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A sobering account: Richard Bacon reviews Orlando Figes' 'The Story of Russia'

3 min read

A timely reminder of the malign uses to which history can be put, Orlando Figes examines the origins of modern Russia and the myths Vladimir Putin is using to shape the present as an excuse for conquest

All countries have foundation myths. But as Orlando Figes argues in this excellent survey of Russian history over 1,200 years, no other country has been so divided over its own beginnings. None has changed its story so often. And how the Russians came to tell their story – and to reinvent it as they went along – is a vital aspect of their history, their culture, and beliefs. The subject is inseparable from myth.

The Primary Chronicle – compiled in the 1110s by monks in Kyiv – tells of a concordat reached in 862 between warring Slavic tribes and a group of Viking princes. The chronicle was a patchwork of narrative poems, epic songs, Norse sagas, Slav folklore, old Byzantine annals and religious texts. Nothing in it can be taken as fact.

But in the first half of the 18th century, when history writing in Russia was in its infancy, a German scholar called Gerhard Friedrich Müller scandalised the newly founded St Petersburg Academy of Sciences by concluding, based on his readings of the chronicle, that the Russians owed their origins to the Vikings. After Russia’s recent victory in a war against Sweden, this was not the moment to suggest that Russia was created by the Swedes. A rival in the academy, Mikhail Lomonosov, accused Müller of denigrating the Slavs by portraying them as savages, incapable of organising their own state. Lomonosov insisted that the Russians were not Vikings but Baltic Slavs, descendants of the Iranian Roxolani tribe, whose history went back to the Trojan Wars.

The debate on Russia’s origins has continued to this day. At its heart is the question of whether Russia was created by the Russians or by foreigners. And today the role of history in debates is more important than ever. In Vladimir Putin’s system – where there are no left-right party divisions, no competing ideologies to frame debate, and no publicly agreed meaning for concepts such as “democracy” or “freedom” – the discourse of politics is defined by ideas of the country’s past.

The discourse of politics is defined by ideas of the country’s past

The book emphasises the immensity of the Mongol impact and the years during which people in the north-east succumbed to the great Asian empire built by Genghis Khan. Although north-eastern Russians lost their independence and their contacts with the West, they kept their religion.

This conferred a huge symbolic importance on the eventual conquest of the city of Kazan, celebrated as a providential victory for the Orthodox. It gave the Tsar a new status, increasing his prestige among the steppe nomads as a legitimate successor to the Mongol khans, at the same time as confirming his imperial claim to be a universal Christian ruler, heir to the emperor of Byzantium.

Yet the history of Russia’s links with Byzantium and Kievan Rus is interpreted in diametrically opposed ways by Russia and Ukraine, to mean either that the three modern countries that can trace their origins to Kievan Rus – Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine – are all part of one enormous Christian family, or to mean that Ukraine made a choice centuries ago to be part of Europe. 

This book is a sobering reminder of the malign uses to which history can be put. And as Figes concludes, the current unnecessary war with Ukraine – unless it is soon stopped – will destroy the best parts of Russia, which have enriched Europe for 1,000 years.

Richard Bacon is Conservative MP for South Norfolk and vice chair of the Russia APPG

'The Story of Russia'
Written by: Orlando Figes
Publisher: Bloomsbury

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