Although I count myself as more of a tourist than a traveller these days, I do like to know something about the countries that I plan to visit, more than I can get from the usual DK Guides. And so because I’d come across Robert Cole’s excellent and very readable Traveller’s History of Paris, I got hold of a copy of A Traveller’s History of Russia, by Peter Neville in the same series. But it was a bit of a disappointment.
Of course, it’s much easier to write about a tourist-friendly place like Paris than it is to write about a vast and complex place that has been hostile to western visitors for most of the twentieth century. In fact, you have to admire any academic or author taking on the Russians as a field to specialise in, because until glasnost the country was difficult to visit without restrictions, and it was obstructionist to anyone trying to find out what was going on. Washington and Paris may have had their occasional peevish moments, but they pale into insignificance compared to the intense hostility between the USSR and the West for most of the past century, when the Cold War threatened the world with nuclear annihilation on more than one occasion. I think that these factors must surely influence the writing of a book like this one.
From the 1917 Revolution until the fall of communism, Russia was ideologically opposed to the West, and the feeling was mutual. But even today there are clashes over spheres of influence as we can see with the unholy alliance of China and Russia over Syria. Russia still seems to be obsessively secretive about its 20th century history because (at the time of writing of this 5th edition in 2006) the country had yet to open its archives, which must have made it tricky for Neville to write about some of its leaders and the politics behind their activities. And as I know from my own bumbling efforts, the Russian language with its idiosyncratic cyrillic alphabet is also a whole lot harder to learn than any of the Romance languages, which makes genuine research even more difficult.
I suspect that accounts for Neville’s occasional churlishness, as for example, when discussing educational policy in the post-war period, he makes no mention of the great progress that must have been made in literacy rates when in 1956 Khrushchev committed the party to providing ten years of education for every child. It was a huge ambition, considering that universal primary education began in most Western nations in the late 19th century but Russia had an illiterate peasantry well into the 20th century. Nor, when Neville snipes about the backward Soviet economy and the barren architecture of Russian postwar cities, does he acknowledge the scorched-earth policy of the retreating Germans in WW2 – so graphically depicted in John Steinbeck’s A Russian Journal. Whatever political system is in place, when every factory and piece of farm equipment has been spitefully destroyed, postwar reconstruction would be a logistical challenge of enormous proportions, and public morale would be shattered. To me it makes sense that (as in postwar Britain), the priority was to build shelter for the homeless, not wasting much time or money on smart architecture.
Still, I’m sympathetic to the difficulties Peter Neville faced. I just wish he had a more readable writing style because Russian history is so complicated …
The book starts with the coming of the Slavs and the Mongol Hordes, and explains that because Russia was never part of the Roman Empire, the origins of Russian Christianity were Byzantine. This meant that the Orthodox Church was always aligned with Constantinople not with Rome, and (in contrast to the Graeco-Roman concept of the Separation of Powers) it explains the close links between Church and State in pre-Communist Russia. (And that explains in part why the Soviets crushed the churches the way they did).
The Tsars, of course, are interesting. Ivan the Terrible) (1530-1584) was the first notable one not just because of his reputation but because he expanded the empire to the east, and then there was Boris Godunov (1585-1598), famous for presiding over the Time of Troubles. Next came the Romanovs: Peter the Great (1689-1725) who modernised education and the military and built St Petersburg from a swamp; and Catherine the Great (1762-96) who continued the Westernisation trend and was a great patron of the arts and literature. Alexander I (1801-1825) is the one who had to fight off Napoleon in 1812 (but made a mess of it, and just as well he had some smart generals. Actually, I learned more about this from reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace than from this book). Alexander was one of a long line of autocratic tsars who refused to undertake or botched long overdue reforms – which as we all know culminated in the Revolution of 1917 and the murder of the entire Romanov family.
Russian literature, visual arts, dance, and music flourished in the 19th century but the Russian economy was a basket case. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the cities were full of unemployed unskilled peasants who could not afford to pay for land - but there was no industry in the cities to provide jobs. (In Petersburg, Andrei Bely depicted this seething influx of people converging on the city in the 1905 revolutionary period brilliantly). While Britain, France and Germany expanded their colonial possessions around the globe in order to serve their industrial economies with raw materials, the Russian empire continued to expand across Central Asia and Siberia but it remained an agrarian economy with vast tracts of hostile and unproductive landmass. No wonder there was trouble.
When (after the end of the Civil War between the Bolshevik ’Reds’ and the Whites) the Soviet Union was finally formed in 1922, Lenin ruled for a mere two years, and then despite his lack of education, Joseph Stalin took over. It was he who forced the collectivization of the farms which caused mass famines, and it was he who was responsible for the penal and forced labour system called the Gulag in which millions were executed or died. Like Mao in China, he dreamed up all kinds of ways to force rapid industrialisation, with absurd targets and ponderous central control, handicapped all the while by the diversion of its best and brightest into defence spending and innovation, including its triumphs in the Space Race.
I think all of us who view those WW2 of photos of him in genial conversation with the Allied Leaders Churchill and Roosevelt find it hard to reconcile the image with the reality of this evil man. Neville, however, has one good word to say for him and that is that he played a significant role in the defence of Stalingrad, rushing troops to its defence from all over the place. (Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad is on my TBR and I hope to have time to read it before long). After Stalin comes the procession of stodgy leaders who presided during my lifetime, then Gorbachev and glasnost and perestroika, followed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of democracy, and the opportunity for people like me to visit the country unhindered.
(Even though I’ve followed the rise and fall of Gorbachev and the ins-and-outs of Yeltsin and Putin’s careers in our local media, I still found this part of the book a bit messy to follow, possibly because the rapidity of political and social change in this period meant that Neville kept having to update successive editions. Maybe it’s time for a whole new book instead of a patchwork of revisions?)
Some sections of this book are a bit odd. Neville writes a scant single page about Soviet Women and some of his remarks have a ‘crusty old gent’ flavour about them. He talks about ‘having children in the USSR as a decidedly mixed blessing because so many Soviet citizens have to live in tiny flats‘ and how ‘Soviet women have stated that giving birth to a baby in a Soviet maternity hospital is an even worse experience than having an abortion’. There are extensive notes and references for much of what he writes throughout the book but there are no references for these generalisations. He describes Raisa Gorbachev as a ‘snappy dresser with a doctorate in sociology and an intellectual vigour and curiosity which caused Mrs Nancy Reagan to complain about being upstaged’ (p270) but then goes on to say that because Soviet fashions were ‘badly designed and badly made’ Raisa’s preference for Parisian clothing made her a target for accusations about corruption. He then goes on to sneer at the ‘stern-faced Valentina Tereshkova (the USSR’s first woman cosmonaut) as a role model’. Maybe he wrote this rather liverish assessment when stern-faced Maggie Thatcher was Britain’s role model for women? The first edition of this book came out in 1990.
Whatever its shortcomings, this book made me think about what it might be like to live in a country that has undergone such enormous political and social upheavals. It made me wonder about the museums we might see, and how they might depict the selfishness and stupidity of the tsars, or the evils of Stalinism. How does a country come to terms with a history like this? How do ordinary people form a sense of identity when their symbols of power and progress are linked with totalitarianism? Museums speak to a domestic audience as well as to international visitors so I will be interested to see how the past is presented there.
I have a lot to learn, more than I can grasp from reading a history like this one.
Author: Peter Neville
Title: A Traveller’s History of Russia, 5th Revised & Updated Edition
Publisher: Interlink Books
Source: Personal copy, purchased from the Book Depository $13.28