Nicholas Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg's new two-volume A History of Russia is a masterpiece, as comprehensive and scholarly as its previous editions but now updated to include chapters on contemporary - or at least late 20th-century - Russian politics, society, culture and the arts. There can be few single texts that deal more carefully with so great a range of historical eras, and few that do so while covering so broad a spectrum. Students unfamiliar with the principal events in Russia's history will find their narrative here; those whose memories need refreshing will find stimulation in the concise overviews in each section. There are also chapters of consistent quality on art, literature and social change across a time span of a thousand years.
The other feature of this history is its acknowledgement of controversy. Historical debates, including the contortions of Soviet-era scholarship, are explained as they arise. Appendices name and introduce the authorities whose work has shaped contemporary understanding. Although British academics may feel aggrieved at the authors' choices - the list is composed almost exclusively of Russians and Americans - the commentary on rival interpretations throughout is as helpful as it is unusual.
Most valuable of all is the extensive use of Russian material, for this is one of the few textbooks that introduces English-speaking students to the riches of Russian scholarship (as opposed to presenting archival documents in translation). From the debate about the Viking origins of Rus to the controversies over Soviet statehood, Russian historical analysis receives as much, and often more, emphasis as the work of scholars from the English-speaking world. In presenting Russian writing in this way, Riasanovsky and Steinberg have done great service to students and teachers alike. In that respect, this history has few competitors and none that matches its ambitious scope.
Riasanovsky and Steinberg's History is an excellent introduction to a magnificent subject, but, more than that, because of its historiographical approach, it is a textbook that is also suitable for courses that deal in greater detail with shorter periods of time, such as Stalinism or the reforms of Peter the Great. The only problem is its dense, detached and slightly dusty tone. The text makes no concession to students' tastes, vocabularies or ever-shortening attention spans. Like the scholarly Russian works it draws on, the text treats its readers as literate, reflective intellectuals.
However much their tutors may applaud, students in UK universities may be daunted. But they should be encouraged to persist, not merely raid the chapters they need and leave the rest. Russian history, as opposed to the dark tale of Stalin's dictatorship or the costume drama of the Romanovs, is a subject that deserves this kind of introduction. The reward will be a better understanding of one of Europe's richest cultures, to say nothing of a sense of respect for the product of its scholarship.
Catherine Merridale is professor of contemporary history, Queen Mary, University of London.
A History of Russia. Seventh Edition
Author - Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 665 (single volume) 340 (Volume one) 224 (Volume two)
Price - £31.99 (single volume) £23.99 (Volume one) £21.99 (Volume two)
ISBN - 0 19 515394 4 (single volume) 515392 8 (Volume one) 515393 6 (Volume two)