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Russia’s Empires: Their Rise and Fall from Prehistory to Putinby Philip Longworth
London, John Murray 2005
ISBN 071956204Review by Marcus Wheeler
The use in the title of the plural ‘Empires’ is a pointer to the author’s distinctive contribution to his subject. “The purpose of this book,” he says, “is to examine the phoenix-like nature of Russian imperialism.” For, while most empires “rise, expand and collapse” once and for all, Russia has had four empires – the Kievan, “a medieval commercial colonial empire”; the Muscovite, “a new absolutist imperium”; the Romanov, a “more conventional, European dynastic empire”; and the Soviet. The counter-argument is, of course, that in a strict sense there has been but one Russian empire, from 1721 (when Peter I received the title imperator) to 1917, or at a pinch, as Geoffrey Hosking has argued, beginning in 1552 with Ivan IV’s conquest of Kazan; and that, at one extreme, Kiev and early Moscow were no more than dominant city-states primi inter pares, while, at the other, ‘Soviet Empire’ is merely a politically-loaded metaphor used to point up the coercive nature of what purported to be a freely-entered ‘Union’ of independent states.
Drawing on genetics, anthropology, archaeology and linguistics to answer the question: ‘The Russians: Who Are They?’, which is the title of his first chapter, Longworth claims that historians of Russia with the exception of B.H.Sumner treat the prehistory of the country “either cursorily or not at all”: this is broadly true, but one standard textbook, A History of Russia by N.V.Riasanovsky (1963) opens with a chapter on ‘Russia Before the Russians’, while Robin Milner-Gulland’s The Russians is almost entirely concerned with pre-Petrine Russia from the earliest times. By contrast, in relation to the rest of his book, the author is perhaps unduly modest in saying that it is “mostly based on the work of specialist historians”. It is probably not a coincidence that there is most detail in Chapters 7 and 8, covering the 17th and 18th centuries, on which Longworth has himself published monographs. Readers should note however that, as a study of empire-building, the book is not a general history but – in relation, for example to the reign of Peter the Great or to the Soviet period (covered in just 62 pages) – primarily addresses foreign policy issues. Nevertheless, the brief penultimate chapter on post-1991 Russia gives a good succinct account not only of the causes of the Chechen wars but also of the Yeltsin impeachment case and the 1998 financial crisis.
Longworth is not afraid to leap into controversy: for example, in the context of Petrine expansion, he tilts with “latter-day nationalists, for whom the imperialist power is ever the villain against which the virtuous oppressed have to struggle for their freedom”; later he rejects the view, associated with Robert Conquest, that the 1930s famine in Ukraine was man-made; and, of the 1970s, asserts – justifiably anticipating readers’ surprise – that the Soviet population was “as contented as that
of the United States; and there was hardly a ripple of dissidence or nationalism anywhere in the Empire”! He is not the first historian to attach weight to the influence on Russian history of geography and climate. This can be dangerous: that the harsh climate may have engendered “a certain communalism” is perhaps allowable, but that the traditional Polish-Russian enmity “has its origins in geography” is highly questionable; and the Time of Troubles at the beginning of the 17th Century was due at least as much to the dynastic hiatus and the associated foreign incursions as to the impact of a “Little Ice Age”.
Apart from these and other bold and disputable interpretations, there are some factual errors: Kashgar is located not in the former British India (p.222) but in Chinese Turkestan (today’s Xinjiang); the victors in the elections in 1917 to the Constituent Assembly were not the Marxist Social Democrats (p.237) but the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries (this is why Lenin and the Bolsheviks dissolved the Assembly); and the Churchill-Stalin ‘percentages agreement’ was set up not at the 1945 Yalta Conference (p.263) but at the two leaders’ meeting in Moscow in October 1944. Ivan the Terrible may or may not have been acquainted with Macchiavelli’s The Prince (p.90) but he certainly knew Ivan Peresvetov’s similar allegorical Tale of the Sultan Ma homed, which the author presented to him at his coronation.
All in all however, Longworth’s study is both scholarly – he appends a huge bibliography – and immensely readable. His style is fresh and lively; and the insertion in anachronistic contexts of such contemporary jargon as ‘think-tanks’, database’ and ‘regime change’ affords added entertainment value. One must only hope that he is right in concluding that ‘Russia has begun to recover’ from its post-1991 second Time of Troubles.
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