RUSSIA : People and Empire

RUSSIA : People and Empire

S. Frederick Starr

By Geoffrey Hosking. Harvard University Press. 548 pp. $29.95

Read Time:
2m 33sec



RUSSIA: People and Empire.

By Geoffrey Hosking. Harvard University Press. 548 pp. $29.95

Who needs another history of Russia under the tsars? The short answer is that we all do, for the fall of the Soviet Union casts fresh light on the whole of Russian history. Was Communist rule simply an interlude, and if so, between what and what? Does democracy stand a chance? Is the new Russia fated to be, like its tsarist predecessor, a conqueror and ruler of its neighbors?

A professor of Russian history at the University of London, Hosking was among the few Western scholars to take seriously the strivings toward civil society and participatory government in Russia during the last years of Soviet rule. In this eminently readable history, he asks whether Russia has always been an eccentric country doomed to its own peculiar fate or whether it can follow a path similar to that of other nations. Without pressing the point, Hosking implies that, despite its uniqueness, Russia has much in common, if not with the United States, then with Germany, Austria, even Turkey.

Hosking highlights the supporting evidence. The Russian press on the eve of World War I was notably free and independent, he emphasizes, while the legal system instituted by Alexander II at the time of the American Civil War really did open the way toward the law-based society that Mikhail Gorbachev (who knew this history well) called for six score years later. Hosking also shows that in its waning decades the tsarist regime instituted "sweeping guarantees" of private property, in effect dissolving the patrimonial state that had ruled the land for centuries.

In such tsarist reforms, Hosking finds the underpinnings for optimism about Russia’s future. Yet these reforms were swept away when the Communists seized power and in effect restored the ancien régime in a new guise. How was this possible? On this question Hosking is tentative. He argues that the new parliamentary system never really linked up with the emerging mass public and that the privatized economy was too young and fragile to survive the upheaval of World War I. Then too, the champions of the waning patrimonial order never gave up, effectively preventing the post-1905 system introduced by Nicholas II from functioning as a proper constitutional monarchy.

Underlying these failures is Russia’s history of empire, a theme emphasized in Hosking’s title and introduction but only sparsely developed in his text. A bolder historian, one more inclined to state a grand thesis, might have dug deeper. The logic is as simple as it is implacable: empire requires a large army, which in turn requires strict control of the population, including the serfs. Freedoms granted to some Russians will be demanded by others, not to mention by other nationalities under Russian rule. The preservation of empire is, therefore, the main impediment to reform. It is too bad that Hosking does not place the imperial experience at the very heart of his story, for it rings with solemn familiarity today.

—S. Frederick Starr


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