Friday, October 22, 2010

Long Duree

Sometimes it's best to look at an event from the perspective of the long-duree. Marshall Poe's book, The Russian Moment in World History, does just that. His short treatise makes a number of interesting arguments about Russian history in general and the revolutionary period in particular.

First, Poe argues that Russia is quite simply not European. Quite simply, Russia missed out on many of the key experiences of Europe, when Europe is seen as an economic or cultural entity rather than merely a geographical expression. Russia did not participate in the Renaissance, for example, and well into the 17th century, Russian rules essentially banned or severely restricted contact with their more culturally advanced neighbors to the West. Thus the country had no analogous traditions of technology, agriculture, science and education, trade, or even military technology.

For this reason, Russia's autocratic traditions deserve some consideration. For it was Russia alone that managed to hold back the tidal wave of European imperialism in the modern era. Where countless states and empires collapsed in the face of Western capitalism and European industrial power, Russia erected a highly effective deterrent, namely autocracy, that, coupled with an inaccessible heartland and a lack of a warm water coast, allowed the state to survive. The Russian model could be brutal, but it essentially delivered the goods for many Russian citizens. Russia survived a series of invasions by much more advanced countries, including early modern Poland, Napoleonic France, and of course Germany during the Second World War.

Poe makes other tantalizing assertions about Russian history. For instance, he argues that the Mongols did not have a dramatic effect on the course of Russian history. To be sure, the Mongols helped to make its chief tribute collector, Muscovy, the center of Russian Slavic civilization. Yet the Mongols weren't interested in colonizing Russia and therefore did not significantly alter the culture of the place.

In terms of the Revolution, Poe's broad perspective--he begins the account in the early seventh century when the Slavs first appeared in the Europe's written records--seems to emphasize that the Russian Revolution, for all its horrors, actually delivered modernity to most of Russian citizens. His argument is that the madness of Lenin and Stalin don't mean that the majority of Russian citizens didn't feel that their militaristic, autocratic state wasn't once again responsible for defeating an invasion force by a richer and more technologically advanced power. Moreover, the Communist system eventually succeeding in delivering education and a relatively high standard of living to an area of the world that had traditionally been mired in a poverty that was in part the natural outgrowth of geography and climate. Moreover, the Bolshevik Revolution delivered a model for achieving modernity that was to be emulated with success (whatever the cost to human rights) again and again around the world, including China, Vietnam, and Cuba, to name just a few countries that experimented with unrestricted despotism on the road to modernity.

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