Russia – A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East

Russia – A 1,000-Year Chronicle
of the Wild East
By Martin Sixsmith
BBC Books/Ebury Publishing – £9.99

They always say it’s best to write what you know about; and in Russia, Martin Sixsmith certainly knows his stuff. He writes of this particular area of one-seventh of the planet with such ease and poise, he might just as well be writing about girls or gliders, cricket or capers. In other words, he illustrates Russia, a vast, turbulent and troubled nation and society if ever there was one, as if he were writing of a hobby, and this is what makes Russia – A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, such an enjoyable read.

Broken into five parts: ‘Kiev and Proto-democracy,’ ‘Expansion and Empire,’ ‘Rise of Revolution,’ ‘ Dictatorship (of the People?)’ and ‘Democrats with Cold Feet.’ these 575 pages (not including Index and Picture Credits) hurtle along as if on a historical rollercoaster of nigh magnetic, mystical mayhem.

This is evident in the reading of Sixsmith’s Introduction, wherein he writes: ‘’Winston Churchill’s exasperated quip about ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ set the tone for a lazy Western assumption that Russians are too complex even to try to understand. But if we can grasp Russia’s history, we can uncover the roots of her sometimes puzzling behaviour. She is a jarring combination of East and West that would trouble her artists, writers, politicians and thinkers for many centuries.’’

The above passage already bequeaths the impression that some of the political temerity the author is about to unravel, will be both complex albeit very colourful. And in the hands of a lesser writer, such a quest would probably fall down after the first or the second chapter, but this absolutely isn’t the case here.

Rather like the historian Antony Beever, Martin Sexsmith utilises a language that is as concise as it is precise as it is easy to read. Like the formers’ most recent, excellent read The Second World War (which I also reviewed on this site), this book informs the reader of what s/he needs to know, by simply telling it as it is: ‘’My aim in this book has been to put the events I witnessed in 1991 into their historical context, to highlight the previous turning points in Russia’s history, those ‘moments of unruly destiny’ when she could have gone either way – down the path of reform that might have made her a liberal democracy, or down the continuing path of autocracy, at times totalitarian, repressive and dictatorial.’’

As the author makes clear, he was there. Sixsmith lived alongside Russia’s most acute clash of ideologies during the early nineties; which, as he goes on to reveal in chapter thirty-eight, remained just as riddled with inadvertent reluctance and uncertainty as was (historically) expected: ‘’Having lived through the Gorbachev years in Russia, it seems to me that Gorbachev was obliged to embark on a policy of change because of he Soviet Union’s parlous economy, but that he intended this to be only ‘within system’ change, revitalising the one-party state by unleashing a measure initiative, energy and enterprise. In a political culture that refused to acknowledge its shortcomings, he was unwilling even to use the word ‘reform,’ referring instead to uskorenie (acceleration) or perestroika (restructuring).

Russia – A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East is a very substantial reminder of how much the country, along with all former Warsaw Pact countries, has changed – especially since the end of the Second World War. For this reason alone, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Russia’s troubled past and history, politics and religiosity, folklore and social policy.

If nothing else, the book most certainly weaves an interesting course throughout all of these topics, without ever getting too entangled in any particular area.

David Marx

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