Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Never the Twain Shall Meet




The appearance of "Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum" is certainly timely, as the West ponders and debates how and if Russia has been "lost." That this chauvinism bespeaks a residual Cold-War attitude may seem beside the point to many, but it is an unintended coda to this book, which examines the historical attitudes of Europe and the United States toward Russian internal and external policies over the past three centuries.


Author Martin Malia certainly has the credentials for the task. He is professor of history emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley and author of "The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991."


But don't get the wrong impression. "Russia Under Western Eyes" is not a dry tome whose information and ideas are buried beneath layers of academic jargon. The subtitle itself is a tip-off that Malia has taken a more creative approach. Using the most famous public monuments of the two Russian capitals in this manner is a nice way to symbolically bookend the era under discussion; it is also a subtle insight into the Russian psyche. Yet Malia hasn't forsaken historical methodology either. Although his literary devices help give a sense of atmosphere, they are not used as ends in themselves.


Since this book is about the West's changing attitude vis-?-vis Russia, Malia not only provides a concise history of tsarist and Communist rule, he also examines the concurrent political, economic, cultural and intellectual trends in Central and Western Europe and the United States. He explains what might appear at a glance to be often illogical reactions toward the various regimes of tsarist Russia. The reigns, for example, of Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Alexander I were hailed in the West as enlightened despotisms, the "window to Europe," and so forth. In reality, these were expansionist reigns unlike any others in Russian history until Soviet times. In this context, Eastern Europe naturally served as a buffer for Russian territorial designs.


Conversely, Malia shows the importance of European societal changes in the 19th century - the rise of democracy, capitalism and the industrial revolution - and how such progress (as it was perceived) contributed to a negative backlash toward Russia during the reign of Nicholas I. During this time (1825-1855), Russia's backwardness and Nicholas's reactionary policies toward the newly coalesced intelligentsia fed Western disdain and prejudices: The reign of Nicholas I wasn't nearly as expansionary as his predecessors, it was simply behind the times. While Russia was still seen as despotic, it no longer appeared enlightened and was accorded the opprobrium "oriental."


Describing the apex of this reaction, Malia writes: "When the long-awaited upheaval at last arrived in 1848, it produced a paroxysm of Russophobic rage as universal as the revolution itself. Indeed, during 1848 and its aftermath the specter haunting Europe was not Marx's variety of Communism, a movement almost unnoticed at the time, but Nicholas and his Cossacks."


It is this notion of underdevelopment that forms the core of Malia's ideas. Semi-barbaric Russia is forever playing catch-up with the West as it painfully transforms itself from a traditional to a modern society - with communism widely seen as the intermediary stage. To these transitions, Malia shows, the West has reacted arbitrarily and, in retrospect, with a frequent lack of maturity.


"The quantitative burden of her backwardness," Malia writes of Russia, "has been so much greater than her neighbors' as to produce, by the twentieth century, a qualitative difference in her destiny."


The anxiety produced by communism is too well documented to warrant discussion here. More important is the argument Malia makes for fitting it into his paradigm. He defines and tracks a West-East cultural gradient in the context of the liberalization of the West and the eastward spread and decline of Marxism. In the postwar era (from the late 1950s onward), for example, when the West was feeling good about itself and its own strength, it feared Russia less and less. With the fall of communism in the early years of this decade, Western benevolence toward Russia reached its all-time 20th-century peak.


But if this book teaches anything, and it teaches many things, it is that the West-East cultural gradient has not disappeared beneath the crush of global technology, and that the collective psyche of the West is still very fragile. It still doesn't quite know what to do with Russia.


Who did lose Russia? After three centuries of stops and starts, delusions, false hopes and prejudices, you'd think Western policy makers and media experts would know better then to ask a question like that.


"Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum," by Martin Malia. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press. 512 pp. $35.