Review of “Russia: A Short History (New Edition)” by Abraham Ascher

Abraham Ascher, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, has covered the whole sweep of Russian history in only 252 pages, from the rise of Kiev in the 9th century to the early 21st century. In painting with such a broad brush, he must omit a lot of detail, but for the general reader, this book is an excellent introduction to Russia’s past.

It is difficult to summarize a book that is itself a summary, so I will just point out a few of Ascher’s observations that I found enlightening. Because of its enormous size (nearly three times that of the United States), Russia sits astride both Europe and Asia. One organizing principle of Ascher’s book is how this geography causes Russia’s personality (if a state can be said to have one) to be split between East and West.

The Mongol invasions of the 13th century cut Russia off from significant influence from the West for hundreds of years. As such, “Russia remained largely unaffected by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth, and the Enlightenment of the eighteenth, all movements that promoted individualism and rationalism.” Ivan IV (the “Terrible”), who ruled in the mid-16th century, was essentially an Oriental Potentate. Only with the accession of Peter the Great in the late 17th century did Russia begin to look to the West for inspiration.

Peter the Great

Since the book was first published in 2002, the author has little to say about the regime of Vladimir Putin. The book concludes with a discussion of Boris Yeltsin’s reign and with the proposition that the “central concern of Russian political leaders and intellectuals…is [whether Russia is a] part of the West or does it belong culturally to the East?” It may have seemed that the fall of communism in 1991 represented a movement toward the West, but Ascher observes, “Putin has steadily moved Russia back to the Byzantine tradition,” which he characterizes as one marked by “irrationality, mystery, and contempt for society.” Ascher also refers to Putin’s “vulgarity and his disdain for the democratic process.” Regardless of whether those observations have any grounding in truth, it is clear Ascher is contemptuous of Putin, and unlikely to give him credit for any advances the country has made under his leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

Ascher closes with the observation:

It will be some time—perhaps decades—before we know whether the Western traditions of freedom of the individual and private property, which animated the revolution 1991, have struck deep roots in Russia, providing the country with the preconditions for a stable democracy and flourishing economy.”

In that paragraph, Ascher also reveals his biases toward a Western concept of what constitutes a good society. While Americans may presume that all countries around the world would love to have a capitalist democracy if only they could, the fact is that populations abroad, particularly in countries that prize community over individualism, have repeatedly rejected this assumption.

Vladimir Putin enjoys an enormous popularity in Russia. The people, especially in the big cities, have embraced capitalism with enthusiasm, but they may not represent the entire country. The next several years will be very interesting.

Evaluation: This overview of Russian history is useful, but read it with caution: it has a strong Western bias, which colors the author’s analysis.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Oneworld Publications, revised edition, 2009

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