Part of understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now, obviously involves understanding the shared and heavily intertwined history of Ukraine with Russia over time.
After reading Sheila Fitzpatricks’s great catch-up book, The Shortest History of the Soviet Union, I went back in time to the Russian Revolution, October (see below) followed by another shortest history style book that encompassed the entire history of Russia as we know it. With both books, I was paying particular note to any reference to Ukraine, but I was also looking for what Mark Galeotti referred to in his Introduction about the changing/evolving origin myths.
Time and again, Russia’s rulers would edit the past in the hope of building the future they wanted….the aim of this book is…to explore the periodic rises and falls of this extraordinary nation, and how Russians themselves have understood, explained, mythologised and rewritten this story.
All nations do this, we even apply this same kind of editing and reshaping to our own life narratives. However part of the fascination for me was to also look in the opposite direction – for the ways that the Western world, Europe and Asia have redefined their understanding of Russia over the years. It would appear that Russia has spent a large part of its history, defining itself against what it is not. But how do we see Russia?
Some of the things I learnt from this book:
- Kiev was the first capital of Rus (Scandinavian Vikings took over the land from the various Slavic tribes in the ninth century. The Slavs called them the Rus).
- “The origin story, in which vulnerability is spun as agency, sets the tone, especially as this is not simply a story of weakness, but of embracing conquest and creating something new from it….the constant struggle between centre and periphery...and that Russia was forever doomed to be surrounded by mighty powers who at once threatened and yet impressed. “
- In the tenth century Vladimir the Great converted to Christianity.
- Sophia (regent to Ivan and Peter) signed the Eternal Peace Treaty with Poland (1686) which resulted in ratifying Russia’s possession of Kiev.
- In 1783 Catherine the Great annexed Crimea for Russia from the Ottoman empire. She also took southern Ukraine.
- “Peter the Great had tried to force modernisation from above….Catherine the Great had tried to inspire modernisation from above….It was to become clear that real change would have to come from below.“
- The Bolsheviks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1917) to end their involvement in WWI surrendering much of their land in the west and south, including the rich farmlands of Ukraine.
- The end of the Civil War (1918-1922) saw them reclaim these regions, but at a terrible cost (famine in particular).
- Stalin collectivised the countryside. When the farmers resisted “Ukraine was brought to its knees by the engineered famine in 1932-33 that killed more than three million.”
- Thanks to Gorbechev, nationalists in Ukraine and other regions began to look for independence from Russia.
- Putin believes that Russia “is strong when it is united, prey when it is divided.“
- “Russia is no aggressor but a forminable defender….defending the Motherland and the natural order.”
- “its social conservatism is simply a refusal to cater to degenerate fads and post-modern moral subjectivism.”
- “Russian exceptionalism, the notion that its history grants it a special and heroic role in the world.”
Ultimately, these books were more about how the Russians viewed themselves and their own stories, through the lens of two Western writers and historians. One writer was avowedly in the socialist camp and the other has a career in researching Russian security issues and transnational crime and terrorism. I’m left wondering how accurate these histories can really be? What stories will histories written by Russians reveal?
Midway through the First World War, as Europe shuddered and bled, an American publisher released Alexander Kornilov’s acclaimed Modern Russian History.
October promised to be THE STORY of the Russian Revolution, but in the end, it was not much more than a roll call of main players and key events. A handy catch-up or a short history approach would be a better description (except that it wasn’t short!) I grant you that Russia in 1917 is not an easy year to capture in any format, but I had hoped for something new or different with this book.
The only positive thing was being reminded how hopeful the whole socialist revolutionary dream was at the start. The terror of Stalin was still in the future. For a brief time a brave new world seemed truly possible.
These days I prefer my history to be more about the everyday folks and what they experienced, not another book about the leaders and their endless meetings. There was, however, a fabulous list of Further Reading options in the back that I will be looking into.
Title: October: The Story of the Russian Revolution Author: China Miéville ISBN: 9781786634504 Imprint: Verso Books Published: 9th May 2017 Format: Paperback Pages: 369
The oldest book in Russia does not speak with one voice. It roars and whimpers, mutters and moans, laughs and whispers, prays and brays in progressively quieter tones.
Mark Galeotti understands narrative non-fiction; he knows how to tell a story.
A Short History of Russia is truly a short book with just eight, easy to read, entertaining chapters. His one chapter on the Revolution and Soviet era was far more succinct and insightful than Miéville’s entire book!
Out of the sprawling chaos of Russian history, Galeotti manages to present a coherent picture of a country constantly in search of its identity. Obviously their are omissions and the details are light on. Much is glossed over for the sake of brevity, but for anyone who wants to get started with the basics, then this is the book for you.
Each chapter concludes with a Further Reading note (October did not rate a mention at the end of chapter seven) that I plan to trawl.
Epigraph: Russia is a country with a certain future; it is only its past that is unpredictable | Soviet proverb
Title: A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin Author: Mark Galeotti ISBN: 9781529106381 Imprint: Ebury Press Published: 28th January 2021 Format: Hardback Pages: 191
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.