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Russia and the Russians : a history /
Geoffrey Hosking.
Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
xiii, 718 p., [32] p. of plates : ill., maps ; 24 cm.
0674004736 (alk. paper)
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Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
0674004736 (alk. paper)
general note
Includes bibliographical references and index.
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A Look Inside
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First Chapter

Chapter One




The north Eurasian plain is not only Russia's geographical setting, but also her fate. From the Carpathians in the west to the Greater Khingan range in the east, a huge expanse of flat, open territory dominates the Eurasian continent. It divides into four bands of terrain, running from west to east. In the south is desert, broken only by oases along the rivers which run off the mountains along the southern and eastern rims. Then comes steppe, lightly watered country with a thin and variable covering of grasses and scrub, again broken intermittently by oases, gullies, and river valleys. Farther north is a belt of coniferous forest, interspersed toward its southern edge with deciduous trees; only to the west of the Urals does this deciduous belt broaden to become a large and independent ecological zone. Finally comes the tundra: frozen wastelands and swamp, with broad rivers flowing through them to the Arctic Ocean, itself frozen for much of the year.

    This is the area which one may refer to as "Inner Eurasia": it consists of the territory ruled over by the Soviet Union in 1990 plus Xinjiang and Mongolia. Bounded by mountains to east and south, and by usually frozen ocean to the north, this territory lies open to the west. The Ural Mountains, situated toward its western end and conventionally marking the border between Europe and Asia, are too low and easily penetrable to form a serious barrier to movement. Besides, the rivers, with brief portages here and there, offer a relatively easy means of movement throughout the area. It is very unusual to find such broad, long rivers in open flat country. Asian traders who entered the Volga from the Caspian Sea thought that such a majestic river must flow from a high mountain range, whereas actually its source lies in the modest, low-lying Valdai Hills, south of Novgorod.

    The southern two ecological bands, and especially the steppe, were classic nomadic country. The sparse vegetation, low precipitation, and open terrain rendered these regions difficult to exploit for settled agriculture, even though much of the soil was very fertile. Agriculturalists without elaborate irrigation systems could expect only meager returns, and they were permanently vulnerable to the raids of their more mobile neighbors. However, herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and in places camels could feed on the foliage, moving on when they exhausted it in any particular locality. The human beings who tended those herds lived largely on hides, meat, and dairy products but--and this is crucial for the history of Eurasia--could not depend on them for all their needs, and hence were compelled to seek some kind of interaction with the oasis dwellers in their midst and with the civilizations around the periphery of their pastoral lands. Inner Eurasia, in short, had to interact with Outer Eurasia. Yet in trade the pastoralists were always at a disadvantage, since they had little to offer except the products of their animals, which settled peoples could also produce for themselves. Hence the tendency for the relationship to become violent: only by honing their military skills and raiding adjacent civilizations could pastoral nomads provide properly for their own way of life.

    Kinship groups of fifty to one hundred formed the most convenient way of exploiting this ecology. To defend their terrain and herds, clans would form confederations and devote much attention to the training of horses and riders. Cavalry warfare became much more fearsome after the invention of the stirrup about 500 A.D., which allowed a skilled horseman to use both hands to manipulate weapons, whether lance or bow and arrow.

    However, though nomads were supremely skilled warriors, they were inept state-builders. (The history of their most successful empire, the Mongol one, demonstrates this: in its full form it was short-lived, and began to break up almost before it was put together.) Hence in a way it was natural that the most enduring empire of Inner Eurasia should be formed at its extreme western end--in a terrain, moreover, not typical of it, in the broad belt of deciduous woodland found mainly to the west of the river Volga. The first major East Slavic polity was founded at the southern edge of this belt, in Kiev, the second toward its northern edge, in Moscow. Both sites afforded some protection from nomadic raids, Moscow more effectively than Kiev, which probably explains its ultimate ascendancy.

    The first East Slavic state was able to establish itself thanks above all to trade, standing as it did athwart north--south routes from Scandinavia to Byzantium intersecting with east--west routes from Persia, India, and China to western Europe. These routes were precarious, for they depended on the nomads' willingness to keep them open. Their decline explains in part why the center of gravity of East Slav civilization shifted northeastward, from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, to a region where a rather marginal agriculture combined with fishing, beekeeping, logging, and the fur trade to afford a tolerably stable basis for wealth.

    However, once a major state, as distinct from a tribal confederation, was established in Inner Eurasia, there were many reasons why it should prove durable. Such a state commanded a zone so extensive, so strategically placed, and so abundantly endowed with resources that its rulers and subjects could survive almost indefinitely. They could retreat virtually without end, recover from devastating setbacks and reverses, bide their time almost limitlessly, and probe the weaknesses of their neighbors without being fatally undermined by their own.

    At the same time, that heartland had its own grave drawbacks. Most of it was relatively infertile, cut off from the sea and thus from easy contact with the outside world, and hampered by very difficult internal communications. These handicaps made the mobilization of people and resources extremely cumbersome. Unless the whole of the heartland and all its major approaches could be occupied, its frontiers were open and vulnerable. Its expanses were settled by numerous peoples with diverse languages, customs, laws, and religions: building and maintaining a state which could assimilate all of them proved to be a complex, costly, and at times apparently vain enterprise.

    This paradoxical combination of colossal strength and almost crippling weakness has imparted to the Russian Empire its most salient characteristics.

    1. Territorially, Russia has been the most extensive and by far the most labile of the world's major empires. Its boundaries have shifted thousands of miles over the plains in one direction and another. It can readily both invade and be invaded--and over the centuries has both inflicted and suffered aggression repeatedly. With one exception, though (the Mongols in the thirteenth century), the really destructive invasions have come from the west, while the more continuous nagging threats have been from east and south, through the broad "open gates" which stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Urals. Over the centuries Russia has had to divert huge resources to defending extensive vulnerable borders: from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries it placed at least half of its armed manpower on the zasechnaia cherta , its fortified steppe frontier in the south.

    It dealt with threatening vacuums on its frontiers by exploiting the relative weakness of disorganized nomadic clans and tribes, and even of larger ethnic groups, to invade and absorb their territories--only to go through periods of overreach, when it imploded, leaving its borderlands vulnerable and once again in the hands of others. In that respect the period since 1989 is not unprecedented. At all times the peoples along the frontier, from the Bashkirs and the Cossacks to the Poles, have proved volatile in their attitude to the empire: at times loyal subjects, at times wary allies, at times bitter foes. In this respect also, the period since 1989 is not an aberration, but a resumption of a historically typical pattern.

    2. Russia has usually been a multiethnic empire without a dominant nation, ruled by a dynasty and a heterogeneous aristocracy--at least until nineteenth-century attempts to make the Russians dominant. Unparalleled (except perhaps for the British Empire) in its ethnic and religious diversity, it has normally kept order by means of a multiethnic ruling class drawn from many, though not all, of its subject nationalities. This approach has rendered the distinction between internal and foreign affairs much less well-defined than in most polities. This lack of discrimination applied even to the Soviet Union, which until 1943 dealt with foreign countries partly through the Commissariat of External Affairs and partly through the Comintern, a branch of the Communist Party. One historian has called Stalin the "last of the steppe politicians."

    3. It has been an economically underdeveloped empire, situated in a region of extreme temperatures, and after the fifteenth century remote from the world's major trade routes. The sheer size of the country frustrated efforts to mobilize its uniquely diverse and abundant resources. The really important feature of its relative backwardness, however, is that it is due not only to natural handicaps (otherwise Canada would be equally backward), but also to its tendency at each stage of historical evolution to replicate itself. At all stages, vulnerability and poverty have required devoting a large proportion of the wealth of land and population to the provision of armed forces and to the creation of a cumbersome official class for administration and the mobilization of resources. Economic growth was generated more by expanding territory than by capital accumulation or technological innovation, much of which in any case came from abroad.

    4. The Russian Empire has been permanently situated between two or, arguably, three ecumenes. In its administrative structures it has been an Asian empire, building upon or adapting the practices of China and the ancient steppe empires. In its culture it has been European for at least three centuries, borrowing heavily from both Protestant and Catholic countries. In its religion it is Byzantine, derived from an East Roman or Greek Christian ecumene which no longer has a separate existence with its own heartland, but which has left enduring marks on the landscape of Europe. Muscovite tsars were cautious and eclectic in choosing which aspects of this heritage to claim: in the sixteenth century, for example, Ivan IV was both Khan (Asiatic ruler) and Basileus (Christian emperor), and resisted the temptation to come down on one side by taking the concept of the "Third Rome" as a basis for his foreign policy. Russia could not simply be a crusading Christian power, since such an ambiguous stance would provoke violent resistance among its considerable Muslim population.

    In combining these legacies Russia has frequently offended the sensibilities of its neighbors. Muscovy was described by at least one European visitor in the sixteenth century as a "rude and barbarous kingdom," and it was omitted from the published register of Christian powers maintained by the Vatican. In the late eighteenth century it was widely condemned for deliberately interfering in Polish internal affairs with the aim of undermining and destroying the Polish state--a technique it had frequently employed to overcome its steppe neighbors, from the khanate of Kazan onward. (Such sensibilities did not restrain Prussia and Austria from joining in the carve-up, so the outrage was partly hypocritical.)

    Internally, because of its size and vulnerability, Russia needed the structure of an authoritarian state, but in practice, because of the extent of the territory and backwardness of the economy, that state could not directly control the lives of most of the population. Having to improvise structures often urgently and in adversity, it has tended, therefore, not to create enduring laws or institutions, but rather to give official backing to existing personal power relationships. In this respect it partially resembled ancient Rome, which also had to hold together a diverse and extensive land-based empire by military means, and which did so by cultivating binding patron-client relationships (though the sense of law and citizenship was much stronger in the Roman Empire). Such relationships were articulated in the druzhina system and kormlenie in Kievan Rus and Muscovy, in the landlord-serf relationship in imperial Russia, and in the nomenklatura (personnel appointment) system in the Soviet Union. Often the main function of the grand prince/tsar/general secretary has been to mediate and adjudicate between cliques centering upon powerful personalities; both Ivan IV and Stalin tried through terror either to extirpate them or to gain complete control over them, but failed.

    The result has been strong, cohesive structures at the apex and the base of society, but in between them weak and labile institutions which have depended largely on personalities. This is the absence of "civil society" which so many observers have noted. The structures the state has needed for recruitment and taxation have tended to perpetuate this intermediate weakness, by exhausting the resources needed for anything more than mere survival and by enfeebling potentially autonomous institutions. Even today, when Russia's strategic vulnerability is much less serious, the structures and mentalities associated with its past needs have survived to obstruct the creation of a market economy, a civil society, and a functioning democracy. Politically, socially, and economically, Russia is still best understood as a network of interlocking patron-client relationships. This is one reason why post-Soviet Russia has such difficulty in generating its own sense of civic community.

    Russia has been surrounded by other, usually smaller but still often formidable heartlands or core areas (to use the terminology of Halford McKinder): (1) the Scandinavian world, dominated first by the Vikings, then by Denmark, then by Sweden; (2) Poland; (3) Turkey/the Ottoman Empire; (4) Persia; and (5) China. As the Slav tribes and the peoples of Rus and Russia migrated and expanded, they fetched up against the outliers of these other heartlands, with their own dominant states and peoples. Because of its unique capacity for endurance, Russia was able to wait till each of them went through a period of weakness, for whatever reason, and then move to occupy the peripheral zone between them, or in the case of Poland the core as well. She suffered the same fate herself at the hands of the Mongols in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and much more briefly from the Swedes and Poles in the early seventeenth century. But Rus/Russia recovered from both setbacks and reasserted itself each time with greater force. She proved able to survive even the catastrophic collapse of empire in the early twentieth century.

    Against a strong power, Russia has tended to adopt a closed-border policy, intended to keep the other side out and to make possible stable and peaceful trading and diplomatic relations. A weak power on the borders, on the other hand, is both a threat and an opportunity: a threat because it creates a potential vacuum or center of turbulence which can easily degrade or even destroy the border, but also an opportunity because it offers the possibility of expansion. To repel the threat and grasp the opportunity, Russia has tended to deal closely with tribal or ethnic leaders in the zone of turbulence, first to gain information from them, then to influence them or cause divisions between them, then to gain some or all of them as allies, and finally if possible to annex them. In this way the expansion of Russia has led to the strengthening of patron-client nexuses in the borderlands.


Excerpted from Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Hosking. Excerpted by permission.
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-12-01:
Hosking (Univ. of London), author of several previous histories of Russia and the former Soviet Union, undertakes here quite another task: discussing the links between the political, economic, social, and cultural phenomena that have made Russia and the Russians what they are. This is no easy task, and it could lead a lesser scholar into ethnic and national stereotypes. But Hosking's narrative is so compellingly and gracefully written and so meticulously researched that the reader will find an abundance of treasure. While more valuable to the general reader than the specialist, the latter will still derive insight from the book. This quality is never better illustrated than in the introduction, where Hosking sets forth "the four salient characteristics" that have "imparted to Russia a paradoxical combination of colossal strength and almost crippling weakness." His treatment of the Nikonian reforms, social transformation and terror during Stalin's collectivization, and Gorbachev's perestroika are similarly stimulating. While none of this vast story is new, the copious illustrations, the detailed chronology, and the author's insight and expertise provide a learning experience for all levels of reader. G. E. Snow Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
Appeared in Library Journal on 2001-04-01:
Hosking (Russian history, Univ. of London) offers a comprehensive survey from the beginnings of Kievan Rus through Russia's recent independence, emphasizing the impact of relations between Russians and non-Russians. When Russia was "the largest empire on earth" in the mid-17th century, the imperial Rossiiskii and the ethnic Russkii held unresolved and conflicting ideals. No less fundamental were conflicts between Russia's peasant society and its industrialization, the "sacralizing of the monarchy," and the power of the Russian Orthodox Church. This cogent pre-Revolutionary interpretation nicely complements recent archival revelations from the Soviet era (e.g., census data showing that between 1939 and 1946 Russia's "global losses" amounted to some 47 million persons). Hosking claims that Gorbachev's "fundamental dilemma'' was his dependence on implementing reforms of the very "patron-client network" he was hoping to replace. Although the author's earlier work, The First Socialist Society, is more focused, this book's strength lies in its revealing Russia's enduring continuities. The result compares favorably with some of the best Russian histories of recent decades while also consolidating new scholarship. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Zachary T. Irwin, Pennsylvania State Univ., Erie (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 2001-03-12:
To demonstrate that Russia's recent political and socioeconomic problems do not mean that she "need no longer be taken seriously... as threat or as potential ally," Hosking ambitiously and diligently explores the nation's cycles of reform, censorship and expansion from A.D. 626 through the 2000 election of Prime Minister Putin. Hosking (The Awakening of the Soviet Union), professor of Russian history at the University of London, contends that resources stretched thin over a vast, disparate empire have prevented Russia from developing into a cohesive nation. A helpful introduction to Russia's topography and ecology, followed by chronological chapters such as "Kievan Rus, the Mongols, and the Rise of Muscovy" and "Soviet Society Takes Shape," with special attention to popular culture, academic trends and influential nonconformist thinkers, afford both survey and specifics. Some readers will find points of contention, as when Hosking reduces the profound impact of agricultural collectivization. For instance, he attributes the great Ukrainian famines of the 1930s, which many historians believe were purposefully exacerbated by the Soviet government, to "a dry summer" that yielded "an exceptionally poor grain harvest," without due analysis of other causes. Additionally, Hosking attributes the sharp increase of orphans during the 1930s primarily to civil war, collectivization and urbanization, noting, "clearly it was also linked to the legislative weakening of the family" (i.e., the legalization of abortion, civil marriage, divorce and equal property rights between men and women), without providing concrete evidence for this causality. But Hosking's immense knowledge and clear, concise analyses provide ample grist for university students and amateur historians. Illus., maps and tables not seen by PW. (Apr. 20) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review Quotes
[A] comprehensive and intelligent survey of Russian history for the general reader...[that follows] the twists and turns of Slavic history from the principalities of Kievan Rus in the late ninth century to the presidency of Boris Yeltsin...[A] most excellent historical survey.
For the general reader, this book is the King James version of Russian history.
For the thousand years of its recorded existence, Russia's history has been as dramatic, tragic, and inspiring as that of any nation, exerting a perennial attraction that cries for the one-volume introduction Hosking is well equipped to provide. His book is especially welcome because he links the Communist era, now that it is over, to the enduring themes of the Russian experience...This is a high-quality overview.
Hosking...offers a comprehensive survey from the beginnings of Kievan Rus through Russia's recent independence, emphasizing the impact of relations between Russians and non-Russians...This book's strength lies in its revealing Russia's continuities. The result compares favorably with some of the best Russian histories of recent decades while also consolidating new scholarship. Highly recommended.
Hosking's narrative is so compellingly and gracefully written and so meticulously researched that the reader will find an abundance of treasure. While more valuable to the general reader than the specialist, the latter will still derive insight from the book. This quality is never better illustrated than in the introduction, where Hosking sets forth "the four salient characteristics" that have "imparted to Russia a paradoxical combination of colossal strength and almost crippling weakness." His treatment of the Nikonian reforms, social transformation and terror during Stalin's collectivization, and Gorbachev's perestroika are similarly stimulating...[Hosking's] insight and expertise provide a learning experience for all levels of reader.
Russia and the a comprehensive and up-to-date textbook of Russian history...[Hosking] covers every aspect of Russia from the terrain itself, to the tsars, to Russian nationalism, to the Cold War, to Perestroika, to the Russian Federation--and he is thorough. Russia and the Russians is a book for the serious student of history.
Russia's history, more than that of almost any other country, lends itself to passion and polemic...[Hosking] nevertheless attempts...a dispassionate account. Writing with enviable lucidity, he sets out to dispel the current negativeness and general ambivalence that characterizes both Western and native assessments of Russia's role in the world...His general argument is compelling.
There...seems to be a general failure to understand Russians on their own terms--as people who, on one hand are no different than the foreigners trying to analyze them and, on the other hand, think and act in ways that baffle outsiders. In other words, Russians behave just like us, except when they don't. Those seeking answers to these mysteries will welcome Geoffrey Hosking's latest work, Russia and the Russians, a massive survey that begins with the Keivan Rus in the ninth century and ends with Vladimir Putin's arrival in the Kremlin in 2000. Mr. Hosking has made an important contribution to those seeking to better understand a country and its people.
A book intended for a general educated audience and students, a survey of the entire course of Russian history. Hosking is up on the current literature and is invariably judicious in dealing with historiographical controversies.
Hosking's book has comprehensive sweep and a clear writing style. It is filled with judicious appraisals of a number of critical historical issues. A book of vast erudition written by an eminently qualified scholar, it is much-needed.
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, March 2001
Publishers Weekly, March 2001
Booklist, April 2001
Library Journal, April 2001
New York Times Book Review, July 2001
Washington Post, July 2001
Choice, December 2001
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Bowker Data Service Summary
In a sweeping narrative, Geoffrey Hosking follows the story of Russia from the first emergence of the Slavs in the historical record in the sixth century CE to the Russians' persistent appearances in today's headlines.
Main Description
From the Carpathians in the west to the Greater Khingan range in the east, a huge, flat expanse dominates the Eurasian continent. Here, over more than a thousand years, the history and destiny of Russia have unfolded. In a sweeping narrative, one of the English-speaking world's leading historians of Russia follows this story from the first emergence of the Slavs in the historical record in the sixth century C.E. to the Russians' persistent appearances in today's headlines. Hosking's is a monumental story of competing legacies, of an enormous power uneasily balanced between the ideas and realities of Asian empire, European culture, and Byzantine religion; of a constantly shifting identity, from Kievan Rus to Muscovy to Russian Empire to Soviet Union to Russian Federation, and of Tsars and leaders struggling to articulate that identity over the centuries. With particular attention to non-Russian regions and ethnic groups and to Russia's relations with neighboring polities, Hosking lays out the links between political, economic, social, and cultural phenomena that have made Russia what it is--a world at once familiar and mysterious to Western observers. In a clear and engaging style, he conducts us through the Mongol invasions, the rise of autocracy, the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great, the battle against Napoleon, the emancipation of the serfs, the Crimean War, the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin's reign of terror, the two World Wars, the end of the USSR, to today's war against Chechnya. Hosking's history is shot through with the understanding that becoming an empire has prevented Russia from becoming a nation and has perpetuated archaic personal forms of power. This book is the most penetrating and comprehensive account yet of what such a legacy has meant--to Russia, and to the world.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Geopolitics, Ecology, and National Character
Pre-Imperial Rus and the Beginnings of Empire
Kievan Rus, the Mongols, and the Rise of Muscovy
Ivan IV and the Expansion of Muscovy
The Troubled Building of Empire
The Turbulent Seventeenth Century
Peter the Great and Europeanization
Russia as European Empire
State and Society in the Eighteenth Century
The Reigns of Paul
Imperial Crisis
Alexander II's Uncertain Reforms
The Rise of Nationalism
Revolution and Utopia
Social Change and Revolution
War and Revolution
Social Transformation and Terror
Soviet Society Takes Shape
The Decline and Fall of Utopia
Recovery and Cold War
Soviet Society under "Developed Socialism"
From Perestroika to Russian Federation
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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