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Russia, by Dmitri Trenin; published by Polity, pp 212

The activities of Russia under Vladimir Putin are rarely out of the news, and it seems that when they are in the news, it is not for good reasons. It is apocryphal that the Chinese curse their enemies by wishing them ‘interesting times’. But Russia’s times over the last century have been, by British standards, far too ‘interesting’.

And it is these ‘interesting times’ that this book covers. It is a necessarily brief chronological survey of Russian history from 1900 to the present day. So the reader will see Russia from Imperial Autocracy, through revolution, war, collapse, more revolution, civil war, Marxist dictatorship of varying levels of lethality including more war, and more collapse, to end up the authoritarian quasi-autocracy clawing itself back to Great Power status that it currently appears to be.

This is a book for the general reader who has no books on the shelf about Russian history, but for an armchair Sovietologist such as myself it also has value in providing a useful summary of post-Soviet Russia from Yeltsin to Putin. The book is definitely not written from an Anglocentric viewpoint as it skims rather lightly over the depravity of the various successive Russian states. But that is not unreasonable in a general survey. Dwelling on the various mass killings, from political prisoners through social groups to whole ethnicities, would have altered the tone. This is a work that looks at the history as a matter of fact but without passing too much judgment. There is a section at the back that points to further reading and mentions good sources, such as Conquest and Hosking, for those who want to know more about the horror and stagnation of communism in Russia. I have previously written about the appalling way history is taught in state schools, and this book would be especially useful as a corrective for teenage students, prompting them to investigate further or be able to hold a proper discussion. It has a clear, quick narrative style without being targeted at a youth audience.

The most interesting observation Trenin makes, perhaps helping define Russia for the English reader, is how large the state has always loomed for the ordinary Russian. Here in the UK, the growth of the state was a consequence of world war, and its intrusion always seems to be a tad un-British. In Russia, the state and its agents with varying degrees of competence, honesty, mercy or otherwise, have apparently always been a feature of everyday life. An example of this would be how every successive Russian state has had a system of internal passports which controlled migration within Russia’s borders. This would be the equivalent of a person here requiring an official document to give them the right to move from Heckmondwike to live and work in Hackney.

There is also discussion about the different priorities that Russians have. They value political stability of any kind, as well as a state that will deter invasion. The latter is not too surprising. The length of Russia’s border exceeds that of the Equator. As an island race, this is a perspective we have only when there is rising belligerence from directly across the English Channel or North Sea. In Russia people apparently have this apprehension all the time.

So, have you not gone on your hols? Don’t fancy a doorstop novel as your next read? Interested in global affairs but need a primer on why Russia acts the way it does? Tired of browsing your smartphone on the Tube and want something you can concentrate on? Then this is the book for you. It is a good introduction to the growth of the other superpower as well as providing an insight into its driving forces. Enjoy.

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