Enforced brevity focuses the mind wonderfully. And when the minds in question are two of the West’s most interesting historians of Russia, the result is a distillation of insight that’s vitally timely. Sir Rodric Braithwaite was Britain’s ambassador to Moscow from 1988-92 during the collapse of the USSR (where he was the boss of Christopher Steele, of Trump dossier fame), then chaired the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee. He went on to write the brilliant Afgantsy, a history of the USSR’s disastrous Afghan war and its impact on the Soviet Union’s collapse, and Moscow 1941, a people’s history of the heroic Soviet fight against Nazism. Sheila Fitzpatrick is an Australian historian who has been writing about Soviet education, culture and politics since the 1970s. Both have now produced brief and highly readable histories of, respectively, Russia and the USSR that channel the pithy, punchy spirit of the great Norman Stone’s short histories of Turkey and Hungary.
Fitzpatrick’s book, covering seventy years rather than more than a millennium, is inevitably the more detailed. One of the great virtues of such short histories is that they emphasize what specialists may regard as the bleeding obvious — but it is the obvious truths often buried in detail that bear restating. For instance, there is the paradox that the Bolshevik revolution was led in large part by members of national minorities — from Jews to Georgians to Latvians and Poles — who had suffered under the Russian empire yet ultimately recreated it. And there is the often forgotten fact that despite the bloodshed and political repressions of the USSR, the Soviet century saw life expectancy double and university education quintuple. “For many Russians, whose birth state [the USSR] was, the narrative was different” from the West’s view of Soviet history, she writes:
Coming out of backwardness, Russia had miraculously won its twentieth-century place in the sun, first leading the world towards socialism and later becoming a superpower — and then all that was suddenly snatched away for no apparent reason, along with the respect of the world and the empire inherited from the Czars.
There are many surprises here even for cognoscenti of Russian history. Khrushchev’s speech denouncing Stalin to the 20th Party Congress was labeled “the Secret Speech” in the West — in part because of a feeble attempt to keep its contents from being published abroad. But, as Fitzpatrick reminds us, “domestically it was no secret at all, for it was read out in its entirety at party meetings held throughout the country (and open to those who were not party members)… Passionate public discussion followed.”
There are a few odd omissions and errors. Fitzpatrick lists Lenin’s ancestry as having “some German and Jewish in the mix,” but doesn’t mention his half-Kalmyk mother, from whom the Bolshevik leader inherited his distinctly Central Asian features. Nikita Khrushchev did not “secretly send some intercontinental nuclear missiles” to Cuba; he sent medium and intermediate-range missiles to the Caribbean precisely because stockpiles of intercontinental ones that could strike the US from the USSR were vanishingly small. The resulting massive increase in Soviet capacity to strike America was the whole point of the ensuing crisis. And she writes that “as luck would have it, 1986 was the year that oil prices started going down from their historic highs of the 1970s and early 80s” — a crash that, according to the leading reformer and economic historian of the USSR Yegor Gaidar, led directly to the collapse of a Soviet state that had become fatally dependent on petrodollars. But “luck” had nothing to do with it. The price crash was the result of a deliberate US government policy to persuade the Saudis to punish Moscow for the invasion of Afghanistan and was championed by the flamboyant Texas congressman Charlie Wilson.
Braithwaite’s narrative, from the origins of Kievan Rus to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is wise and thorough. It’s the work of a man with a deep inside knowledge of and sympathy for Russia’s people and their culture. “The Russians are fascinating, ingenious, creative, sentimental, warm-hearted, generous, obstinately courageous, endlessly tough, often devious, brutal and ruthless,” writes Braithwaite. But despite his obvious affection, he remains clear-eyed about their “underlying and corrosive pessimism” and “resentment that their country is insufficiently understood and respected by foreigners.”
A key theme is the mismatch between Russia’s superficially western culture and more profound, chthonic strains of mysticism and traditionalism that have periodically risen and fallen over the past three centuries. Peter the Great declared that, thanks to his modernizing efforts, “We have come out of the darkness into the light and people who did not know us now do us honor.” But to the snide nineteenth-century French traveler the Marquis de Custine, the result was a patchily civilized aristocracy which reminded him of “trained bears who made you long for the wild ones.” For the Slavophile historian Nikolai Karamzin: “We became citizens of the world but ceased in certain respects to be citizens of Russia. The fault is Peter’s.” Vladimir Putin, unfortunately, evidently agrees.
Another theme is the use and abuse of history in “a country with an unpredictable past” — as Braithwaite’s subtitle notes, quoting an old Soviet joke. Every country has “a national narrative constructed from fact, fact misremembered and myth,” he writes. “They hold us together in a ‘nation’ and inspire us to sacrifice ourselves in its name.” But nowhere else in the modern world has seen history so recently and vehemently twisted to create an ideological framework and justification for aggression and repression as in Putin’s Russia, where many laws have been passed criminalizing the “falsification of history.”
Inevitably, given the timing of their publication, readers will scan both books for clues as to why Putin chose to invade Ukraine — and how his regime might react to economic crisis and defeat in the field. Fitzpatrick provides some telling examples of how paranoid and ill-informed the Soviet leadership was about supposed western aggression. According to Khrushchev’s memoirs, in the run-up to Stalin’s death the entire Politburo and Stalin himself “believed that America would invade the Soviet Union and we would go to war.”
She also describes the “aggressive cultural insularity conveyed through the Soviet trademark combination of boastfulness and a sense of inferiority in dealing with the West” that has once again become characteristic of post-invasion Russia. And Braithwaite reminds us of how very far Putin has come in his ideological journey from Yeltsin’s supposedly pliable successor to raging autocrat. “History proves that all dictatorships, all authoritarian forms of government, are transient. Only democracies are lasting,” said Putin at the beginning of his first term in 2000.
Fitzpatrick also points out a vital — if depressing — truth that underpins the current war. Putin does not impose his world view on his people but rather reflects their own long-held opinions. Polls in 1999, just before Putin even came to power, showed that 71 percent of Russians thought the break-up of the Soviet Union had been a mistake. And a 2017 opinion poll revealed that 45 percent of Russians viewed Gorbachev and Yeltsin with “anger, contempt… disgust and hate.” In the same poll, respondents chose Putin, Stalin and Lenin as their “most respected” leaders.
Sensible historians usually steer clear of predictions. As Fitzpatrick observes with dry wit, almost none of her fellow scholars correctly predicted the collapse of the USSR. Indeed the American Sovietologist Robert Byrnes confidently concluded a conference in 1980 with the statement: “All of us agree that there is no likelihood whatsoever that the Soviet Union will become a political democracy or that it will collapse in the foreseeable future.” As the title of Alexei Yurchak’s study of late Soviet socialism put it: Everything was forever until it was no more.
There is a warning there, perhaps, that those western observers who currently predict the collapse of Putin’s regime under the pressure of sanctions could be just as wrong. But Braithwaite allows for a small chink of light in the encroaching historical darkness that has enveloped Russia: “Determined optimists might hope that the shock of the Ukraine war would change the way that Russians look at their past and perhaps make them open to a different and more constructive future.”