exploration of China. Those who surround Nicolas II dream about deploying Russian troops there to create a sort of colony. All this conjures up today’s Russian foreign policy: its pivot to the East, the takeover of Crimea and the military operation in Syria. What lesson could the Russian authorities learn today? The obsession with foreign policy and negligence toward the domestic problems (economic meltdown, corruption, inequality, the absence of good institutions) might lead to the collapse of statehood in the long run.

Political theater

In his new book Zygar tries to follow the same scheme he chose in All The Kremlin’s Men: He depicts the history and political reality through the lenses of the key characters of the political process. By analyzing archives, historical documents, memoirs, he and his team created a sort of patchwork that introduces to readers very diverse political and cultural figures – from classic writers Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky to revolutionaries Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin; from ministers Sergei Witte and Pyotr Stolypin to popular leaders of the public protest Georgy Gapon and Alexander Kerensky; from religious mystic and self-proclaimed holy man Grigori Rasputin to Russian prominent art critic Sergei Diaghilev; from empresses Maria and Alexandra to politicians Pavel Miliukov and Alexander Guchkov.

Every chapter tells the story about a certain character, which connect all the dots into one coherent narrative and its key idea is – the death of the Russian empire was inevitable, because the entire system became outdated and didn’t meet the demands of modernity.

The Empire Must Die looks like a long serial, yet its characters are real historical figures and its ending is tragic and well-known. Zygar just reminds about the implication of reckless political behavior. This book is worth reading at least because it describes the country’s history through the lenses of the Russian society, not only from the point of view of statesmen and the ruler. This book is an attempt to write the biography of the Russian society and study its goals and the reasons why the Russian people provoked the collapse of the entire empire, wrote Zygar in his foreword.

This idea was repeated more explicitly in his interview to JRL: “History of Russia was the history of the government and its leadership, and this is a very vicious” tradition, because there are no ordinary people and their interests behind such history <…> Many historical figures that took the lead in 1917 are not familiar to ordinary Russians today, but they played a very significant role in Russia’s politics. Remarkably, these people defended not their personal ambitions, but they defended the interests of society.”

Thus, the main goal of Zygar’s book is to prove that every member of society can contribute to the development of a country’s history and make difference.