I am Russian. I’ll only add the caveat that while Russian, I moved away as a child, and being Jewish, my family was never strictly considered proper Russians. As a result, my personal knowledge of the country’s history has been built on family stories, anecdotes, historical events told out of context, and a clear bias of personal ideology (you can’t grow up Soviet without developing VERY strong opinions about communism). So I thought it would be interesting to get a more detached, factual overview of the country of my birth.
This is not that book.
I am learning, and this book helped really reaffirm this theory, that there is no such thing as an objective history. No matter how detached you are from a story, it is still a flawed human being with their own biases who is choosing which stories to tell and how to interpret them. Maybe there are specific events that don’t strike an emotional chord with people and can therefore be reported on objectively, but especially a history of a country as controversial and divisive as Russia is just absolutely never going to be even close to objective.
The thing is that Sixmith approaches the entire history of Russia as continuous attempts to “evolve” to be as awesome as Britain and failing. The events described are (to my knowledge) accurate, and it was fun to actually get some context for some of the stories I grew up with, like the story of Ivan Susanin, who led a group of nazis to their death by getting them lost in the Russian forests, and who we named our GPS after. But the narrative is told from a decidedly western perspective that idolizes western Society as the good, correct, kind way of forming a society. In fact, Sixsmith goes as far as saying that a big contributor to the problems in Russia was the fact that it was conquered by the Mongols and could never quite evolve past the “barbarism” of Asian governance. YIKES. And I’m sorry, but when it comes from a British historian, it also comes across as borderline propaganda. You want to compare what the UK was doing a thousand years ago? Because I don’t think they’d come out smelling like roses. And certainly while Peter the Great was building St. Petersburg on a foundation of hundreds of thousands of serfs’ lives in the 17th Century, the British weren’t doing anything at all related to slavery that would span not just their own country but the entire planet in a way that is still getting people enslaved and killed to this day.
And the point is that everyone is garbage here, so the superior, self congratulatory air that Sixsmith narrates with made my blood boil, and I have no love for Russia, so that is quite the achievement.
On the whole, I’d say that it is very factually informative, but if you don’t already have some knowledge of Russia, this is not going to make you understand it better because the narrative presupposes the ideological superiority of the west, and suggests that Russians simply want to be ruled with an iron fist in a way that is extremely offensive. That said, I can’t say I’ve encountered any books on the history of Russia that aren’t either deeply rooted in the ideology that the West is inherently superior or that Russia is inherently superior, so I can’t even make any recommendations for something better.