The Rise of the Romanovs
Russia in World History, Selected Essays
Russia in the Era of Peter the Great
The Tsars: From Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II, 1533-1917
The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs
The Romanovs: Three Centuries of an Ill-Fated Dynasty
Years of the Golden Cockerel: The Last Romanov Tsars, 1814-1917
Nicholas and Alexandra
Nine books on Russian history: seven recent and originally written in English, two very old and translated from the Russian; yet the older are by far the more worthy of attention today. The books by the “populist” Kliuchevsky, whose views were formed during the 1870s, and the Marxist Pokrovsky, whose creative work appeared during the decade after the Revolution of 1905, still suggest the significant debate in Russian history.
That this is so is a reflection of the singular destiny of Russian historiography in the twentieth century; for all nine books serve to show how little has altered in the interpretation of Russian history since around 1914. This is not to say that no important historical work has been produced since that date: both in the Soviet Union and in the West, major new materials have been explored and important insights advanced. Still, all this industry has not produced any new general interpretation of Russia’s development to replace those of the classics of pre-Revolutionary historiography.
The main reasons for this sterility lie, of course, with the Revolution, or more exactly with Stalinism, which after the early 1930s shut off debate and imposed a rigid line on all historical writing. Nevertheless, not all the deficiencies of Russian historiography derive from 1917. Classical Russian historiography displayed, alongside great creative achievements, certain imbalances which would have affected its future shape even had the Revolution never happened. Indeed, Pokrovsky’s version of Marxism, and thus that of much Soviet historiography, was the product of pre-Revolutionary controversy.
Yet before examining the basic Russian works, we should look first at the recent Western-language by-products—if only to see how sterile things can get. Six of the English works under review treat some aspect of the Russian autocracy between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries; and one—Longworth’s Cossacks—discusses an only slightly less important subject, which moreover impinges on the autocracy, All, then, are concerned with central matters.
All, however, were intended as popularizations. All were written by non-Russians, working from published materials. None of these books claims to advance any new historical interpretations. Still, even granted their limited aims, these seven volumes—with two exceptions—are disappointing, far more dismal than would be found among historical works on other nations of comparable importance.
Most of these works reduce the history of what was, after all, the central political institution of Russia—the autocracy—to a chronicle of anecdotes which are presented primarily because they are either “tragic” or salacious or sanguinary, or in some way bizarre. Thus Mr. Hingley in The Tsars: “The history of the Russian autocracy further resembles the novels of Dostoevsky in providing a sequence of grandiose scandals (skandaly), as if the Ryurikids and Romanovs were a Karamazov family writ ever larger.” Even if we overlook the fact that “skandaly” means “scenes,” not “scandals,” we would still find it inadmissible to read that there is no more to either Dostoevsky or the Romanovs, even when considered on the lowest conceivable level, than a record of riotous brawling.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.