When we think of the Russian revolution and its aftermath, we tend to see it in terms of central characters - Nicholas Romanov, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Josef Stalin. They become the main protagonists and they stride like giants across the revolutionary landscape, blotting out the millions of ordinary people who made the insurrection possible. Orlando Figes believes historians are chiefly responsible for this obsession with leaders. He tries to restore the balance and show what the revolution meant to the people in the streets, on the Eastern Front and in the peasant commune. His empirical analysis of the salient points of the revolution and his treatment of Marxist-Leninist ideology provide nothing new. He is especially critical of the right-wing American historian Richard Pipes, and rightly so. Academically, he cannot match Pipes' flawed but brilliant The Russian Revolution. Also, his chapters on the Civil War lack the prescience and unique insight of former Red Army general, Dimitri Volkogonov (in his book Trotsky ) and Figes' examination of Trotsky's pivotal role as commissar for war is cursory and dismissive. Where this book stands out as a landmark work is in the wealth of social history which fills its pages. His exhaustive research brings the revolution to life. He is, in effect, trying to give history back to the people who made it and who, until now, have seldom merited a footnote. Over 800 densely written pages, Figes shows the revolution in a new light and finally strips it and its 'heroes' of every last vestige of romanticism. What gives this book even more punch is the intelligent selection of pictures. They are haunting images, frozen in sepia, of abject poverty and appalling suffering. Gaunt faces stare out: hungry children with unkempt hair, grizzled serfs, their lined cheeks and furrowed brows a gnarled testament to years of thankless toil. Cannibals, with dead, soulless eyes, pose beside their decomposing victims. A Polish soldier, horribly mutilated, dangles naked from a tree, while Red Army soldiers stand around, smirking, as if the camera had discovered them committing a schoolboy prank. Clearly then, while this book is sympathetic to the common people, it is no rustic eulogy. Figes says: 'To be sure this was a people's tragedy but it was a tragedy which they helped to make. The Russian people were trapped by the tyranny of their own history.' Like all historians specialising in this period, the argument rages about when the Romanovs lost control; at what point the damage done was irreparable. Figes picks 1891, a year of famine, as the starting point of the Russian revolution. Nicholas II was not yet in power, and Figes believes that his father, Alexander III, must share the blame for the downfall of the 300-year-old dynasty. The last two tsars were obsessed with preserving the autocracy at any cost. They both had intelligent advisers who tried to steer them towards accepting a constitutional monarchy. Nicholas refused to implement much-needed land reforms that would have improved the efficiency of agriculture and would not countenance the formation of even the most moderate trade unions, as thousands of young peasants streamed into the cities to become the cogs in Russia's expanding industrial revolution. Nicholas created a lethal cocktail. He constructed more primary schools from which emerged literate peasants and workers. But his intransigence radicalised them and the intellectuals, who in most Western European countries had a nominal voice and worked for reform within the system. It was the perfect breeding ground for revolutionary parties. Nicholas would not compromise on his three guiding principles - autocracy, orthodoxy and nationality and it cost him his throne and ultimately his life. Humiliated by defeat in the war with Japan in 1905 and forced to make concessions to the Petrograd Soviet in the revolution of that same year, Nicholas then backtracked on his pledges, closing the democratically elected duma and jailing the leaders of the Soviet. He was a victim of his own stupidity. A ruler with a keener mind might have been able to survive. Figes says: 'If there is a single, repetitive theme in the history of Russia during the last 20 years of the old regime, it is that of the need for reform and the failure of successive governments to achieve it in the face of the Tsar's opposition.' By February 1917, with the Russian war effort in tatters, Nicholas was forced to abdicate, but even at this point, Figes feels that the constitutional socialists, comprising the left-wing Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, could have formed a coalition that might have ensured genuine democracy in Russia. Their lack of unity and procrastination were their downfall: Lenin and the Bolsheviks' coup d'etat on October 25 succeeded not through mass support, but because they were opportunists. The most radical workers, soldiers and peasants had already gone over to their camp, tempted by the slogan 'peace, land and bread'. While the Mensheviks dithered, the Bolsheviks acted. Lenin closed Russia's first democratically-elected parliament, the Constituent Assembly, less than 24 hours after it was convoked, on January 6, 1918, on a trumped-up technicality, and the fate of all opposition parties was sealed. The years following the insurrection witnessed barbarism of medieval proportions. For many workers and peasants, it was time for revenge. As Trotsky put it when describing the new role of the deposed aristocracy: 'Now we will make them clean up our dirt.' The counter revolution was equally brutal, as the White Army tortured and killed those it thought sympathetic towards the new Communist regime. Figes accepts that all social revolutions by their very nature, are violent. But, he feels the Bolsheviks exploited this violence to hold on to power and that the police state, the KGB (then known as Cheka) and the gulags, were not inventions of Stalin. They were born in Lenin's Russia. In Figes' view Lenin 'did not establish a dictatorship to safeguard the revolution; he made a revolution to establish the dictatorship'. There is no definitive history of the Russian revolution and this does not attempt to be that. But it fills a void that some of the more cerebral academics have avoided. Figes describes conditions that were, for many Russians, hell on earth.