Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Russia’s Historical Legacy: Top-Down Rule

I recently discovered a new author – that is, an author who is new to me, but who has been writing historical novels since the early 1980s. Edward Rutherfurd was born in England and educated both in England (Cambridge University) and in the States (Stanford University). His historical novels follow the model of James Michener and they are lengthy books that often cover multiple generations in a city or country, like New York City, England or Russia. Many of his books have become best-sellers and they have been translated into twenty languages.

I recently finished his book, Russka: The Novel of Russia, which was published in 1991 and is 945 pages in length. I rarely read books this long, but once I got into this historical novel, I had to finish it! I was struck by the comment that appears in the book’s preface: “If we hope to understand anything of this extraordinary country’s present and possible future, it is of great importance to delve, as far as we may, into her past.” As a historian by training, I was immediately drawn into this 1,800-year history of Russia as seen through the eyes of numerous generations of Russians, who the author often connects to the ruling elites of the country.

The Mongols

Genghis Khan
One of the dominant themes running through this carefully-researched historical novel is the lengthy history of top-down authoritarian rule that characterizes so much of Russia’s political legacy. During its early history, Russia was under constant attack from every direction and without borders that provide defensive advantages, the people of Russia were extremely vulnerable.

The Mongol invasion in the 13th century lead to over 250 years of rule by foreigners. They did not kill peasants in the lands they conquered, because peasants tilled the soil, paid taxes, and supplied recruits. They only killed those who resisted Mongol rule. Once Russia was completely under the control of the Mongols, they divided the ancient state of Rus into two parts. The southern part, that included the territories around Kiev and the southern steppe, was placed under direct Mongol rule, while the northern part was left under nominal Russian rule. The Mongols gave the Russian princes simple guidelines: you rule as a representative of the Great Khan and your job is to keep the people quiet and collect tribute. The only reason the Russian princes were allowed to exist at all was that the Mongols were unimpressed with the wealth of the northern forests and decided that these territories were not worth the cost of direct Mongol administration.

Ivan the Terrible

Ivan the Terrible
In the 16th century, after breaking away from Mongol control, Ivan, who took on the title of Holy Tsar, Autocrat of All the Russias, gradually gained control of the cities of northern Russia and formed a new state. His capital was Moscow and his newly formed empire was no federation – the Prince of Moscow was as much a despot as had been the Great Khan of the Mongol empire. Absolute obedience to Moscow, to the Holy Tsar, was the way things would be under his rule. Ivan’s vision was to be the Christian Russian tsar who would one day rule over the vast Eurasian empire of the mighty Genghis Khan. During Ivan’s reign, the men of the northern forests were going to conquer the vast steppes for the first time in Russia’s history,

Peter the Great and Catherine the Great

Rutherfurd’s history of the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great describes this continuing legacy of authoritarian rule. Peter the Great was a brutal leader who made major changes in Russia and implemented them by force. While his travels to Western Europe created a certain mythology about his leadership – that he wanted to make Russia like the Western Europe, Peter’s motives for these trips were to help him prepare his country for war and to learn shipbuilding so Russia could conquer its neighbors. It has been calculated, Rutherfurd argues, that in over two decades Peter only enjoyed a few months of actual peace -- the rest was spent in warfare with the peasants his principal “cannon fodder” (p. 494). Similarly, the building of St. Petersburg was done at an enormous human cost. “For though history is uncertain how many workers died of disease, fatigue, and starvation in the building of St. Petersburg, it was certainly tens of thousands, some say hundreds of thousands” (p. 500).

Like Peter, Catherine the Great ruled as an autocrat. Nobility was forced into subservience to her and, needing their support, she showered them with favors (p. 522). Her interest in European Enlightenment ideas lasted only until the time of the French Revolution in 1789, when she then clamped down on these revolutionary new ideas because she feared a similar revolt in Russia.

Lenin & Stalin

Centuries of top-down authoritarian rule was continued through the 19th century and worsened again under Tsars Alexander III and Nicholas II, the last two Romanov rulers. When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the pattern of absolute power held in the hands of a few elite was perpetuated – now under Communist dictators. It is not a surprise that Stalin’s hero was Peter the Great because, like Peter, he saw all people as nothing more than creatures whose purpose was to serve the state (p. 926).


Because many of us are not familiar with the history of different countries and regions of the world, we often fail to understand the profound ways in which the history of a country shapes its culture and how culture, in turn, impacts its development. Countries like Russia have a long historical legacy that is not quickly overcome. Patterns of behavior that have been cultivated over hundreds of years, as seen in Russia, can be changed -- but these changes take time. Rutherfurd’s historical novel makes this point very clear.

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