Monday, July 13, 2020

Mark Galeotti's "A Short History of Russia"

Mark Galeotti is one of the most respected and provocative writers on Russia today. A historian and expert on modern Russia, he was educated at Cambridge University and the LSE, has taught and held academic leadership roles in the USA and UK, and worked as an adviser for the British Foreign Office. He is a prolific author with more than twenty books to his name, and briefs everyone from the State Department to Fortune 100 companies on understanding Russia.

Galeotti applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Short History of Russia: How the World’s Largest Country Invented Itself, from the Pagans to Putin, and reported the following:
Is Russia European, and if so does that mean it has to surrender its claims to cultural exceptionalism? Does a self-conscious appeal to tradition mean a revival of historical ways, or a reinvention of a mythologised past? Page 99 of A Short History of Russia starts with the irony that Tsar Alexei (ruled 1645-76), while resenting the growing influence of foreigners, nonetheless made Patrick Gordon, a Roman Catholic Scottish mercenary, a tutor for his son and heir, Peter – later to be known as Peter the Great. A similar tension was all too evident within the Church, and the eloquent, forceful and unbending Nikon, Patriarch of Moscow and All the Rus’, sought to purify a faith that he felt had deviated from its Greek Byzantine origins.

Icons of new style were banned and burned, and contemporary Greek rites and liturgies were introduced, on pain of fines, excommunication and the lynch mob. Yet here is the irony: the ways of the Greek church had evolved over the centuries, just like the Russian. One could question whether the new rites were any closer to the old Byzantine ones that the Russian ones they replaced. But if one were wise, one would not ask that in Nikon’s presence.

A central theme of the book is, after all, about myths, about the stories Russians tell others and themselves about Russia, and the extent to which these are often wishful fantasies or cynical fabrications. Words make worlds, and our understanding of our place in the world is framed by them. In Russia’s case, that often means addressing the tension between its claims to being a unique civilisation and its relationship with Europe. Time and again, it would oscillate between a desperate desire to demonstrate that it was, indeed, a European and not a Eurasian or Asia power, and a stubborn determination to reject European values.

The “page 99 test” thus works rather well, although you’d need to read the other 215 pages to see how these processes fit the larger patterns of Russian history. The tsar who confined foreigners in Moscow into a ghetto of their own to avoid cultural contagion yet hired one to teach his son. The priest who thought he could reaffirm Russian uniqueness by copying a European church’s ways rites. Both were trying to reinvent Russia in their own ways, creating something new by thinking they could return it to their mythologised sense of something old.
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--Marshal Zeringue