*** DEBUG END ***

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

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
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)