- How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism
The Russian intelligentsia has long been split over where Russia fits in the world. To some it's a European country. To others it's Asian, Eurasian, or so sui generis that it's simply a civilization unto itself. The debate has produced interesting observations and a few family scandals over the years, but ironically, its greatest effect has been to obscure a more fundamental point about the Russian condition. Regardless of where Russia might or might not belong, the country has never been isolated from other places. Ever since the supposed "coming of the Varangians," Russia has been linked to the outside world by webs of war, trade, diplomacy, migration, and cultural exchange. That the Russians managed to adopt a great deal from foreigners in the process is well known. (This is why Peter the Great shows up in every world history course.) The fact that foreigners ended up borrowing a good bit from the Russians as well is somewhat less appreciated.
Steven G. Marks's ambitious new book is designed to correct this imbalance in our perceptions. The book's argument is straightforward: [End Page 235] by the late nineteenth century a "Western program of modernization" premised on liberalism, scientific imperialism, and industrial capitalism was bearing down on traditional societies. Russian intellectuals, for reasons rooted in part in their own country's bumpy modernization process, figured among the world's earliest and most persuasive critics of the program, and several of them were brilliant and well-connected enough to reach large international audiences hungering for defiant exclamations and alternative paths. As a result, while liberal Westerners went about stamping the globe with modernism and Westernism, illiberal Russians shaped it in turn with anti-Westernism and anti-modernism. To show us how this occurred, Marks offers separate chapters on what he identifies as Russia's most important offerings to the world in the modern age: anarchism; communism; totalitarian dictatorship; new approaches to terrorism, anti-Semitism, pacifism, and messianism; and varieties of abstractionism in art, dance, and theatre. In every case, he proceeds by highlighting the contributions of a handful of key intellectuals, most of them well known to Western readers (Kropotkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kandinsky, Stanislavsky, and Lenin, to name just a few), and then goes on to show how their innovations were embraced far and wide, tracking down echoes of Russian influence everywhere from Japan to Egypt and Berlin to Hollywood.
The thematic and geographical scope of the book is impressive. There is nothing like it in the field of Russian studies, and for that reason alone Russianists should be thankful. World historians should be grateful, too, because Marks squarely situates Russian intellectual and cultural developments within a world historical context where they usually make at most a minor appearance but more often than not are simply ignored. At the same time, a number of Marks's claims for primary Russian influence seem overstated. One wonders whether it is truly possible to isolate single points of origin for phenomena as broad and complicated as modern anti-Semitism or abstractionism, and so many of the creators on Marks's list were cosmopolitans as much as they were Russians, making it difficult to know what was specifically Russian about their ideas and what was more broadly international. (Bolshevism, for example, was a Russian adaptation of Marxian socialism whose early tenets were hammered out by a multiethnic crew of conspirators in Siberia and Switzerland. Does that then make it Russian, Germano-Russian, Swiss-Russian, Jewish-Russian, Georgian-Russian, or some admixture of all the above?) Because Marks is a Russian specialist, he also tends to be better at explaining the Russian milieu where the ideas originated rather than the varied national and social contexts shaping their reception abroad—in fact, some of these foreign [End Page 236] contexts are skimmed over a little too lightly. Yet overall, the book's...