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Thursday, September 18, 2014

“Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East”, by Martin Sixsmith






624 pages, Overlook Press, ISBN-13: 978-1590207239

Martin Sixsmith’s Russia: A 1000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East however is an eminently readable and chatty history of a nation still giving everyone fits. Sixsmith is principally known as a journalist for the BBC, reporting chiefly on Russia, who also lived in Russia for periods of time as a youth; this explains why, though this book spans one-thousand years of Russian history, Sixsmith devotes the bulk of his work to the recent past and also how he seems to have a certain “feel” for the country than many Westerners. Indeed, what helps to make the narrative so readable is that it is liberally sprinkled with interviews that Sixsmith conducted and with anecdotes from his personal experiences in Russia (or, the former Soviet Union). There also are numerous apt and instructive references to Russian culture, including many translations of excerpts from Russian poetry of note.

Some might balk at the term “Westerners” as something distinct from Russians but, as suggested by the subtitle to this book, for Sixsmith Russia is – and long has been – more “Eastern” than “Western”; its history, as chronicled by Sixsmith, has been a vacillation between East and West, between Asia and Europe, and between autocracy and democracy:

Those who regard Russia as a proto-European nation miss the point. Russia looks both ways: to the democratic, law-governed traditions of the West, but at the same time…to the Asiatic forms of governance she imbibed in the early years of her history, what Russians refer to as the ‘silnaya ruka’, the iron fist of centralized power.

That is the central theme of Sixsmith’s Book. He begins his tale in the 9th Century with the Rus, a pagan tribe that in myth (and to some extent in history as well) was the progenitor of the Russians. He then continues with the protracted forging of a Russian nation, primarily as security against the Germans, Poles, and Lithuanians from Europe and the Mongols (or Tartars) from Asia. The book then charts the expansion of Russia into an empire, with appropriate attention to such major figures as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great. The saga continues with the continuing cycle of reform then repression during the 19th Century, culminating in the two revolutions of 1917. By that point, the reader is halfway through the book. The next two hundred pages cover the Soviet Union under the megalomaniac butchers Lenin and Stalin (one of the virtues of Sixsmith’s account, in my opinion, is his unromanticized assessment of Lenin as the Pol Pot that he foreshadowed). The final hundred pages of the book cover the rise of Gorbachev, the introduction of perestroika and glasnost (policies that were intended to save the communist system, not destroy it), the fall of Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, and then the ups and downs of Yeltsin and Putin, with the political pendulum continuing to swing between democracy and autocracy.

Russia is an ambitious book and, by and large, Sixsmith pulls it off admirably. Many matters, perforce, are covered somewhat superficially (entire books have been written on what Sixsmith sometimes discusses in one paragraph). I noticed a few statements that were inconsistent with things that I have read elsewhere and believe to be more accurate, but in the grand scheme of “1,000 Years of Russian History” they were minor. There is not a lot of detailed analysis, but that’s not what the book’s mission is. Russia is a readable overview of Russian history up to almost yesterday.

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