The great and the terrible

September 19, 1997

The dissolution of the former Soviet Empire has raised the question of national identity with a particular intensity for the Russians. Geoffrey Hosking argues that historically the weaknesses in Russian national identity were the result of the demands of empire which were given precedence over the need to integrate and develop the nation. He calls for "a new interpretative approach to the history of Russia" and takes issue with the standard western accounts which analyse Russian development in terms of "autocracy" and "backwardness" which Hosking does not deny exist but views as the results of imperial policies. Any such ambitious project will provoke disagreement over questions of emphasis and interpretation.

Despite such modifications of the argument, Hosking has produced a most thought-provoking book and has done so with great sympathy, incorporating ideas which have a currency among the Russian intelligentsia and Russian scholars, but are frequently less appreciated in the West. This work will stimulate much discussion among scholars and Russian specialists, and its clarity of exposition will attract students new to Russian history.

Hosking argues that the "fragile political foundations" of the Muscovite state were compromised from the beginning. Ivan IV's capture of Kazan in 1552, when for the first time a non-Russian state was annexed by Muscovy, marks the beginning of empire. After Byzantium had fallen to the Turks, Moscow became the protector of Orthodox Christianity. Metropolitan Makarii combined "the themes of church, dynasty and land" and linked "them to an imperial heritage", but even at this early stage there were contradictions between the Christian ruler and the absolutist secularised state when Ivan's oprichniki were given special powers to terrorise the boyar families. However, although the country was traumatised by war and internal conflict, it is difficult to see why these episodes show Russia to be more vulnerable than other European states at that time. In France, for example, the king faced a great deal of opposition from the great noble families, and the wars of religion undermined the Christian principles guiding the realm.

The church's position must be a key to understanding Russian development. Hosking stresses the importance of the church schism under the Patriarch Nikon after the church council of 1666-67 which "opened up a rift in Russians' national consciousness which had never been fully healed", subsequently worsened by the complete subordination of the church to the state. In contrast, when the church in Western Europe opposed state authority it was supported by the independent institution of the papacy. The Russian Orthodox church had no similar champion. This became particularly important under Peter the Great, when he abolished the patriarchate, and created the holy synod with the over-procurator at the head thus subordinating the church entirely to the state and limiting the possibilities for independent action from churchmen.

However, Peter's attempt to modernise Russia to bring her into line with western education and technology was the point when the majority of the population became alienated from the culture of the elite in a way which was never bridged in imperial Russia. This modernisation had military, dynastic and economic causes. Peter's wars were intended to strengthen Russia, and to give her a port vital for trade on the Baltic. In Peter's reforms one can certainly see the damaging effects of empire on the national fabric. But it should be stressed that Russia's problem was not simply that she acquired an empire, piecemeal, to assure security of her borders and give herself outlets for trade, but that it was a poor empire.

This poverty may explain why institutions which would have led to a less autocratic state were so slow to develop. By the 19th century autocracy was maintained partly because the educated elite was too small to run the empire more democratically. Although "Russian imperialism" is an easy target for criticism, historians of early Russia would stress Muscovy's weakness. Either the principality had to expand, or it would be overwhelmed by its more powerful neighbours. In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of imperial expansion was haphazard and in response either to local initiatives or a sense of insecurity. The imperial government was more interested in Europe than in its Central Asian or Far Eastern territories.

The assumption that there was insufficient sense of the Russian nation is open to question. The fact that the question: "What is Russia?" was the core of the intellectual debate, would presuppose that some sense of nationhood had developed. Furthermore, if nationalism grows in response to an external threat, then by the Napoleonic invasion this identity existed, and this occurred before industrialisation, often considered to be a catalyst for such consciousness. Hosking argues that in 1812, the national idea of the elite was very different from that of the masses, but this was not unique to Russia and was true for most of the rest of Europe. For much of the 19th century, nationalism was an elite preoccupation and only reached the masses towards the end of the century, becoming a mass movement in the 20th. The idea that a sense of nation brings stability is very arguable. Nationalism has been seen in a variety of forms, some very destructive to the stability of the state. It appears that Hosking has a view of progress which assumes that democratic institutions develop alongside the national idea. While this is true of Britain, it is less true of the rest of Europe and other parts of the world. It might be better to see the Anglo-American experience as anomalous, and Russia as closer to Europe. This view would not be popular with those members of the Russian intelligentsia who have expended much energy in stressing the uniqueness of the Russian path and mission.

Despite these caveats, this refreshing approach to Russian history is one of the most interesting I have read for a long time and will become a standard work.

Catherine Andreyev is lecturer in modern European history, Christ Church, Oxford.

Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917

Author - Geoffrey Hosking
ISBN - 0 00 255 536 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 548

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