Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917

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9780674781184: Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917
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The Soviet Union crumbles and Russia rises from the rubble, once again the great nation--a perfect scenario, but for one point: Russia was never a nation. And this, says the eminent historian Geoffrey Hosking, is at the heart of the Russians' dilemma today, as they grapple with the rudiments of nationhood. His book is about the Russia that never was, a three-hundred-year history of empire building at the expense of national identity.

Russia begins in the sixteenth century, with the inception of one of the most extensive and diverse empires in history. Hosking shows how this undertaking, the effort of conquering, defending, and administering such a huge mixture of territories and peoples, exhausted the productive powers of the common people and enfeebled their civic institutions. Neither church nor state was able to project an image of "Russian-ness" that could unite elites and masses in a consciousness of belonging to the same nation. Hosking depicts two Russias, that of the gentry and of the peasantry, and reveals how the gap between them, widened by the Tsarist state's repudiation of the Orthodox messianic myth, continued to grow throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Here we see how this myth, on which the empire was originally based, returned centuries later in the form of the revolutionary movement, which eventually swept away the Tsarist Empire but replaced it with an even more universalist one. Hosking concludes his story in 1917, but shows how the conflict he describes continues to affect Russia right up to the present day.

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About the Author:

Geoffrey Hosking is retired Professor of Russian History at the University College London.

From Kirkus Reviews:

A valuable reinterpretation of Russian history in the light of the dissolution of the Soviet empire, by Hosking (History/University of London). His theme is that the building of the empire obstructed the flowering of the nation and is more fundamental in explaining what happened than either autocracy or the backwardness of the country. The tsarist regime, for example, believed it more important to conquer Siberia than to exploit it. Hosking even interprets the response of the peasantry at the time of Napoleon's invasion of Russia less in terms of their nationalism than as a response to Napoleon's brutal methods and a reflection of their belief that, if they served, they would be freed. Hosking illustrates how, time and again, the needs of empire took precedence over actions that would have ameliorated growing divisions between the classes: The efforts of Peter the Great to develop an administrative elite by cultivating Western manners and adopting the French language separated that elite further from the Russian peasantry; the emancipation of the serfs left the peasants with abiding grievances and in some respects reinforced their segregation. Even the opportunity to link the monarchy more firmly with the people in resisting the Germans during the First World War was thrown away by the refusal of the tsar to appoint a government of public confidence. The final success of the Bolsheviks owed little to their ideology and everything to their readiness to grant, however temporarily, what the peasantry actually wanted. This theme has, as Hosking notes, profound contemporary implications: If Russia can find a new identity for itself, then autocracy and backwardness may well fade. Often more thematic than descriptive--the details of the 1917 Revolution itself are given only cursory attention--and better perhaps at the start of the period than at the end, Hosking nonetheless gives a thoughtful, often penetrating review of a complex and important perspective. (3 maps) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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