Monday, September 7, 2009

Best Historian of Russia

Today’s question: Who is the best historian of the Russians? And what should the criteria for such a contest be? I would say that if the main criterion is influence, the answer might well be Trostky. Everybody seems to quote his work and praise it, and of course it has the unusual merit of being written by one of the principle partitants in the Revolution. But, notwithstanding important commentary on a number of related subjects in modern Russian politics and culture, Trostky essentially limits himself to a single episode in Russia’s long history.

Leon Trotsky

My sentimental favorite is Henri Troyat, who was apparently born in Russia but grew up in France. The man penned endless books on Russian history and literature, and they are all emminently readable if perhaps slightly formulaic. His biography of Trostky was a favorite of Orlando Figes—which says a lot. It makes for wonderful reading and is sympathetic even when it comes to some of Tolstoy’s more bizzare opinions and behaviors. The drama between Tolstoy and his wife is portrayed with a great deal of humor, but not ridiculed per se.

Leo Tolstoy

Troyat’s Chekhov and Turganev are excellent too. (I have yet to discover a copy of his Gogol or Dostoyevsky biographies—but can hardly wait until I do, and don’t quite want to spoil the hunt by ordering copies online). The Gorky biography is a first-rate introduction to the man, but it’s almost too short, too flippant, to deal with such a central man in the history of Russian literature. Of course, Troyat also deals with the emperors, and I have loved his Ivan the Terrible and Alexander I. The fault with Alexander I, it appears from subsequent reading, is that to tell a good story, Troyat seems to impute all historical processes to this man’s will when, in fact, even subscribing to the Great Man Theory of History, one has to admit that the leading generals and aristrocrats influenced Alexander as much as he influenced them.

Other candidates for leading historian? I’d put Bruce Lincoln right up there, although I admit the bias that comes from recently finishing about four of his books in a row, including his books on Siberia, the 1890s, the Revolution, and the Civil War. We’ll see how well he can deal with the history of Russian arts. Other candidates might include Tolstoy, who wrote now formal history but whose War and Peace had lasting influence on our perception of the Napoleonic invasion as well as on historiography itself.

Maybe Marx also deserves consideration, since Trostky and all other writers—both pro and anti-Revolution—formed their analysis based on his categories of analysis, however perveted to serve events he had not anticipated. And current favorites, in terms of producing the kind of history that would bear scrutiny from current historians at the top of their game, might be the author of Young Stalin and the Court of the Red Czar (the spelling of the man’s name elludes me), or Orlando Figes, whose The Whisperers may have even topped Natasha’s Dance.

BBC Four Samuel Johnson Prize For Non-Fiction

Perhaps others will think Scott Reed’s fame gets him into the finals. Or some 19th century historian whose work was somehow foundational? Or the auther of the Magnetic Mountain? What's your vote?

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