Russia by Philip Longworth: a story of repeated expansion and collapse

Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to PutinRussia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin by Philip Longworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A knowledgeable survey of the gyrations of the Russian empire.

I got this book in 2007 as a research text for a project I had in mind. But that project never got off the pad (the story of my life!), so the book remained unread. Then, with the recent unrest in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, I realized that I knew very little about Russia and I wanted to know more. Luckily, I already had some books in my library.

Longworth’s book has given me a good overview of Russian history. I found the pace to be good, neither too hurried nor too detailed, but offering relatively more coverage of recent history, as seems fitting for a contemporary reader. And the author’s basic thesis was one I found surprising: that Russia has almost always been an imperial state, and it is unique among empires in having undergone a cycle of expansion and collapse four separate times since AD 850. Russia’s heraldic emblem should be the phoenix.

The first of the four was the Kievan Empire, centered on Kiev, lasting from 850 to 1250; it was a commercial arrangement. Next came the Muscovite Empire from 1400 to 1605, centered on Moscow and arising partly in response to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Internal rebellions and external pressures combined to topple this empire as well. The third empire was that of the Romanovs, from 1613 to 1917. This was a true empire in the standard sense: there was an active effort to expand and annex territory in all directions, which was, in the main, successful for a long time, eventually reaching as far east as Alaska in North America. But again, internal social problems and lack of economic development, combined with external threats, culminating in World War I, brought about the collapse of the empire.

The fourth empire was the Soviet one, arising from the ashes of world war and reconstituting the country on a wholly new, ideological basis. The state was, as ever, harsh and authoritarian with its subjects, but was nonetheless able to rouse great patriotic fervor for a long time and make great strides in development, even as millions of people died or were liquidated in the process. But the Soviet empire too collapsed in 1991. The author, however, looking for the causes of the collapse, comes up with a selection of minor causes that did not satisfy this reader.

As of 2005, when the book was published, the empire was starting to show signs of life again under the new premiership of Vladimir Putin. It would be interesting to hear Longworth’s view of events since then, especially recent ones concerning Ukraine. As of now (May 2014), the revival of empire is explicitly on Putin’s agenda, and Russians are enthusiastically behind him.

My understanding, based on reading this book, is that Russia’s unique imperial personality is ultimately due to geography: the vast spaces and harsh climate of the country have shaped a people that is used to toiling hard for a modest return, which in turn has accustomed them to both cooperation and authoritarian rule. Having many other states pushing on it from all sides has also shaped its political psychology. Russia has had near-death experiences at least three times from foreign invasion: Sweden, France, and Germany have all tried to conquer Russia, and all found that they had bitten off more than they could chew.

The author is open-minded about the Soviet state, and seems to think that it might have been able to work for much longer if certain aspects of it had been tweaked. He notes, for example, that a large opinion survey taken in the USSR in, I think, the 1970s, showed that people were generally happy—as happy as, say, people in the United States. I’m skeptical, not only because free expression of one’s opinions could be dangerous in the USSR, but because people were ignorant of just how great a gulf existed between their own quality of life and that of people living in the West. I’m much more persuaded by the argument of Acemoglu and Robinson in their book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty: that the tendency in all societies is for elites to appropriate ever more power and wealth to themselves at the expense of the great majority of their fellow citizens and of the prosperity of the country as a whole. For those authors, the USSR was a case in point of this process.

Longworth is also guardedly optimistic about Vladimir Putin, finding him to be a cautious, shrewd operator who is keen on the rule of law. I wonder whether he still holds that opinion.

Whatever the case, I think that the author argues successfully for his theory of the expansion/collapse cycle of Russian history. Whatever one thinks of current events, it appears that Russia has turned the corner from its latest collapse and is starting down the road to empire once again. Will they ever get the memo that empires just don’t work?

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