The Penguin History of Modern Russia by Robert Service
‘These are unusual times to be studying Russia even by Russian standards,’ wrote Robert Service in 1998 in the first edition of The History of Modern Russia. The phrase was more apposite still in 2009 when he published this updated version. By then Russia had planted its tricolours on the seabed of the North Pole, a fitting symbol of the immense power and wealth pouring out of an increasingly assured and belligerent nation. Now things in Europe’s eastern frontier have taken a turn that perhaps not even Service would have predicted; indeed, in his first afterword he wrote, ‘Eastern Europe, so long under the USSR’s heel, is not menaced by reconquest.’
To be fair to Service, much of Russian history has been unpredictable, sometimes comically so. ‘The Allied ambassadors in Petrograd [St Petersburg] did not know whether to laugh or cry,’ he writes of the first days following the October Revolution. Nobody saw Lenin’s putsch coming; nobody thought it would last. And as the great socialist orator slowly expired, who would have guessed that a slightly deformed and heavily pockmarked former theology student from Georgia would be able to out-manoeuvre the dashing and heroic Trotsky and rule with an iron fist for nearly 30 years? Completing the circle at the turn of the century, even those familiar with the ‘giddying carousel on the fairground of Russian governance’ were shocked when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister.
As one reads Service’s crisp and erudite history, one realises that Putin, now in his second stint as President of the Russian Federation, represents a curious amalgamation of the eight men who have led this vast land mass since the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. Where the former KGB officer differs considerably is in his physique. Learning of Yeltsin’s pathetic alcoholism, Brezhnev’s embarrassingly bloated body, the rapid expiration of Andropov and Chernenko, the alarming mental frailty of Stalin and the notoriously low life expectancy of Russian males as a whole, one realises that Putin’s desire to be photographed topless astride a horse is an attempt to (as it were) embody a break with the weak and sickly past. The new Russia is fit and virile and has no intention of bowing out early.
‘But what on earth was Russia? And what was Russia’s part in the Soviet Union?’ With Russian troops currently massed on Ukraine’s eastern border the first question in particular has acquired a new fascination and urgency. The answer, like so many issues in the USSR, is complex and combustible. From the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, to the USSR, to the Commonwealth of Independent States and, finally, to the Russian Federation, the sense of Russian identity may have become clearer after decades of being ‘perennially manipulated by official interventions,’ but there is also a sense that history is repeating itself. ‘No imperial power before the First World War was more reviled in Europe than the Russian Empire,’ writes Service in the opening chapter.
‘Russia is under the spotlight in this book. But the history of Russia is inseparable from the history of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States.’ Whatever its form, the country is the largest that exists or has ever existed, with a sprawling and tragic history to match. The event that started it, the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution in 1917, was achieved with a speed and simplicity that was the inverse of its impact. From there it was a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire: having wormed their way out of World War I, the Bolsheviks were plunged straight into civil war. Emerging victorious, Lenin, having waited so long for his moment in the sun, held power for barely a few years before suffering a series of debilitating strokes. Amongst the regrets he pondered as his body withered, the most troubling was surely that he had passed his chairmanship to Joseph Stalin. ‘That this maladjusted character, whose suspiciousness was close to paranoia, should have won the struggle to succeed Lenin,’ writes Service, ‘boded ill for his opponents past and present.’ In fact, it boded ill for every Soviet citizen save the ‘Man of Steel’ himself. As if Stalin’s Cerberus of collectivisation, dekulakisation and state-sponsored terror wasn’t enough, those who lived in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were tragically unlucky in another way: rising to power in tandem with Stalin further west was a dictator of equal cruelty, paranoia and megalomania. Where the twain met in World War II the USSR lost 27 million people, along with 1710 towns and around 70,000 villages.
It is to the long post-war road to oblivion that Service devotes most attention. While tracking the illusive figure of Russia, he also tries to pin down the amorphous character of socialism. Whether as Marxism-Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, state communism or ‘developed socialism,’ Russia has seen it all, and all either failed or, in the case of Alexander Dubcek’s ‘socialism with a human face’, were crushed. To explain how and why in just 700 pages is as ambitious as Gorbachëv’s attempts to curb his fellow comrades’ drinking habits. Unlike the father of Perestroika, though, Service succeeds.
Though occasionally prone to staid or even stolid phrases worthy of the blandest Soviet apartment block (‘The integration of the aspirations of the party, state and society was very distant from attainment’), Service nevertheless retains his sense of humour and irony even as the grim weight of his history looms above the page. Sketching Stalin’s character, for example, he writes, ‘Let saboteurs and renegades perish! Let there be steel, iron and coal! Long live comrade Stalin!’ Few but the most rabid red could disagree with his assessment of communism (‘the god that failed’), but some might question the balance of attention.
The author of single-volume histories of Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky, Service spends much more time in the communist theory breadline than he does in Afghanistan and Chechnya, the latter two of which cover just over a page between them. One area that does receive tantalising attention, however, is Ukraine, a land that was ‘a hindrance as well as a help to the Soviet supreme leadership.’ Though he made sure to keep Ukrainian nationalism in check, Nikita Krushchëv did in 1954 transfer Crimea from the RSFSR to Ukraine simply because ‘the local links of transport and economic co-operation were closer with Kiev than with Moscow.’
I read The History of Modern Russia as part of a project on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Having grasped the true nature of Stalinism earlier and clearer than most, Orwell wrote his farmyard classic partly to resuscitate the battered name of Trotsky (whose grossly falsified legacy nearly cost Orwell his life), and also to show those at the bottom that those at the top were hypocritical pigs with their snouts in the trough. Service does not mention Orwell by name, but one feels he must have had Napoleon and Squealer and their black dogs in mind when he wrote,
Ordinary people were given no hint about the tables creaking under the weight of caviar, sturgeon and roast lamb served at Kremlin banquets. Stalin himself lived fairly simply by the standards of several Politburo members; but even he had a governess for his daughter, a cook and several maids, a large dacha at Kuntsevo, an endless supply of Georgian wine and so few worries about money that most of his pay-packets lay unopened at the time of his death. Armed guards secured the privacy of the apartment blocks of the central political élite. Only the domestic servants, nannies and chauffeurs knew the truth about the lifestyle of the nomenklatura.
Russia’s forcible annexation of Crimea came just weeks after it had successfully hosted the Winter Olympics. Similarly, while the nascent federation may never have felt more isolated, it has also never been more integrated with the west. Anyone who wishes to understand Russia’s journey from Tsarist monarchy to one-party communism to free market lavishness ought to read Service’s bear-hug of a book.