Imagine that you don’t really know anything about Russia, but you keep seeing it in the news. You think you would like to learn at least the vague outlines of its history, but you also don’t have a lot of time. You’re not inclined to slog through some thick academic textbook suitable for HIS2200 Introduction to Russian History. You want something short and easy. Where do you turn? Fortunately, three brief studies of Russia have recently come my way, so I thought it would be useful to do a comparison – three conversations about Russia, as it were.
First off is Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin. Galeotti promises to provide not only a brief summary of Russia’s past, but also an analysis of the myths which Russian tell each other about that past. The book is very clearly written. Non-specialists looking for a short, easy read will find this very much to their tastes. In that sense, it’s a job well done.
Galeotti isn’t content with just recounting history. He wants to use it to make some points about contemporary Russia. Putting on my professional historians’ hat, I think that while this is understandable, it’s perhaps a mistake; it’s better to just let history stand on its own. In Galeotti’s eyes, as part of his efforts to legitimize his regime, Russia’s current leader Vladimir Putin is using historical mythology to brand Russia as distinct from Europe. Of course, all governments more or less do this sort of thing, but I think that Galeotti focuses rather too much on the top-down elements of this process. And that brings me onto what is probably the main weakness of his book – its almost total focus on top-down, great-man style political history. If you want to know about the everyday life of peasants in ancient Muscovy, for instance, you won’t find it here. Nor for that matter, will you find yourself enlightened about Orthodoxy or high Russian culture – Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Westernizers and Slavophiles, Tchaikovsky, Soviet art and culture, and all the rest of it, it all gets a pass.
That’s problematic, I feel, because a lot of the historical myths Galeotti talks about, and generally rightly dismisses, didn’t for the most part originate among Russia’s Tsars and General Secretaries. The Normanist theory of Russia’s origins, for instance, to which Galeotti devotes some time, emerged in the reign of Nicholas I through the writings of Mikhail Pogodin and others and was then further propagated through the Slavophiles, who were actually prohibited from publishing their works. So this mythology came to a fair degree from the bottom up. Likewise, I feel that major events such as the revolutions of 1917 require a bit more of a social historical explanation – the broad sweep of the masses kind of thing, if you get my drift.
Of course, I realize that there’s only so much that you can only squeeze into 200 pages, so perhaps I am being a little unfair. But I think there’s something missing there, and it reveals itself at the end in the, I think, rather excessive emphasis on Vladimir Putin as the driver of contemporary events. Still, as a historical primer, A Short History of Russia would be a fair first choice for any Russian studies novice.
The second book is Dmitry Trenin’s concisely titled Russia (whose cover weirdly looks rather like the flag of Albania). Whereas Galeotti takes readers from the foundations of Kievan Rus’ all the way up to today, Trenin focuses on the last 120 years, from 1900 onwards. That means that his book much more limited, and may not suit readers wanting a broader sweep. However, it does allow the author to treat the 20th century in rather more depth.
Like Galeotti, Trenin concentrates on political history, but he does manage to devote a least a little attention to social, economic, and cultural matters, which is therefore an advantage of this book. Galeotti considers as myth many of the stories of Russia’s past which make it seem distinct from Western Europe, but he feels that Russia is nevertheless moving in a European direction. Indeed he concludes that Russians have never before been so European. Trenin’s ideological position is somewhat similar, though with a bit of a difference (if that makes sense). He’s what you might call a ‘Establishment Westernizer’. That’s to say that he thinks that Russia’s future lies in the West, that the current regime cannot last for ever, and that in the end Russia will move in the direction of Western liberal democracy. But that’s a somewhat remote outcome. In the meantime, Russia has to defend its national interests, and in the face of Western hostility, that means that people need to stand behind their leaders not seek to overthrow them.
Also, if there’s a lesson (or a ‘myth’, as Galeotti would put it) from Russia’s past, it’s that overthrowing the state leads to bad things. Thus Trenin denounces the ‘opponents of the Tsarist regime’ because ‘They focused on demolishing what they hated, rather than on constructing what they aspire to be an alternative. … They sought to topple the regime – and destroyed the state; they proclaimed democracy, which immediately turned into chaos that they did not control.’ The lessons for today are pretty clear.
In line with this ideological framework, Trenin provides a generally negative depiction of Soviet domestic policies, but refrains from criticism of Soviet foreign policy. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, for instance, is portrayed as a necessary maneuver forced on the Soviet Union by the unwillingness of France and Britain to ally with it against Nazi Germany. For the Establishment Westernizer, defence of Russian national interests is worthy of support, no matter what the government of the time.
As regards the Putin era, Trenin considers it unsustainable in the long run. Putin has built a ‘regime’ but not a ‘state’, he claims. That said, Trenin is a lot more positive about contemporary Russia, and particularly about Putin, than is Galeotti. The current regime has a lot of failings in Trenin’s eyes, but they’re not Putin’s fault. He writes:
The secret of Putin’s staying power at the top of the Russian system … is his ability to reach out to millions of ordinary people, and to feel their needs. … He may be one of the very few people in power in contemporary Russia credited with being genuinely interested in the country and caring for its people, not just busy enriching himself or indulging his personal vanity. … Putin has accomplished a great deal for Russia at a critically important juncture … Out of chaos he built a regime. Transforming this regime into a state will be a task for his successors.
This isn’t the sort of message English-language readers are normally exposed to, but it’s not too dissimilar from that of the third book reviewed today, Natylie Baldwin’s The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and US-Russia Relations.
The View from Moscow reads somewhat like two books in one. The first 150 pages consist of a straightforward survey of Russian history from Kievan Rus onwards, with a focus on the Soviet period (everything up until 1917 gets a mere 44 pages). The second half of the book then shifts tone and becomes altogether more political, as Baldwin attempts to explain how post-Soviet US-Russia relations deteriorated to the extent that we are now in a sort of ‘New Cold War’.
Baldwin has an answer to that, and it is that the current parlous state of US-Russia relations is largely the fault of the United States. To this end, she cites American post-Cold War ideology, including Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chessboard (which I think gets more attention that it deserves), neoconservatism, and the invention of the Responsibility to Protect. She then devotes considerable attention to NATO expansion, and argues that American complaints about the lack of democracy in Putin’s Russia are unfair – unlike his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, she points out, Putin ‘has never rolled tanks into the streets, ordered Russian troops to fire on their own people, or destroyed government buildings’. Contemporary Russia has a freer press and more developed civil society than people think, she adds. She also defends the annexation of Crimea, noting that on a visit to the peninsula she discovered that, ‘Crimeans were very happy to be part of Russia.’
All this makes Baldwin’s the most overtly polemical of the three works reviewed here, at least as far as contemporary affairs are concerned (its descriptions of Russian history are largely devoid of obvious bias). I personally wouldn’t go as far as her in assigning blame for the current state of East-West relations so exclusively to the West, but a lot of her points are valid.
So, if you could only buy one of these, which would it be? It depends, I think, on what you’re after. If you want a survey of Russian history from alpha to omega, then Galeotti’s is the obvious choice. Its style is also the lightest, making it probably the easiest and most enjoyable read for someone with not much time on their hands. If, however, you want something a bit more in depth about more recent history, Trenin’s book would make sense. And finally, if you want to exposure to an alternative perspective not normally found in public debate about Russia, Baldwin’s book would have the benefit of making you consider how things look from the other side. Take your pick, and happy reading.