Review: RUSSIA: MYTHS AND REALITIES by Rodric Braithwaite

Published by Profile Books

ISBN: 9781800811881.

I am surely not the only person who has become fascinated by Russian and Ukrainian history in the last twelve months. Over the years I have read quite a lot about the history of the USSR and Russian imperialism during the 20th century, and I’ve followed Putin’s rise through books such as Anna Politkovskaya’s collected reports, and books such as “The KGB’s Poison Factory”, “Age of Assassins”, “Putin’s Killers”, “Russians Among Us”, “Active Measures” and others. However I have never had much of a feel for Russian history prior to Lenin – and this book has filled in a lot of the blanks for me. 

Rodric Braithwaite is one man who understands the two countries very well. He was British ambassador to Moscow during the years 1988 to 1992, after which he became foreign policy adviser to John Major. Since then he has written several books: ACROSS THE MOSCOW RIVER, MOSCOW 1941, AFGHANTSY, and the grimly titled ARMAGEDDON AND PARANOIA. 

This latest book I found fascinating. It is more or less a gallop through the entire history of Russia, taking in all of the key events. It does mean that a lot of the history is glossed over, but as a general introduction to Russian history and how Russians think I think it is superb.

At the beginning Rodric has an Author’s Note, in which he has presents a problem which I had not appreciated. He says: “In writing about Russian history, you are faced with the immediate problem: what do you call the country you are writing about? It has been known as Russ, Muskovy, Russia, the Russian empire, the Soviet union, the union of Soviet Socialist, republics, the Russian republic. Not only Russians live in this country: at various times, its inhabitants have included Ukrainians, Poles, Tartars, people from the Baltic, the Caucasus, central Asia, and many other places. Each name has political and historical overtones about which there is passionate disagreement, among scholars, politicians, journalists, and ordinary people.”

And here lies the main problem with Russian history. What do we mean when we say Russia? Vladimir Putin has chosen his own version. In his view, probably because he’s thinking of his own legacy, Russia always existed as a mega state, a vast country, containing brotherly neighbours who are still members of a great Russian empire. He considers Ukraine as an integral part of Russia. Yet Kyiv existed long before Moscow. There are humorous tweets with historical dates showing Kyiv on the left, and Moscow on the right. Kyiv had churches, elegant buildings, and a society when Moscow still remained a forest with no buildings, the tweets say. 

In reality it would seem that Kyiv was created by Vikings, (or Varangians), who settled the north east of what is now Russia in the 8th century.  These incomers called themselves the “Rus”. This name is said to be an old Norse word for “the men who row.” They set up a trading post and settled, rather as the Vikings under Rollo settled and took over Normandy. At about the same time, small groups of Slavic people moved into the same area. These people had been a thorn in the flesh of the Byzantine empire and, according to one Russian chronicle, they were so unruly and unable to manage their own affairs that they invited the Varangians to help them keep the peace – which sounds to me as if perhaps an invading force of Vikings got their propaganda carefully curated! 

Here Rodric notes: “Whatever the truth, the Slavs increasingly began to call themselves Rus, the Varangians began to adopt the language of the Slavs and it is from those times that Russians date their history. But these diverse peoples did not become one tribe, as Catherine the Great was later to claim. Their ethnic diversity lay at the origin of that differentiation between Russians, Ukrainians and Belarussians which marked their affairs right up to the twenty-first century.”

And now the claim that they belong to one tribe is being used to justify genocide.

Obviously over the centuries different Russian leaders have fought with neighbours and gradually extended their territory. Initially the enemies were the other great powers of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Swedish empire. At last, after the Second World War, the USSR held Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, and all the other Warsaw Pact nations in an iron fist.

For a quick overview of the history of Russia, I very much doubt that Rodric Braithwaite’s book can be beaten. It is concise, obviously written with a great deal of understanding and knowledge, and is not a difficult read, although certain periods are confusing, mainly because of the violence and disruption. I don’t blame Rodric for that!

With the bibliography (he calls it “A Very Few Books” with no trace of irony!) and the notes there are lots of pointers which will help students looking for additional information. I found the timeline particularly useful to try to keep a hold of the dates. But it is not a hard read, Rodric is a coherent writer, informed and enthusiastic, making this story entertaining. Dry history, this is not!

So, if you are looking for an accessible history of Russia, I’d recommend this. It may well spark a fascination with that country and culture.

Highly Recommended.


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