The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

It’s not difficult to guess Orlando Figes’ brief for The Story of Russia: write a history of Russia, accessible to the interested and educated public, acceptable to specialists; keep it under 300 pages; emphasize links between Russia’s deeper past and the government of Vladimir Putin. There is value in the book’s relative brevity, though I wonder how well someone completely new to Russian history would be able to follow the parade of names and places through the centuries, even with the aid of several well-executed maps. Maybe the intended audience is people with a passing familiarity with European and Russian history, but who would like to deepen that knowledge. Figes obliges with what feels to me like a relatively standard division of Russian history into periods: origins, Mongol conquest, the rise of Muscovy through the death of Ivan the Terrible, reforms under Peter the Great, war with Napoleon, imperial crises in the nineteenth century, revolutions and the end of the empire, and Soviet futurism versus Old Russia.

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

He closes with two chapters that I found odd. “Motherland” begins at the end of the Great Terror, takes in World War II, and runs all the way through the end of the Soviet Union, including the Khrushchev thaw, Brezhnev stagnation, and Gorbachev’s reforms. That’s a lot of contradictions to cover in 34 pages, and the title fits less and less as the years go on. Because so much of this period is still within living memory — indeed, within Figes’ own adult lifetime — and because so much of today’s Russia is shaped in reaction to the choices of these eras, they deserve longer consideration, even if that means the book would run to 320 pages or so.

The final chapter, “Ends,” covers the thirty-plus years since the end of the Soviet Union, and I found it even odder. Figes asks, “How does the story of Russia end?” (p. 268) Well, it doesn’t. Vanishingly few important European powers have stories that end; Prussia is the only one I can think of. The European empires that were tsarist Russia’s peers are gone, but their legacies live on, from splinters of Austria-Hungary throughout Central Europe to the ongoing wars of Ottoman succession in the Middle East. Fortunately, Figes follows with more sensible questions about how far Russia’s past will shape its future (or more accurately, which parts of Russia’s past will shape its future) and why, in his view, Russia returned to autocracy in the twenty-first century. Less fortunately, Figes completed the book in the early months of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. He felt compelled to offer some views, and while they are not as bad as his 2014 assessment that “Russia is no longer an aggressive state. Russia does not start foreign wars.” they are also not very good.

I may have gotten off on the wrong foot with this book, because I took issue with the title. It is impossible to write the story of even a small nation. Russia grew from a swampy principality to a state so vast it could hive off the ninth-largest country in the world and remain not only the world’s largest but 70 percent larger than its nearest competitor. The story of this country does not exist, cannot exist. I suppose that marketing folks at Figes’ publisher deemed alternatives — Russia: A History or A History of Russia, for example — too dull or too awkward, but his choice rankled and left me in a frame of mind to look for other infelicities.

Figes offers a counterpoint:

Many writers have observed the Russian people’s need for transcendental myths promising a better version of Russia. … The endurance of these myths explains much in Russia’s history: the lasting force of Orthodox beliefs; the people’s search for a holy tsar, the embodiment of their ideals, to deliver them from injustice; their dreams of building heaven on this earth, a revolutionary utopia, even when this dream turned out to be the nightmare of the Stalinist regime.
All of which is to explain why this book is called The Story of Russia. It is as much about the ideas, myths and ideologies that have shaped the country’s history, about the ways the Russians have interpreted their past, as it is about the events, institutions, social groups, artists, thinkers and leaders that have made that history. (p. 6)

It’s a good description of the book, even if it does more to explain the Story in the title than the The that I take issue with. Serhii Plokhy similarly emphasizes the ideas that animated Russian rulers in his Lost Kingdom, and I think that he does it more carefully, certainly more provocatively, than Figes does. Writing in 2017, Plokhy hones in on the crucial contemporary question than Figes does in 2022. “Do Russia’s present-day political borders coincide with the borders of the Russian nation? The answer depends on the way in which Russian political and intellectual leaders and Russians in general imagine their nation. The question of Russian identity and its geographic extent is of more than academic interest, as it influences issues of war and peace along Europe’s eastern frontiers today and will influence them for generations to come.” (Plokhy, Lost Kingdom, p. x)

This, I think, points to one of the book’s key shortcomings: it is a national history of a decidedly multi-national place, and it would be a better book if Figes stood outside the tradition of histories of Russia more often. Given that he wants to show how deep history affects present-day Russia, it would be helpful if he considered more of how the story he tells looks to people (and peoples) near to Russia but outside of it, or perhaps unwillingly inside of it from time to time. The need to get out a bit more is not limited to the political parts of the book, either.

Seeing is believing for the Orthodox. … The icon is the focal point of the believers’ spiritual emotions — a sacred object able to elicit miracles. Icons weep and produce myrrh. They are lost and reappear, intervening in events to steer them on a divine path. … In contrast to the Western Christian mind, where the divine existed only in the heavens, in Russia the divine was immanent in worldly existence. (p. 26)

The Black Madonna of Częstochowa would be very surprised to learn that miraculous icons are exclusive to the Orthodox, to take just one example. To say nothing of the entire tradition of venerating relics, which is controversial to this day in Western Christendom. Two pages later, Figes claims that “At the core of the Russian faith is a distinctive stress on motherhood which never really took root in the Latin West.” This does not really hold up either, unless “distinctive” carries a lot more weight than Figes explains in the text. Figes notes the syncretism of Russian Orthodox practice — “The Christianisation of the pagan deities was practised by the Orthodox Church itself.” (p. 28) — and implies that this was somehow unusual or characteristic of Russia. A glance at nearby Lithuania, whose Catholicism is rather cheerfully pagan even today, shows that amalgamation of pre-Christian faiths is more the rule than the exception.

In terms of telling a standard history of Russia’s rulers, their aims, and some of the ideas animating them, Figes’ book is solid and reads quickly. His links between the distant past and current practice are interesting and thought-provoking. Some of the tidbits are fascinating — the silk undershirts that Russian fighters wore helped to keep barbed arrows from lodging inside their bodies — and some, such as the mechanization of agriculture in the 1890s that drove peasants from the land (p. 159), point to entire histories that could be profitably written. His interpretation of more recent events is far more questionable. His statement that “NATO kept [Russia] isolated” (p. 283) just just flat-out wrong, and the phrase “regions where the Russians had historic interests” (p. 283) neatly erases the peoples — Poles, Estonians, Georgians, among others and Ukrainians above all — whose lives and nations are thus reduced to mere objects of Russian interest. By not questioning this notion, Figes shows more than just a need to look outside the borders of his specialty, he shows a deeply wrong view of Central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War. It leads him to write, in April 2022, that “In the end Ukraine will be forced to reach a compromise with the Kremlin. There is no other way to stop this war.” (p. 300) It is only partly redeemed by calling the full-scale invasion of Ukraine a “reckless decision” (p. 295) and “an unnecessary war” (p. 301), and speculating on how Russia’s more democratic traditions might once again assert themselves against an autocrat.

Figes can be a terrific historian. His story of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, swept me up and I finished all 800 pages in about a month, captivated by its details and persuaded by its argument. Just Send Me Word is an extraordinary personal tale that illuminates the Gulag system and its role in the Soviet Union. Revolutionary Russia makes an interesting argument about how to consider the Soviet state as a whole over time. I’m not quite sure who is the intended audience for this latest book, but on the whole I think that what I gained did not make up for the irritations and shortcomings I found.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.