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The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

by
25 November 2022

Xenia Dennen reviews an account of Russia in the past and today

RUSSIAN history is a fascinating subject, and to have it summarised in 300 pages is a tour de force. The Story of Russia is for the non-specialist: it may annoy a professional historian or two with its generalisations and comparisons of 21st-century Russia with earlier periods, but it is an excellent introduction, beginning with the origins of Russia as a nation and taking the reader up to today’s Putin regime and Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Figes poses and tries to answer why Russia has never developed a democratic system of government: he shows how democratic reform was constantly thwarted — by the French Revolution during the reign of Catherine the Great, by France’s invasion of Russia during the reign of Alexander I, by the murder of Alexander II, which halted the remarkable reforms instituted during that reign, by the elimination of any democratic reform with the domination of the Bolsheviks after the Revolution, and by the autocratic tendencies of the Russian government since the removal of Gorbachev.

Figes’s understanding of Russian Orthodoxy is somewhat superficial: he defines it as a branch of Christianity which, unlike other Churches, saw the divine “not confined to the heavens but immanent in worldly existence”, apparently unaware of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. He is mistaken when he claims that Lenin established a modus vivendi with the Church after the Communist Party made a dramatic policy change in 1921 with its New Economic Policy.

In fact, in March 1922, Lenin wrote a secret letter, stating: “I have come to the firm conclusion that at this very moment we must ruthlessly give battle against the reactionary clergy and overcome their resistance with a harshness which they will not forget for a few decades.”

Another historian (Nikita Struve) has calculated that, during 1922, 2691 priests, 1962 monks, and 3447 nuns were killed. Another lacuna concerns the Khrushchev period: Figes does not mention the anti-religious campaign promoted by Khrushchev from 1959 to 1964, when thousands of Orthodox churches were closed, and many religious believers were imprisoned.

AlamyIlya Repin, Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 (1885): a remorseful tsar haunted by his own terror. From the book

Figes’s analysis of the Putin regime’s support for a doctrine called the “Russian World” is particularly useful. This doctrine sees Russia as a supranational civilisation, defined by its spiritual values in opposition to what is seen as the liberalism and materialism of the West. The “Russian World” includes not only Russia, but also Ukraine and Belarus, a view supported by Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, who believes that all Orthodox believers, whether in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus, relate back to the birth of Christianity in Kievan Rus in 988. From such a view stems Kirill’s shocking failure to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Figes’s book went to press in April this year, when the recent achievements of the Ukrainian army had not yet hit the headlines. The author predicts that “a Russian victory of some kind is the most likely outcome of this war.” Well, we shall see. Perhaps he would have been wiser to keep his focus on the past rather than attempt to predict the future.
 

Xenia Dennen is a Russian specialist, and chairman of Keston Institute, Oxford.

 

The Story of Russia
Orlando Figes
Bloomsbury £25
(978-1-5266-3174-9)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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