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Response to Review no. 34


I am grateful for Gatrell’s painstaking summary of my book, which I think readers will find useful. All the same, I sense a mismatch between my intentions and his perceptions. He generously praises me as a ‘consummate storyteller’ and implies that narrative is the book’s main strength, while on theory it is relatively weak. If that is the case, I confess that I shall be disappointed. What I tried to do in this book was to provide a new framework for an overall interpretation of Russian history, at least since the sixteenth century. Relatively new only, of course: no one can be (or should be) completely original in enterprises of this kind, and I have learnt much from previous historians, including Pipes and Billington, both of whom Gatrell mentions. I think those debts are clear from the citations in the end-notes. But the synthesis I have put together derives from some thirty years of teaching, reading and thinking about Russia and its strange history, and from sensing that something crucially important was not being articulated in more than passing fashion by the existing standard works. The result, I believe, is a polemical – and perhaps one-sided – work, buttressed by a lot of empirical evidence. For me, that is to say, the overall thesis is more important than the narrative.

What I am asserting is that ‘autocracy’ and ‘backwardness’, both of which are almost invariably put forward as permanent and unchangeable features of Russia, are in fact not primary, but are themselves a product of the chronic conflict between people (or potential nation) and empire. Gatrell would have liked me to ‘make greater use of theoretical approaches to social and national identity’, but I did in fact dedicate the introduction to surveying the theories of nationhood which have become current in the last twenty or thirty years, and to relating them to Russia. I even rushed in where angels fear to tread and tried to define the concept of ‘nation’, which is further than most social scientists will go. Perhaps indeed I should have integrated these concepts ‘more closely into the complex web of historical narrative’, but in my experience, where theory and narrative are too closely intertwined, the result tends to be distortion and over determination. All the same, I believe sufficient of the preliminary theoretical framework remains in the main passages of exposition.

Gatrell reproaches me for not having any clear sense of what Russian national identity might have been without empire, or at any rate of only putting forward ‘slippery kinds of self-definition’. In fact I set out at some length how Metropolitan Makarii tried in the mid-sixteenth century to provide Russians with a national identity. At its centre was the idea of Moscow as the inheritor of a religious mission derived from Byzantium Moscow the Third Rome in fact. It was an eschatological vision, and also an exclusive and isolationist one, which rendered it ultimately inappropriate for an empire which had to both incorporate and have contact with many diverse peoples. But while it lasted, it was propounded every day in the churches, and there is every reason to suppose that it had resonance among ordinary people. It was repudiated, however, by the imperial state and the church in the mid-seventeenth century, generating a lasting schism within the Russian national consciousness.

I tried also to give precise content to the ‘slippery’ Russian concept of ‘communal solidarity’ in the institution of ‘mutual responsibility’, which had existed embryonically from earliest times, but which was reinforced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as it was especially convenient to an imperial state which wished to tax its citizens heavily and to recruit huge armies from among them. Most of Part 3, Chapter 3, on the peasantry, is devoted to explaining the implications of ‘mutual responsibility’ for the peasants’ customs and way of life, and in showing how it inclined them to a view of politics, law and social cohesion which was incompatible with that held in St Petersburg or the numerous manor houses of European Russia. That incompatibility I see as a fundamental cause of the 1917 revolution

I readily accept that I should have written about most of the things Gatrell complains I have omitted, but then the book would have been a thousand pages long instead of just over five hundred! I constantly struggled with the temptation to try and write a complete history of Russia. But, although the theme of ‘people and empire’ is pretty pervasive, not quite everything in Russian history is relevant. For example I deliberately omitted any serious discussion of gender issues, for which Gatrell berates me.

However, I especially regret not having said anything about music – and here Gatrell is quite right: I would have given a lot of attention to Musorgskii. I have a feeling that in Boris Godunov and especially Khovanshchina he was trying to say something about the way in which the state overshadowed the people and caused ancient Russian traditions to be trodden under foot. But in the end I decided it was better to concentrate on literature, the most important branch of culture in projecting Russian national identity, and to say something connected and reasonably fully developed about that, rather than to give scrappy accounts of all fields of culture.

Gatrell makes a telling point in suggesting that the people of some other European countries were also slow to develop a sense of national identity. French peasants ‘became Frenchmen’ only in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, as Eugene Weber has shown. It may indeed be true that Russian peasants were only a few decades behind them in that respect. But those few decades were crucial, as can be seen from a simple comparison of what happened in the two countries in 1917. In France there was a major mutiny in the army, but the generals were eventually able to restore order by, among other things, appealing to a shared sense of national identity. In Russia the attempt to do something similar did not work, because Russian peasant-soldiers were less susceptible to that kind of appeal. The result was that a revolution which started in the towns gained its depth in the countryside. Class struggle was important in Russia, but it was part of something even bigger: peasants and workers felt that nobility and bourgeoisie (or burzhui, as they liked indiscriminately and contemptuously to dub them) were not only exploiting them but alien to them. Disraeli may have felt that Britain was ‘two nations’, but all the same nineteenth century English workers expressed their discontent through the Chartist movement, which aimed to get them votes in parliamentary elections. In other words, English workers observed the same basic ground-rules as their social superiors; Russian peasants did not. That is a crucial difference.

Contrary to what Gatrell suggests, I have tried to argue the case for supposing that imperial expansion and administration obstructed economic growth in two ways: (i) by imposing very heavy levels of taxation on peasants and townsfolk – a persistent theme throughout the book, and (ii) by distracting landowners from the efficient stewardship of their estates: I suggest on pp. 162-4 that they were run essentially as overgrown peasant holdings, with little attempt at modernisation. This inefficient use of resources, I suggest, seriously delayed the application of capital to either the modernisation of agriculture or the expansion of industry. The argument is not new, but I have tried to link it to the theme of empire. I do not deny that Russia’s economy has usually been backward, but the real question is why all attempts to modernise it end up by replicating that backwardness. I am suggesting that the real reason is the burden of empire.

Some fascinating questions remain. I believe Russia had little choice but to build an empire – or to become a tiny part of someone else’s – with all the consequences I set out. Although my diagnosis of Russia’s difficulties has much in common with Solzhenitsyn’s, I do not share Solzhenitsyn’s view that there was an obvious alternative: namely to renounce empire and concentrate on national revival. At least, not until the present. But today, we are genuinely in a new situation. There is no major geo-strategic threat to Russia, such as requires it to remain an empire, still less to try to recreate a former empire. Russia for the first time in its history has the luxury of being able to concentrate on becoming a nation-state of the kind which makes all its citizens feel they have a stake in it. It certainly hasn’t succeeded in achieving that yet, but if my main thesis is correct, it has the chance to do so now, and thereby to banish for good the dual spectres of autocracy and backwardness.