The Story of Russia
“Orlando Figes’ new book The Story of Russia could not be more timely or informative.”
Orlando Figes’ new book The Story of Russia could not be more timely or informative. With the Russia-Ukraine war in its seventh month with no end in sight, it is important for Western statesmen to understand the origins and motivations of Russia’s invasion which, as Figes understands, are rooted in Russian history and the ideas, myths, and stories that Russians have been exposed to over the centuries. Any negotiated resolution to this conflict must take into account, in Figes’ words, “the ideas, myths and ideologies that have shaped the country’s history.”
“Russia,” Figes explains at the outset, “is a country held together by ideas rooted in its distant past, histories continuously reconfigured and repurposed to suit its present needs and reimagine its future.” And this is true of all periods of Russian history—from the Kievan Rus and Mongol periods to the so-called “Time of Troubles” to three centuries of imperial Romanov rule to the 72 years of Soviet rule to today’s post-Cold War Russia led by Vladimir Putin.
And Russia’s history has been shaped by its geography, climate, natural resources, and the character of its people. Figes points out that Russia has no natural boundaries and is a “vast steppe, eleven time zones long” stretching from Eastern Europe to the Pacific Ocean. This great Eurasian plain has been the scene of invasions and the base for expansion. Russia has suffered massive invasions by the Mongols, Napoleon’s Grande Armee, and Hitler’s Wehrmacht. But more often, it has been an expansionist power, conquering vast territories during wars of conquest. Figes notes that between 1500 and 1917, Russia grew at a rate of 130 square kilometers per year.
Figes, professor of history at the University of London and the author of several books on Russian history, traces Russia’s “autocratic tradition” to the Mongol period. When Russian princes threw off the Mongol yoke in the 15th century, they emulated the Mongols’ despotic rule, including the notion that the state owned all of the land—the basis of serfdom that Tsar Alexander II ended in 1861. And Mongol despotic rule continued under Tsar Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), who also promoted the myth of Moscow as the “Third Rome,” making Russia’s ruler both the secular and religious leader of Eastern Christianity.
Russia’s “Time of Troubles” between 1588 and 1613, Figes believes, had a profound effect on Russia’s subsequent leaders. Russia during this time period was nearly torn apart by foreign invasions and civil wars and “pretenders” to the Russian throne. When the Romanovs took power in 1613, they instituted autocratic, “divine right” rule that further established Russia as a patrimonial state, the protector of Slavic peoples, and the seat of Eastern Christianity—all ideas and myths that reinforced Russia’s expansionist designs.
Figes notes that Peter the Great (1672–1725), Catherine the Great (1762–1796), and Alexander I (1801–1825) sought in varying ways to “Westernize” what they believed was a “backward” Russia. But none of them were “democrats,” and at best can be called enlightened autocrats. Under their rule, Russia remained patrimonial, autocratic, and expansionist. And while Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861, by then revolutionary groups had formed that posed a direct challenge to Romanov rule, and one such group assassinated Alexander II, which resulted in brutal repression by his successors, which in turn fueled more revolutionary activity.
That revolutionary activity culminated in the 1905 Revolution that nearly toppled the government, and the 1917 February–March revolution in the midst of the calamitous First World War that ended Romanov rule. The Provisional Government lasted until the Bolsheviks seized power in October–November 1917. That was followed by a brutal civil war that was won by the Bolsheviks and the era of Soviet rule began.
Figes shows that Soviet “revolutionary” rule continued the patrimonial, autocratic, and expansionist aspects of Imperial Russia. Communist ideology replaced notions of the “Third Rome,” but Russian history and tradition and geography still influenced Soviet behavior. Of course, Soviet despotism—especially under Josef Stalin—exceeded anything done during the imperial Russian period. Stalin—and to some extent Lenin before him—made war on his own people, but during the Second World War when the very survival of the regime was at stake, Stalin successfully appealed to Russian nationalism, history, and traditions, including religion.
The Soviet Union, like imperial Russia, was an expansionist power, but its imperial designs stemmed from Marxism-Leninism. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was again a brief attempt by the successor post-Cold War government in Russia to join the West. But, as Figes notes, Western reaction to its victory in the Cold War lacked an appreciation of Russian history, especially in the West’s frenetic expansion of NATO. “NATO’s eastward expansion,” Figes writes, “poisoned its relations with Russia.” Western leaders tragically ignored George Kennan’s prescient warning that NATO expansion would lead to a second Cold War with Russia. Figes pulls no punches here: NATO expansion, he writes, provoked Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, like Russia’s past leaders, appeals to Russian history, myths, and traditions to justify his autocratic rule and Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. And what’s worse, Russia’s isolation from the West has helped push Russia into an alliance with China and effectively reformed a huge hostile Eurasian bloc that now threatens Western, including U.S., security. This is what happens when policymakers ignore history.