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Russia and the Russians: A History / Edition 2

Russia and the Russians: A History / Edition 2

by Geoffrey Hosking


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674061958
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 752
Sales rank: 1,180,947
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Geoffrey Hosking is Emeritus Professor of Russian History at University College London.

Read an Excerpt

Russia and the Russians

A History

By Geoffrey Hosking Belknap Press

Copyright © 2003 Geoffrey Hosking
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780674011144

Chapter One


The north Eurasian plain is not only Russia's geographical setting, but also her fate. From the Carpathians in the west to the Greater Khingan range in the east, a huge expanse of flat, open territory dominates the Eurasian continent. It divides into four bands of terrain, running from west to east. In the south is desert, broken only by oases along the rivers which run off the mountains along the southern and eastern rims. Then comes steppe, lightly watered country with a thin and variable covering of grasses and scrub, again broken intermittently by oases, gullies, and river valleys. Farther north is a belt of coniferous forest, interspersed toward its southern edge with deciduous trees; only to the west of the Urals does this deciduous belt broaden to become a large and independent ecological zone. Finally comes the tundra: frozen wastelands and swamp, with broad rivers flowing through them to the Arctic Ocean, itself frozen for much of the year.

    This is the area which one may refer to as "Inner Eurasia": it consists of the territory ruled over by the Soviet Union in 1990 plus Xinjiang and Mongolia. Bounded by mountains to east and south, and by usually frozen oceanto the north, this territory lies open to the west. The Ural Mountains, situated toward its western end and conventionally marking the border between Europe and Asia, are too low and easily penetrable to form a serious barrier to movement. Besides, the rivers, with brief portages here and there, offer a relatively easy means of movement throughout the area. It is very unusual to find such broad, long rivers in open flat country. Asian traders who entered the Volga from the Caspian Sea thought that such a majestic river must flow from a high mountain range, whereas actually its source lies in the modest, low-lying Valdai Hills, south of Novgorod.

    The southern two ecological bands, and especially the steppe, were classic nomadic country. The sparse vegetation, low precipitation, and open terrain rendered these regions difficult to exploit for settled agriculture, even though much of the soil was very fertile. Agriculturalists without elaborate irrigation systems could expect only meager returns, and they were permanently vulnerable to the raids of their more mobile neighbors. However, herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and in places camels could feed on the foliage, moving on when they exhausted it in any particular locality. The human beings who tended those herds lived largely on hides, meat, and dairy products but—and this is crucial for the history of Eurasia—could not depend on them for all their needs, and hence were compelled to seek some kind of interaction with the oasis dwellers in their midst and with the civilizations around the periphery of their pastoral lands. Inner Eurasia, in short, had to interact with Outer Eurasia. Yet in trade the pastoralists were always at a disadvantage, since they had little to offer except the products of their animals, which settled peoples could also produce for themselves. Hence the tendency for the relationship to become violent: only by honing their military skills and raiding adjacent civilizations could pastoral nomads provide properly for their own way of life.

    Kinship groups of fifty to one hundred formed the most convenient way of exploiting this ecology. To defend their terrain and herds, clans would form confederations and devote much attention to the training of horses and riders. Cavalry warfare became much more fearsome after the invention of the stirrup about 500 A.D., which allowed a skilled horseman to use both hands to manipulate weapons, whether lance or bow and arrow.

    However, though nomads were supremely skilled warriors, they were inept state-builders. (The history of their most successful empire, the Mongol one, demonstrates this: in its full form it was short-lived, and began to break up almost before it was put together.) Hence in a way it was natural that the most enduring empire of Inner Eurasia should be formed at its extreme western end—in a terrain, moreover, not typical of it, in the broad belt of deciduous woodland found mainly to the west of the river Volga. The first major East Slavic polity was founded at the southern edge of this belt, in Kiev, the second toward its northern edge, in Moscow. Both sites afforded some protection from nomadic raids, Moscow more effectively than Kiev, which probably explains its ultimate ascendancy.

    The first East Slavic state was able to establish itself thanks above all to trade, standing as it did athwart north—south routes from Scandinavia to Byzantium intersecting with east—west routes from Persia, India, and China to western Europe. These routes were precarious, for they depended on the nomads' willingness to keep them open. Their decline explains in part why the center of gravity of East Slav civilization shifted northeastward, from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, to a region where a rather marginal agriculture combined with fishing, beekeeping, logging, and the fur trade to afford a tolerably stable basis for wealth.

    However, once a major state, as distinct from a tribal confederation, was established in Inner Eurasia, there were many reasons why it should prove durable. Such a state commanded a zone so extensive, so strategically placed, and so abundantly endowed with resources that its rulers and subjects could survive almost indefinitely. They could retreat virtually without end, recover from devastating setbacks and reverses, bide their time almost limitlessly, and probe the weaknesses of their neighbors without being fatally undermined by their own.

    At the same time, that heartland had its own grave drawbacks. Most of it was relatively infertile, cut off from the sea and thus from easy contact with the outside world, and hampered by very difficult internal communications. These handicaps made the mobilization of people and resources extremely cumbersome. Unless the whole of the heartland and all its major approaches could be occupied, its frontiers were open and vulnerable. Its expanses were settled by numerous peoples with diverse languages, customs, laws, and religions: building and maintaining a state which could assimilate all of them proved to be a complex, costly, and at times apparently vain enterprise.

    This paradoxical combination of colossal strength and almost crippling weakness has imparted to the Russian Empire its most salient characteristics.

    1. Territorially, Russia has been the most extensive and by far the most labile of the world's major empires. Its boundaries have shifted thousands of miles over the plains in one direction and another. It can readily both invade and be invaded—and over the centuries has both inflicted and suffered aggression repeatedly. With one exception, though (the Mongols in the thirteenth century), the really destructive invasions have come from the west, while the more continuous nagging threats have been from east and south, through the broad "open gates" which stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Urals. Over the centuries Russia has had to divert huge resources to defending extensive vulnerable borders: from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries it placed at least half of its armed manpower on the zasechnaia cherta, its fortified steppe frontier in the south.

    It dealt with threatening vacuums on its frontiers by exploiting the relative weakness of disorganized nomadic clans and tribes, and even of larger ethnic groups, to invade and absorb their territories—only to go through periods of overreach, when it imploded, leaving its borderlands vulnerable and once again in the hands of others. In that respect the period since 1989 is not unprecedented. At all times the peoples along the frontier, from the Bashkirs and the Cossacks to the Poles, have proved volatile in their attitude to the empire: at times loyal subjects, at times wary allies, at times bitter foes. In this respect also, the period since 1989 is not an aberration, but a resumption of a historically typical pattern.

    2. Russia has usually been a multiethnic empire without a dominant nation, ruled by a dynasty and a heterogeneous aristocracy—at least until nineteenth-century attempts to make the Russians dominant. Unparalleled (except perhaps for the British Empire) in its ethnic and religious diversity, it has normally kept order by means of a multiethnic ruling class drawn from many, though not all, of its subject nationalities. This approach has rendered the distinction between internal and foreign affairs much less well-defined than in most polities. This lack of discrimination applied even to the Soviet Union, which until 1943 dealt with foreign countries partly through the Commissariat of External Affairs and partly through the Comintern, a branch of the Communist Party. One historian has called Stalin the "last of the steppe politicians."

    3. It has been an economically underdeveloped empire, situated in a region of extreme temperatures, and after the fifteenth century remote from the world's major trade routes. The sheer size of the country frustrated efforts to mobilize its uniquely diverse and abundant resources. The really important feature of its relative backwardness, however, is that it is due not only to natural handicaps (otherwise Canada would be equally backward), but also to its tendency at each stage of historical evolution to replicate itself. At all stages, vulnerability and poverty have required devoting a large proportion of the wealth of land and population to the provision of armed forces and to the creation of a cumbersome official class for administration and the mobilization of resources. Economic growth was generated more by expanding territory than by capital accumulation or technological innovation, much of which in any case came from abroad.

    4. The Russian Empire has been permanently situated between two or, arguably, three ecumenes. In its administrative structures it has been an Asian empire, building upon or adapting the practices of China and the ancient steppe empires. In its culture it has been European for at least three centuries, borrowing heavily from both Protestant and Catholic countries. In its religion it is Byzantine, derived from an East Roman or Greek Christian ecumene which no longer has a separate existence with its own heartland, but which has left enduring marks on the landscape of Europe. Muscovite tsars were cautious and eclectic in choosing which aspects of this heritage to claim: in the sixteenth century, for example, Ivan IV was both Khan (Asiatic ruler) and Basileus (Christian emperor), and resisted the temptation to come down on one side by taking the concept of the "Third Rome" as a basis for his foreign policy. Russia could not simply be a crusading Christian power, since such an ambiguous stance would provoke violent resistance among its considerable Muslim population.

    In combining these legacies Russia has frequently offended the sensibilities of its neighbors. Muscovy was described by at least one European visitor in the sixteenth century as a "rude and barbarous kingdom," and it was omitted from the published register of Christian powers maintained by the Vatican. In the late eighteenth century it was widely condemned for deliberately interfering in Polish internal affairs with the aim of undermining and destroying the Polish state—a technique it had frequently employed to overcome its steppe neighbors, from the khanate of Kazan onward. (Such sensibilities did not restrain Prussia and Austria from joining in the carve-up, so the outrage was partly hypocritical.)

    Internally, because of its size and vulnerability, Russia needed the structure of an authoritarian state, but in practice, because of the extent of the territory and backwardness of the economy, that state could not directly control the lives of most of the population. Having to improvise structures often urgently and in adversity, it has tended, therefore, not to create enduring laws or institutions, but rather to give official backing to existing personal power relationships. In this respect it partially resembled ancient Rome, which also had to hold together a diverse and extensive land-based empire by military means, and which did so by cultivating binding patron-client relationships (though the sense of law and citizenship was much stronger in the Roman Empire). Such relationships were articulated in the druzhina system and kormlenie in Kievan Rus and Muscovy, in the landlord-serf relationship in imperial Russia, and in the nomenklatura (personnel appointment) system in the Soviet Union. Often the main function of the grand prince/tsar/general secretary has been to mediate and adjudicate between cliques centering upon powerful personalities; both Ivan IV and Stalin tried through terror either to extirpate them or to gain complete control over them, but failed.

    The result has been strong, cohesive structures at the apex and the base of society, but in between them weak and labile institutions which have depended largely on personalities. This is the absence of "civil society" which so many observers have noted. The structures the state has needed for recruitment and taxation have tended to perpetuate this intermediate weakness, by exhausting the resources needed for anything more than mere survival and by enfeebling potentially autonomous institutions. Even today, when Russia's strategic vulnerability is much less serious, the structures and mentalities associated with its past needs have survived to obstruct the creation of a market economy, a civil society, and a functioning democracy. Politically, socially, and economically, Russia is still best understood as a network of interlocking patron-client relationships. This is one reason why post-Soviet Russia has such difficulty in generating its own sense of civic community.

    Russia has been surrounded by other, usually smaller but still often formidable heartlands or core areas (to use the terminology of Halford McKinder): (1) the Scandinavian world, dominated first by the Vikings, then by Denmark, then by Sweden; (2) Poland; (3) Turkey/the Ottoman Empire; (4) Persia; and (5) China. As the Slav tribes and the peoples of Rus and Russia migrated and expanded, they fetched up against the outliers of these other heartlands, with their own dominant states and peoples. Because of its unique capacity for endurance, Russia was able to wait till each of them went through a period of weakness, for whatever reason, and then move to occupy the peripheral zone between them, or in the case of Poland the core as well. She suffered the same fate herself at the hands of the Mongols in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, and much more briefly from the Swedes and Poles in the early seventeenth century. But Rus/Russia recovered from both setbacks and reasserted itself each time with greater force. She proved able to survive even the catastrophic collapse of empire in the early twentieth century.

    Against a strong power, Russia has tended to adopt a closed-border policy, intended to keep the other side out and to make possible stable and peaceful trading and diplomatic relations. A weak power on the borders, on the other hand, is both a threat and an opportunity: a threat because it creates a potential vacuum or center of turbulence which can easily degrade or even destroy the border, but also an opportunity because it offers the possibility of expansion. To repel the threat and grasp the opportunity, Russia has tended to deal closely with tribal or ethnic leaders in the zone of turbulence, first to gain information from them, then to influence them or cause divisions between them, then to gain some or all of them as allies, and finally if possible to annex them. In this way the expansion of Russia has led to the strengthening of patron-client nexuses in the borderlands.


Excerpted from Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking Copyright © 2003 by Geoffrey Hosking. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Geopolitics, Ecology, and National Character

I. Pre-Imperial Rus and the Beginnings of Empire

1. Kievan Rus, the Mongols, and the Rise of Muscovy

2. Ivan IV and the Expansion of Muscovy

II. The Troubled Building of Empire

3. The Turbulent Seventeenth Century

4. Peter the Great and Europeanization

III. Russia as European Empire

5. State and Society in the Eighteenth Century

6. The Reigns of Paul, Alexander I, and Nicholas I

IV. Imperial Crisis

7. Alexander II's Uncertain Reforms

9. The Rise of Nationalism

V. Revolution and Utopia

9. Social Change and Revolution

10. War and Revolution

11. Social Transformation and Terror

12. Soviet Society Takes Shape

VI. The Decline and Fall of Utopia

13. Recovery and Cold War

14. Soviet Society under "Developed Socialism"

15. From Perestroika to Russian Federation




What People are Saying About This

Hosking's book has comprehensive sweep and a clear writing style. It is filled with judicious appraisals of a number of critical historical issues. A book of vast erudition written by an eminently qualified scholar, it is much-needed.

Terence Emmons

A book intended for a general educated audience and students, a survey of the entire course of Russian history. Hosking is up on the current literature and is invariably judicious in dealing with historiographical controversies.
Terence Emmons, Stanford University

Martin Miller

Hosking's book has comprehensive sweep and a clear writing style. It is filled with judicious appraisals of a number of critical historical issues. A book of vast erudition written by an eminently qualified scholar, it is much-needed.
Martin Miller, Duke University

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