Sunday, November 5, 2017
Abraham Ascher's Russia: A Short History
This blog focuses on the twentieth century, but makes frequent forays into the nineteenth century for context. From time to time, it's also necessary to delve into Russia's earlier history, if only to scan the centuries for themes and patterns. To this end, I recently read Abraham Ascher's survey of Russian history, Russia: A Short History. The book reads like a textbook but certainly gives its readers a nice overview of the entire sweep of Russian history. It covers the origins of the Russian state, the Mongol invasion and occupation, Ivan the Terrible's chaotic reign, the Time of Troubles, Peter the Great's violence and westernizing policies, peasant rebellion under Catherine the Great, the Crimean War, Nicholas II's folly, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalinism, the Cold War, Glasnost and Perestroika, and even the Putin era return to autocratic traditions. The book is centered squarely on political history, and spends its time on the Russia's tsars and their post revolutionary analogues. Russia: A Short History is not a book about social or cultural history. It offers no hint of "history from the ground up." Morever, Ascher's take on Russian history offers very few original insights into Russian history. It is rather a synthesis of scholarship about Russia. And this synthesis suggests that many scholars still see Russian history as a tragedy, shaped by autocratic violence, inequality, peasant and worker misery, invasion, and war. To be sure, this interpretation still makes sense. Russia suffered from war and state violence. As Ascher reminds his readers, even in the reign of the revered Peter the Great, the country's most impactful Westernizers, the country was almost continuously at war. But if Russia has suffered from a history of violence, historians do need to spend more time thinking about other, more positive, narratives that make up the Russian historical tradition. If Russian history is violent, it is is also by turns optimistic, peaceful, soulful, creative, and humane. Susan Sontag once wrote that we all indebted to Russia's rich literary tradition for a share of our collective humanity. If this is so, historians will need to discover what elements of Russia's historical trajectory have accounted for this invaluable component of Europe's intellectual and artistic heritage.