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Backward History in a Backward Country

The Rise of the Romanovs

by Vasili Kliuchevsky, translated by Liliana Archibald
St. Martin’s Press, 371 pp., $12.50

Russia in World History, Selected Essays

by M.N. Pokrovsky, translated by Roman Szporluk, translated by Mary Ann Szporluk
University of Michigan Press, 241 pp., $7.95

Russia in the Era of Peter the Great

by L. Jay Oliva
Prentice-Hall, 184 pp., $2.45 (paper)

The Tsars: From Ivan the Terrible to Nicholas II, 1533-1917

by Ronald Hingley
Macmillan, 320 pp., $10.95

The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs

by John Bergamini
Putnam’s, 512 pp., $10.00

The Romanovs: Three Centuries of an Ill-Fated Dynasty

by E.M. Almedingen
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 333 pp., $5.95

Years of the Golden Cockerel: The Last Romanov Tsars, 1814-1917

by Sidney Harcave
Macmillan, 515 pp., $12.50

The Cossacks

by Philip Longworth
Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 409 pp., $8.95

Nicholas and Alexandra

by Robert K. Massie
Dell, 601 pp., $1.25 (paper)

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.

It is true that the Russian monarchy of, say, Ivan the Terrible or Catherine the Great was wilder than that of other countries: more murder, more lechery, more insanity, more out-landish tyranny; and these subjects indeed make piquant reading. Still, such melodrama is hardly worth the lavish attention of so many new books. Moreover, the melodrama is only on the surface—and can largely be explained by the principle that “power corrupts.” The real question is the extraordinary persistence and the power of the Russian autocracy as a political institution. Yet the books by Hingley and Almedingen never get beyond the anecdotal surface at all; those of Bergamini, Longworth, and especially Harcave move appreciably closer to the political substance of their topic, but do so in textbookish fashion—and on subjects for which there exist better textbooks.

There remain, however, two exceptions. Robert Massie’s popular Nicholas and Alexandra, “the story of the love that ended an empire,” is little more than court melodrama; yet it is superb court melodrama, a work of style and pathos, and not without a genuine sense of politics where this is required.

Less colorful, but more important, is L. Jay Oliva’s Russia in the Era of Peter the Great. Intended as no more than an introductory survey, it nevertheless has the refreshing merit of posing a serious historical problem: the relationship of the autocracy at the time of Peter both to its Muscovite antecedents and to the contemporary West. Now the answer—that Peter’s reforms were essentially a Russian variant of a general European phenomenon of state building during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—may hardly appear startling when stated in this bald way; yet it is, in fact, a new approach precisely because it treats Russian history by making systematic comparisons with that of the West.

For this reason, Oliva’s work is a minor model of how Russian history should be written by Westerners working outside the native tradition. For the creative task of the foreigner, cut off as he largely is from archival sources, must be to take the existing corpus of historical work in Russian and to rethink it precisely from an outsider’s perspective—that is, in relation to European developments and by using concepts, such as “backwardness” and “modernization,” elaborated since Russian historical writing became rigid and sterile. This enterprise is all the more imperative in view of the conventional nationalism and parochialism of Russian historiography before 1917, a parochialism still reflected in most popular treatments of Russian history.

It is not accidental, moreover, that such books come to grief on the subject of the autocracy. For the autocracy, or more generally the state, is the single most neglected, or defectively treated, subject in Russian history; this is so especially for the period of Russia’s national maturity, after Peter the Great. Yet neglect of the state as a subject has also had its compensations: an intensive concentration on the Russian “people” which has helped to produce the most positive characteristic of classical Russian historiography, its unusually precocious development of economic and social history.

These qualities, however, raise the question of the general character of Russian historiography under the old regime. And this character, in turn, can be adequately understood only if we take account of the relation of history to politics. This is not to claim, as Pokrovsky rashly did, that history is “politics projected into the past.” Rather, it is to assert merely a truism: that all historical writing, however scrupulous and scholarly, is to some degree guided by a concern to penetrate more deeply the problems of the present through exploring their roots in the past; and that any such effort is, by nature, evaluative and hence polemical, and in this measure “political.”

In this broad perspective, then, the heritage of Kliuchevsky and his one-time pupil Pokrovsky can be understood only if we go back beyond both men to Kliuchevsky’s teacher, Soloviev, and to the brilliant yet short-lived “state” or “juridical” school of history which he represented. The “state school,” moreover, must itself be viewed as an outgrowth of the stand of the Westernizers in their celebrated controversy with the Slavophiles during the 1840s and 1850s—both camps in fact representing political positions that were expressed obliquely in “historiosophical” terms because open politics were illegal in pre-Reform Russia.

The Slavophiles may be called conservative liberals. They advocated emancipation of the peasants and greater freedom for society, but rejected the idea of a formal, Western-style constitution, since they feared that this would lead to class dissension and upheaval as had happened in 1789 or 1848 in Europe. They argued, therefore, that Russia’s historical processes were intrinsically different from those of the West: her development ran from the familial “clan” of early Kiev to such fraternal or patriarchal institutions as the peasant commune and the “fatherly” autocracy of Alexis Mikhailovich in the seventeenth century. These “organic” and “consensual” (soborny) institutions were so intrinsic to the nation that not even the “alien,” “rationalistic” reforms of Peter I could stifle them. Thus, for the Slavophiles, Russia’s impending reform was seen as a return to the primal innocence of peasant, communal, and Orthodox Muscovy.

To the Westernizers these views were a retrograde, romantic delusion. These classical political liberals wished Russia to evolve into a Rechtstaat monarchy and, ultimately, into a constitutional order on the European model. Hence they saw the rationalizing and centralizing state as the driving force of national development. In their view, then, Peter was the culmination of Russia’s previous history and the harbinger of her further integration into universal, Western civilization.

To elaborate this view “scientifically,” Soloviev took as his point of departure Hegel’s historicism and his theory of law. He held that only a strong state, in a process of struggle against both natural and social challenges, could create a civilized order and hence, in time, that ingrained sense of legality which alone can lead to liberty. Yet Soloviev adapted this rather Prussian view of progress with great originality to the precise conditions of Russia’s past.

According to Soloviev the story of Russia’s development did indeed begin in the ninth century with the Kievan “clan” or extended family, as the Slavophiles claimed, but this social form proved too weak to overcome both internal disorder and the external pressure from the steppe nomads. So as the conflict between “forest and steppe” unfolded, the clan gave way to the “appanage” principality, and the principality to the Muscovite state, until Peter at last made Russia the equal in national cohesion and power to any other society in Europe.

This progress was achieved at a great price, however: the “binding,” or enserfment, into compulsory state service of all classes, from peasants to gentry. Yet such servitude was worth the cost, for only on these terms could Russians have achieved nationhood and a true “civil society.” Thus, once Peter had accomplished the full “binding” of the population, the principles of rational legal order and of Western enlightenment, which he had also introduced, could begin to bear fruit in a higher national culture and, eventually, in the progressive “unbinding” of the social orders: first the gentry, freed from obligatory service in 1762, then the burghers, “incorporated” as an estate in 1785. It followed inescapably that this process had to end in the emancipation of the peasants—which in fact occurred, under Alexander II, in 1861 while Soloviev was writing—and in the introduction of Western judicial forms and of local self-government (zemstvos) in 1864.

This view of the state in Russian history is clearly both hardheaded and optimistic. Just as clearly, it is a discreet apologia for the Great Reforms of Alexander II and for the principle of gradual change from above. Yet this is not to say that the historians of the “state school” were mere apologists. For in Soloviev’s twenty-nine volumes the process of “binding” and “unbinding” unfolds with majesty and immense scholarship. His work remains, perhaps, the most impressive single achievement of Russian historiography. Yet even before Soloviev died in 1879, his influence had ceased: his school produced virtually no intellectual progeny, and the state and all its works abruptly “withered away” from the center of Russian historiography, if not from Russian life.

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