The Story of Russia is a fresh approach to the thousand years of Russia's history, concerned as much with the ideas that have shaped how Russians think about their past as it is with the events and personalities comprising it. No other country has reimagined its own story so often, in a perpetual effort to stay in step with the shifts of ruling ideologies. From the founding of Kievan Rus in the first millennium to Putin's war against Ukraine, Orlando Figes explores the ideas that have guided Russia's actions throughout its long and troubled existence.
Impressive and deeply immersive ... His method is to synthesize sources, mostly secondary ones. The book’s outstanding feature is its brevity, and I mean this as praise ... Draws lightly on culture, but I especially enjoyed its forays into film as myth-manipulating propaganda ... Figes speaks on every page in the crisp, sober manner of a newsreader, while observing the action unfold with an eagle’s eye.
Orlando Figes provides valuable lessons about the importance of mythologizing the country’s past in his sweeping new survey of Russian history ... Figes aims in this primer to explain how central narratives used to justify the current leadership have been shaped and exploited over centuries ... Figes makes a key point about how the challenges of geography and climate have reinforced a long-held perception about the need for collective responsibility and strong autocratic leadership ... It is testament to the pervasiveness of Russian myths that Figes perpetuates some of them ... developments from the mid-19th century on are treated increasingly superficially, presented as all but inevitable consequences of earlier history. In fact, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was the result of not only bungling by the reactionary Czar Nicholas II but also dumb luck and German support — the ensuing civil war could have gone either way. Even more nuance is missing from later Soviet history, including the paradoxical figure of the reformer Nikita Khrushchev ... There are some mischaracterizations here ... But the author’s glossing over the Westernizing 1990s is perhaps most disappointing. They are characterized as essentially doomed to failure ... But if and when Putinism collapses, we would do well to learn from the past and not treat the country simply as a blank canvas on which to project Western-style democracy. Read Figes.
Inevitably in a survey of more than 1,000 years of history, much has had to be skirted over or omitted. But this book’s purpose is not to fill in all the blanks. It is to examine the recurring themes and myths that drive Vladimir Putin’s conviction that war with Ukraine and with western Europe is part of Russia’s historical destiny. For those unfamiliar with the past, this is an indispensable manual for making sense of Russia’s present ... This, as the title tells us, is one country’s story about itself ... Meticulous ... Figes attempts to answer this in his final chapter: how does the story of Russia end, and how far will its future continue to be shaped by its past? In the midst of the current uncertainty and turbulence, this is no easy task. What Figes does note – correctly in my view – is that Putin’s approach to history is somewhat 'pick-and-mix', a postmodern selection of what fits his current purpose, shape-shifting along with his policies to adapt to changed circumstances.