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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.

The cause of this eclipse was that, although the scenario of the “binding” of Russian society was plausible, the smooth logic of the “unbinding” turned out to be far less realistic. The Emancipation of the serfs in particular created at least as many dissatisfactions as it assuaged and after the 1860s Russian society was racked by almost permanent crisis. Accordingly, to much of the Westernized elite the state now appeared not as the driving force of civic progress, but as its chief enemy; and the educated minority turned to an almost obsessive preoccupation with the misery of the peasant masses.

The most obvious expression of this concern was the “Populist” revolutionary movement of the 1870s which, in what could be called a radical version of Slavophilism, held that Russia, because of her peasant communes, could skip over the “bourgeois” development of the West and pass directly from autocracy to socialism. But “populism” existed also as the broader, non-political belief that the simple and long-suffering Russian peasant was the bearer of the deepest national virtues. In this sense, Tolstoy, in creating the character of the peasant sage Platon Karataev, was a “populist,” as was the antirevolutionary Dostoevsky, who saw the peasant as the repository of religious truth. In music, Mussorgsky and The Five were “populist” in their cultivation of folk melody; and so too, in painting, were the Itinerants, with their didactically realistic scenes of popular life. In this broad sense, finally, Kliuchevsky was a “populist” in historiography.

The son of a village priest, who grew up close to the peasants, Kliuchevsky was a student during the 1860s and was moved by the drama and the disappointments of the Emancipation. Yet he was never a radical or a socialist and he had the most orthodox of careers: Soloviev’s ablest pupil, he became his successor in the most influential chair of Russian history, that of Moscow University. But the impact of his work, from his earliest publications of the 1870s, caused a revolution in historical perspective.

Kliuchevsky did not attack the statist school directly; instead, he quietly shifted the focus of Russian history from the state to the class basis of Russian society. To be sure, the focus of his analysis remained national, indeed supremely so. In his work Russia advanced, as if by manifest destiny, from Kiev, to the appanage principalities, to the tsardom of Muscovy, to the empire of Petersburg. What is more, the process of “binding” remained the central thread—yet with a major difference: it was no longer viewed from above, as the civilizing work of the state, but from below, as the economic and social subjugation of the peasants to the gentry. In this view the state became essentially the gentry’s coercive agent.

Thus Kliuchevsky’s five-volume Course of Russian History concentrates on the slow colonization of the inhospitable forest plain of Russia by the peasant ploughman; on the arduous round of his labors to create and sustain the nation; and above all on the detailed recording of his progressive enserfment, through poverty and indebtedness, to lord and tsar.

Kliuchevsky, obviously, was not a crude polemicist, yet his populist preferences are unmistakable in the very scrupulousness of the scholarly detail he brought to this picture; and they are equally clear in his partial portraits and his strange silences. Princes and autocrats appear in his pages only when they seem almost impossible to avoid, as in the case of the nation-builder Ivan III, or of Ivan IV and Peter I. Boyars and gentry are presented far more in their relation to the peasants than in their own social role. And the raison d’être of both tsar and lords—war and foreign relations—disappears from view for centuries on end: the 250-year “Tartar yoke” is barely mentioned, and for entire reigns thereafter Russia herself appears to lack any international concerns.

Kliuchevsky’s range and limitations are well conveyed in Liliana Archibald’s new translation of his volume on seventeenth-century Muscovy (a successor to her translation of his volume on Peter the Great some years ago). Here we have a significant improvement on the old, and immensely awkward, complete translation of the Course. This is no small matter, since Kliuchevsky was one of the masters of Russian prose, whose persuasiveness was a consequence almost as much of his artistry as of his arguments. The present work has his characteristically brief treatment of the autocracy, although there is one revealing exception: a warm portrait of the “quiet” tsar, Alexis Mikhailovich, the father of Peter I, in which Kliuchevsky’s populism merges obliquely with Slavophilism. For Alexis did not separate the peasants further from the elite, as his son did, by a cultural Westernization that accentuated class differences. What is far more interesting, however, this volume traces the decisive stages of the enserfment of the peasantry; and in these chapters Kliuchevsky’s approach attains its fullest powers.

Here it must be emphasized how great and valuable these powers were As of the time of Kliuchevsky’s debut, in the 1870s, economic and social history was an almost unknown discipline. The “school of Kliuchevsky” perhaps did more to launch it, not only in Russia but across Europe, than any other single movement, Marxism included (beyond Marx himself, there is little Marxist economic history until the 1890s, and even then at least as much in Russia—e.g., Tugan-Baranovsky—as in the West).

Nor is the precocity of this development in Russia any accident; it is part of the European pattern of reactions to “modernization.” In establishing economic history most credit no doubt belongs to the Germans: such figures as Lamprecht in the mid-century and, later, the Kathedersozialisten, notably Schmoeller, whose sensitivity to such matters may be construed as an expression of concern at the unsettling intrusion of industrialism into an archaic social order. But Kliuchevsky and the Russians, in a society even more unsettled by the tensions of modernization, set to work almost as early as the Germans did and with results at least as impressive.

First, in Russia itself. Kliuchevsky, despite his limitations, was after all right to hold that the peasants formed the foundation of Russian society and that without first understanding them one could understand nothing else in Russia: the poverty of the Russian agrarian economy governed all other aspects of national life. And the works of his numerous pupils until and beyond his death in 1911 did more to deepen Russian historical writing than has any school of investigation before or since. To cite only one example, there is no finer study, in any language, of the social history of a revolution than Platonov’s Time of Troubles. This has recently become available in English translation.*

Even more remarkable is the impact abroad of Kliuchevsky’s school. By the 1880s the Russians began to look to the West for new topics in agrarian history. Thus one young scholar, Paul Vinogradov, who became a professor at Oxford in 1903, soon after he emigrated from Russia, “discovered” the medieval English village, which had been overlooked by the British themselves in their overwhelming concern with the political origins of their constitution. Vinogradov, moreover, helped Maitland to achieve the ultimate sophistication of English medieval history by suggesting to him the idea for Domesday Book and Beyond.

Similarly, Kareev and Liuchitsky, breaking through the political and urban approach toward their Revolution on the part of the French, “discovered” the eighteenth-century peasant, thus preparing the way for George Lefebvre’s renovation of the historiography of 1789. Finally, in the early twentieth century, Rostovtseff virtually singlehandedly created ancient economic and social history and produced, himself, almost all its main early achievements. In this domain, at least, ex Oriente lux; and from social backwardness, intellectual progress!

In this honor roll of Kliuchevsky’s pupils Pokrovsky occupies a position apart from the others—and well beneath them, too. He must be set apart first for political reasons. From the Revolution until his death in 1932, he was the manager of Soviet academic affairs “on the historical front” and, until his condemnation by Stalin in 1934, his views were the official Party position in historiography. He ranks below the others for intellectual reasons, since his more scholarly, pre-Revolutionary work is perhaps the least successful adaptation of Marxism to Russian history that one could devise. Pokrovsky, indeed, can be seen as a classic case of the wrong man appearing at what might have been the right moment for the emergence of a major new historical perspective.

For by 1905 the dominance of populist historiography had become vulnerable to attack. The diversification of Russian society produced by the industrialization of the 1890s created, on the one hand, a new and militant constitutionalism, which was reflected in a revival of political and institutional history. The new liberals, however, unlike the old liberals of the state school, gave a negative interpretation of the autocracy as an “Oriental despotism” whose crushing power was founded on the weak economic base of Russian peasant society—the view notably of still another pupil of Kliuchevsky, Miliukov, some of whose work at least is available in English. On the other hand, the emergence of a proletariat led to the adoption of Marxism by a part of the Russian socialist movement. And Pokrovsky was the first professional historian to attempt to apply this new doctrine systematically to Russian history.

Yet Marxism, obviously, was not just a historical theory; it arrived in Russia primarily as a political challenge to the thesis of revolutionary Populism that Russia, with her peasant commune, could evolve differently from the West. Consequently Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, dogmatically insisted that contemporary Russia could attain socialism only by first repeating the European development from “feudal” autocracy to “bourgeois” capitalism (though with respect to the premodern period he accepted Miliukov’s thesis that Russia’s underdevelopment had led to “Oriental despotism”). The dogmatism of Plekhanov’s “Westernizing” scheme was re-enforced by the state of European Marxism at the time; for after Marx’s death in 1883, Engels, with his doctrinaire view of “dialectical materialism” as a universal, almost natural, science, had significantly scholasticized Marx’s more flexible approach, and the even more positivistic Kautsky scholasticized Marxism still further. It was this rigidified Marxism that was Pokrovsky’s theoretical point of departure.

For Pokrovsky as a historian, moreover, the first problem was to tear down the towering structure of Kliuchevsky’s work. This was no simple matter, since Kliuchevsky had already emphasized the economic base of Russia’s development. Yet Pokrovsky, never at a loss for a quick generalization, found a solution: to take what he called the “bourgeois economism” of Kliuchevsky and make it “dialectical” by rigorously tying it to the “class struggle” (whereas in Kliuchevsky’s treatment the Russian social process lacked revolutionary drive, since in any class conflict the peasants invariably lost). But the ambition to revise Kliuchevsky in the light of Engels and Plekhanov led Pokrovsky to undertake an intrinsically impossible task: to adapt Marxism literally to Russian history.

The task proved impossible for several reasons. First, in Marxist sociology it is the material “mode of production” which determines the “social relationships of production,” or the class structure, which in turn govern the political and juridical “superstructure.” Thus the driving force of history becomes the “class struggle,” which is generated by changes in the means of production and, consequently, in the relative strength of social groups. Yet it requires a prodigious imagination indeed to see in the glacier-slow movement of Russia’s productive forces, or in her virtually static lord-peasant class structure, the principal cause of the tempestuous social and political changes of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great.

This dilemma, secondly, was complicated by the Marxist scheme of history, which, in the scholastic mode of the day, became the focus of Pokrovsky’s analysis. According to this scheme different classes become dominant as history progresses from slaveholding society to feudalism to capitalism (and, ultimately, to socialism). Within each period a new class slowly gathers strength for the eventual revolutionary assertion of its own domination. In particular, after the sixteenth century, “commercial capitalism” emerges within “feudal” society, thus organically preparing the way for “industrial capitalism” and the bourgeoisie’s overt triumph after 1789.

Now this scheme, clearly, is a generalization based on the history of the most advanced, that is, Anglo-French part of Western Europe. Any effort to apply it elsewhere would require very significant modifications, as Marx himself had warned. (Indeed, he had recognized the probability of a modified historical scenario for Russia because of the peasant commune. This view was expressed in a now famous letter to Vera Zasulich which was suppressed at the time by Plekhanov, because it might give comfort to the Populist theory of Russia’s uniqueness.)

Pokrovsky, who was well versed in Western history, certainly knew that there were problems in applying the concepts of Marxism to Russia. Yet, faithful to the Plekhanovite orthodoxy of his time, he answered these problems by asserting that Russia essentially went through the same developments as the West, but did so later or at some lower stage. So he wound up foisting the whole set of Marxist categories on Russia, almost without adjustment for local conditions; rather, he sought to adjust Russian history to fit his categories. In particular, he expended immense ingenuity in order to get around the fact that in Russian history there were just too many centuries of “feudalism” and not enough of “capitalism” to account for the variety of social and political changes from Kiev to the nineteenth century.

Thus, he declared that “Monomakh’s cap” (the tsarist crown) was not the real power, but a mere cover for the hypothetical rule of “merchant capitalists” under Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great, moreover, was the tool of the same wily and ubiquitous clique—although any reader of Kliuchevsky knew that Peter had to bludgeon his burghers to invest so much as a kopeck in any new enterprise, and in fact had to supply them with serf workers to keep them in business. And when Pokrovsky came to the radical movement he resorted to the following jumble of class categories to explain a “gentry revolutionary” such as the Decembrist Pestel: “This petty bourgeois in a colonel’s uniform” was a Marxist “long before…Marx himself.”

For such “vulgar sociologism,” and even more for his imported notions of “merchant capitalism,” Pokrovsky was duly condemned in 1934—although the real reason, of course, was that his approach demeaned Russia’s national heroes, particularly Ivan and Peter, at a time when Stalin wished to brace the country for a possible “patriotic war.” Yet this condemnation scarcely improved the quality of Soviet historiography, for “vulgar sociologism” was simply replaced by “vulgar nationalism”; and the elimination of “merchant capitalism” left Russia with a thousand years of unadulterated “feudalism” and hence without any categories for explaining historical change between the founding of Kiev and the “capitalist” overthrow of serfdom in 1861. In effect, the Stalinist view of history is only a pruned version of Pokrovsky’s literal adaptation of Marxism.

It is no wonder, then, that Soviet “liberals,” in spite of their sympathy for any victim of Stalin, consider it a mixed blessing that Pokrovsky was partially rehabilitated, in 1965-67, on the initiative of his surviving pupils, through the republication of his principal works. The present translation of a selection of his essays gives a good idea of the reasons for their reticence; for from this succinct recapitulation of his main themes, his approach emerges most clearly as a kind of proletarian populism, a primitive master-slave “economism” that is a reductio ad absurdum of both Marx and Kliuchevsky.

This failure does not mean that a Marxist approach to Russian history cannot be fruitful or suggestive. But it does mean that any such approach must take serious account of the peculiarities of “backwardness.” And this, further, means adopting a comparative view, for the historical processes of any lagging nation are governed not only by its internal life, but also by the impact of other, more “advanced” societies. Indeed, as of 1905 in Russia, Marxism, by virtue of its transnational view, was an open invitation to develop a much-needed corrective to the parochial historical perspectives of Kliuchevsky no less than of the radical Populists.

In fact, other Marxists than Pokrovsky took up this challenge. The scenario of backwardness in which periods are telescoped and distorted is an essential part of Lenin’s theory of “imperialism” and of the thesis that the world capitalist “chain” would “snap at its weakest link.” Lenin’s theory also obliquely revived the radical Populist notion of “skipping” historical phases, but then Populism’s emphasis on “uniqueness” was, in effect, an early attempt to reflect on the consequences of Russia’s backwardness. A more elaborate scheme that takes a comparative view of the evolution of backward nations is basic to Trotsky’s “law of combined and uneven development” and his thesis of “permanent revolution”; indeed Trotsky, in the 1920s, vehemently criticized Pokrovsky for his literal-minded use of Marxism.

With a more gradualist emphasis, the Mensheviks made of Russia’s difference from Europe an important strain in their learned “Five Volume” analysis of Russian society in 1905. When they emigrated, the Mensheviks, in order to explain the paradox of a self-styled “Marxist” revolution in a society still half “feudal,” devised even more explicit concepts of backwardness, which have since passed into modern scholarship in general—via the work, for example, of Alexander Gerschenkron and Wassily Leontief. Indeed, the Russian drama of “building socialism” and of “five-year plans” is at the heart of our contemporary sensitivity to “backwardness,” “development,” “modernization,” “rates of economic growth,” and similar staples of the modern social sciences; and in this feedback of stimuli from Russia to the West we have an even more momentous repetition of Kliuchevsky’s earlier impact on European economic history.

All these Russian Marxist views of Russia’s backwardness, however, are either polemical or fragmentary; all, moreover, refer to the period of tension and explosion between 1861 and 1917 and so by no means provide a general theory of Russian history. But what would such a theory be for the long period of Russia’s evolution, before 1861 and after 1917, when popular tension was always successfully stifled by the state?

The question, indeed, contains its own answer: the primacy of political power in a situation of economic and social backwardness. When the productive capacity, or “infrastructure,” of society is weak, the political “superstructure” takes over and mobilizes all human and material resources by force—either this happens, or some outside power takes over the country instead. Indeed, such an explanation of the Russian state’s inordinate power was implicit in Kliuchevsky’s portrayal of the impoverished and victimized peasant mass; and this relationship was made explicit, for the pre-industrial period, by Miliukov and Plekhanov.

But this brings us full cycle, beyond Kliuchevsky and all his pupils, to his teacher, Soloviev, and to the neglected state school of historiography. As of Soloviev’s day, to be sure, no one had, or could have had, a clear conception of “backwardness”; instead, men debated over universal as opposed to national patterns of history, about “Westernism” versus “Slavophilism.” Yet with the easy wisdom of hindsight, we can discern that the state school, in fact, held that in peripheral, late-starting Russia it was the autocracy, with its universal “binding” of society for survival and “civilization,” which alone could accomplish what “civil society” had achieved through its own efforts in the more precocious West. And this intuition, especially if complemented by Kliuchevsky’s passive version of “economism,” seems basically true to history.

In Russia it was the state which, over the long haul, replaced Marx’s dynamic Anglo-French bourgeoisie, forcing society into a competitive “modernization” that society was unable to generate on its own. And the state did so in both agrarian and industrial conditions, and whether under a white or red tsar—though with absolutely crucial differences for “civilization” between one phase and the other, and with only an analogous, not an identical use of autocratic power.

Indeed, in a revival and refinement of this “statist” view we can find the first needed corrective to the prevalent and long stultified “economism” of traditional Russian historiography. And we can find the second corrective in a much more systematic use of the comparative approach to the development of related, yet differing, societies which the Russian experience first introduced into modern social thought. We have stood long enough on Soloviev’s and Kliuchevsky’s shoulders to attempt, at last, to see somewhat farther than they did.

Nor is such a task of purely Russian interest. For Russia’s experience, as the first nation to make it from the “third world” into the “second”—indeed as the pivotal case in this fashionable division of the planet—surely has relevance for still later developing societies. At the same time, as the example of Pokrovsky demonstrates, we must be wary of literally projecting the Russian experience elsewhere, even to nations organized after the Soviet model. For we will always encounter some unforeseen historical “uniqueness,” with the result that Russia can no more prefigure the precise future of the “third world” than did the “first world” of Europe prefigure the state of modern Russia.

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    Translated by John T. Alexander, University Press of Kansas, $6.50; $2.45 (paper).

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