THE ORIGINS OF AUTOCRACY: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History by Alexander Yanov

THE ORIGINS OF AUTOCRACY: Ivan the Terrible in Russian History

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Exiled Russian journalist Yanov is driven by the conviction that history, and its interpretation, has a palpable influence on our actions in the present and future. Unfortunately, he expends much of his energy on strawmen: preeminently, Soviet historians. He considers it paradoxical that they hold up Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible, as a great leader and praise his war against the Germanic peoples of Europe--when it was this war that opened up Russia to attack from the south and east, resulted in the eclipse of Russian power (until the arrival of Peter), brought about the ""deEuropeanization"" of Russia, and, most crucially, brought on autocratic rule. This, of course, is his interpretation, not theirs; the ""paradox"" is of his own making. Then, to make his salient point about ""autocracy,"" Yanow laboriously rebuts Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism (another strawman--since no one any longer takes it seriously), arguing that Ivan's Russia was not despotic in Wittfogel's sense: i.e., it was not unchanging as a result of the annihilation of economic innovation through collapse of the economy into the state. Neither was it absolutist, on the European model, with the aristocracy serving as a buffer between monarch and masses. Instead, he terms it ""autocratic"" and its leader an ""autocrator."" The autocratic state is characterized by revolutions from above, by change instituted by the state--as per Ivan's enserfment of Russia's peasants. Or, Stalin's collectivization. The connection, manifestly, is there from the outset. Removed from its polemical shell, all of this is plausible; but there is a lot of polemics--much debunking of the Soviet historians' praise of Ivan, much destruction of their version of the greatness of the Ivanian state. What's left, however, is provocative.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Univ. of California Press