Telling the 1,000-year history of a great state brings with it many pitfalls — especially if done in 300 pages. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. The temptation to divine a red thread can often end in history being all too neatly organised in clearly separated eras and breaks.
Orlando Figes is too experienced to fall into such traps. As well as being a professional historian and author of several acclaimed books on Russian history, he was also a witness to the critical moments in the dissolution of the Soviet empire. As such, his latest book, The Story of Russia, combines profound knowledge and understanding of the longer, deeper structural processes of history with the personal experience of an author seeking to understand what is happening on the ground today.
“How does the story of Russia end? How far will the country’s future be shaped by its past?” asks Figes, posing a question that will no doubt be shared by most readers. In pursuit of the answer, he raises questions about geographic space, modes of rule, belief systems, social customs and the myths that lurk beneath the surface of daily life and events and behind the facades of institutions.
His starting point is the erection in 2016 of the monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, the late 10th-century ruler of Kievan Rus, close to the walls of the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians were originally one nation, heirs to the Rus and the basis for his neo-imperial idea of the Russian world (Russkii mir) and for unleashing a full-scale war against Ukraine.
Figes is not interested in describing a counter-narrative to Putin’s, but in offering a story that helps us gain an “informed understanding of Russia today”. This implies understanding how Putin’s rule relates to the long-term patterns of Russian history. Focusing on kleptocracy, the mafia state or the obsessions of the top man is not sufficient. We need to dig deeper.
While formally the book tracks familiar epochal moments — the Rus, the rise of Muscovy, the St Petersburg empire and so on — Figes manages to set distinctive accents through rich details and meaningful anecdotes. The result is an account of the factual history as well as the corresponding and competing narratives, discourses and mythologies. For example, the heritage of the Kievan Rus — especially its religious, cultural traditions — continues in many ways to this day, though not in the manner of Putin’s retrospective “one nation” with all its violent consequences.
Other decisive moments whose impact is still apparent include the formative power of Mongol rule for the establishment of statehood, and the manifold, sometimes contradictory effects of Peter the Great’s reforms, which strengthened the bureaucracy and military yet undermined the development of civil society. More recently, Figes explores the emergence of a Russian-dominated Soviet patriotism under Stalin, culminating in the victory over Hitler.
Such layers of tradition live on in shared memory and social behaviour, and can be instrumentalised in times of crisis. The Byzantine tradition of the basileus combines with that of the khan and the autocrat — the image of the tsar with the personality cult of the party leader. Over the centuries, the ruling apparatus establishes itself as the only site of central, meaningful power, while society remains impotent; the individual remains subordinate to the collective.
This compact and powerful tradition seems to condemn Russia to an eternal return of the past. Time and again, for all the peasant uprisings, occasional revolutions or reforms, power has recovered and reconsolidated. After the end of the tsarist empire, it re-emerged as the USSR; after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, as Putin’s Russia.
“In many ways the country appears to be trapped in a repeating cycle of its history,” writes Figes. “Twice in the twentieth century, in 1917 and 1991, the autocratic state has broken down, only to be reborn in a different form.” In a recurring pattern, those forces unleashed by the collapse of state authority proved too weak to sustain a democratic government. Fundamentally little has changed in the systemic asymmetry in the relationship between autocratic rule and society.
The external situation is equally bleak. “Isolated from the West, Russia will be forced to pivot east, a turn accelerated by the war and welcomed by a number of the Kremlin’s ideologists, who believe that Russia’s future lies in a Eurasian bloc, opposed to Western liberal values and US global power, with China as its main ally,” writes Figes.
In his view, Russia’s growing isolation is mainly the result of a lack of understanding and goodwill in the west — “Russia wanted to be part of Europe, to be treated with respect.” Instead, it was rejected by western leaders who took advantage of Russian weakness to diminish it, he adds. An opportunity to end a historical cycle of misunderstandings and antagonisms was missed, creating the basis on which Putin “built his anti-Western ideology”.
Figes writes persuasively of Russia’s century-long efforts to “catch up” with the west, which often ended in frustrations, anti-western feelings and an inferiority complex, yet he overestimates the impact the west could have on the largest country on earth. The successful transformation of the entire, vast Soviet system depends in the first instance on the potentials and capacities within Russia.
While expertly elaborating on the burden of historical legacies and the weakness of the society, unable to find a way out of the turmoil of an imploding empire, Figes strangely does not reflect enough on the connection between tensions and constraints inside Russia and the outside world. Often rulers sought to distract from internal problems by waging a war — whether in Crimea in 2014 or now in Ukraine, a conflict that Figes views as a “clash of civilisations” between Russia and the west.
In terms of how we got here, The Story of Russia is an excellent book for all who want to come to terms with Russia’s past and its fate today. The question of where things go from here cannot be answered by historians. The answer to the question of whether and how Russia can find a way out of the dead end of the anachronistic idea of imperial reconstruction can only come from the Russians themselves.
The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes Bloomsbury £25, 352 pages
Karl Schlögel is professor emeritus, chair of east European history, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder. His book ‘The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World’ is published next March
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café