The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

If it is widely considered fortunate to know who one’s parents were, it must be doubly so for a nation to know its own history. The thesis of Orlando Figes’s new book is that Russia has always been muddled about where it came from. Objective investigation of the past is not much assisted by the fact that historians deemed to get it “wrong” have been at best banned, and not infrequently dispatched to the gulag.

“No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings,” Figes writes. “History is always political.” In the mid-18th century the German scholar Gerhard Friedrich Müller was publicly disgraced for suggesting that early Russians had been Scandinavian barbarians.

The first czar, Ivan the Terrible, on assuming power in 1547, professed to trace his descent from the Roman emperor Augustus, and sought to emulate his absolute power.

But while the early Moscow autocracy claimed to be the inheritor of Byzantium, “it owed more in practice to the legacies of Mongol rule”. Serfdom became codified by law as late as the 1580s, making a peasant the property of his landlord, and remained in force until 1861. Four years after Ivan’s death, in 1588, an English visitor to the Moscow court observed that his tyranny “hath so troubled that countrey, and filled it so full of grudge and mortall hatred ever since”.

“No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings.”

In the late 17th century, the age of Louis XIV, Russia was viewed in Western Europe as a fount of barbarism. The early 18th-century reforms of Peter the Great focused on accelerating Russia’s tilt towards Europe and, symbolized by his new St Petersburg, created, in Figes’s words, “a deep cultural rift between the urban civilization of the Westernized cities and the village world of the peasants [which] remained unbridged until 1917. It was the fault line along which the revolution would be fought.”

Amid Peter’s crusade to civilize his brutish people, a manual of etiquette was compiled from Western sources which advised readers not to spit in their food, nor use a knife to clean their teeth, nor blow their nose “like a trumpet”. French became the language of courtesy, not least because there were no words in Russian for “gesture”, “sympathy”, or “privacy”.

But Russia’s status as a European outsider had a geographical basis too. With no natural frontiers of land or sea, each of Russia’s successive leaders must make an arbitrary election about where their nation should end, heedless of the wishes of the people within reach of the bear’s claws. Peter the Great conceived that it had a “civilizing mission in Asia”. The German-born Catherine the Great, on the other hand, decreed in 1767: “Russia is a European state.”

Catherine died in 1796. Figes explains that she did not expire while copulating with a horse, as rumor suggested, but from a stroke. Her famous love of sex was not unusual by the standards of 18th-century monarchs, but she was calumniated for her enthusiasm because she was a woman.

Even when Russia’s rulers were asserting its place as part of Europe, the West never acknowledged Russia as one of themselves, equating it with China as a rogue state to be disciplined, even humiliated. In 1856, after the Crimean War, Britain and France imposed a settlement that included dismantling of the Black Sea Fleet. Never before in history had compulsory disarmament been imposed on a defeated great power — not even France after Napoleon’s fall.

Even when Russia’s rulers were asserting its place as part of Europe, the West never acknowledged Russia as one of themselves.

It is the Second World War that looms large in the nation’s cultural imagination. But Russia’s cult of the “Great Patriotic War” is a remarkably modern construct, Figes argues. At the time, Stalin was actually embarrassed by his nation’s ghastly death toll of some 28 million, and admitted to just seven million. Victory Day, May 9, became a national holiday only in 1965, when Leonid Brezhnev sought to exploit the memory to build political support for “a new imperial myth of Russia as liberator of mankind”. Vladimir Putin invests the war with a quasi-religious significance, and makes a national grievance of the West’s refusal to grant the Soviet Union the reverence that he claims its military achievement deserves.

His people cherish a frightening respect for might as a virtue, heedless of how it is employed. Opinion polls show that half of modern Russians believe Stalin was a great national leader, despite also acknowledging his responsibility for the deaths of up to 8.5 million people from disease and starvation in the 1932–33 famines following enforced agricultural collectivization.

Two-thirds of the same poll respondents thought that Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the satanic founder of Lenin’s Cheka secret police, “protected public order and civic life”. Another poll showed that 93 percent of respondents thought Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1990s reforms catastrophic.

Putin embraces the legend of Grand Prince Vladimir, 10th-century ruler of Kievan Rus, as the nation’s founding father. He has had hundreds of statues of this hitherto obscure figure erected. It is questionable whether he himself believes this narrative, but he finds it serviceable and thus it is promoted as part of the new national chronicle taught in every school.

Figes concludes this excellent short study with a glimpse into the future. “Russia appears to be trapped in a repeating cycle of its history. Slowly, [it] is retreating from Europe. An outcast from the European world it sought to join for much of its past, it must now find a new role as a large but fossil-fuel-dependent regional power between Europe and China.”

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph