Leesfragment: The Story of Russia

06 september 2022 , door Orlando Figes
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Nu in onze boekhandels: Orlando Figes’ The Story of Russia én de Nederlandse vertaling door Frank Lekens en Toon Dohmen, Het verhaal van Rusland. Lees een deel van de inleiding in vertaling én in het oorspronkelijke Engels.

From the great storyteller of Russia, a spellbinding account of the stories that have shaped the country's past - and how they can inform its present.

No other country has been so divided over its own past as Russia. None has changed its story so often. 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. To understand what Russia's future holds - to grasp what Putin's regime means for Russia and the world - we need to unravel the ideas and meanings of that history.

In The Story of Russia, Orlando Figes brings into sharp relief the vibrant characters that comprise Russia's rich history, and whose stories remain so important in making sense of the world's largest nation today - from the crowning of sixteen-year-old Ivan the Terrible in a candlelit cathedral, to Catherine the Great, riding out in a green uniform to arrest her husband at his palace, to the bitter last days of the Romanovs.

Beautifully written and based on a lifetime of scholarship, The Story of Russia is a major and definitive work from the great storyteller of Russian history: sweeping, suspenseful, masterful.

N.B. We publiceerden eerder op onze site voor uit Europeanen. Joop Hopster besprak The Whisperers / De fluisteraars en Crimea / De Krimoorlog.



On a cold and grey November morning, in 2016, a small crowd gathered on a snow-cleared square in front of the Kremlin in Moscow. They were there to witness the unveiling of a monument to Grand Prince Vladimir, the ruler of Kievan Rus, ‘the first Russian state’, between 980 and 1015. According to legend, Vladimir was baptised in the Crimea, then part of the Byzantine Empire, in 988, thus beginning the conversion of his people to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Russia’s main religious leaders – the patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia, the Catholic ordinariate, the grand mufti, the chief rabbi and the head of the Buddhist Sangha – were all in attendance in their multicoloured robes.
The bronze figure, bearing cross and sword, stood at over twenty metres tall. It was the latest in a long series of elephantine shrines to Vladimir, all erected since the fall of Communism in the same kitsch ‘Russian’ national style developed in the nineteenth century. Other Russian towns – Belgorod, Vladimir, Astrakhan, Bataisk and Smolensk – had built monuments to the grand prince with funding from the state and public subscriptions. The Moscow statue was fi nanced by the Ministry of Culture, a military history society and a motorcycle club.
Another Vladimir, President Putin, gave the opening address. Even as he spoke he managed to look bored. He seemed to want the ceremony to be done as soon as possible – perhaps the reason why it started earlier than planned, when the film director Fedor Bondarchuk, who had vocally supported the recent Russian annexation of Ukrainian Crimea, invited Vladimir Vladimirovich to the microphone. Reading in a flat tone from his script, Putin noted the symbolism of the date for this unveiling, 4 November, Russia’s Day of National Unity. The grand prince, he proclaimed, had ‘gathered and defended Russia’s lands’ by ‘founding a strong, united and centralised state, incorporating diverse peoples, languages, cultures and religions into one enormous family’. The three modern countries that could trace their origins to Kievan Rus – Russia, Belarus and Ukraine – were all members of this family, Putin continued. They were a single people, or nation, sharing the same Christian principles, the same culture and language, which, he suggested, formed the Slavic bedrock of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. His point was echoed by the patriarch Kirill, who spoke next. If Vladimir had chosen to remain a pagan, or had converted only for himself, ‘there would be no Russia, no great Russian Empire, no contemporary Russia’.
Natalia Solzhenitsyn, the writer’s widow, gave the third and final speech, short and different in tone. The traumatic history of Russia’s twentieth century had, she said, divided the country, and ‘of all our disagreements, none is more divisive than our past’. She ended with a call to ‘respect our history’, which meant not just taking pride in it but ‘honestly and bravely judging evil, not justifying it or sweeping it under the carpet to hide it from view’. Putin looked uncomfortable.
The Ukrainians were furious. They had their own statue of the grand prince, Volodymyr as they call him. It was built in 1853, when Ukraine had been part of the Russian Empire, high up on the right bank of the Dnieper River overlooking Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the statue had became a symbol of the country’s independence from Russia. Within minutes of the ceremony’s closing in Moscow, Ukraine’s official Twitter account posted a picture of the Kiev monument with a tweet in English: ‘Don’t forget what [the] real Prince Volodymyr monument looks like.’ The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, elected in the wake of the 2014 Maidan revolution, accused the Kremlin of appropriating Ukraine’s history, comparing its ‘imperial’ behaviour to the Russian annexation of the Crimea, part of sovereign Ukraine, just before his election.
Kiev and Moscow had been fighting over Volodymyr/Vladimir for several years. The monument in Moscow had been made a metre taller than the one in Kiev, as if to assert the primacy of Russia’s claim to the grand prince. While Putin had enlisted Vladimir as the founder of the modern Russian state, the Ukrainians claimed Volodymyr as their own, the ‘creator of the medieval European state of Rus-Ukraine’, as he had been described by Poroshenko in a 2015 decree on the millennium of the grand prince’s death in 1015 (the fact that the term ‘Ukraine’ would not appear in written sources until the end of the twelfth century – and then only in the sense of okraina, an old Slav word for ‘periphery’ or ‘borderland’ – was conveniently overlooked). A few months later, Poroshenko added that Volodymyr’s decision to baptise Kievan Rus had been ‘not only a cultural or political decision, but a European choice’ by which Kiev had joined the Christian civilisation of Byzantium. The message was clear: Ukraine wanted to be part of Europe, not a Russian colony. Both sides were calling on the history of Kievan Rus – a history they share – to reimagine narratives of national identity they could use for their own nationalist purposes. Historically, of course, it makes little sense to talk of either ‘Russia’ or ‘Ukraine’ as a nation or a state in the tenth century (or indeed at any time during the medieval period). What we have in the confl ict over Volodymyr/ Vladimir is not a genuine historical dispute, but two incompatible foundation myths.
The Kremlin’s version – that the Russians, the Ukrainians and the Belarusians were all originally one nation – was invoked to validate its claim to a ‘natural’ sphere of interest (by which it meant a right of interference) in Ukraine and Belarus. Like many Russians of his generation, schooled in Soviet views of history, Putin never really recognised the independence of Ukraine. As late as 2008, he told the US president that Ukraine was ‘not a real country’ but a historic part of greater Russia, a borderland protecting Moscow’s heartlands from the West.



© 2022 Orlando Figes

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