An ambitious attempt to explain the essence of the Russian people and their empire.
Hosking (History/Univ. of London) builds on the central question posed in Russia: People and Empire 1552–1917 (1997): How do the Russians define themselves—by geography, language, culture, or empire? Not surprisingly (considering the nation’s vast land mass, generally unforgiving climate, and often hostile neighbors), geography ranks high here. Despite its autocratic history, the Russian empire has always been essentially decentralized, with the village at its core. Although governing elites made numerous attempts to impose their will on the people, whether through Soviet collectivization or Peter the Great’s reforms, in Hosking’s view these efforts typically succumbed to failure for a number of reasons, the most obvious being inadequate infrastructure but the most telling being the masses’ innate distrust of the elites. The concept of pravda (defined by Hosking as “the collective wisdom of the community”) informed the core of Russian values—not the decrees emanating from Moscow. From the perspective of the peasant, change meant risk, and in a life of precarious subsistence, risk was unacceptable. Of course, the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled did not completely protect the powerless; in the last century alone, collectivization and war caused tremendous suffering. Moreover, the inability of the ruling class to impose reforms meant that the nation lagged consistently behind the West with respect to material comforts. Given the scope of his subject, it goes without saying that the preceding observations represent but one of many themes developed at length by Hosking. Though his thinking is often unconventional, he organizes his account in a traditional manner, taking his structure from the successive governments that tried to control the vast empire.
Exhaustive and thought-provoking, but also a surprisingly good introduction for the lay reader. (34 halftones, 14 maps, 1 table, not seen)