The Penguin History of Modern Russia: From Tsarism to the Twenty-first Century Paperback – 18 Aug 2009
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A remarkable work ... [it] demands to be read (Adam Zamoyski Spectator)
About the Author
Robert Service is professor of Russian History at Oxford University, a fellow of St Antony's College and an associate fellow of the Hoover Institution. His other books include biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, a textbook on the Russian Revolution and Russia: Experiment with a People, from 1991 to the Present as well as Comrades. Communism: A World History. He writes and broadcasts for the media and is a fellow of the British Academy.
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At the end of the day, this is an introductory history that more than fulfils its role.
The work is neither too long, but perhaps, at over 570 pages, it is perhaps too short as it leaves the reader wanting more.
Covering the entire 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st, Service leaves no stone unturned. All the major personalities and forces for change are included, and certain parts that may be a cause for digression, such as WWII, are kept within an appropriate length for a broad ranged study.
Robert Service, while notably a scholar not known to place faith in the communist ideology, is nonetheless sensitive to the different opinions of the various segments of the population who are nostalgic for the days of old. A central problem Service identifies is corruption, that became endemic under the Brezhnev era with complacent, irresponsible management, and supplementing of income from other, often illegitimate, sources. Service reveals that by the time of the Brezhnev era, a deep cynicism was inbedded in the leadership that had scant regard for the actual ideals of communism, and instead sought little more than to preserve their hold on power. Such logic was behind the selection of the deathly ill Chernenko in the Kremlin succession of 1984, merely as a means to forestall a shakeup of the Soviet hierarchy.
Service gives coverage to the Perestroika era, which is similar to his study in Comrades, but perhaps with more detail. From the breakup of the USSR he covers the power struggles, and uncertainty of the Yeltsin era, and take the readers up to and including the succession of Medvedev and the 2008 5 day war in Georgia.
Service is praising of Russia's achivements in the post Soviet era, and is reasonably optimistic of Russia's future. One cannot discern as to whether Service is a Russophile, though this reader, if asked, would say not. However, Services lack of cultural preference perhaps gives the work a greater sense of objectivity.
As a reader who has read various studies of Russian history, both within education and at leisure, this ranks as one of the best, and certainly the best comprehensive study. Recommended for both experienced Russia hands, or those with a Russia curiosity.
On the negative side, the book focuses almost exclusively on those at the very centre of power (Lenin, Stalin, etc, and their immediate circle). It is quite sparing with information about the experiences of ordinary Russians, and has a tendency to gloss over the details of the more turbulent events. For example, Stalin's reign of terror in the 1930s, and the battles against the Nazis in the 1940s are described in quite a distant manner, giving little insight into the experiences of those who were at the sharp end of events. We only learn something of Stalin's machinations, not what it was like to be on the receiving end of his autocratic decisions.
It also tends to jump around quite a lot, within each era. The broad strokes of history are dealt with in sequence, but within each period it jumps back and forth to such an extent that it is difficult to get a proper sense of the order in which events occurred. For example, when dealing with the period of the Revolution and its immediate aftermath, the book jumps back and forth between the years from 1917 to the early 1920s, and doesn't tell the history in chronological order.
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