On the shelf
The history of Russia
By Orlando Figes
Metropolitan: 368 pages, $30
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In the early days of the pandemic, British historian Orlando Figes began his “Lockdown” book: a survey of the ideas, myths, and beliefs that have shaped Russians over the past thousand years, based on his decades of writing and researching Russian and Europe history. The award-winning author of nine books, including Revolutionary Russia and Crimea: The Last Crusade, Figes handed the manuscript of The Story of Russia to its publishers in the fall of 2021, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin was beginning to send troops collect at the Ukrainian border.
On February 24, Putin declared war on Ukraine, and Figes was forced to rewrite the final chapter of his new book as the country’s history drifted once again into territory of conquest, death and destruction. Published as the Russia-Ukraine War enters its seventh month, The Story of Russia is an excellent work of narrative essay. An early review by Kirkus praised it as “a clear, astute text that debunks the myths of Russian history to explain modern-day motivations and actions”.
In recent days, the Ukrainian army has recaptured a significant territory occupied by Russia since the beginning of the war. But winter is coming and soaring energy prices caused by the war will roil Europe’s economy and test Europe’s resolve to continue supporting Ukraine. Figes was interviewed on Zoom from his home in Umbria and followed up via email. He answered questions about the conflict, the policies of repression in Russia and the plight of his young people. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
A key theme in your book is that Russians have longed for an authority figure since the dawn of the Russian nation, from Ivan the Terrible to the Tsars to Stalin. Is Putin just one in a long line of dictatorial rulers?
There is a power-worshipping mentality of the monarchy that is deeply rooted in Russian history. I think the Putin system built on that, as did Stalin who consciously built on that need for a tsar. And I suspect so any opposition or successor to Putin would also have to project power in this way. Dictatorships build their power base by eroding trust in other elements of a state system. Putin is a master at it.
Is the longing for authority anchored in the Russian psyche?
I tend to withdraw from the idea that there is power-worshipping DNA. But the sacralization of power, which I talk about at length in the book, testifies to the power of a godlike tsar. The authority that can emerge in Russia seems to be a persistent pattern. But is this more of a distinctly Russian sort of thing? What about the Donald Trump cult?
Putin started his career with the KGB. He ruthlessly uses state security to silence his enemies, using exile, imprisonment, and even murder. How has the partnership between the Russian leadership and the political police shaped the country’s history?
It is an ancient tradition, dating back to Ivan the Terrible, if not earlier to the Mongols, that there are enforcers of autocratic power who are licensed to kill without accountability. Stalin was arguably the first dictator to rule through the political police, and this became part of the fusion between the KGB and how politics works in Putin’s Russia today. It’s an odd mix of that KGB tradition, which Putin is adept at using, and a kind of medieval patrimonialism. They control these oligarchs. You own these people. It’s a very strong mix.
How does this system affect opposition to the war within Russia?
I don’t think we know how much the opposition is infiltrated by the police, how much they actually know about the arguably tiny groups of people operating through Telegram or their underground cells, as they did with those anti-conscription fires have centers.
Putin is inflammatory with his Stalinist language talking about traitors and fifth columnists, and encourages more surveillance and vigilante groups who think they are patriotic [by] beating someone who is known to be against the war. That’s probably enough to keep the opposition in a dark corner at the moment.
One of your conclusions is that because of Ukraine’s position as a rebellious former colony, Russia has a “hateful” urge to punish Ukraine.
For Ukrainians, this is essentially a war of liberation from an empire. Russia behaves imperialistically. I don’t think that’s genocide. I think Zelensky’s people overdid it, and I disagree with people like Tim Snyder who think it’s genocide. It is a denial of Ukrainian nationality.
What I see on the ground are crimes against humanity, war crimes and some pretty appalling atrocities against civilians. We’ll have to await the full investigation and evidence. But what strikes me from what we know so far is that this falls more into the category of Russian soldiers, or perhaps Chechen soldiers, who are indoctrinated by this notion of Russia’s superiority over the Ukrainians that goes deep into history.
Putin took power in 1999, and many young people in Russia have spent their entire lives under his regime. How do young people in Russia perceive the war?
There is an enormous range of views, from people who are now in prison or fined for bravely protesting the war, to the Putin nationalists who support the war. The Soviet legacy is stronger in the older generations. The younger generations are smarter because they used the internet for information; They know how to use VPNs to get the information they need. Young people have fewer illusions or swallow the propaganda spread by state television. What they do about it is another question.
Russian Economy Struggles With Western Sanctions: How Will This Affect Young People?
It’s a desperate situation for younger Russians who over the last 20 years have blossomed into a vibrant sector of creative entrepreneurs, techies and everything else. I think they’ll just go. I think this will throw Russia far behind.
Over the past month Ukraine has retaken significant territory and Russian forces appear to be in disarray. What do you think of this development?
This is of course a positive development. It shows that the Ukrainians are capable of victory, most likely if the Russian forces fall apart and even mutiny as they did in 1917. That could force Putin to resign if he is blamed for the defeat. But there is still a long way to go in this war, so let’s first see how the Russians in Donbass are reacting. Do they have the strength and morale to conquer all of Donetsk and declare victory? We will see.
How do you think the war will end?
The fighting will go on for a long time. But in the end the Russians will be forced to negotiate an agreement, I think. Everything depends on how long the West is willing to support the Ukrainians. I hope that will be the case at least until then [Ukraine] can negotiate from a position of strength. My fear is that the West will buckle under pressure from consumers affected by the economic crisis. If the Russians attack Ukraine’s infrastructure, as they have threatened to do, there will be another wave of refugees fleeing Ukraine to the West. Right-wing populists will be the beneficiaries, and that will increase the pressure on European governments to come to terms with Putin. The survival of democracy depends on the West remaining united.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in Seattle, writes about books and authors.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-21/story-of-russia-author-orlando-figes-discusses-putin-and-ukraine “Story of Russia” author Orlando Figes on Putin and Ukraine