Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

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Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A solidly-researched history of Russia, concentrating largely on the 20th century, by a former BBC correspondent in Moscow, published to accompany a BBC Radio 4 series.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 624 Date: May 2011
Publisher: BBC Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1849900720

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As a former BBC correspondent in Moscow at the time that the Cold War was ending, Sixsmith is in a unique position to write a history of Russia, based partly on research and partly on his own experiences, after having witnessed at first hand some of the upheavals in recent years which play such an important part in the story.

Published to accompany a 50-part history of Russia on Radio 4, the story starts a little over a thousand years ago, when Kiev proclaimed itself the capital city of the land. The author notes in one of the opening chapters that Russian history has long since been a plaything of the propagandists, with much rewriting of the past to bolster current political priorities. For most of us, medieval and early modern Russia is largely characterized by such larger-than-life personalities as Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great. Only in the eighteenth century does it really seem to follow a coherent narrative, especially from the Crimean War and the emancipation of the serfs onwards.

Despite a useful, succinct summary of the last fifty years or so of Tsarist rule, it is really with the revolution of 1917 and the era of Lenin that the book comes alive. The author adds several interesting little glimpses of things seen at close range. We read of a Lenin visitor centre, formerly a national shrine visited by Communist pilgrims but now shabby and neglected, yet still containing what is said to be the original pile of straw in which the former leader once sheltered – although it has survived suspiciously well. It is one of the rare notes of humour in the grim saga of much of twentieth century Russia, when the former empire was dominated by the rule of Stalin, responsible for the deaths of perhaps as many as 50 million of his people. The toll of those who were killed or driven to take their own lives is horrifying, and one can only be thankful that some managed to flee their homeland for safe havens elsewhere in time.

From time to time, the history of Russia was also the history of the other great powers. Some attention is given to a top secret document on the possibility, considered by Winston Churchill, of a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union less than a month after the suicide of Hitler in 1945, while after the upheavals of 1991 President George Bush Snr broadcast in almost downright laughable terms to his own people that every American could take pride in the victory for democracy and freedom after the collapse of the Union, as if it was American values which had single-handedly triumphed.

Sixsmith’s survey of Russia history during the preceding centuries is sound and succinct enough. However, it is probably no exaggeration to say that this book is worth reading for the last hundred pages or so alone, the post-Stalin years in which Russia was dominated by a cavalcade of figures from Khrushchev and Brezhnev (whose death in 1982 after weeks in a coma prompted a headline, Revealed: Red Cabbage Ruled Russia), to Gorbachev and Putin. He paints an oddly endearing picture of Yeltsin, who was once fished out of a river with a bouquet of flowers in his hand, presumably rumbled in the course of some nocturnal gallantry by a jealous husband, one of several possibly drink-fuelled episodes which in general enhanced his popularity. On a more serious note, the account of the rivalry between Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and especially the 1991 coup in which so much lay in the balance, is fascinating.

As we know, the coming of democracy to a land which had lived under an autocratic party for so many decades after having been ruled by autocratic monarchs did not make for an easy transition. In his final sentence, Sixsmith concludes that George Bush's suggestion that Russia would now be like us proved as misguided at the time as it seems today.

The volume is well illustrated with three sections of plates, some in colour, and maps, and there is a useful 8-page chronology of events from 862 AD to the present. It might prove a little too weighty for anyone who wants no more than a brief introduction to the subject. But for the dedicated reader who wants something in more depth, this will be ideal.

Our thanks to BBC Books for providing Bookbag with a review copy.

For other titles on Russia, may we recommend the travel title I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels and Travails in the New Russia by John Mole, or alternatively Ekaterinburg: The Last Days of the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport, an account of the final days and murder of the last Tsar and his family.

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