The Russian evolution

August 28, 1998

A Russian 17th-century tale opens with some pertinent questions. "What man ever divined that Moscow would become a kingdom? What man ever guessed that Moscow would be accounted an empire?" To bring this up to date, what man predicted that this empire would be so abruptly sundered with all its dire consequences, not least its formidable legions so speedily reduced to penury and squalor? These are the very questions Gregory Freeze and his associates seek to answer in a volume that embraces Russian history from its recorded origins to the present day, simultaneously introducing the most recent scholarship that has, it is argued, substantially altered "the way we think about Russian historical experience".

According to Freeze, greater access to archives and the gradual depoliticisation of a former cold-war intellectual battle-ground now enables historians to write "far more dispassionately, far more intelligently". That is perhaps too cavalier a dismissal of the quality and integrity of the work of many Russian and non-Russian historians alike, even during the years of the cold war.

Freeze is at pains to dispel "mesmerising images" of the all-powerful autocrat: Ivan the Terrible or Stalin the Terroriser, holding all of Russia in thrall. Rather here was a combination of "a veneer of omnipotence, a huge void of operational power", where Russia's own vastness, dispersed population, lack of means and men to govern and underdeveloped infrastructure frustrated attempts at "tight operational control over society". Social development in Russia was demonstrably "peculiar", the exemplar of which Freeze singles out as the long-lived commune, finally ruthlessly expunged in the 1930s. He is intent not only on demythologising Russian history, he is also committed to de-Russifying it with pronounced emphasis on Russia's multinational composition, in which contexts he and his predominantly American avtorskii kollektiv advertise this volume as an "important attempt to rethink Russian history".

To this end the book apportions approximately equal space within the 14 chapters to the medieval, imperial and modern periods, placing particular emphasis on the last. "How Moscow became a kingdom" is introduced by Janet Martin and deals with the beginnings to 1450. This is followed by Nancy Shields Kollmann on Muscovite Russia to 1598 and Hans-Joachim Torke on the 17th century, exploring Muscovy's commitment to state building, westernisation and territorial expansion. John T. Alexander's standard account of Peter the Great and his warfare state introduces the 'imperial, radically Europeanised period of Russian history", the precursor to six decades of continuous territorial expansion, culminating in "flourishing Empire". Gary Marker takes up this theme in his chapter on the age of Enlightenment, 1740-1801, illustrating the growing multi-ethnicity of the empire, drawing attention also to significant economic growth in Russia. Intrigued by the paradox of established female rule in a patriarchal system of authority, he is preoccupied with what sovereignty and "autocracy" actually meant given Russia's size and underdeveloped bureaucracy, the result so surprisingly the firm entrenchment of autocracy.

In discussing pre-reform Russia 1801-55 David L. Ransell rehabilitates Nicholas I, in whose reforms he sees the essential foundation for the momentous changes wrought by Alexander II. This chapter serves to introduce Freeze analysing both the "Great Reforms" and counter-reform spanning the period 1855-1890. Glasnost makes its first appearance, signifying a dramatic break with Nicholas I's reform politics. Alexander's reforms, described here as "highly dysfunctional and destructive", heavily influenced as they were by western models, gave way to retrenchment and counter-reform that itself became counterproductive. Further, restructuring the multinational empire as a homogeneous Russified state only contributed to stimulate national consciousness and feed revolutionary sentiments.

In examining revolutionary Russia 1890-1914 Reginald E. Zelnik observes that the government's ability to maintain a precarious social peace was not evidence that serious problems were being solved. Quite the contrary: order maintained through coercion, autocratic rule upheld, simply allowed social and political malignancy to fester. The denouement, war and revolution 1914-21, the Bolshevik start on building their new proletarian order, is thoroughly scrutinised by Daniel Orlovsky.

The final component - William B. Husband on the New Economic Policy, Lewis Siegelbaum on building Stalinism, William C. Fuller on the war and late Stalinism, Freeze on stagnation 1953-85 and Martin McCauley on perestroika and a New Order 1985-1995 - is where the book begins to bite, most pointedly with Siegelbaum's treatise on Stalinism. In his intricate study, Husband argues that the NEP exacerbated rather than solved fundamental problems and that it should be construed as the critical prelude to Stalin's subsequent "Great Turn".

Siegelbaum develops that theme. He questions the "totalitarian model" of Soviet politics, presenting a paradoxical regime laying total claim on society, and thereby "unleashing social mobility and flux". Grandiosity and conformity masked "inherent unpredictability". Discussing the purges of 1936-38 he cites lower figures than previous estimates for those arrested and shot and disputes the applicability of using a term like "the Terror", with "its implication of unitariness" concealing varied patterns and influences. William Fuller provides an excellent concise account of Stalin and Stalinism at war: the man, the system and society. He is correspondingly precise in delineating the contradictions in Stalin's postwar policies. Surveying the years from Stalinism to stagnation Freeze notes that in 1985 "the prospects for survival were bleak" and enumerates the alarming portents Gorbachev could not ignore.

Martin McCauley unravels the final paradox: Gorbachev, the most revolutionary leader since Lenin, unwitting agent behind the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Those earlier "rebellious sentiments of the borderlands" cited by Freeze intensified, the economy faced collapse. That sorry state Gorbachev found himself in early 1991 was, in McCauley's view, largely the result of "his own prevarications over reform". In June 1988 the 19th Party Conference had offered Gorbachev the chance to carry through a daring political revolution. He elected instead for "a low-risk strategy". The post-Soviet scene, one of economic decline, political instability, diminished international status, is manifestly dismal. The ability of the state to rebuild itself, to generate the capacity, to solve long-term problems, economic development, political integration, social stability is what is at stake. But all is not yet lost, resource-rich Russia is not a third world country.

This modern and modernised history of Russia gives substantial and authoritative answers to the questions posed at the outset. Controversy is never entirely absent when challenging what Freeze calls "moralising historians" or questioning traditional views. What it does convey is the extraordinary fascination that Russia in any configuration has always exerted and will continue to exert.

John Erickson is emeritus professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

Russia: A History

Author - Gregory L. Freeze
Editor - Gregory L. Freeze
ISBN - 0 19 215899 6
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 478

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