The former literary scholar Grigory Chkhartishvili, now better known as the popular Russian detective writer under the pen name Boris Akunin, who is also a visible figure in the ranks of the Russian liberal opposition, in 2013 started the ambitious project of writing a multivolume history of Russia. Akunin announces his History of the Russian State as an alternative to the new mandatory history textbook currently under preparation by a group of professional historians on the request of President Vladimir Putin. According to Akunin, what sets his history of Russia apart from histories done by competitors is its objectivity: as he explains, he just wants to describe the past “as it actually happened.”
Turning to the first volume of Akunin’s History of the Russian State published in the fall of 2013, Ilya Gerasimov does not discuss its merits as a history study, for it is beyond any professional criticism: Akunin is a pulp fiction writer, whose idea of historical craft corresponds to the standards of the 1820s or 1830s. Rather, Gerasimov uses this opportunity to discuss the influential “canon of Russian history” shared by both “conservative” and “liberal” historians. This canon was formed by the first Russian professional historian, Nikolai Karamzin in the 1820s, and then perfected by great historians of the late imperial period, the classic Stalinist historical text History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course, and the academic historiography of the 1970s. Despite conflicting interpretations of individual historical events and figures, all of these historians shared the fundamentally common view of Russian history as the history of “the Russian people” on Russian “historical territory”. The history of the state became pivotal to this dominant view of Russian history, as only political institutions offered the necessary sense of continuity and consistency to the millennium-long process. Akunin’s History of the Russian State provides Gerasimov with an ideal example of the archetypal version of the “canon of Russian history” as understood and thoroughly reproduced by a modern-day educated Russian. Akunin reveals the whole intellectual gestalt of social imagination of the Romantic historiography of the 1820s Restoration epoch that was preserved almost intact by the “scheme of Russian history”: the organicist perception of nation, the “blood and soil” imagery of national territory, the idealization of the state as a mystic embodiment of the nation’s “will,” the racialized understanding of the “people.” This type of thinking about society was instrumental in producing the ideal of nation-state in the late nineteenth century, and informed the politics of national purges in the 1930s (on political or ethnic grounds). Without dismantling this dominant scheme, Russian society is doomed to reproducing ideologies of variously framed nationalism, and even liberal historians will cultivate in their students the ideal of national purity and domination over “national” territory.