Informative and Readable

This is my review of Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East by Martin Sixsmith.

This is popular history at its best.

Selection of the key points from the past millennium of Russian history is made to seem deceptively simple. Sixsmith continually makes connections to bring characters and events alive. For instance, his description of Ivan the Terrible veering from "pestering" Elizabeth 1 with marriage proposals to raining insults on her following a trade dispute made me realise that their reigns overlapped.

Sixsmith consistently draws parallels between events, enabling us to see patterns. In the C9, the Slavs of Novgorod begged the Viking Rurik of Rus (hence the modern name for Russia) to rule over them, just as many Russians welcomed the strong line taken by Putin in 1999, as he rolled back the "liberalising" measures of the 1990s, arguing that a more autocratic "managed democracy" was necessary to maintain order in a vast country where liberal values lacked "deep historical traditions".

The author cites how, way back in 1015, after King Vladimir naively left his kingdom to be ruled equally by his twelve sons, two of them submitted to being murdered rather than risk a civil war by resisting their brother Svyatipolk's bid for power. This sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the group is likened to the action of Komarov, the veteran cosmonaut who set off on a Soyuz flight dogged by technical faults, which he did not expect to survive, because otherwise "they" would send Yuri Gargarin (the first Russian in space) instead of him.

Yet again, links are made between the chaos after the 1917 Revolution, and the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1917, there was the confused period of "dual power" when, both occupying the same building, the liberal "Provisional Government feared the raw strength of the Soviet Worker's Deputies, but the Soviet apparently feared the responsibility of governing", until the Bolsheviks "hijacked ..freedom and democracy" and imposed a centralised dictatorship even harsher than the one they had overthrown" . In 1991, having let the genie of pressure for democratic freedom out of the bottle, and survived an attempted right-wing coup, Gorbachev was pushed out of the presidency by the shrewder popular hero Yeltsin, although the latter's liberal reforms were doomed to fail.

This is the clearest explanation I have read of both the 1917 Revolution, and the chain of events of the last two decades, including such misjudgements as the valuation of state assets at only 9 billion dollars (150 million people receiving a 60 dollar voucher each which they of course sold off for short-term gain to a handful of oligarchs like Abramovitch) and the scandal of the "sale for loans" of the residual industries to Russian oligarchs.

Sixsmith seems quite hard on Lenin, and no doubt experts will find much of his analysis simplistic. However, I recommend this very readable and informative overview of a fascinating country – the kind of book I would retain as part of a permanent "personal library".

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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