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On Russian History

In his new book The Story of Russia, Orlando Figes narrates an account of Russian history which at its zenith demonstrates the way in which historiographical debate about its own past is central to Russia’s political and cultural identity. Set against the backdrop of the ongoing Ukrainian War, Figes’ book is an easy and thought-provoking read offering stimulation without demanding high academic retention. Well-known for his Liberal historiographical standpoint, Figes identifies tension to be at the heart of Russia’s complex history. Indeed, the idea of a ‘story’ is central to his argument for what Russian history bequeaths: a tale of tension between reactionaries and modernisers; conservatives and liberals. And yet, for Figes, all this stuffy intellectual debate overlooks the idea that Russia has a profound history of missed opportunities.

Beginning with the establishment of Kiev in the ninth century, Figes demonstrates that the early   history of Russia was beset with invasion and resettlement – at first by the Vikings, and then the Mongols. Indeed, part of Figes’ point is to show that the primordial vision of the Kievian Rus is a myth, and one that has potent appeal to those who seek to establish a narrative of  Great Russia and a Pan-Slavic identity. Pan-Slavism does play a significant role in Russian cultural history, but in reading this one feels that Figes wants to shift focus away from a  view  of Russian past as  bound up with Orthodox Christianity and cultural isolationism, and instead offer a ‘normal’ account of a ‘normal’ state experiencing an emergence into modernity. Yet, in reading this, there is a moment when it becomes apparent that this is an impossible task simply because Russia is exceptional on most accounts. 

Russia’s story is further complicated by the unique role played by the Orthodox Church. Downplayed by Figes as a factor in Russia’s historical development, it may be the one weakness of his general argument. For if religion was not a crucial factor in Russia’s story, then the subsequent tension, the rise of Tsarism and its autocratic political structures, cannot be readerly explained. Indeed, one of the main claims of the book – namely the modernising force of Peter the Great, and the backlash against his regime – can surely only be understood with reference to the role played by religion in generating the necessity of an autocratic style of governance.

In the latter half of the book, attention is turned to the causes and consequences of 1917. This may be a curious remark to make, but there is a sense that for Figes, outcome of the Revolution, the emergence of the Soviet Union, and the current structure of Russian politics all stem from the failure of the political reforms of the nineteenth century. Indeed, there is a sense when reading it that the period from 1850 until 1925 should have consisted of one chapter in lieu of the lack of substantial political reforms, apart from the weak Duma experiment of the early twentieth Century.  That the current regime in Moscow is a product of missed opportunities for political reform in the nineteenth century is not the point. Moreover, it was the inertia within the nineteenth century slogan:  ‘Autocracy Orthodoxy and Nationalism’ which enshrined a sense of conservatism within the political and cultural identity of  Russia, a legacy which is still present today.

At the centre of this book is a claim about history, or rather about what history can become. For Figes, again, the nineteenth century proves a significant moment as the development of Pan-Slavism was  based on a particular vision of Russia and its cultural identity.  In a long and nuanced conclusion, he suggests that this myth-making process is central to Putin’s current political project. It is not that Putin is the new Stalin, or that we are entering a new era of autocratic leadership, but that the current leadership is living day-to-day on a historic myth, and they know it is a myth.

The concern with history as a way of understanding the past purveys much of this book. The Story of Russia is not so much a grand narrative of Russian history as it is an examination of the conjectural nature of that history itself. Taking it right up to the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Figes not only shows the precise diplomatic context in which the invasion took place, but also shows how such an act stemmed from the wholesale acceptance of the Kievian Rus historiographic reading of Russian history, coupled with an embrace of a fictional account of what actually occurred.  In this sense, Putin is seen as updating the Pan-Slavic view of what Russian history is, albeit with Peter the Great as a ‘Great Russian’ hero. Yet for Figes, along with Putin’s misreading of Ukraine, this is a fabrication based on a nineteenth Century misreading of Russian history. Putin’s own understanding of Russian history is in effect a modern twenty-first century European populist one which takes its cue not from the Slavic culture of Great Russia, but from the national-populist chauvinism of the European conservative right. Setting Russian history straight is a vital task, and this is what Orlando Figes precisely does.

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