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Book Review: The Penguin History of Modern Russia

Robert Service’s “The Penguin History of Modern Russia” is an excellent introduction to a globally important but frequently misunderstood nation.

Russia is frequently in the news. At the moment, it’s most notable for its invasion of Ukraine but it seems that Russia and global scandals are never far apart. Before there was modern Russia, there was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) which also dominated world headlines for most of its existence, too. There is a pattern.

I decided to purchase a copy of Robert Service’s The Penguin History of Modern Russia to better understand the Russia that we see today. Why does it seem, on one hand, that Russia seeks the approval of the West whilst simultaneously working to undermine common Western values and antagonise Western nations?

Service’s book starts from the late Tsarist period under Nicholas II and explores the social conditions that lead to the overthrow of the Russian Empire’s monarchy in the February Revolution of 1917 and then installed the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution of that same year. This was a tumultuous period that ushered in a new period of Socialist rule under Vladimir Lenin, whose ruthlessness and autocratic aspirations lead to the establishment of communism in what would eventually be known as the USSR. The ongoing suffering of the Russian people, most particularly its peasants, academics, businesspeople and professionals makes for extraordinary reading. Service explains that even Lenin himself didn’t exactly know what would or could be achieved under Communism (there was no precedent anywhere) but stubborn ideology and brutality ensured that the Kremlin exercised as much power as it could over the diverse Russian people (and the non-Russian citizens of the USSR’s member states), much to the horror of the rest of the world.

The cover of The Penguin History of Modern Russia by Robert Service, published by Penguin.

Throughout the book, there is a constant tug-of-war between the central Russian government and the provinces that almost always ‘tended to do their own thing’. Enforcement was tricky, especially when deprivation and corruption were rife in a country that openly rejected the rule-of-law as a concept. As Communism became further entrenched and more brutal methods of repression were required to ensure that it remained in place, layer upon layer of enforcement agencies and inspectorates were established to keep an eye on people and ensure that there was no return to capitalism. Matters only became worse when Joseph Stalin became the leader and the Goulags were expanded. Modern scholars believe 18 million people passed through the Goulags and 1.6 million met their deaths there. Later leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev attempted “modernisation” but Russian Communism’s inherent inefficiency and the population’s general fatigue (ie lack of co-operation) made this task extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the USSR made some significant technological advancements in the 1950’s and 1960’s; even rivalling the USA for nuclear supremacy and space advancement for a period.

Overall, Russia’s story – as told by Service – is one of extended periods of struggle, abhorrent violence and repression punctuated with short bursts of unnerving calm. There were periods of optimism, such as the period following Glasnost. But even then, there were always plenty of people eager to prevent the full blossoming of democracy. Few long-term changes were seen after the fall of the USSR in 1991, although Russians did enjoy a relative degree of political freedom in the 1990’s before it was clawed-back in later decades.

The Penguin History of Modern Russia is an informed, balanced and insightful account of Russia from the late nineteenth century to the twenty-first. Service has updated the book to include chapters about Russia’s rule under Vladimir Putin. Russia’s place in the world and the West’s difficult relationship with it make a lot more sense to me now.

If you’re seeking a better understanding of Russia, I commend this book. The Penguin History of Modern Russia by Robert Service (ISBN 9780141992051 [Print], 9780141981550 [e-pub]) is published by Penguin.



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