A Galloping View of Imperial History

"A major reinterpretation of the final 350 years of Russian Imperial history," trumpets the dust jacket of Geoffrey Hosking's modestly sized new book, Russia: People and Empire.

However, the radical direction taken by Hosking is obvious without overblown blurbs and press office hype. In the field of Russian historiography, famous for pulping great chunks of the world's forests, cramming all of the Russian imperial narrative into just over 500 pages is remarkable. The Soviet scholar Mikhail Gernets concerned himself only with the history of tsarist prisons and managed to produce an impressive five volume extravaganza. But the current record-holder, as far as I am aware, is the 19th-century scholar Sergei Solovyov, whose "History of Russia" runs to a phenomenal 29 volumes.

To be fair, however, Hosking, a British professor of Russian, has narrowed his brief here, though only a little. "The theme of this book is about how Rossiia obstructed the flowering of Rus" he says on the opening page of the introduction, referring to the Russian words associated with empire and nationhood, "or, if you prefer it, how the building of an empire impeded the formation of a nation."

What follows is an account of the tortured evolution of Russia's national consciousness in tandem with -- and often in opposition to -- the efforts of its leaders to build a state out of a vast, unruly territory peopled by antagonistic ethnic groups and disparate, immiscible social groups.

Every attempt at integration, from Peter the Great's drive to create a secular European-style state, to the belated emancipation of the serfs, simply exacerbated tensions, bringing the country a step closer to the catastrophe of 1917.

Hosking is particularly good on the fragmentation of 19th-century Russian society, when the dreamy rootlessness of the new intelligentsia spawned delusive political philosophies such as populism, where young, well-off students attempted to bond with the peasant masses, and socialism. "The guilt feelings," Hosking writes, "the crass over-simplification, the Manicheanism, the naive faith in books, the pathetic appeal to popular approval: all this was characteristic of an elite cut off from its people."

There is also an absorbing chapter titled "Literature as Nation-builder," in which we are shown Dostoevsky and Tolstoy coming much closer to creating a cohesive "Russian idea" than any tsar or politician. Though it must be said that Dostoevsky's formula for Russian nationhood, which drew heavily on the dogma of the Third Rome, could have inculcated a regressive martyr mentality in the national psyche while blending in some haughty imperialism for good measure: "The Russian people were uniquely marked by Christ," Dostoevsky said in 1880. "They have endured suffering on a scale far greater than any European people. This suffering had brought them a distinctive and humble wisdom which fitted them supremely well to bring the light of Christ's salvation to other peoples."

However, for much of "Russia: People and Empire," Hosking's angle is so oblique as to make the book indistinguishable from a conventional history, something for which he has allowed himself insufficient space. During chronological sections, the narrative proceeds at breakneck speed, galloping past the reigns of the archetypal tyrant Ivan IV, the tsar-builder Peter I and Catherine the Great, all of whom appear and meet their demise with a speed and frequency normally associated with Brazilian soap operas.

And soon after the oasis in the mid-19th century, Hosking again reverts to his time-lapse historiography. The reign of Nicholas I, the 1905 revolution, World War I, the Provisional Government and the Bolshevik Revolution are raced through in the narrative.

This pacing problem is compounded by a style that manages to be at once simplistic and overly bookish. Hosking's prose is devoid of any feeling for character. We are given a desiccated version of history where even Ivan the Terrible comes across as a characterless bore.

And while the central theme of "Russia: People and Empire" may be promising, it is hardly new and certainly not the major reinterpretation touted here. The idea that a Western scholar had discovered the root of all Russia's ills in the inability of this vast, diverse land to create a socially cohesive identity would raise a belly laugh from nationalists such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Eduard Limonov, who have been using this argument to support their right-wing policies for years.

Equally dubious is Hosking's tacit nationalist call at the end of the book for the reintegration of 25 million Russians living in the former Soviet republics. Without fully defining what he means by "turbulence," he suggests in the closing statement that a strong national identity "will not be created in Russia, however, without turbulence which will affect neighboring countries. Minimizing this turbulence without insulting and belittling the Russians remains one of the major problems facing the international community today."

The idea that the reintegration of the Russian minorities would be a cure-all for Russia's national identity ills smacks of naivet? and suggests that living miles away from his chosen subject may cause even the most eminent of historians to lose touch. In any case, some surveys have shown that the majority of Russians living in the near abroad are far more willing to maintain their current status than to be reunited with the motherland.

Although trying to realize unrealistic ambitions in a diminutive format, Hosking compounds the fault by making frequent forays outside his already broad time scale, slipping in a comment on the Civil War here and adding an epilogue about Russia's current situation in a chapter called "Afterthoughts on the Soviet Experience." The result is to dilute much of the work to the point where it barely manages to achieve the depth and insight of a newspaper article or a bluffer's guide.

"Russia: People and Empire 1552-1917" by Geoffrey Hosking. HarperCollins, 548 pages, ?20 or $33.