Russian eyes spy a deeper history

The Russians

June 2, 2000

Robin Milner-Gulland has used his understanding of Russia to illuminate some of the most interesting questions in Russian culture. He refers to established authorities and unites these with recent scholarship in a way that encourages one to reread old works and examine the issues in a new light.

Questions of identity are at the forefront of many contemporary intellectual agendas and they break down previous certainties and groupings. The question of Russian identity appears to be part of this search for new definitions. What is the Russian nation? How does the nation mesh with its imperial past? A sizeable body of scholarly literature is engaged with these issues and the dissolution of the Soviet state makes such questions more acute.

Yet Milner-Gulland emphasises that their early history forms Russian identity often more profoundly than the searing events of the past century.The opening section on the land shows how difficult it was for the average Russian to extract a living from the land. A telling comparison is made with Canada, "geographically and climatically most similar to Russia",which has "virtually no population at the latitude of Moscow and central Russia". Poverty allowed no room for experiment and the country's size meant that many communities had little access to markets - which in turn determined many features of economic and state development. For example, the Muscovite service state, which included the imposition of serfdom in the 17th century, was the result of a huge country with long frontiers that constantly needed defence by a sparse population, and an international situation that made "Muscovy... the only significant free Orthodox nation and bastion of Orthodox culture".

After a masterly summary and exposition of the major trends in the early development of the Russian state, Milner-Gulland goes on to produce three equally thought-provoking chapters on "Belief systems", "Russian literature" and "Iconic Russia", in which he stresses the way that early culture has permeated later developments. Orthodoxy and Russian identity have always been closely connected. After the Mongol invasions and the destruction of Kiev, the dispersion of the monasteries into the hinterland helped to preserve Orthodoxy and to disseminate the faith. It is clear that many Russians still see Orthodoxy as a part of their identity, even if they are not religious.

In the section on literature, Milner-Gulland seems to have been greatly influenced by Dimitri Likhachev's argument that the entire corpus of Russian literature should be taken as a whole, and that to concentrate on the literature of the golden age is to misunderstand much of the poetic tradition.

Despite no work of early Russian literature having entered the canon of European masterpieces, educated Russians are familiar with their own pre-modern literature and it forms part of their understanding of what constitutes Russian culture. (It is disappointing that Milner-Gulland's insights into modern Russian literature are presented as notes and it would be of interest to see some of these arguments developed more fully, particularly for non-specialists.) As with literature, so with culture generally, Milner-Gulland argues that early Russian culture is found in the most modern and revolutionary art forms.

This marvellous book can be used profitably by specialists and by students who need a comprehensive introduction to the study of Russian culture and history. It avoids the patronising cliches all too readily found among those with only a superficial understanding. It presents Russian culture sympathetically and combines the best of western scholarship with ideas that Russians themselves see as crucial to understanding Russian development and culture.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, University of Oxford.

The Russians

Author - Robin Milner-Gulland
ISBN - 0 631 18805 3 and 21849 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £40.00 and £15.99
Pages - 260

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