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From Nicholas to Putin: Russia Since 1900: General Histories of Russia

By David M. Durant

General Histories of Russia

There is no way to truly understand the history and development of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Russia without some appreciation of the broader sweep of Russian history. For readers looking for a brief overview, there are two recently published short surveys that can be read with profit: Rodric Braithwaite’s Russia: Myths and Realities and Mark Galeotti’s aptly titled A Short History of Russia. Both emphasize overarching themes and patterns over historical detail.

Readers who want lengthier and more detailed accounts will find Orlando Figes’s The Story of Russia and Abraham Ascher’s Russia: A Short History well worth their attention. Figes’s work in particular offers an indispensable overview and a solid blend of narrative and analysis. If readers should choose only one book from this section, this is the one this reviewer would recommend.

Among useful works focused on twentieth-century Russia are two volumes: Robert Service’s A History of Twentieth-Century Russia and Figes’s Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991: A History. The strength of these books is that they discuss historical trends and patterns that put modern Russian history in context without resorting to crude reductionism. Among these trends is the development of Russian autocracy beginning no later than the thirteenth century. The role of the autocrat would survive the fall of Tsarism in 1917 and come to be embodied in two very different Russian rulers, who between them have held power for 52 of the 106 years since the Russian Revolution: Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Putin.

Another key theme stressed in these works is the intense relationship between the story Russia tells about its past and present-day political imperatives. So prominent is this theme that the joke cited in the epigraph about how only Russia’s past is unpredictable, taken from Galeotti’s book, can be found in Braithwaite and Figes as well. Of course, this phenomenon is hardly unique to Russia. However, in Figes’s words: “No other country has reimagined its own past so frequently; none has a history so subjected to the vicissitudes of ruling ideologies. History in Russia is political” (The Story of Russia, p. 4). This politicization of history will likewise be another prominent theme of this essay.

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