Survival of the Least Fit

Is there a trend of ‘reverse Darwinism’ in Russian history?

Poster of the ‘Birth of the Soviets and the Different Organs of Soviet Power’, depicting the hierarchical organisation of Soviet Power, c. 1920. LSE Library.
Poster of the ‘Birth of the Soviets and the Different Organs of Soviet Power’, depicting the hierarchical organisation of Soviet Power, c. 1920. LSE Library.

The era of large tomes about Russia has given way to shorter overviews, often with a personal narrative bias. The history of a country with over 1,000 years’ history, occupying at one stage a sixth of the earth’s surface, is harder to write in 250 than in 2,500 pages. But in the age of Wikipedia, the small mammals supersede the dinosaurs. Following Mark Galeotti’s Shorter History, which appeared in May, we have two apparently similar surveys, one by the former ambassador Rodric Braithwaite (who can be said to love Russia even better than he knows it) and the other by the flamboyant historian Orlando Figes (who can be said to know Russia more than he loves it).

Braithwaite provides a readable, if sometimes bland narrative. It is chronological, with brief excursions into subjects such as the arts and rather disorienting comparisons of historical events with contemporary developments (Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great do not help us understand Putin). Sometimes compression makes Braithwaite enigmatic; you would have to know Old Norse to understand why the medieval ethnonym Rus might derive via Finnic from the Swedish ruothkarlar, ‘fellows who row’. 

Braithwaite admits that he cannot rid his survey of a streak of optimism, despite ending with the horrors of Putin’s attack on the Ukraine: ‘I hang on to the golden image of the Firebird, which flits through the dark forests of Russian folklore to symbolise the hope that Russia will see better days.’ Braithwaite imbibed the atmosphere of Moscow at the end of the 1980s, when perestroika made Russians bolder about expressing their opinions to foreign diplomats and kitchen-table warmth and ravenous intellectual curiosity swept away, for a while, the notorious Muscovite glumness. Perhaps this leads Braithwaite to doubt, when the evidence is not quite irrefutable, the criminality of Peter the Great murdering his son, Catherine the Great her husband, or Alexander I conniving at the murder of his father. Braithwaite does mention that the Cossacks who colonised and conquered Siberia did occasionally ‘exterminate’ indigenous tribes; Figes graphically describes the brutal campaigns that were as deadly to the Siberian peoples as the killings in America by Spanish conquistadores or American soldiers.

Both Braithwaite and Figes pay due attention to the influence of Byzantium and, later, of the Mongol ‘yoke’ on Russia’s development. The marriage of Prince Vladimir of Kyiv to Anna, daughter of Byzantine emperor Romanos II, was not, however, the unique concession by Byzantium that Braithwaite thinks; Konstantine VIII’s daughter Zoë would have married the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III had he not died before she arrived in Italy. Braithwaite admires Byzantium’s administrative ‘efficiency’, but regards the 250 years of Mongol overlordship as an unfortunate episode: ‘The Mongols left behind no identifiable institutions.’

The contribution of the Mongols (or, strictly speaking, their subjects, the Central Asian Turks) to Russia’s evolution is a crucial question and a major difference between these two books. The trend in modern Russia is to assert that the country that evolved from the 14th century, after the defeat of the Golden Horde, as Muscovy ‘gathered together’ the Russian principalities around it, was just a resumption (and displacement) of Kyivan Russia, which was founded by Norsemen in the ninth century. Braithwaite agrees: after all Muscovy had the same language and religion as Kyivan Rus, even though hereditary monarchical rule now replaced the elaborate system of princely musical chairs that governed accession to Kyiv’s throne. Figes has a higher opinion of the Mongolian heritage; he agrees with the early 19th-century historian Karamzin: ‘Moscow owes its greatness to the khans.’ Putin’s claim that Kyiv and Ukraine are integral parts of Russia can only be validated by the belief in continuity, by ignoring the fact that Kyiv was transformed by centuries spent under Polish, Lithuanian and Cossack rule before Muscovy recaptured it in the 17th century.

Figes spent decades in Russian archives and writing books (not always as accurate as this one) on Russian history and culture. On the Stalin era he does not put a foot wrong and communicates more information with more force than most monographs on the period. His research uses facts from social science, as well as historical sources, that shed light on the evolution (or decline) of Russian society in the 19th century. Reading Braithwaite is relaxing and reassuring; reading Figes is stimulating and disquieting.

There are events and trends in Russian history that neither book deals with adequately. Both authors idealise the Tsar ‘liberator’ Alexander II for abolishing serfdom, relaxing censorship and introducing the rule of law. Both condemn his successor Alexander III for the reaction and stagnation of the 1880s and 1890s. Neither writer mentions Alexander II’s appalling atrocities, deporting in the 1860s hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of the Black Sea coast – Circassians, Abkhaz, Ubykh, Crimean Tatars – in leaking hulks to Ottoman Anatolia. The death toll was equal to that of Stalin’s equally outrageous deportations of 1944. Nor do Braithwaite and Figes give Alexander III his due; he was not only an unusual Romanov in not declaring war on any of his neighbours, he was touchingly faithful to his wife, for whom he bought a Fabergé egg every year. He used his wrestler’s physique to lift a steel carriage roof and save 20 passengers when his royal train was derailed (the effort damaged his kidneys and may have caused his early death). He listened to his ministers, even when they did not tell him what he wanted to hear. His Russia had a railway system that modern Russia can only dream of. It also had a health service with hospital treatment and medicine free to local inhabitants, doctors being compelled, on pain of imprisonment, to attend to anyone who summoned them (the catch being that 30,000 doctors were too few to serve 100 million people).

The Nazi occupation was indescribably barbaric, but there were strange exemptions, which a historian should point out. The Crimean Tatars for the first time in 150 years were allowed to live their traditional lives and in north-west Russia (Pskov and Novgorod) German administrators, after murdering every Jew and Communist Party member they could, ran the country in such a way that peasants, teachers, doctors and writers had a taste of bourgeois freedoms which they badly missed under Stalin.

Perhaps what drives 20th-century Russian history is a reverse Darwinism: unnatural selection leading to the survival of the least fit. Unlike the surplus peasantry of western Europe, who emigrated to America or Australia and displaced or killed the aboriginal populations there, Russian peasants were not allowed to emigrate and a crisis of too many peasants on too little arable land grew intolerable. The terrible toll of the First World War and the revolution deprived Russia of its professional classes, millions of whom fled to the West or to China. Stalin’s Great Terror focused on educated professionals and among the millions who perished were the scientists, engineers and doctors the country most needed. Comparing the address books for Moscow and Petersburg of 1916 and 1923 shows that barely ten per cent of householders in 1915 were still resident in 1922. No other nation’s gene pool has been so depleted.

Braithwaite and even Figes remain assured that the best of Russia’s past will one day reassert itself. Optimism, however, is always punished. While my grandmother was buying butter in Home and Colonial Stores, delivered by refrigerated railcar from Siberia, my gullible grandfather invested the family fortune in Russian railways in 1915.

The Story of Russia
Orlando Figes
Bloomsbury 368pp £22
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Russia: Myths and Realities
Rodric Braithwaite
Profile 270pp £16.99
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Donald Rayfield is Emeritus Professor of Russian at Queen Mary, University of London.