My wife and I recently watched the fantastic adaptation of War & Peace starring Lily James and Paul Dano (and Little Women’s James Norton, if you’ve seen it. That was my final straw – I had to learn more about Russian history. Everything I knew was from writers Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; as well as Doctor Zhivago and other movies. My usual search for history book advice on the internet wasn’t fruitful – any recommended book would be shot down by others as incorrectly biased or wrongly focused. Finally I just picked a random book at the library. I think I got the right one!
Martin Sixsmith isn’t writing about the subject from a distance. He studied and worked in Eurasia for decades as a journalist. He was there for a lot of the events from the 1970s-1990s firsthand. His presence gives him credibility while his writing background gives him the chops to create a coherent, educational, and enjoyable narrative. I noticed Amazon lists this as a textbook. It’s not dry like most of the history textbooks I had.
The book’s timeline is broad. Sixsmith covers Kievan Rus the Viking uniting the people in what would become Russia at their behest and goes all the way to Putin’s rise to power. Sixsmith gives more than just a string of events, though. He pontificates on why exactly Russia has been a churning hotbed of resolve and revolution. The author agrees with Russian who believe that the geography of the nation plays a large part in its national character and consciousness. It feels the pull of European liberalism and values as well as the need for autocratic reign as seen in its Asian neighbors. It feels danger from both sides, as well as from the South. He also notes the Russians’ own ambivalence about the need for strength in leadership over democracy. In addition to the heavier stuff, Sixsmith includes a lot of references to great art and literature of the various times giving the reader plenty of other writers to explore in order to learn more.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Russia and the Soviet Union.