- The Russian Moment in World History
Marshall Poe has written a stimulating essay on Russian history whose intent is, in the best (historical) sense of the word, contentious. The term fits both his approach to his subject, and the characteristics that he attributes to that "Russian moment" of world-historical import. He indicates at the outset his hope that his book "fosters its share" of debate, which for him holds "much of the enjoyment of history" (p. xiv). His wish is bound to be fulfilled. Throughout the eight chapters that carry his tale from the Slavs to Gorbachev, he asserts in firm (categorical) terms the truth of his interpretation. That, he modestly notes, "rests on and appeals to common sense" (p. xv). Would that Russia's past were so easily explained!
His "Russian moment" consists, in simplest terms, of a Russian warfare state doing more or less successful battle with "Europe." The two parties are irreconcilably opposed, despite moments of apparent rapprochement. Their differences arise from the belligerence of the Europeans, whose "imperialism" forms the permanent backdrop and inducement to Russia's historical "moment." From the time of the Muscovite tsars until the Soviet (Stalinist) party-state, the ruthless, authoritarian Russian state, backed by a resolute "ruling class," successfully withstood the onslaught of European foes. Indeed, in Poe's reading of the five-hundred-year conflict, its ongoing resistance made it the sole "traditional early modern power" able to "withstand the assault of the Europeans," whose "modernity came bloody-minded and well-armed" (p. 72). But when in the late twentieth century the Communist Party "lost faith in the Russian path," Russia no longer stood on its own [End Page 389] andits "moment" had passed. Gorbachev's reform agenda, which he explained in part by arguing that his country belonged in "the common house of Europe,"was not in Poe's telling a victory for human rights or democracy, but a defeat for "the Russian Tradition" (p. 89). This is, at the very least, a tendentious conclusion.
Poe argues that the secret to Russia's success lay in its leadership, and its geographical position. Though he makes a strong disclaimer of any sort of historical determinism, his argument does emphasize the geopolitical advantage of Russia. The "accident of geography" placed this state in an area separated by land from the aggressive European empires, and isolated from easy maritime access (p. 50). Its relative inaccessibility placed it in an advantageous position in relation to the West (though not to the Mongols) by comparison with the other great non-Western empires. Brutal invasions from European powers did occasionally reach its central territories, but they suffered at the outset from its remoteness and its harsh climate. The second factor to which Poe attributes Russia's effective resistance is its autocratic system of government, which he claims was distinguished from other despotic states by the uniquely centralized, unlimited power that it wielded over its subjects. The author credits the rulers, and the ruling class that backed them, with a rational solution to the challenge of foreign war and scarce internal resources.
"Social engineering" appears to him the best characterization of the policies of Muscovite tsars, Peterburg emperors, and communist general secretaries. Ivan IV, Peter I, and Stalin are in spirit and intent blood brothers. The creation and tenacity of authoritarian rule of a specially brutal sort are not in his opinion a mark of Russian backwardness or inferiority; rather, they define the state's effective path to "early modernity." It was remarkable for its "tightly controlled public sphere, regulated command economy, and state-engineered army" (p. 70).As long as this system endured, Russia was safe.
Poe's "statist" historiographical affinities underlie this approach to Russia's past. This tradition dates back to one of nineteenth-century Russia's most eminent historians, Sergei Solovev, whose multi-volume History of Russia (1865-1870) made a virtue of state-building, Russian style, as the sole possible path to national might and (in his view) the ultimate triumph of the...