"Russia and the Russians" by Geoffrey Hosking (2001)
"The experience of 1878-1882 had shown that both Pan-Slavism and populism were inadequate as strategies for bringing Russian state and Russian people closer together. At the same time, anti-Jewish pogroms had taken place in parts of the Pale of Settlement after Alexander II's assassination, and they inspired Ivan Aksakov, one of the leading Pan-Slavs, with the notion that there was a possible alternative ideology, namely popular anti-Semitism, to mobilize spontaneous dislike which peasants and workers felt for Jewish publicans, shopkeepers, and moneylenders. 'The Jews within the Pale of Settlement,' he preached, 'constitute a "state within a state." ...a state whose center lies outside Russia, abroad, whose highest authority is the "Universal Jewish Alliance" in Paris.' This alliance, he warned, was striving to achieve "anti-Christian world domination...""
How much do you know about Russian history? If you are like me, your knowledge of the subject consists primarily of answers to Jeopardy! questions, snippets from Bond movies, and the occasional newspaper report.
Russia, for most of us in the West, is the continual "Other," and our attitudes toward it are often more informed by what we don't know than what we do know. It is in many instances our ignorance that defines Russia, and this ignorance often says as much about the propaganda that we grew up with as it does about the Russians themselves.
So, with this fact in mind, I set about reading Geoffrey Hosking's large and somewhat imposing book. It wasn't an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but it was informative.
Russia began as the Kingdom of Rus, a backward nation in the orbit of the Byzantine Empire. The people of Rus were Varangians, or "Vikings." who migrated southward into the vicinity of Kiev from the Baltic. They were an agricultural people, and in the establishment of their empire they pushed many other, nomadic peoples out of their immediate vicinity.
Contact with Byzantium brought the primary "civilizing" influence to these early Slavs. Missionaries were sent, Cyrillic was devised for the conversion of heathen souls, trading routes and rules of dynastic succession were imposed and defended, and in a few generations the Kingdom of Rus - also referred to as Kievan Rus - was a regional power that the Byzantines had to take seriously.
Then, as often happens, chaos reigned in the absence of a suitable source of authority. Kiev largely disappeared from regional politics, to be replaced by Moscow. With the rise of Moscow came the reign of the tsars, whose church-sanctioned authority mirrored that of the Byzantine emperors. The only difference was that in Byzantine politics the Patriarch acted as a kind of counterbalance to the emperor, while in Moscow the church was much weaker, and more dependent on the state.
After the Mongol Invasions and the fall of Constantinople, the Russian Empire began to expand. The reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great saw the imperial borders pushed both east and west. To the west they encountered other European powers, and thus a European influence was felt among the landed gentry. To the east were the nomads, upon whom the Russians were in turn a formidable influence. Furthest east were the Chinese, who for most of their history have formed an obstacle to Russian designs in East Asia.
At the heart of all this expansion was the institution of serfdom, or enslavement to the land. Despite increasingly liberal attitudes towards politics and other subjects, the institution of serfdom would remain both Russia's advantage and disadvantage over neighboring countries. This remained so up until the early years of the Soviet Socialist Republics.
Then - as hopefully everyone knows - the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, and the communists came to power. In the early years, the soviets did their best to engineer a climate of fairness and legality, though from the beginning there was a tendency for power to concentrate at the top, and a system of patronage to develop. In spirit it wasn't that different from what most Russian people experienced under the Tsar.
World War II arrived soon after, and millions died through both conflicts with the Germans and bad military strategy. This was the era of Stalin, in which people vanished in the night, or were forcibly relocated to labor camps on the other side of the continent. Stalin's power was to be found in the files he possessed, and Stalin had a file on everyone.
After Stalin's death the Soviet Union experienced a series of liberal reforms, right up until its dissolution in the early 1990s. It was nationalism that proved the Union's undoing, as regional conflicts escalated to the point where maintaining the USSR became untenable. The loss of East Germany and Ukraine started this trend, and in their wake followed Lithania, Albania, Kazakhstan, and many other former territories.
Leading us to the Russian Federation, which still exists at the time of writing. The book ends with a brief mention of Putin and his struggles with separatists, and says no more. No grand conclusion is arrived at, there are no musings on the vast sweep of Russian history, and the reader is left on the verge of the present day, pondering a country that is at once powerful and sadly backward.
Taken all in all, I'd have to say that Russia and the Russians is a good book that taught me a lot. I also have to say, however, that the lack of any conclusions about Russia's present situation left me feeling a little disappointed.
But maybe Russia, taken as a subject, is just too vast to generalize over, and more meaningful conclusions await future days, when we are further removed from both Russia's past troubles and its present successes.
At any rate, I'd like to visit Moscow some day. It sounds like an interesting place.