The Story of Russia
by Orlando Figes
Published by Bloomsbury (London 2022), pp. 348, price £25.00
Reviewed by Colin Shindler
Why is Russia as it is — from holy Tsars to Soviet commissars to Putin’s nationalists? The historian Orlando Figes’s latest book provides fascinating insights into this contemporary conundrum.
All countries are embedded in national myths. Yet as Figes adds further: ‘No other country has reimagined its own past so frequently’.
Putin, for instance, has heavily promoted the belief that Russia, Ukraine and Belarus were once a single nation, based on Christian values and led by its founder, Grand Prince Vladimir. The cult of Vladimir was actually instigated in more recent times by Ivan the Terrible in order to cement the expanding Russian empire’s sacred origins. Today statues of Vladimir appear in many a town square in Russia — even though little is known about him historically.
Within this world view, Jews were always considered to be outsiders and Christ-killers, caught between wars against the Poles and marooned in the struggles between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Cossack army murdered 60,000 Jews. Catherine the Great welcomed German immigrants, but banned Jews from Moscow. The Tsars legislated some 1400 different statutes and regulations, designed to keep the Jews in their place. They were forbidden to own land, serve in the army, join the civil service and subjected to a quota system for entry to universities.
Ironically Putin has promoted the victory of the Red Army over Nazism in 1945 to make Russians feel good about themselves in 2022. Unsuprisingly, he has been less vocal on Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler between 1939 and 1941 is omitted. in which it was agreed to divide Poland and so hand over millions of Jews into the genocidal welcome of the SS is airbrushed out of the narrative.
Figes notes that any different interpretation of the Great Patriotic War can earn five years in prison, according to the Russian Criminal Code. Drawing attention to the Nazi-Soviet pact, produced 25 convictions between 2015 and 2019 — the one acquittal was that of a nationalist writer who spoke of ‘the so-called Holocaust’ as ‘a shameless swindle’ perpetrated by the Jews.
Figes argues that Putin has deliberately elevated Stalin as a strong man who made Russia great again and denigrated ‘weak-willed liberals’ such as Gorbachev and Yeltsin who catalysed the collapse of the USSR.
His belief in Russkiy Mir — the Russian world encompassing the millions of Russians who today live outside the actual borders of Russia. This opens the way to further attacks on countries where there are Russian minorities. The Story of Russia is a truly incisive and important dissection of Russia’s troubled past, both real and mythical. It also provides a crucial context for understanding the present.
Jewish Chronicle 7 October 2022