The book is an intriguing new narrative of the largest country on the planet. Although no longer a superpower, Russia has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and holds tightly to the conviction that enemies surround it. There is no shortage of histories, but this one is a useful addition to the shelves. Braithwaite, the British ambassador to Russia from 1988 to 1992, begins after 800 C.E., when Vikings from Scandinavia moved east, mixing with Slavs and warring against Persia and Byzantium.
The capital was Kyiv; and Kievan Rus, not a coherent state but a collection of princely domains bound by loyalty to the Grand Prince of Kyiv,” occupied a huge area and distanced itself from Catholic Europe. After 1200, the Mongols emerged from Asia and annihilated everything in sight. When their influence declined by 1400, numerous principalities emerged. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great aggressively expanded the territory, and 18th-century Russia became a European power.
The French Revolution and Napoleon traumatized its rulers, who mercilessly suppressed 19th-century reformers. By 1900, industrialization produced some prosperity, but the antediluvian autocracy refused to adapt and then made the disastrous decision to declare war on Germany in 1914. Braithwaite authoritatively describes the following century, during which very little went right, from the revolution to Stalin. At the expense of unspeakable suffering, much of it unnecessary, Stalin strengthened the Soviets enough to fend off Hitler’s invasion in 1945.
The victory was glorious, but the economy remained dysfunctional. As the author notes, “Russian history for the next four decades was a story of inadequate attempts to fix the system.” Many Russians cheered the Soviet Union’s collapse but there followed a decade of misery before another autocrat took over. Putin’s vision to regain superpower status requires winning wars. Braithwaite emphasizes that this is a risky tactic and despite hopes, no one knows how his efforts will turn out. The Weekender