THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA
by Orlando Figes (Bloomsbury £25, 368pp)
It was 1917, the last of the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty had just been deposed, the red flags of the Bolshevik Revolution hung from buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg. People had thrown away their irons. Nothing would ever be the same again in Russia. Or would it be?
After all, it was the vast territory that Churchill would later sum up as “an enigma, shrouded in mystery, inside an enigma.”
In a new book, veteran Russian specialist Orlando Figes tries to unravel this mystery and explain this enigma. In just over 350 pages, it travels through 1,200 years of history to explain what we in the West should know (or, rather, should have known) about our new enemy #1.
In a new book, veteran Russian scholar Orlando Figes attempts to unravel this mystery and explain this conundrum and find out what the West doesn’t know. He says Putin must be careful of Russia’s centuries-old tradition of assassinating its leaders
But back to 1917 and a telling moment when a hard-line Bolshevik was breaking the good news to thousands of soldiers that the monarchy in Russia was dead. Long live the Republic !
“When I had finished,” he later recalled, “and the cheers were over, a loud voice called out, ‘We want you to be our Tsar!’ whereupon the other soldiers burst into applause. I left with the heavy feeling that it would be easy for any adventurer or demagogue to become the master of these simple and naive people.
The cult of the leader had again triumphed in Russia – a major fault line in the national psyche that runs from Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, through Catherine the Great and Stalin, to Vladimir Putin, the current Tsar in all except the name.
Autocracy is Russia’s default state, writes Figes, with the implication that it always will be. Ivan began the rot, rising to the rank of emperor based on a false lineage. He emasculated Russian nobles, often literally – castrating some of them in public before boiling them alive.
By 1917, Russia had cast off the shackles of its 300-year-old Romanov dynasty. The Romanovs (ruling family of Russia) – 1913. Nicholas II (1868-1918), Tsar of Russia 1894-1917, with his wife and children, including Tsarevich Alexi who suffered from haemophilia
He wielded absolute power but left them free to run their estates without interference as long as they did not contradict him, just as Putin does with his oligarchs.
Ivan even had his own secret spy force (precursor to the KGB) to flush out and destroy his rivals, real or imagined. He ended up locking himself in a castle with his bodyguards, listening only to an ever-shrinking inner circle as he went mad and killed his own son.
Putin, entrenched in his bunker, should take note of this, along with another centuries-old Russian tradition: political assassination. More than one Tsar was stabbed in the back by his relatives, including Peter III, sent by his ambitious and ruthless wife, Catherine the Great.
For all her reverence to 18th century ideas of Enlightenment and human rights, during her 34-year reign she proved as autocratic as her predecessors, refusing to emancipate the oppressed peasant serfs of Russia. .
Figes wonders if Putin can’t beat Ukraine and has to settle for a messy compromise?
Unsurprisingly, in the 20th century Russians had no qualms about blindly trusting Stalin, the worst tyrant of all, even when he was starving them by the millions.
It is not his fault, they would say, it must be his apparatchiks who are wrong – just as, over the centuries, the tsars were left behind by their faithful God-fearing subjects, who believed that their rulers were divinely ordered and could do nothing. Wrong.
And now that same naive and misplaced trust has landed in the world with Putin who, claiming to have Russian history on his side, has filled the ideological vacuum left by the collapse of Communism and assiduously gathered all the power and wealth around him.
He shares the paranoia of his predecessors, the result of Russia having no natural barriers, just thousands of miles of flat steppe, an open doorway to invaders.
Among the first, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan, who arrived from the East and remained for three centuries, provoking the identity crisis that still haunts Russia, straddling Europe and Asia, but in what direction should it be? orient? This “clash of civilizations” is crucial to understanding what it means to be Russian.
Lenin in Red Square. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870 – 1924). Russian revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917
It didn’t help that whenever Russia sought to draw closer to the West, it was generally viewed with suspicion, incomprehension and even contempt.
In recent years, the West was too triumphant after the implosion of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, acting as if Russia was a defeated power and did not need to be consulted on the consequences. in areas where she had historical interests and sensitivities.
Figes writes: “It reinforced his sense of not belonging properly to Europe and stoked old feelings of resentment.”
Putin took the opportunity to build his anti-Western ideology, promoting the notion of a “Russian world” sharing a common history, religion and culture. He made it his mission to “defend the tens of millions of our fellow citizens stranded outside Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union”.
Crimea and Ukraine topped his list.
Figes’ book is an absorbing and illuminating read, a triumph of brevity, analysis and insight. But it has one vital downside: He finished writing it in 2021, before Putin invaded Ukraine.
So, as the horrors continue to unfold before our eyes, with no end in sight for murder and devastation, the reader is left in limbo. Ironically, a book spanning over a millennium is overtaken by events, leaving questions unanswered.
Did Putin correctly judge the state of mind of his nation? Are they really behind him? Will his iron control over the media be enough to carry out this “limited military operation” before the people realize what is really going on?
Generation after generation of Russian soldiers have shown a willingness to die for their country, going into battle unprepared and even unarmed, suffering huge casualties, at Stalingrad and now, it seems, in Ukraine.
But will they continue to go loyally towards their death? And above all, what if Putin can’t beat Ukraine and has to settle for a messy compromise? Or a real defeat? Will he survive in power?
And then who, in the inexorable Russian tradition, is behind the scenes ready to be the next autocrat to take his place? The puzzle continues.
. A history powerful warns tradition national Russia is the assassination its rulers