Friday, February 14, 2020

Mark B. Smith's Russian Anxiety

I am greatly impressed with Mark B. Smith's recent book, The Russian Anxiety.  At first, the book seems like a relatively straightforward apologia for the Putin regime.  It argues that Americans and Europeans have no reason to be obsessed with the Putin regime, or Russia more broadly.  Russia has not behaved more aggressively than America and its allies. Right or wrong, Russia has not made any historically unprecedented moved by exerting influence in the Ukraine, Georgia, or the Crimea.  In a way, Smith seems to be applying the general Orientalist framework to Russia that Edward Said first applied to the Middle East and East.  According to Smith, Americans and West and Central Europeans maintain an illogical belief that Russia is an unchanging menace to civilization.  For whatever reason, Europeans believe that Russia is inherently undemocratic, autocratic, militaristic, and expansionist. 

Whatever one thinks about Smith's analysis of the way America and its allies should engage with Putin, it is impossible to dismiss the importance of Smith's overall approach to Russian history, which is nuanced, comparative, and richly informed by historical and historiographical research.  For Smith demonstrates that Russian history is filled with contingency, complexity, and change.  There has never been a timeless Russia.  There has never been a Russia outside of European historical trends.  There has seldom been a Russia that is clearly more barbaric or violent than its neighbors.

Smith's well-written moves easily from early Russian history, to medieval Russian history, to early modern and modern Russian history.  It also demonstrates familiarity with the diversity of Russian peoples and Russian neighbors.  For instance, Smith doesn't neglect Muslims, Georgians, Finns, Poles, Baltic peoples, or Chechnyans.  The historical coverage is impressive.  It allows us to see Russian history in perspective.  We can compare one Russian historical epoch against the other, and, surprisingly often, each Russian epoch against Polish, French, Italian, or English epochs.

The results are surprising. Overall, Smith forces us to admit that, aside from the Great Terror, Russia was not usually killing or torturing its people more frequently than other European counterparts.  And even there, didn't another European power, Germany, engage in analogous terror?  The case is of course clearer in earlier ages.  For example, by percentage, didn't more people die in the religious wars of France and Germany than did Russians at the hands of even the cruelest tsars of the age?

Smith's book is a remarkable read.  It's possible that his thesis about a Russian anxiety is overstated.  However, it's clear that the books overall call to contextualize Russian history is long overdue.  His comparisons of Russia's empire with the empires of Britain and Spain are especially revealing.  Which, after all, was worse, the Russian drive Eastward, or the British conquest of India?  And which ended more savagely?  And was the Russian expansion in the Caucasus really any worse than the Spanish destruction of the native civilizations of Latin America?  And should we compare Russia's experience with serfdom, which reminds us sometimes allowed many degree of autonomy, with America's experience with slavery, which rarely did? 

No comments:

Post a Comment