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Reviewed by:
  • Russian Identities: A Historical Survey
  • Charles Timberlake
Russian Identities: A Historical Survey. By Nicholas V. Riasanovsky (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005) 278 pp. $49.95

Russia was an "enigma" not only for Winston Churchill. Riasanovsky's Russian Identities shows how Russians themselves have tried for a millennium to decide who they are—European, Asian, both, or neither. In 988, Grand Prince Vladimir decided, by adopting Christianity, that Rus was European. Many scholars, Riasanovsky among them, consider this the most important event in Russian history. Russia became "the eastern flank of Christendom rather than an extension into Europe of non-Christian civilizations" (20). But, after church and secular leaders adapted Orthodoxy to Russian conditions and declared Moscow "The Third Rome," Orthodoxy differentiated Russia from West European states.

As the plural—identities—in the title indicates, the book assumes that Russians have had different and competing identities. In this book, the term usually means self-identity, but it occasionally means how others identified Russians. The underlying theme of this book seems to be that in the Kievan period "the Rus were a people, a state, and a country" (29), and they have been ever since. But deep crises have seriously threatened the survival of the idea of Russians as a common "people." The Time of Troubles, Pugachev's Rebellion, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Civil War are examples of such crises.

The factual base of this book is, as Riasanovsky says (6), his frequently updated A History of Russia (New York, 2005; orig. pub. 1963) and his other publications on Official Nationality and the Slavophiles.1 The book uses a synthesis of intellectual, cultural, and political history as a means of focusing facts on identifying characteristics of each period. The result is a work that will either help scholars in Russian studies better understand facts that they might already know or make Russian history accessible to the interested nonspecialist. Riasanovsky reveals how a given Russian's perception of Russia (European, Asian, etc.) determined his own course of action or one that he proposed for others. [End Page 293] For instance, Peter I's negative assessment of Russia in 1700 caused him to be an energetic "Westernizer." Nicholas I, however, considered Russia superior to Western Europe because of its Orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality. He declared Peter Chaadaev insane and placed him under police surveillance for publishing an article in The Telescope (1836) that Orthodoxy had retarded Russian civilization and that Russia had learned nothing from either Asia or Europe despite its location between them (151–152).

The chapter on the period of 1855 to 1917 is more narrative in form than previous chapters. The intense debate among Marxists, Populists, Liberals, and Conservatives about Russia's characteristics during this period is an excellent opportunity for Riasanovsky to reveal how conflicting perceptions of Russia caused conflicting reform programs. He shows that Georgi V. Plekhanov's perceptions of Russia caused him to repudiate Vladimir Lenin's coup d'etat in 1917. But what of the Mensheviks as a whole? And how did Karl Marx's identification of Russia as more Asian than European shape Lenin's justification of the 1917 coup? This chapter is a disappointment.

The final chapter, on the Soviet Period, asks whether the population of the Soviet Union (not only Russians) believed Marxist ideology. Riasanovsky speculates that most people did not believe. The regime's antireligious policies and attacks on large categories of people alienated the population. The people believed in "survival" (228).

Among the virtues of this elegantly written book is its establishment of a context for the daily news from Russia. The lead article in the February 28, 2007, issue of Izvestiia (the day of this review's composition) is a summary of comments by seven of Russia's most prominent political scientists at a conference on Russia's proper place in the post-Soviet world. Vyacheslav Nikonov, President of the Politika Foundation, is quoted as saying, "It will take Russia a long time to come up with a conclusive answer to the question of which civilization we belong to, whether we are the East or the West, Europe or Asia, and so on."

Charles Timberlake
University of...


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pp. 293-294
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