Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Mark B. Smith's "The Russia Anxiety"

Mark B. Smith is University Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and is a Fellow of King's College and the Royal Historical Society. He is the author of Property of Communists: The Urban Housing Program from Stalin to Khrushchev and the blog Beyond the Kremlin.

Smith applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Russia Anxiety: And How History Can Resolve It, and reported the following:
If you open my book on page 99, you’ll get the chance to introduce yourself to Nikita Khrushchev and Yuri Gagarin. Although most of The Russia Anxiety addresses sweeping questions about the Russian past (such as ‘has Russia ever been part of the West?’), page 99 comes part way through a chapter called ‘The Narrative Correction’, where I summarize Russia’s history from the beginning to the present in forty pages. By page 99, the reader has reached the Soviet Union in the post-Stalin period. Very few people made a more decisive intervention in Soviet history, or even in Russian history as a whole, than Nikita Khrushchev, whose Secret Speech of 1956 set the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in a different direction. In that sense it’s a good page for a browser to chance upon.

It’s a good page for another reason, too. The purpose of my book, The Russia Anxiety, is to debate, contextualize and tell stories about the West’s long-term ‘Russia problem’. It’s a history book that ranges over many centuries, and does not make direct judgements about the present day, though it seeks to put current events in historical perspective. The central argument is that much of Russia’s historical experience is clarified by placing it in a ‘normal’ international framework. If readers are prepared to run with this hypothesis, their anxiety about Russia might -- will? -- subside.

I make the case, then, that Russian history is embedded into European history and that Russians are Europeans. And yet the first half of Russia’s twentieth century was exceptional. Between 1904 and 1953, the violence of repeated war, revolution, state terror, famine and breakneck modernization -- above all, the devastation of Stalinism -- were a purgatory for many Russians, Ukrainians and other Soviet peoples. But this period ended, and a new era -- post-Stalinism, or de-Stalinization -- began. I don’t seek to defend the post-Stalin USSR, which is described on page 99, merely to point out that it was different than the epoch that preceded it. A central fact of Soviet history is that the Soviet Union changed over time. Once again, after 1953, it becomes possible for historians to situate the Russian past in a wider, ‘normal’ framework. I return to Khrushchev’s Thaw more than once in the book, and page 99 offers a brief introduction to those exciting years that are so crucial to my argument as a whole.
Visit Mark Smith's Beyond the Kremlin blog, and learn more about The Russia Anxiety at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue