I.i. Russian History Portal
Russian history is, perhaps, one of the most interesting fields of historical study today. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century academia, unlike its contemporary counterpart, largely held Russian history before the eighteenth century in either disregard or outright contempt; traditional portrayals of both the Russian principalities and the Tsardom of Russia characterized the former as irrelevant medieval backwaters, and the latter as an "Oriental" and "despotic" state lacking in personal freedom, economic innovation, and the "comforts" of Western Europe which are supposedly indicitave of a given society's "progress". Of course, these one-dimensional portrayals are, frankly, caricatures which fail to highlight the unique parts of Russian society, and, are examples of the academic laziness that is, thankfully, much less prevalent in contemporary publications.
Unfortunately, though, popular portrayals of Russian history, especially by journalists and other writers who have not studied Russian history, are populated with myths and misconceptions that have been discounted for years in more reliable sources. Ivan IV, for example, holds the brunt of this criticism, being portrayed as a "tyrant", "strongman", and "despot", and Western sources have not ceased to berate the Russian government for rehabilitating Russia's "terrible" Tsar, and, of course, have simply dismissed the movement as similar to an attempt to "rehabilitate Stalin". (Ironically, any current efforts to rehabilitate Stalin taken by the current Russian government are much less extensive than Stalin's effort to rehabilitate Ivan IV.)
This page, naturally, will attempt to present a more realistic picture of Russian history, especially before the Petrine era. This does not mean that the material here is plainly "unbaised" or does not include the dreaded "value judgements" decried by contemporary historians. I have, however, at least attempted to form a view on Russian society based on historical precedent, rather than misconceptions or blatant falsehoods. There are plenty of resources where one may find the "liberal" views on Russian history, and I will not attempt to catalogue all of them here, but at least some of them will be included for posterity.
- Riasanovsky, Nicholas; Steinberg, Mark - A History of Russia. Despite the pretentious title, this is probably the best short Russian history available in English. The text, published by Oxford University Press, is among the most popular texts used to teach Russian history at a university level, and provides a broad overview of the development of the various Russian states, from Kiev and Novgorod to the Soviet Union (though, of course, Soviet history is its own field and deserves its own writings, and the information in this book regarding the Union is rather spare.)
- de Madariaga, Isabel - Ivan the Terrible. There is no truly satisfactory biography of Ivan IV in English. de Madariaga's work is, however, certainly the best academic biography of Ivan published in the West. As the vast majority of current Russian scholarship on this period is completely untranslated, de Madariaga spends a significant amount of time detailing current views held by Russian historians, but the fact that virtually all of these works are unavailable to non-Russian-speakers makes most of these references practically useless. The book's prose is also quite dry, and the text reads much more like a handbook than a captivating story.
- Riasanovsky, Nicholas - Nicholas I and Official Nationality in Russia, 1825-1855. It's an interesting book, somewhere between a biography of Nicholas I and an essay on his state ideology ("Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality") and how it was expressed in his policies. It covers the development of the Official Nationality through its most important ideologues while telling the story of Nicholas's reign. It's written by the co-author of A History of Russia (at least in that book's earlier editions.)
- McMeekin, Sean - The Russian Revolution: A New History. English readers lack a brief and accessible text discussing the twilight of Emperor Nicholas II's reign and the Revolution(s) in Russia. McMeekin's text paints the broad strokes by taking the period point-by-point, discussing most major events sequentially. More importantly, it addresses some of the major errors which have entered into the historical record or into American popular culture, such as the supposed famine in Petrograd, that the Jewish Labour Bund withdrew from the Social Democratic Labour Party because they objected to Lenin's concept of the Central Committee, or that the Russian Empire was simply a "feudal backwater". There are some times when McMeekin writes more as an apologist than he ought to be; for example, in one section he remarked that most of the criticisms of the Empire's stability were just hindsight bias. However correct this assessment may be, those sorts of criticisms are still true and cannot simply be ignored. Overall a good introduction, not worth reading if you already know about it.
- Cracraft, James - The Church Reform of Peter the Great. This book is a perfect example of why someone who writes on Russian history, especially ecclesial history, should be Orthodox, or at least have a deep understanding of Orthodox dogma, as well as of the Russian ecclesiastical tradition. To be frank, I did not finish this book, mainly because of this issue. To give one example, Cracraft asserts that "the dogmas or basic tenants of the Orthodox faith, as embodied in the doctrinal definitions of the ecumenical councils, in the teachings of the Fathers, and in the various doctrinal statements formulated up to Peter's time" were "never explicitly questioned or repudiated" (pp. 27). Cracraft cites Metropolitan Ware's The Orthodox Church, which can hardly be considered a deeply academic work, nor can it be considered any sort of systematic or developed treatise on Orthodox ecclesial history, patrology, or canon law. My edition of The Orthodox Church, published by Penguin Books one year after the London original, does not support Cracraft's citation, but says the exact opposite. Whatever information Cracraft cited may have been added in a later edition, but such an addition would be absolutely unjustified, as this assertion is completely incorrect. One of the first acts of the All-Russian Sobor of 1917-18 was to declare the Petrine system completely uncanonical and disordered. Unfortunately, however, Cracraft's work remains the most often-cited history of Peter's church reforms in the West, and, furthermore, the assertion that Peter showed no disregard for the dogmas of the Orthodox Church developed further into one that Peter showed no disregard for both the doctrines and canons of the Orthodox Church, which is blatantly and obviously ridiculous, but was repeated by my former university's Russian history professor, and is also contained on the Wikipedia page for Peter's church reform.
Articles and Essays, and Podcasts
- Johnson, Matthew Raphael - "Was There a Mongol Yoke? The Historical Difficulties with the Mongol Invasion of Russia". This is an interesting article for several reasons, but mainly because it is absolutely wrong. I will try to avoid posting too much of Dr. Johnson's stuff on here, as this isn't an MRJ hatepage or anything whatsoever of the sort, but it shows how historical arguments absolutely should not work. I can't address everything in this paper, mainly because Dr. Johnson cites untranslated Russian sources (which is probably the largest problem with Russian history in English today), but also because most of the links he provides are simply dead. If you'd like, read my response to this article here.
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