Post 47: Russia by Martin Sixsmith

A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East

According to Churchill’s famous quote, Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. After reading this book things are slightly clearer – at least in certain areas. Published in 2011, to accompany a BBC Radio 4 show, this book is perhaps slightly out of date now with Medvedev being sidelined again and things in Ukraine having sparked off, but the theme of the book remains applicable (if anything it is only supported by more recent events).

Martin Sixsmith is perhaps most famous at the moment for his film and book Philomena, but he started out as a BBC’s foreign correspondent in Moscow. He then had a stint in the civil service, ending in the controversial Jo Moore email scandal. Following this, he began a career as a novelist and starting to write and broadcast on Russia again, using in experience and expertise. This experience gives him a great perspective on Russia (both past, present and future) and he uses this to great advantage in the book. It largely focuses on the twentieth century and is far from taking a neutral stance on the politics of the country. However, this slant is presented in a open and accessible style (even if the material is often fairly grim) and shouldn’t put anyone off.

CoverThis slant is perhaps better described as a hypothesis, a proposed explanation for the path that Russian history has taken. Sixsmith suggests that Russia is a place torn between the democratic European governmental styles of the West and the autocratic styles of the East. This is overshadowed by a fear of any kind of inferiority or weakness that keeps the desire for full democracy from ever coming to fruition – a fear that if Russia lets its guard down, its neighbours will strike. With the evidence as presented, this is a fascinating and convincing idea that runs right the way through Russia history. Though, of course, the material in the book has been selected to back up this argument and I’m sure (as with anything) things are more complicated in practice.

I’m young enough that I have no memories of the Berlin Wall, never mind the likes of Khrushchev or Brezhnev, so the material on the late twentieth century was very interesting for me. For people who are older or better read on the subject, there is a very internal focus to the writing that may give some of the Politburo gossip or infighting that they may have missed. Further back, the revolutionary period (basically from the mid-nineteenth century until Stalin finally had a firm grip on power in the twenties) is described with plenty of information on the alternatives to communism and the Bolsheviks. The Soviet state as it turned out was not inevitable, there were plenty of (relative) moderates who just misplayed their hand or ran into a bit of bad luck. But at the same time, the patterns of behaviour that led the Russians (both the rulers and the people) to swerve away from the middle ground had been seen time and time again.

Going back to the medieval period, Sixsmith skims through a thousand years or so of history picking out a few bits and pieces. Writing a full and coherent history of this era would be a different and much longer book. The Kievan Rus started out as a large number of tribes in what is now Ukraine and western Russia. In the late 9th century these tribes joined together to form a loosely held state, centred at Kiev. Later this started to decline as a number of regional principalities gained more and more power – surprisingly for the time these could actually be very democratic (Novgorod in particular). All that was to change however as the Mongols brought in a more autocratic form of control and, finally as the “Tatar yoke” was thrown off, the Grand Duchy of Moscow swept up these little states into what would become the Russian Tsardom.

The are perhaps three rulers of this Tsardom that really stand out. Ivan the Terrible and his paranoid and brutal rule would typify Russian autocracy and become a role model for Stalin. On the other hand, he did much to reform the Russian state and create a true super power that could expand and dominate the region. Peter the Great would superficially lead a cultural revolution that modernized Russian society, bringing in new developments from the Enlightenment. He would however remain the only man that really matter in the state, and many of the old autocratic ways remained. Catherine the Great started as a German consort to the emperor, before overthrowing him and taking power herself. With her western background, and a friendly letter writing relationship with Voltaire, she was in a great position to become enlightened and move Russia on from its traditional rut. But eventually she backtracked, afraid of the revolutions springing up in France, and join the long list of reactionary Russian rulers. Her successors would go further, removing many of her reforms and remaining stubbornly against change – paving the way for the eventual revolution.

And on to today … the moves that Russia made towards democracy and capitalism in the fall of the Soviet Union were flawed. Gorbachev was perhaps too much of a party man to keep his controlled momentum, and Yeltsin was unprepared for the scale of the task and panicked into letting the oligarchs take control. The backlash and fear of this chaos has led to Vladimir Putin taking a more and more autocratic line. Even compared to the earlier stages of the book, the last few chapters make for depressing reading – Russia has slipped back into its old ways and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon. (I apologize for that gross simplification of Russian politics … as I said earlier, things are rarely quite as simple as this but the narrative fits).


To summarize, Sixsmith knows his Russian history well and guides the reader expertly through over a millennia of it (or at least, those parts of it that relate to the struggle between the opposing political systems of democracy and autocracy). I have barely scratched the surface of the book in this post, but at times it seems like Sixsmith barely scratches the surface of Russia as well. The grand sweep of politics is brilliant, but the details of culture, technology, religion and general life in the country are not his focus. I’d be interested to read more on them, but I’m actually okay with the relatively narrow scope. Russia and its history are epic in scale and sometimes you need to take one piece at a time to make it palatable and break you in gently. I’d definitely recommend this book, and I think I’m now on the look out for more Russian reading!

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