A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch

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A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A comprehensive history of Russia, from its origins to the election of Vladimir Putin, with the emphasis on political developments, but also including chapters on Russian arts and culture from the 19th century onwards.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 491 Date: December 2011
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780521543231

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Russia's recent history, especially since the end of the Cold War, has been so full of new developments that there is probably little if any limit to the number of fresh histories the market can absorb. This most recent, from a Professor of History at Yale University, take a little over 450 pages to tell the story from the earliest days of Kiev Rus, the territory which was to become the ancestor of the present nation state around the 10th century AD, to Vladimir Putin's assumption of office as President in 2000.

The first pages cover the era of the Grand Princes of Kiev and of the first Russian saints, Princes Boris and Gleb, murdered by their elder brother in a succession struggle in the 11th century. However, Russia as we know it came into being as a state at the end of the 15th century, no longer just a group of related principalities. The historical narrative becomes a little more clear-cut from around 1533 onwards, with the accession of Grand Prince Ivan. His epithet 'The Terrible', it is interesting to learn, was a product of romanticism from a later age, and in his own time he was known as grozny (awe-inspiring), rather than the monster that the name might suggest.

What might be recognised as modern Russia dates from the time of Peter the Great, whose reign at the beginning of the 18th century saw the greatest transformation until the revolution of 1917. The personalities of Peter and later of Catherine, also 'the Great' bring Russian history to life more clearly, and the author deals well with the various intrigues surrounding the accession of each monarch during an age when the throne rarely passed smoothly from one generation to another – not until the 19th century, in fact.

It comes as no surprise to find that over half the book covers the last 150 years or so, from the Crimean War of 1854 to the present day. Alongside the political upheavals and milestones, such as the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the assassination of Tsar Alexander II twenty years later, the disastrous war with Japan of 1904-5 which severely undermined the people's faith in the autocracy, and the revolution of 1917 which brought about the collapse of the Romanov empire, are chapters on the contemporary arts. No history of Russia would be complete without these, and one twenty-page chapter focuses on the golden age of Russian culture, including the music of Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the writing of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and the paintings (admittedly not so well-known as their European contemporaries) of Repin and Suyrikov. This is complemented by subsequent chapters on the revolutions in Russian culture from the 1890s onwards, the age of the writing of Gorky, the music of Stravinsky and the ballets of Diaghilev, and of the mid-20th century as dominated by Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Shostakovich.

The last section of the book takes us in painstaking detail through the era of Stalin and his successors. During the Cold War there was something of a turning point in 1982 with the death of Brezhnev, the last major representative of a generation of those who had been young party leaders in the 1930s who had become a group of elderly men who simply could not understand why things had not come out as they expected, individuals who had failed to grasp the challenge of a world which had changed immeasurably outside the USSR, with mass prosperity in the United States, post-war Europe and Japan. The brief periods in office of the similarly elderly Andropov and Chernenko were soon forgotten with the coming to power of Gorbachev, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party who would preside over its demise and the age of Perestroika, during which the popular joke was that the Soviet Union was the only country in the world with an unpredictable past.

The end of the Soviet Union brought Russia into an uncertain new era. As the author asks towards the end, one of the basic dilemmas was (in fact, is) What is Russia? And what is to be the political ideal to cement the state? Hopes that the Russia of the 1990s would instantly be transformed into a peaceful democratic power were severely dented when the Russian air force bombed Grozny in 1994. The age of Putin, and in time his successors, means that the new chapter will soon be ready to be written.

Yet all histories of this nature can only be to some extent an interim statement. This through, fully-researched volume is a mine of facts and information, and while perhaps not for the general reader, will be an essential volume for the serious student. A few illustrations are integrated with the text, and six maps in a separate section at the front show the boundaries, from that of Kievan Rus' in the 11th century, to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. Ten pages of sources and further reading follow the text, though the book's value would have been increased by the provision of a chronology of events.

Our thanks to Cambridge University Press for sending Bookbag a copy.

If you'd like to know more about Russia, you could try Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

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Buy A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Concise History of Russia by Paul Bushkovitch at Amazon.com.


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