Book review: The Russian Moment in World History
In his 100-page history of Russia, Marshall Poe, historian and former professor of Russian history at Harvard University, sets out to raze what he perceives as an existing platform of collective misconceptions about Russian history, and, with the reinterpretation that he presents, to build anew.
Poe, already the author of several books on the subject, is fighting some widely held beliefs that are so entrenched in Americans' understanding of Russia as to be regarded as truisms. One, for example, is that the failure of communism was the reason for the Soviet Union's downfall; another is that Russia was a failure, period -- both of which Poe says are false. In "The Russian Moment in World History" -- a period the author places between the country's first confrontation with Europe in the 15th century and the Soviet collapse -- Poe takes on the unenviable challenge of convincing readers that what they took for granted as being true is, in fact, not.
In order to subscribe to Poe's analysis, readers must be prepared to drop some hard-wired biases that are derivative of life in a democratic society and seeing the world, and the history of the world, through its moral and political lens. In his work, Poe charges historians with judging Russia by Euro-centric criteria -- "democratic impulse, a commitment to openness, a desire for free markets, and an interest in national self-determination" -- that have relegated its story to one of failure. Poe argues that, if assessing Russia from a neutral standpoint, this ceases to be the case. Subsequently, Poe goes to pains to evaluate the success of Russia on the basis of its sheer tenacity or ability to survive as a nation under unlikely circumstances, rather than by the values of a tangential culture.
And by these standards, Russia was a success. Poe argues that this triumph was rooted in the country's ability to stave off the advances of a sophisticated and imposing Europe during several key moments in its history when other countries could not. The crux of Poe's thesis is that Russia was able to build and maintain an autocratic regime that facilitated an effective and sometimes lucrative mode of survival. He writes:
"Relieved of the inefficiency of political infighting, autocratic power allowed the Russian ruling class to pursue an alternative path to early modernity, one characterized by a tightly controlled public sphere, a regulated command economy, and a state-engineered army. Using these means, the Russian elite was able to take a primitive, premodern state and transform it in the course of two centuries into one of the most powerful enterprises on earth."
Thus stated, considering Russia as a historic success story requires the reader to compartmentalize, and evaluate the country's achievements in terms --
namely those associated with autocracy -- that, culturally, Americans are not accustomed to valuing. Though Poe's perspective is unique and intelligently argued, likely it will be difficult for an American readership to suspend its democratic biases and entertain a Russian success on these terms.
Throughout his work, it is clear that Poe has a true affection for Russian history. This regard comes through in the author's careful knowledge of his subject as well as his vested desire in clearing up false impressions, sometimes to the point of playing the Protective Parent to the damaging gaze of the Careless Historian.
Here, Poe seizes the opportunity to settle some beefs that he has with his fellow historians. At the beginning of each chapter, the author summarizes his intent, and often this reactionary synopsis is in response to what he considers common, damaging, but avoidable trespasses of his peers. For instance, at the beginning of Chapter 4, Poe contemplates the "historical accident" and writes: "Generally speaking, contemporary historians do not look favorably on the idea of historical accident. Like most modern people, they like to think they live in a world in which the reasons for things are discoverable by reason. . . . As comfortable and as useful as this opinion is, it is false."
These somewhat catty dissertations on the historian's function (or dysfunction) are educational, often funny and break up the history lesson with some down-to-earth levity. However, the benefit of these interludes can be argued both ways. The insights are ultimately valuable to the lay audience, inasmuch as they discourage complacency and inspire criticism in the reader. But such commentary lends the book a rarefied quality that can give the impression of catering to insiders, when in fact the author intended his work for a general audience.
Still, condensing 1,400 years of history into 100 well-argued pages is a remarkable feat, one Poe accomplishes in terse but powerfully stated prose. Although the necessary compression of facts at times gives the impression of oversimplification, Poe effectively commits to his chosen path of navigation and distills his observations and vast knowledge into a clear and well- presented theory. The author also deserves credit for taking on the gutsy task of re-educating what he sees as a misinformed public with humility intact, an achievement that is a testament to the purity of his intent.