Eduard Baltin, wrestling in mid-1997 with the consequences of the
division of the ex-Soviet navy between Ukraine and the Russian
Federation, took a moment to reflect on the creator of the imperial
Russian Black Sea fleet: "a loose woman and non-Russian, Empress
Catherine the Great was a greater Russian patriot than today's
rulers of Russia. Yeltsin is not a collector of Russian lands as
several Russian tsars were. He simply sells them off" (quoted
in The Guardian, 6 June 1997). The admiral's angry remarks
neatly encapsulate several key themes in Geoffrey Hosking's new
book: the roots of national sentiment, the consequences of Russian
imperial expansion, the meaning of patriotism in the Russian context,
and what might be termed the trade in territory.
On one level this
is a fairly straightforward history of Russia from the conquest
of Kazan' in 1552 under Ivan IV to the eventual collapse of the
tsarist state in 1917. Drawing upon a sound knowledge of the historiography
(including many of the most recent works by Russian historians)
and of many printed primary sources, Hosking provides a panoramic,
lucid and reliable narrative from which general readers, students
and specialists in Russian history will all learn a great deal.
Anyone familiar with Hosking's well-regarded history of the Soviet
Union will recognize many of the same virtues in his latest book:
clarity of exposition, the fair-minded summary of important debates,
the careful handling of domestic politics, and the close attention
given to religious developments and to non-Russian minorities (one
might, however, also note the author's steadfast refusal to make
more than passing reference to the history of women in Russia;
five modest references in a work of 550 pages devoted to "people"
is scandalous!). Hosking does not provide a bibliography, but there
are fairly full notes at the end of the book. There are four clear
maps, but no illustrations. This is a pity, given that parts of
Hosking's argument merited some well-chosen reproductions of the
ways in which Rus' and Rossiia were represented (see
As one would expect,
several passages deal with key episodes in Russian history. To
my mind, Hosking offers a riveting account of the Pugachev rebellion
(pp.107-15), of the origins and ideas of the Decembrists (pp.171-82),
and of the Pushkin celebrations in 1880 (pp.308-10). Many other
sections, such as that dealing with the Time of Troubles (pp.56-64),
offer rewarding insights. Some specific points deserved to be elaborated
more fully: for example, there is no proper discussion of estate
categories (sosloviia) and their significance. But these
are matters where different scholars will naturally exercise different
judgement. Russia: People and Empire is, in short, the work
of a mature scholar who is scrupulous in the care he gives to the
source material and who demonstrates the capacity to construct
a vivid and coherent narrative.
However, it would
be misleading to heap praise upon the author for his skills as
a storyteller; misleading, because Hosking proposes at the same
time to pursue a grand theme. His history is the story of the creation
and consolidation of the Russian empire and the implications these
processes had, above all, for the "Russian people". In
Hosking's view, the Russian empire (rossiiskaia imperiia)
"impeded the formation of a nation" (p.xix) and suppressed
a sense of national identity, that is Russians' conscious affiliation
to Rus'. In the process of creating an empire, the existing
institutions of community that might otherwise have provided the
basis for a "civic sense of nationhood" were weakened
and crushed. This argument owes much to Mikhail Bakunin, whose
views on "statehood and anarchy" are cited in the text
(pp.279-80). They are worth quoting:
thinking Russian is bound to realize that our empire cannot
change its attitude to the people. By its very existence it
is doomed to be its blood-sucker and tormentor. The people
instinctively hate it, and it cannot help but oppress the people,
since its whole being and strength are founded on the people's
misery...The only worthwhile constitution from the people's
point of view is the destruction of the empire".
this "Knutogermaniia", a compound of "Mongol cruelty
[the knout] and Prussian pedantry".
A similar vision
of the devastating consequences of imperial crystallization was
embraced by Alexander Herzen (see pp.281-4), who wanted to revive
the pristine principles of the community (mir) and the work
collective (artel'), in order to promote the ideals of freedom
of association, based upon equality of access to key resources.
Hosking is very impressed by the notion of communal association
and kinship ties, devoting much attention to their survival in
various forms through to 1917. In his view, two mutually exclusive
versions of community vied for supremacy in post-Petrine Russia
- "two poles round which Russian national feeling could crystallize".
One was a noble ideal of hierarchical authority, cosmopolitanism,
a readiness to serve the state, and a firm commitment to property.
The other was embodied in the peasantry, with its emphasis on communal
ownership, egalitarianism, and mutual responsibility (krugovaia
poruka). There was no reconciliation between these extremes;
instead, "the two Russias weakened each other". The Russian
intelligentsia - a potential source of an articulate and coherent
national identity - was "crushed between them" (p.xxvi).
are developed in Part One ("The Russian empire: how and why?").
Hosking paints a picture of pre-1700 expansion that was designed
to enhance Russian security and to obtain tribute; in the steppes
there was no intention of destroying indigenous culture. Gradually,
however, the tsarist state began to pursue the administrative,
economic, cultural and religious integration of subject peoples.
The relatively straightforward conquest of Siberia is contrasted
with the much more protracted and violent conquest of the Caucasus,
a region where indigenous groups could exploit international rivalry
for their own purposes. Economic motives contributed to the decision
to conquer central Asia. Elsewhere, imperial expansion meant the
absorption of highly developed polities, such as Poland, from which
emanated the two greatest challenges to imperial rule during the
nineteenth century. But the vision of imperial conquest and administration
did not distinguish between Russian and non-Russian elements; all
were subject to imperial authority: "all peoples, Russians
included, were the raw material of empire, to be manipulated or
dominated as seemed expedient to its unity and strength" (p.39).
One consequence of this indiscriminate subordination of people
to state was a relatively relaxed attitude towards indigenous elites
and a toleration of ethnic, religious and cultural difference,
at least until the late nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the concept
of Russian national identity remains elusive. Did such an identity
exist prior to the encounters with non-Russians in the imperial
project? Elsewhere, it appears in the guise of human sympathy,
playfulness, informality and communal solidarity, in contrast to
German rationality, orderliness and impersonality (p.161). These
are slippery kinds of self-definition (see David Blackbourn's recent
history of Germany) and it would have been nice if they had been
deconstructed by Hosking.
Part Two offers
one hundred pages on the construction of the "imperial"
state, with most attention devoted to the emergence of a polity
in which elements of the service nobility, townspeople, clergy
and "black" (that is, free and self-governing) peasants
hesitantly began to cooperate in a kind of proto-nation that curbed
the patrimonial principle. (By contrast, Richard Pipes, Russia
under the Old Regime, 1974, saw only the "partial dismantling"
of patrimonialism during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)
Hosking also traces the crucial emergence of a militant patriarchate,
seized by the idea of Russia as the "Third Rome", and
capable of alienating a sizeable community of the faithful that
constituted itself as the Old Believers. Here again Hosking demonstrates
the power of association: the Old Believers became a rallying-point
for political as well as religious dissidents, whilst state-sponsored
persecution only reinforced their belief in the need for Russia's
people to be governed in accordance with piety, faith and virtue.
Not for the last time, a profound rift opened up between the ordinary
people and the ruling elite.
This theme is also
developed in Hosking's account of Peter the Great's programme of
westernization. Petrine administrative reform created a kind of
rational bureaucratic state which was at odds with the alternative
systems of authority that derived from kinship ties, mutual responsibility
(krugovaia poruka) and face-to-face networks. Only in respect
of taxation - the introduction of the poll tax - did Peter acknowledge
the possibilities inherent in mutual responsibility amongst the
peasant taxpayers. In a fairly conventional account, Hosking concludes
that Petrine changes imposed an "artificial" regime on
Russia, typified by the westernized elite that became yet more
divorced from the people.
Part Three of this
book considers social classes (nobility and peasantry), the intelligentsia,
the Orthodox church and the army. (Again there are striking structural
similarities with Pipes' survey of Rusian history.) The chapter
on the nobility restates the point that Peter the Great amalgamated
heterogeneous groups of privileged servitors into a single category
of service; in due course, the noble corporate estate (soslovie)
acquired a non-Russian, European culture which alienated them from
the peasant masses. Catherine the Great promoted the idea of private
property in land and serfs, but property rights failed to lay the
basis for civil society and instead reinforced the gap between
the noble elite and the peasantry (pp.156-58). Serfdom ruined the
prospects for civic development (p.164). Critics of the existing
order, such as Radishchev (whose Journey from St.Petersburg
to Moscow appeared in 1790), espoused notions of honour, duty,
and responsibility in a manner that aroused the ire of the autocracy.
The Decembrists envisioned patriotism in terms of comradeship,
freedom and constitutional government in the interests of "the
welfare of Russia". Alexander Murav'ev complained that, in
the aftermath of the war against Napoleon, Alexander I offered
Poland a constitution, whereas Russia's reward was the notorious
military settlements (p.173). The proto-Decembrist Union of Welfare
offered membership of a reformed polity to those who were Russian
("born in Russia and speak Russian"); Pestel' envisaged
that non-Russians, with the exception of Jews and Poles, would
be assimilated into a unitary state. Several relevant points occurred
to me here, and I am not sure that Hosking attaches sufficient
importance to them. First, the Decembrists' vision of national
regeneration was expressed in terms that preserved a cultural and
social distance between nobles and peasantry; nor did the Decembrist
project deal adequately with the issue of peasant access to farm
land. Second, the Northern Society had a very specific plan for
the territorial sub-division of Russia, which is passed over hurriedly
even though this is relevant to the theme of conceptualizing the
"Russian land". A final problem is the relationship between
the Decembrists and the dvorianstvo. The majority of Russian
nobles were politically inert, not thoughtful critics of the tsarist
state, only becoming politically active when the government (during
the 1890s), then the peasantry (in 1905-07) threatened their immediate
The chapter on the
army begins with the suggestion that the state uprooted peasants,
drafted them into an "alien" institution, failed to offer
adequate resources, and left the people to make the best of a bad
job. This is summarized as follows: "the ethnos constantly
threatens in its rambling way to reabsorb the empire" (p.183).
Drawing upon the work of John Bushnell, Hosking shows that the
army mirrored peasant life, but that at the same time it inculcated
a sense of "imperial Russian consciousness" in the use
of uniforms and decorations (something that could also have been
developed more fully.) Reform followed the Crimean war; minister
of the interior Valuev argued that "military service is a
form of national elementary education". But reform did not
tackle the fundamental problem of resource constraints, which limited
the amount of time devoted to military training. This shortcoming
was exposed in the wars of 1877-78 and 1904-05.
following chapter turns to the peasantry. Serfdom, like the army,
seems at first to have been a purely repressive instrument; and
there were indeed numerous instances of brutality in both institutions.
But, in practice, landlords allowed their serfs considerable latitude.
The risks of farming poor land were shared through communal land
redistribution, whilst peasant liability for taxes and other dues
was managed by means of collective responsibility. The village
community and the artel (pp.203-6) constituted a kind of "ghetto",
confirming the cultural as well as social distance between the
elite and the peasantry. The peasantry understood Russia to be
informed "by the guiding principles of military power, religious
rectitude and social equality" (p.211). But they had no sense
of territoriality beyond the village and no idea of a national
community. They grasped something of Russia as a community bound
together by the Orthodox faith. Here, too, however, peasants worked
their own beliefs into official religious precepts and practice.
What survived was an uncompromising peasant suspicion of the state.
This leads to a
chapter on the Orthodox church. In Germany and England the church
provided a means whereby people encountered the national language
and culture. In Russia the church was firmly subordinated to the
state. Peter the Great abolished the Patriarchate, and by the nineteenth
century the Procurator of the Holy Synod was effectively a government
minister. Parishioners enjoyed little autonomy ("there are
parishioners, but there is no parish in the proper sense of the
word", wrote Aksakov in 1868). Priests were appointed from
above and enjoyed a difficult relationship with their flock. The
scriptures were not available to the masses in modern Russian version
until after the middle of the nineteenth century.
The theme of weak
institutional counterparts to the imperial state is developed in
a chapter on "towns and the missing bourgeoisie". Towns
were "grafted on to a peasant society". Weak guilds and
competition from other social groups hampered the development of
bourgeois institutions and identity. Only Moscow merchants from
mid-nineteenth century onwards constituted a coherent countervailing
social force and a nationalist ideology that was reproduced through
The next chapter
locates the "birth of the intelligentsia" in the late
eighteenth century, returns to the abortive claim of the Decembrists
to create a framework for national renewal, and documents the emergence
of slavophil notions of sobornost' (community) as a means
of reuniting the nation's elite with the masses. The most potent
ideology directed towards this end, however, was Russian socialism.
But socialism too bifurcated Russian national identity by offering
competing visions, one based upon the fundamental wisdom and virtues
of peasant "ethnic" Russia, the other a more cosmopolitan
outlook in which peasants became "integrated" into the
looks at literature as "nation-builder". The suggestion
here is that the literary elite espoused a cosmopolitan, European
outlook, which contributed further to the rift between elite culture,
the church, and "the ordinary people". The person chiefly
responsible for seeking to overcome this rift was Belinskii, who
sought to synthesize folk idioms and elite culture (pp.291-4).
But it was left to Dostoevskii to re-crystallize the myth of "holy
Russia" for a late nineteenth-century audience, by seeking
to synthesize the idea of a suffering, compassionate narod
and Russia's religious mission (pp.304-8). Surprisingly, perhaps,
the author devotes no attention to other cultural forms, notably
music, painting, and architecture, which would have leant themselves
to his thesis. It would have been interesting to read what Hosking
makes of Musorgskii! (See pp.406-14 of James H.Billington, The
Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture,
Vintage Books, 1970, a towering work of cultural and intellectual
history that would repay the attention of readers who wish to pursue
some of Hosking's themes.) I also felt that more needed to be done
to establish the extent of the new reading public that took shape
during the later years of the nineteenth century, particularly
given the importance this plays in Hosking's identification of
it with an emergent "Russian nation" (p.311).
There seem to me
to be other missed opportunities. Where is the discussion of national
identity in terms of symbols such as currency, flag, anthem, postage
stamps, sport? What about holidays and festivals - why did these
not become a means of national integration? More theoretically,
what about the crystallization of national identity in terms of
an encounter with "the other"? For example, to what extent
did war or migration help to introduce the peasantry to new kinds
of identity, by exposing them to "foreigners"? Did their
encounter with Jews reinforce a sense of peasant-ness or instill
a sense of Russian-ness? What role did Siberia play in changing
notions of what it meant to be a "Russian"?
Part Four offers
a fairly conventional account of the ways in which imperial Russia
succumbed to the pressures of economic and social modernization.
Westernizers and slavophiles alike interpreted Russia's humiliation
in the Crimean war in terms of a rift between state and society.
Two strategies contended for primacy: one was to create the institutions
of civic society and political participation; the other to homogenize
the tsar's subjects through a programme of Russification. Broadly
speaking, Alexander II pursued the former course, whilst his successors
pursued the latter (p.319). Peasant emancipation and the creation
of zemstvos merely confirmed the institutions of peasant self-government;
they did not overcome the political and cultural distance between
the peasantry and their political masters. Hosking traces the emergence
of a conscious professional stratum which identified Russia's mission
to civilize the peasantry and the peripheral peoples of the Russian
empire. I would have liked more deconstruction of the term obshchestvennost'
(educated society) and the way in which professional activists
constructed an image of the peasant narod. (See Cathy Frierson,
Peasant Icons: Representations of Rural People in Late Nineteenth-Century
Russia, 1993; also James Lehning, Peasant and French: Cultural
Contact in Rural France during the Nineteenth Century, 1991.)
Hosking's chapter on Russian socialism conveys something of the
frustration with which radicals encountered the peasantry (p.352).
But this doesn't take us very far. Nor is it altogether clear from
Hosking's account why peasants became revolutionary in 1902-07;
perhaps the author attaches too much importance to their awareness
of state vulnerability; in any case, he does not make it sufficiently
clear how this awareness was transmitted. It is also strange that,
in a book which relies quite heavily on the idea of cellular communities,
the author did not investigate more fully the idea of a revolutionary
party cell. And, although he suggests (p.412) that the soviet was
analogous to the village assembly, he does not explore the analogy
or unpick the differences in organization, membership, and tone.
The failure of reform
prompted the state to pursue the alternative strategy, of Russification.
Hosking describes this as the attempt to implant an overarching
sense of Russian-ness amongst all subjects of the tsar: "by
inculcating in each of them the language, religion, culture, history
and political traditions of Russia, leaving their own languages
and native traditions to occupy a subsidiary niche, as ethnographic
remnants rather than active social forces" (p.376). This policy
not only placed a heavy strain on the state budget, but also provoked
a "national" backlash (as seen in the popularity of the
Armenian Dashnak movement after the heavy-handed Russian attack
on the autonomy of the Armenian church). But I wanted to learn
more about the tactics that allowed the patriotic intelligentsia
in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and elsewhere to communicate with the
masses; was this because some of these societies were much less
"peasant"? Meanwhile, Russification alienated Russian
progressive opinion and failed to arouse any response on the part
of "the masses".
The remaining chapters
describe the 1905-07 revolution, its aftermath, and the 1917 revolution.
Professor Hosking is very much on his home ground here. There are
three main arguments in this part of the book. First, that none
of the revolutionary elements succeeded in articulating "a
vision of nation or empire which could appeal over boundaries of
soslovie and ethnos" (p.422). Second, that the new
parliament or Duma failed to overcome the rift between ruler and
ruled. Third, that the post-revolutionary reassessment by the Russian
intelligentsia failed to come to terms with the multi-national
character of the empire or the "localized consciousness"
of the Russian peasantry (Russification was revived by the counter-revolutionary
Whites in 1917-21). I have some reservations about the first point.
Radicals and "the masses" shared a vision of the bankruptcy
of state officials, of the need for a government that enjoyed the
confidence of the people, and of the pressing need for land redistribution.
This surely was a vision of a reconstructed nation, albeit not
couched in "nationalist" terms. Some other judgements
are also open to question. We are told (p.417) that peasants continued
to revere the Tsar. Can we be certain of this; why did peasants
not translate reverence into defence? Hosking also offers a decent
account of the policies pursued by Stolypin, but plays down the
repressive elements in post-1905 policies. I was also surprised
that Hosking did not take the opportunity to explore the cultural
meanings of different Russian cities (there is a brief discussion
of the construction of St.Petersburg, but no sustained reflection
on the comparative meanings that Moscow and St.Petersburg assumed),
the attempts to russify other cities (e.g. Warsaw) and the construction
(in both a physical and cultural sense) of newer Siberian towns.
Surprisingly little attention is given to foreign policy and the
idea of Russia's abortive "mission" in the Far East,
which would have strengthened the argument about the meaning of
that the imperial regime never overcame the profound rift between
rulers and ruled. Russia failed the test of war in 1914-17: nation-states,
not empires, win modern wars (pp.xxi, 449-52). It is worth pointing
out, however, that nation-states did not "go it alone"
in 1914; Britain relied upon the mobilization of its empire, as
Avner Offer has shown (The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation,
1988), and what counted in wartime was economic and military cooperation
between nation-states. In the end, peasant conscripts did begin
to articulate a kind of national consciousness in wartime (Hosking,
pp.457-8). There is much more that needs to be said on this score.
Hosking shows that workers and peasants were impatient to settle
old scores with the propertied elite, as well as aiming to secure
material benefits; this generated institutional collapse and bitter
social conflict. Like Moshe Lewin, Hosking argues that the peasantry
was the class that survived best the upheaval of revolution and
civil war. I wondered how fair it was to describe the participants
in the soviets (such as Kronstadt) as loyal to "the age-old
vision of an egalitarian democracy" (p.476); doesn't this
minimize the importance of class conflict and exclusion? And the
suggestion that suppression of the Kronstadt revolt ushered in
something called totalitarianism should not go unchallenged.
observations are prompted by Hosking's enterprise. Following Anthony
Smith, National Identity, 1991, we know that even "western"
nations were to some extent designed, the outcome of deliberate
attempts to pattern a new nation state. But what economic and social
basis allowed these projects to succeed? England and France boasted
relatively advanced economies, with a reasonably high degree of
urbanization and literacy. It took a lengthy communications revolution
(schooling plus railways) to effect a transformation in national
identity. A more dynamic Russian economy - with corresponding changes
in population migration, urbanization and division of labour -
might have had a much more positive outcome in terms of national
consciousness. It is not clear from Hosking's account that imperial
expansion and administration hampered Russian economic growth;
in any case, he does not pursue this line of enquiry.
Put another way,
the Russian state did not crush the peasantry, and this failure
confirmed the peasantry as the bearers of a communal tradition.
Hosking himself sees this as one version of "Russia",
so in that sense a kind of national identity survived decades of
economic, social and political change. Peasants defied the imperial
state; they "peasantized" the army and the town, and
they preserved customary law. What matters for Hosking is that
they did not constitute themselves a nation state. But this was
a protracted process throughout much of Europe. For many states
the process was barely complete by 1900 - one thinks of Italy and
the powerful countervailing forces at work to dent the national
project; or of France, where peasants "became Frenchmen"
later in the century. Is not the real problem to explain why peasant
society proved so resilient; and why, in order to promote "successful"
nation state-building, the peasantry would have to be crushed,
as Stalin sought to do in the 1930s? I get the feeling that Hosking
cannot make up his mind whether or not he likes peasants (he is
not alone!); sometimes he describes peasants as "superstitious"
(p.193), a term that implies - to me at least - a degree of disdain,
or at least impatience. But Hosking is a humane scholar; not for
him the certainties espoused by E.H.Carr! So what would be his
prescription for successful nation-state formation? Was the task
insoluble, as at times he appears to concede? Did the economy fail
Russia, by generating insufficient scope for sustained growth and
non-rural employment - in a word, too little urbanization?
has done much to encourage further debate in this important area.
I hope that his bold work will encourage students to rediscover
the classic works by Billington, Pipes and others where they will
find plenty more food for thought. I also hope that those who consider
these issues in future will make greater use of theoretical approaches
to social and national identity, integrating these more closely
into the complex web of historical narrative. When all is said
and done, however, Hosking remains a consummate storyteller and
it is this skill that will ensure that his book enjoys a wide and