The Story of Russia


The Story of Russia is a thorough work of historical writing that unfortunately leaves aside its most interesting ideas after the book’s introduction. Figes starts with a fascinating series of hypotheses: that Russia has been more divided over its past than any other country; that the Russians keep reinventing their identity and historical mission in the world, often tragically so; and that the myth or blatant lie that can shore up power is proclaimed, even celebrated, by the country’s rulers – Vladimir Putin very much included.

Figes is splendid at arguing that Russian stories about Russia are typically a means to an end: lies or wishful thinking to get its people to fight, or to resist outside influences. Words can be weapons (as in Putin’s weird verbal attacks on Ukraine’s supposed ‘Nazi’ elites), or justifications for aggression (for instance, the narrative that Kyiv is the birthplace of modern Russia, meaning that the current war could effect a kind of mystical reunification). In short, Russia’s rulers tell the ‘true’ stories; its enemies say whatever they can to subvert these.

However, The Story of Russia soon settles for a traditional historiography: chapters treat successive periods of history; the established sources for each period are treated at face value; and the focus throughout is on the voices of princes, tsars, generals, prime ministers, premiers, and statesmen. On the one hand, this makes for an undoubtedly sweeping and riveting narrative. Figes is superb at showing how Russia was forged and re-forged by competing claims to power, from the Turkic tribes invading to possess the southern grasslands in the middle of the first millennium, through to the Mongol invasion in the Middle Ages, Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and Hitler’s ill-fated attempt to subjugate the Soviet Union.

Figes makes a fundamental point: Russia’s geography has had much to do with its historical fate. The country ‘grew on the forest lands and steppes between Europe and Asia. There are no natural boundaries, neither seas nor mountain ranges, to define its territory, which throughout its history has been colonised by peoples from both continents. This is a country on one horizontal plane.’ This simple fact has led to Russia’s rich ethnic diversity and the frequently fierce disputes to which such diversity can give rise. Xenophobia is mainstream, even flamboyant in today’s Russia, as can easily be seen on its television channels and during debates in the State Duma.

Notable freshness

Moreover, some of the book’s best pages are on familiar stories, told with notable freshness. For example, Figes is good at explaining the reasons for Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Russia, focussing on the facts and motivations, without falling into the trap of over-mystifying or romanticising events: ‘Napoleon’s aim was straightforward – to force the Russians to honour their commitments to France in the Treaty of Tilsit (1807)… [Tsar] Alexander had agreed to join Napoleon’s Continental System, a Europe-wide embargo against British trade, but all along the Russians had been flouting it… Alexander could have backed down… but he chose to fight instead. He had for a long time been convinced that a showdown with Napoleon was unavoidable.’

Alexander I placed the greatest importance on the creation of a Europe based on constitutional monarchies, seeing this as the most enlightened way to ensure international legal order, which would also keep the Europeans well clear of Russia and its interests (an enduring Russian desire). Napoleon’s ruthless ambition was inimical to this, Alexander believed, and so he had to be defeated.

It remains fascinating that one of the best ways to defeat Napoleon was to not fight him. Alexander I abandoned Moscow, its population burning much of it, rather than engage the Grande Armée after the draw at Borodino (in September 1812). The French were shocked at not even being able to find the enemy on reaching Moscow, most of them having walked across Europe to get there. The subsequent catastrophic retreat during the Russian winter (just six per cent of the original army of over 600,000 survived) is grimly famous.

right Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow during the French occupation of the city, September 1812. Tsar Alexander I had abandoned the city rather than engage French forces there.
Napoleon watching the fire of Moscow during the French occupation of the city, September 1812. Tsar Alexander I had abandoned the city rather than engage French forces there. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

On the other hand, Figes’ top-down account of Russian history means that we miss the many voices from its battlefields, invaded towns and communes, inter-ethnic marriages and feuds, and the changing views of what it means to be Russian. There is a rich literature incorporating oral histories and eyewitness accounts of Russian history, including work tracing the survivors of the Leningrad siege (1941-1944) and the Russian revolutions of 1917. And today’s technologies mean it isn’t hard to find what Russian soldiers engaged in Ukraine think and feel about Putin’s war.

For example, there are long interviews with defeated Russian soldiers, freely accessible on YouTube, expressing disgust at the invasion of Ukraine, and the ex-paratrooper Pavel Filatyev recently published a 141-page account (entitled ‘ZOV’) of battle, remorse and anger on VK (Russia’s leading social-media network), which opens with the lines: ‘A month and a half has passed already since I returned from the war in Ukraine, yes, yes, I know that you can’t say the word “war”, it was banned, but still I will say exactly “war”, understand me correctly, I’m already 33 years old and all my life I have been telling only the truth, even to my own detriment…’ It is a shame that Figes has stayed remote from frontline voices, past and present, which could have led to a re-titling of his work to ‘the stories’, rather than ‘the story’ of Russia.

All in all, Figes delivers a compelling work of undoubted strengths, that posits but then ignores the intrinsic unreliability of any one story being ‘true’. And so, as so often in Russian history, one longs for more of the country’s voices to be heard.

The Story of Russia 
Orlando Figes
Bloomsbury, hbk (£25)
ISBN: 978-1526631749