Former BBC Moscow correspondent Sixsmith charts a millennium of one-step-forward, two-steps-back Russian progress.
Communism has long gone by the wayside in most of the former Soviet Union, writes the author, but the authoritarian, if not totalitarian, impulse remains strong. Even when Nikita Khrushchev made his celebrated four-hour-long denunciation of his predecessor Stalin in 1956, it was a compromise, since “its focus was on the repression of Communist Party personnel, rather than the sufferings of the ordinary people”—and it gave the speaker an excuse to say he didn’t know what was going on. This tendency to absolutism—to “what Russians refer to as silnaya ruka, the iron fist of centralised power”—stretches back, as Sixsmith conceives the historical arc, to the days of Mongol rule and even before. Where the Mongols left Russia a smoking ruin, almost all the rulers who followed revisited the harshness on everyone they ruled. They also tended to apologize for one another; one of the many whip-smart sequences of Sixsmith’s long book finds Stalin upbraiding filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein for being too hard on Ivan the Terrible, down to the point of making “Ivan’s beard too long and pointy.” Just so, these days Vladimir Putin is making kind noises about V.I. Lenin, one of a succession of red emperors. Against this Sixsmith traces countercurrents of liberalism and enlightenment, noting that the great subject of Russian culture is Russia herself and that against the prevailing absolutism has always pulsed a softly democratic current.
A compelling look at Russian history by a practiced Russia hand—though some would complain that Sixsmith comes down a little too hard on Mikhail Gorbachev, even without a long, pointy beard.