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A History of Russia (1984)

by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky

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One of my undergraduate history texts for the history of Russia. Still useful for me although a bit dated now for a specialist.

It has a good summary of the Decembrists (pp. 355-57, 359).

Alexander II inherited a country where serfdom was not economically viable. With the emergence of capitalism, many landlords could financially afford the expense of their serfs and the class declined to 44% of the population. Nonetheless, the number of revolts rose. Russian land transferred to communes of serfs in exchange for 49 years of payments. Reform in a sense came with a modernization along the lines of the French legal system. The revolutionary movement grew by the 1870's. A terrorist organisation emerged that believed that given Russia's centralized government a few assassinations could possibly bring down the regime, leading the masses. Alexander II was killed and he did not prevent the build up and unification of Germany which presented a Western threat, and is viewed as a major diplomatic error.

The last two czars were reactionaries and relied on a elite gentry in decline. Both promoted Russification and agitated against Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. The finance minister, Count Sergei Yulyevich Witte (Russian: Серге́й Ю́льевич Ви́тте, Sergey Yul'evich Vitte) (29 June [O.S. 17 June] 1849 – 13 March [O.S. 28 February] 1915), also known as Sergius Witte, was a highly influential policy-maker who presided over extensive industrialization within the Russian Empire. He was also the author of the October Manifesto of 1905, a precursor to Russia's first constitution. Witte promoted a strong currency and investment in heavy industry and infrastructure, including the Transsiberian Railway. Capitalism was on the rise and Russia witnessed rapid industrialization, leading to a bourgeoisie, a middle class and a proletariat. Given that industry was concentrated in some 6 areas, so was the proletariat (being some 2% of the population in 1914).

The defeat against Japan in 1905 was followed by the revolution of that same year anticipating both the rise of Bolshevism and the eventual success of Marxism-Leninism. .
  gmicksmith | Feb 28, 2013 |
A history of Russia in 600 pages

It is easy to understand why this book has long been the standard course book in American undergraduate classes on the subject. Mr. Riasanovsky's gives a concise but thorough traditional overview of Russia in a chronological order, with separate chapters per timeframe focussing on institutions, policy, religion, economics and culture. The core text covers some 600 pages, which is not a lot given the author’s goal. Consequently, the book lacks a bit in anecdotal quality, something Russian history offers in great abundance. The book also contains many pages with suggestions for further study in the English language, but no footnotes. The fifth edition I read stops at the evaporation of the Soviet Union. Finished in 1992, it does not benefit from later access to Soviet files or other newer research. Some of the author's judgements are a bit mild-mannered; the book's concise character may be blamed partially for this. Still it is a great reference book, to be used together with other more specific sources.

Mr. Riasanovsky originates Russian history on the Black Sea and the fertile steppe beyond. On these wide expanses on the border of Greece, Rome and Byzantium a Graeco-Iranian culture developed. The limited number of natural borders (like mountains) meant that Russia quickly became a large country.

As a consequence of its conversion to the Christianity of Byzantium in or around 988, Kievan Russia opted to become the eastern outpost of European civilisation. At the time they could also have chosen for Islam or the Judaism of the Khazars. Later the choice for Orthodox Christianity would keep them out of the developments in the Catholic church. Their conversion gave them access to Byzantine culture, which included an ideological basis for its state. Kievan Russia was very much interested in trade, at first using fur as currency. Trade was useful given its geography, which consisted of steppe and forest lands, creating a natural environment for exchange. The many invasions from the southern steppe frontier contributed highly to the militarisation of Russia.

Kiev developed a system of appanage with the land divided among the sons of noblemen. This weakened central control during the invasion of the Mongols. For two centuries the Russians had to pay tribute to the khans. The period was a grim struggle for survival with ethical and cultural standards in rapid decline and it isolated Russia from developments to its west. The Mongols remained nomads and later converted to Islam. Unlike elsewhere the Mongols never established a dynasty in Russia and their influence on Russia's development was very limited.

When Moscow emerged it looked at Byzantium. Novgorod's orientation on the west, with curtailed powers of its princes and a strong orientation on trade, was also eclipsed by the rise of Moscow. Moscow rose after defeating the Mongols in 1380 on a battlefield chosen to reduce the effectiveness of cavalry forces. Before that time the rulers of Moscow were already busy including more and more appanages in their realm. In 1452 a Mongol prince accepted Russian suzerainty.

The fall of Byzantium to the Ottomans in 1453 further isolated Russia, but did not stop it increasing the land under the control of the sovereign of Moscow. The marriage in 1472 of Ivan III to Sophia Paleologue, the niece of the last emperor of Byzantium, was doctored by the Vatican, but raised the status of the Muscovite ruler: Moscow became the Third Rome. Foreigners were invited to Russia and Moscow got a foreign settlement. The rise of Moscow meant a victory for a north-eastern political system, which knew, as in the Kievan era, slaves and serfs. Serfdom was incomplete, but grew in a variety of forms. Serfdom had originated in debt but the many disasters, droughts and epidemics would lead to a situation where a serf could leave his master only once a year if his debts had been paid (p.185). Serfdom spread in areas where safety required gentry officers: in such areas land with peasants were given to the gentry.

Ivan the Terrible, the first Muscovite ruler crowned as tsar, ended the appanage period and established an absolutist monarchy. Ivan demanded military service and conquered multiple khanates. Ivan's reign became terrible in the second part of his reign with many perishing. His psychological problems had strongly increased after the death of his first wife. The expansion of Ivan and his successors led to standardisation and a diminished role for the periphery, an increasing role for the gentry and overtaxing of farmers. Many tried to escape (among them the Cossacks) and legal measures were taken to stop this. The cossack Ivan Moskvitianin reached the Pacific through Siberia in 1639. The annexation of Siberia was a highly profitable undertaking. Furs were the main attraction of Siberia. They were extremely important for Muscovite finance and international trade. Foreign visitors were impressed by the heavy drinking, elaborate court rituals and extreme centralisation of the Muscovite court. In a great many ways it lagged behind the west as it experienced no Renaissance or Reformation and took no part in the scientific or technological advances of the early modern period. Still, foreign ideas made some inroads with thousands of foreigners living in the realm. It paved the way for Peter the Great.

Peter marked the change from an unconscious to a conscious following of Russia’s historical path. The days of the meritocratic tsar were marked by rapid modernisation/Westernisation and the Great Northern War against Sweden and its allies. Peter secured access to the Baltic Sea and a window on Europe. He subsequently became the first tsar with the title of emperor. He did not forget the East, assigning young men to learn Turkish, Tartar, Persian and Japanese and sending missions to Mongolia and China. Tentatively, Peter's measures were mostly ad hoc. His reign consisted of almost permanent war and an inadequate financial system and the population of Russia may have declined during his rule. His modernisations, which were often adaptations of Western examples to Russian needs, fell short of Peter's "stupendous goal". Peter borrowed his model of enlightened despotism from Sweden with a high regard for the law. This did not stop him from giving many special assignments to (military) men, a practice continued long after his death. In the enormous expanses of rural Russia personal and largely arbitrary rule, as well as bribery and corruption, remained the norm. His reforms lacked integration, coordination and cohesion. In 1724 the state exacted 5.5 times the taxes of 1680. Foreign trade rose fourfold, with many new industries founded by the mercantilist emperor.

The spirit of change diminished after Peter's death, but serfdom became uglier, resulting in more flight and uprisings. The empresses Anne and Elizabeth gave away many state lands to the gentry, turning the peasants into serfs. Both implemented many other changes serving the existing gentry (p.249). The gentry no longer had to serve the state.

Catherine the Great came to power by a coup d'etat against her Romanov husband and remained empress after her husband was murdered in detention. The supreme egoist Catherine had a constant urge to excel and considered it her mission to civilise Russia (p.264). Inspired by Montesquieu and Beccaria, she spent 18 months on rationalising and modernising Russian law and life. Serfdom remained untouched in the proposals. The Legislative Commission was later disbanded; it had mainly served Catherine to learn about the country. Serfdom was extended under Catherine and she had to resort to costly immigration to populate other areas, e.g. by “Volga Germans”. Had Peter solved the Swedish problem, Catherine solved the Polish (by partitioning the country where her former lover was king) and the Turkish problems (by conquering the Krim). The partitioning of Poland brought towns with a relatively more developed economy into the realm.

Her successor Paul was the first ruler who tried to rule in serfdom. During Alexander's reign nothing was done about this issue. His victory over Napoleon led to a conservative alliance with other crowned heads of state. His unexpected death lead to the Decembrist Rebellion of mostly well willing young nobility: Russian liberalism at the time resembled Spain's rather than Britain's or France's. His successor Nicholas I was very defensively oriented. He feared both a popular rebellion and an uprising of the gentry. 1848 turned him into a complete reactionary. Economically Russia grew, although the gentry was largely unprepared for competition. A large percentage of serfs were held in mortgage by the central government. Illiterate, unskilled and uninterested, the serfs were poor producers. Russia developed some manufacturing industries, but found no demand in the West, exporting them instead to Turkey, Central Asia, Mongolia, and China. The middle class grew in percentage of the population.

Alexander II inherited a country where serfdom served the economic needs less and less. With the growth of the money economy and competition, many landlords could barely feed their serfs. Their number declined to 44% of the population. Still the number of uprisings rose. On the eve of its abolishment nobody supported serfdom anymore. In most of Russia land was transferred to communes of serfs in exchange for 49 years of payments. Misery in the countryside remained a threat to the regime. A modernisation of the legal regime in the French mould did not make Russia less rebellious. The revolutionary movement became prominent in the 1870's. A terrorist organisation emerged that believed that given Russia's centralised character a few assassinations could damage the regime tremendously and instruct educated society and the masses. They killed Alexander. Alexander’s lacking interference in the German unification process is seen as a major diplomatic error.

Alexander's two successors, the last tsars, were convinced reactionaries who instituted counter-reforms and relied on a gentry in decline. Both started Russification policies across the realm and promoted Orthodox Christianity at the expense of other religions, including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism. This created problems where they had not been before, e.g. in Finland. At the same time finance minister Witte promoted a strong currency and investment in heavy industry and infrastructure, including the Transsiberian Railway. Capitalism was on the rise and Russia witnessed rapid industrialisation, leading to a bourgeoisie, a middle class and a proletariat. Given that industry was concentrated in some 6 areas, so was the proletariat (being some 2% of the population in 1914). The defeat against Japan in 1905 was followed by the revolution of that same year.

Russia stumbled into the Great War and was defeated numerous times. Against advice, the emperor personally took command of his forces leaving the capital to his wife and Rasputin. Russia experienced greater losses than other nations, rampant inflation and food and fuel shortages. "The imperial regime died with hardly a whimper" in March 1917. With Nicholas at the front, authority collapsed after riots started in St. Petersburg. He abdicated when the Duma took charge. At the time a parallel Soviet emerged in the capital, assured of the loyalty of the local garrison. The Provisional Government was liberal, but unable to solve problems. In September the Bolsheviks obtained the upper hand in the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow and Lenin returned from Helsinki. On the 7th of November they arrested the Provisional Government in the Winter Palace.

It is frequently impossible to draw the line between communist and noncommunist causes of Soviet behaviour. Lenin's thought was based on an elite of professional revolutionaries, because without them workers would not understand their situation sufficiently and would not get beyond trade unionism. Only the party can really see the light.

The Bolsheviks spread their authority from first Petrograd to Moscow and then to other towns. Lenin had his troops disperse the Constituent Assembly. He also accepted a humiliating peace with Germany. German defeat later allowed him to reclaim the Ukraine. In December 1917 Dzerzhinsky's dreaded political police was founded. The civil war that started in the summer first seemed to crush the Bolshivists, but failed by the end of 1920. With their central position and better military supplies the Bolshevists got the upper hand. This despite half-hearted allied forces (e.g. the Japanese occupied much of Siberia east of Lake Baikal, but later retreated). From the Revolution to the famines of 1920 and 1921, some 20 million people lost their lives. After Lenin's death, Stalin's line to build socialism within the Soviet Union won.

Under Stalin's rule, the Soviet Union would grow from the fifth country in production to the second (p.494). The development of the economy was financed by surpluses from keeping wages down. It also meant the start of a vast transformation of the lives of Russians. The development of heavy industry would remain a feature from the first plan onwards. Stalin effectively purged the old Bolshevik guard during the Great Terror. This included Lenin's Politburo with the exception of Stalin and the exiled Trotsky. Hitler's Blitzkrieg caught Stalin by surprise. "Seldom did a country and a regime both so poorly and so well in the same conflict." The Russians were smashed as badly as the French, "but had more territory to retreat to and more men in reserve". Many Soviet citizens greeted invaders as liberators. Kolkhozes simply collapsed, the farmers dividing the land and farming it in private (p.529). Stalin and his regime prevailed over extreme adversity (p.526) and enjoyed a position of far greater importance after the war. They also enforced importation of Soviet goods on Eastern Europe and the German Soviet zone. "Political imports" were worth some 20 billion dollars. Agricultural production remained insufficient.

Krushchev's "retirement" led to a repeal of some of his sweeping organisational reforms in a business-like manner. It opted for "economic development without its consequences" (p.544). Living standards rose markedly under Brezhnev, particularly for the party and government elite. When the economic situation became more difficult, the regime attempted palliatives rather than fundamental reform.

Lenin remained the lode star of Gorbachev's course. His worst miscalculation may have been his belief that glasnost would strengthen communism. It created many opinions and interest groups and led to the rise of nationalisms and the break-up of the Soviet Union. The Baltic countries led the way, where many ethnic Russians must have joined the vote for independence. Elections brought Yeltsin to power in Russia. Yeltsin soon left the Communist Party. Gorbachev's decision not to intervene militarily against the satellite states sealed the faith of their governments. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union evaporated. ( )
1 vote mercure | May 8, 2012 |
This book was a very fair and comprehensive introduction to the history of Russia from its earliest origins through to today. The authors did a very good job of remaining impartial even when approaching highly controversial subjects, such as the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine; they were nearly always careful to provide both (or more) perspectives on such contentious issues. I also especially appreciated the authors' explanations of Russian culture in the various periods and their references to specific pieces of art, poetry, literature, etc. This was very helpful in following the developments of Russian thought and society and in conducting additional research. Happily, it also exposed me to several excellent composers and writers with whom I was previously unfamiliar.

Though their treatment of the Soviet Union was a decent introduction to the topic, I would have liked to have seen a more thorough treatment of the matter, especially one that gave a better “on the ground” perspective. In previous and later chapters of the book, the authors seem to take pains to provide us with a picture of the way the average Russian lived during a given period of Russian history, but their treatment of the average Russian under the Communists is insufficient and incomplete. I would also like to have seen the sections covering the life of the Russian Orthodox Church expanded, though this might reflect my own interests more than any insufficiency on the part of the authors. Overall, I can say that I recommend this book as a worthwhile starting place for anyone interested in learning more about the history of Russia. After reading this book and digesting the overview it provides, one can then dig a bit deeper into the more thorough treatments of more specific topics, a great deal of which they authors list in their extensive bibliography. ( )
  davidpwithun | Mar 5, 2012 |
This is a standard, and it was my, undergraduate book in the history of Russia.

It has a good summary of the Decembrists (pp. 355-57, 359).
  gmicksmith | Apr 27, 2009 |
Tra le storie dei Paesi appartenenti al mosaico europeo, quella russa è la più anomala in un contesto che vede l’Europa come un insieme organico di destini nazionali.
Nelle prime fasi di vita della Russia come entità autonoma, il rapporto con l’Europa fu spesso ridotto a uno scontro tra diverse confessioni religiose. Invece per la Russia imperiale fu un problema politico e filosofico, sempre centrale sin dal XVIII secolo, quando Pietro il Grande diede avvio a trasformazioni rivoluzionarie.
Momento traumatico – per la storia europea tutta – fu la rivoluzione del 1917, che rappresentò anche uno stimolo per una nuova riflessione sul destino russo, in senso nazionale e metanazionale: la Russia diventava Unione Sovietica – quella di Lenin, Stalin, Chruscëv e infine di Breznev –, vale a dire il punto di riferimento per tutti i movimenti comunisti. Oggi la Russia contemporanea, da Gorbacëv a Putin, deve confrontarsi con una difficile congiuntura economica; ma nello stesso tempo, in questa fase di rimescolamento degli scenari mondiali, anche la Russia si sta ritagliando un ruolo nuovo. ( )
  MareMagnum | Mar 18, 2006 |
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The Russian Empire, and later the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics, represented a land mass of over eight and one-half million square miles, an area larger than the entire North America continent.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0195153944, Paperback)

Now completely revised in this seventh edition, A History of Russia covers the entire span of the country's history, from ancient times to the postcommunist present. Featuring a new coauthor, Mark Steinberg, this edition offers extensively updated material based on the most current research, including documents from recently opened archives. Keeping with the hallmark of the text, Riasanovsky and Steinberg examine all aspects of Russia's history--political, international, military, economic, social, and cultural--with a commitment to objectivity, fairness, and balance. This seventh edition contains a wealth of new images and a fully revised bibliography and reading list. Two new chapters on politics, society, and culture since 1991 explore Russia's complex experience after communism and discuss its chances of becoming a more stable and prosperous country in the future.
Widely acclaimed as the best one-volume history available, A History of Russia is being offered in paperback for the first time. In addition to the one-volume version, it is now also available in two separate volumes--Volume I covers early Russia through the nineteenth century and Volume II ranges from 1855 to the present. Volume II also features an additional introductory chapter that links Russia's modern history to the events that preceded it.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:43 -0400)

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Fully revised with a new co-author, this standard history of Russia is now available in paperback, and as either a combined volume or in two separate volumes. Volume one covers up to 1855 and volume two covers from 1855.

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