Book Review: ‘The Story of Russia’ by Orlando Figes

Despite the rise of a meritocratic bureaucracy in the 17th century, and other developments manifested in the Westernizing reforms of Peter the Great, Russia never experienced its own version of European feudalism, or a Renaissance or Enlightenment. As Figes makes clear, the empire’s autocratic rule suppressed the kind of civil society that would be crucial for the development of modern European civilization.

Nevertheless, Peter’s critics accused him of diverting Russia from its Byzantine traditions in what became the country’s central cultural debate, symbolized by the opposition between the so-called Westernizers and Slavophiles in the 19th century. Later intellectuals “twisted earlier Slavophile ideas about Russia’s role as the protector of Christian principles against the materialism of the West to argue that the latter was an existential threat to it,” Figes writes. Sic transit Putin.

It is testament to the pervasiveness of Russian myths that Figes perpetuates some of them. They include his description of Ivan the Terrible, whose rule conventional histories divide between a dynamic first half and descent into madness following the death of his beloved first wife, Anastasia Romanova. That characterization almost certainly came from later mythologizing, partly to legitimize the establishment of the Romanov dynasty.

And 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.

Figes has previously courted controversy for allegedly embellishing interviews and for anonymously panning rivals’ works on Amazon. There are some mischaracterizations here; it was not so much President Boris Yeltsin’s constitutional reform that prompted a violent standoff with Parliament in 1993, for instance, as a power grab by the Soviet-era legislature (then called the Congress of People’s Deputies, not the later Duma, as Figes has it).

But the author’s glossing over the Westernizing 1990s is perhaps most disappointing. They are characterized as essentially doomed to failure, with little acknowledgment of the importance of a newly free press, democratization and fundamental transformation in governance, including how the center dealt with the country’s regions. Instead of czarist and Soviet administrative coercion, Moscow relied on monetary policy: the flow of appropriations to the provinces and ebb in the form of taxes. Such developments do not fit neatly into Figes’s narrative.