Condensing a thousand-year history of any country into an informative and insightful book of less than 250 pages is not an easy task. It is even more challenging when the subject country is a sprawling, transcontinental giant frequently misunderstood and misrepresented by outsiders.
In A Short History of Russia: From the Pagans to Putin, Mark Galeotti attempts to sum up the story of the world's largest country, from its tribal beginnings to the current era. Galeotti freely admits to making all kinds of simplifications and omissions in his fast-moving book. At times he races at breakneck pace through events and periods, such as Napoleon's invasion and the Soviet era between Khrushchev and Gorbachev. Galeotti states that his intention is not to provide a comprehensive treatment of Russian history but instead to explore "the periodic rises and falls of this extraordinary nation, and how the Russians themselves have understood, explained, mythologised, and rewritten this story."
Galeotti commences his brisk account with two foundational events in Russian history: the formation of Kievan Rus and the adoption of Orthodox Christianity. In the ninth century, so the legend goes, the Varangian chieftain of the Rus, Ryurik, established himself in Novgorod and created the Ryurikid dynasty. The Varangians were Vikings who had moved east and south from Scandinavia and settled in East Slavic lands, eventually "going native". According to the Primary Chronicle, an account written in the twelfth century, the local Slavic people invited Ryurik to govern over them after they grew tired of disorder and infighting. However, Galeotti is dismissive of such a voluntary compact, suggesting Varangian rule was more the result of coercion.
Ryurik was succeeded in 879 by his kinsman Oleg, who seized Kiev and made it the capital of the Kievan Rus state– a civilisational fountainhead of modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir the Great, Ryurik's great-grandson, expanded the territory of Kievan Rus and converted the pagan populace to Christianity in 988.
It is claimed that Vladimir embraced Byzantine Orthodox Christianity after sending envoys out to assess the dominant faiths of the time. Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam were deemed unsuitable or insufficiency inspiring. In contrast, the envoys were reportedly deeply impressed by the beauty and splendour of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, rhapsodising that God truly dwelt among the people there. Galeottisuggests that more pragmatic considerations were likely behind Vladimir's adoption of Orthodoxy as he sought to strengthen earthly ties with the Byzantines.
Kievan Rus would be broken by the Mongols – also known as Tartars – in 1240. Kiev was brutally sacked and it is claimed that only 2000 residents out of a population of 50,000 survived. While the Asiatic Mongols withdrew from Central Europe, the Russian lands remained under their control as part of the territories of the Golden Horde. Russians and Westerners alike contend that this was the moment when Russia was cut off from the rest of Europe and trapped in what the Russian historian Nikolay Karamzin called a "prison of barbarism." The "Mongol Yoke" is thus blamed for interrupting the country's development and for authoritarian traits among successive Russian rulers. Galeottidoesn't find this argument particularly convincing.
Moscow emerged as the political centre of the Russian lands in the wake of Mongol rule. Ivan the Great, the Grand Prince of Moscow from 1462 to 1505, is credited with ending Russian subordination to the Mongols. His grandson, also called Ivan, strengthened the power of the state, acquired new territories, and was the first to assume the title of Tsar of Russia. This particular Ivan would also become one of the most infamous figures in Russian history. Ilya Repin's haunting painting of the mad-eyed Ivan the Terrible, cradling his son who he had murdered in an uncontrolled fit of rage, has become perhaps the most enduring image of the man who would transform – and terrorise – Russia.
Ivan the Terrible died in 1584. His empire and his own Ryurikid dynasty were left in a precarious position, leading to the 'Time of Troubles'.Foreign invasions, peasant uprisings and conflict over who should sit on the throne threatened the very existence of the Russian state. Galeottiwrites: "From the Time of Troubles emerged not only the new Romanov dynasty, but also a new, cohering narrative: that Russia would be prey for its many foes if it did not have a single, powerful ruler around whom all the classes and peoples of the nation could – and must – unite."
The Romanovs ruled Russia from 1613 until the tumult of 1917, which swept away Tsarism altogether. The unusually tall, shipbuilding, beard-taxing Peter the Great made the country a great European power, forcing the rest of the continent to pay attention to what had hitherto been considered, in the words of the English navigator Richard Chancellor, a "rude and barbarous kingdom." Galeottiasserts that Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great who followed him, sought to "create narratives that placed Russia in Europe, without necessarily truly thinking through what that meant." Russia had become mighty but its identity would be contested more vigorously than ever before during the nineteenth century, argues Galeotti.
To say that the people of Russia suffered terribly during the twentieth century is an understatement. The country is estimated to have lost in excess of 23 million people during the world wars. As many as 12 million are thought to have perished during the civil war between Lenin's Bolsheviks and the White Army. Millions more were fatally starved, executed or worked to death under Stalin's rule. Stalin's Soviet Union emerged from World War II as a superpower but its totalitarian political and economic system would prove to be unsustainable. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to shake a stagnant communist system back to life and, in his own words, overcome "the totalitarian structure blocking the road to democracy." But events spiralled out of control and the entire Soviet Union fell apart. More hardship followed.
Galeotticoncludes his short history with a look at how post-Soviet Russia has attempted to define itself – and how it has been defined by the outside world. This story is still being written. "Perhaps," Galeottisuggests, "after centuries torn between a desperate desire to be accepted by the rest of Europe and a defiant determination to stand alone, Russia has a chance simply to be itself."
Some readers may not completely endorse Galeotti's historical conclusions or agree with his views on contemporary Russia. Nonetheless, his book is a lucid, entertaining and timely account of this most remarkable nation and the leaders who have helped define it.