Rodric Braithwaite

Why autocracy in Russia always fails in the end

Mark Galeotti describes the unresolved problem for all Russia’s strong rulers — how to combine modernisation with stability in a vast, sprawling empire

Ivan the Terrible at the Siege of Kazan, 1552. Credit: Alamy

Churchill was wrong: Russia is neither a riddle nor an enigma. Russians themselves concoct endless stories to glorify their country’s achievements and minimise its disasters and crimes. But the rest of us do much the same, as we try to explain Britain’s imperial history or the impact slavery still has on America’s revolutionary ideals. Russia is little harder to understand than anywhere else. But you need to separate the facts from the myths, as Mark Galeotti does in A Short History of Russia, an informative, perceptive and exhilarating canter through 1,000 tumultuous years.

He starts with two founding events, each a mixture of fact and myth. In the ninth century, the legendary Viking adventurer Ryurik founded the state of Kievan Rus, which straggled all the way from Novgorod in northern Russia to Kiev in the south (or Kyiv, as the Ukrainians, whose capital it now is, call it). Rus always teetered on the verge of disintegration, as domestic disorder undermined its ability to prevent foreigners plundering its territory for loot and slaves. Many Russians still believe that only a strong ruler can hold their sprawling country together.

The dilemma has always been: how do you modernise Russia without undermining its stability?

The second defining event was the decision by Ryurik’s grandson Vladimir, for sound political reasons, to dragoon his people into adopting the Orthodox version of Christianity professed in Byzantium. An enduring division was thus created between Rus and the un-Orthodox West. Some Russians continue to suspect that their heretical Catholic neighbours are bent on subverting their faith and taking over their country. President Putin and his ally the Russian Patriarch play on that suspicion, and probably share it.

Kievan Rus was destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century. Moscow replaced it, still ruled by Ryurik’s descendants.

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