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4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars

on 27 May 2016
This book offers a brilliant insight into the 'Russian soul", and more importantly, how it came about. An important aspect is that the author shows to what extent 'democracy' as most Western countries know it, is only really part of the people's DNA - and only has real roots, growing out of West European feudalism - in West-European countries; only 'natural' in those countries and the countries that were settled by them, like North America, Australia and the like. Richard Pipes shows us how Russia - from its earliest days right up to today - always was a patriarchal society, where the Prince - whether he be Ivan IV, Stalin or Putin - never was the embodiment of a State that had obligations towards its citizens just as much as they had obligations towards the State. The Prince, just as the ancient family father, had no obligations. He simply 'owned' everything under his command, from household utensils to the bodies and souls of his family members or subjects. Pipes makes the nice point that Russian rulers old and new never are or were 'depots'. This, because a despot rides roughshod over the rights of his subjects; a Russian patriarch's family or subjects however simply assumes them to have no rights. Everything a subject 'owns' - riches or even his life - is basically a favor of the patriarch who allows the subject to pretend ownership until the patriarch exercises his God-given right to take it away again.
We tend to think of this situation only in connection with the Russian serfdom. But Pipes explains how even highly placed nobles were in their relation towards the ultimate patriarch, the Tsar, no better off than the meanest serf. There are countless of instances of them summarily being robbed of titles, rank, possessions or life on the Tsar's orders. And that without any of them ever protesting against incursions on any 'rights' they had. The Tsar giveth, the Tsar taketh away; praised be the name of the Tsar. It explains of course also the fatalistic frame of mind of most Russians through the ages. And it explains why the Russian-in-the-street sees even today nothing abnormal in Putin endowing his favorites with billions in possessions, nor in his dispossessing them or anyone else if they fall out of favor. Basically this book explains how the Communist and post-Communist society and leadership in many ways was a straightforward continuation of relationships that developed in the earliest Middle Ages in Russia.

This book is NOT written as 'popular history', full of witticisms and telling anecdotes. On the other hand, is is clear and well-written, and offers information, analysis and insight on Russian society that is rarely found elsewhere. Highly recommended to everyone who wants a better understanding of Russian society and leadership - and why we laugh at Putin sitting bare-chested on a stallion, but Russians don't.
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on 4 July 2017
Pipes writes a great book, the more so as he seems not to like Russia or the Russians much.
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on 8 February 2013
The quote above was written by a 16th century German visitor to Russia observing the state of the relationship between the Tsar and the people. The word Tsar is actually taken from the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan (via Byzantium) who invaded Russia and whose depredations and power has had such a profound affect on Russian life and the structure of the state. Russian leaders were made to supplicate themselves before the Great Khan by crawling on their hands and knees. Richard Pipes states that, 'during these years , the population at large first learned what the state was; that it was arbitrary and violent, that it took what it could lay its hands on and gave nothing in return'.

Richard Pipes book is a single volume history of the political and financial development of the state up until the revolution of 1917. If anybody is surprised that Vladimir Putin is able to rule the country like a latter-day Tsar, they need only read this book. They would discover as the western advisors who leapt into Russia post Gorbachev failed to appreciate that this is country with little basis in law, little understanding of the concept of private property and little or no qualm about corruption and theft. If it is a dictatorial kleptocracy, it is one with a very long history.

Although the author covers the development of Kiev by Norman (Viking) traders and their links to Byzantium, some of the really satisfying parts of this book are the time he spends outlining the precariousness and backwardness of farming methods, yields were much higher in western Europe and how the farmers and peasents were eventually tied to the land by serfdom in the mid 16th century to prevent them leaving for richer pastures in the Kazakh regions and the Crimea. The chapter on the peasentry is incredibly enlightening as to their fear, hopes, attitudes, love of the Tsar as a distant God-like figure and hatred of a corrupt and underpaid bureaucracy that was forced to live off the people it supervised. The chapters on the largely impoverished minor aristocracy, mostly caused by the endless sub-division of property amongst various sons, and it's deliberate splitting apart by the Tsar's bureaucrats into units that were often hundreds of miles apart from each other, to prevent the accumulation of large estates, and the consolidation of power outside the autocratic patrimonial system of rule, show clearly how the oft quoted failure to produce a middle class arose. This was exacerbated in a major way by the crushing of a place like Novgorod by Ivan IV in 1570. A semi-independent trading city and member of the Hanseatic League it was razed to the ground, the massacring of it's inhabitants went on for weeks.

The other factor preventing middle class development was the expropriation of successful business enterprises by the state without compensation making the development or value of independent wealth creation irrelevant.

The book covers some of the changes sought and enabled by both Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, but neither of those active and intelligent people were really able to break sufficiently free from what had gone before and change the fundamental character of the state that had been created. Indeed they really had no intention of doing so.

The intelligentsia that did develop in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was heavily influenced by German idealism and the French revoultion. Perhaps not the best basis for a stable country, democratic or otherwise in either case.

The role of the Russian orthodox church it's asiatic origins, preference for mysticism over scripture, most of the lay clergy could neither read nor write and dependence on the state to protect it's status and land explain why it failed to develop the authority and independence that the Papacy and protestant reformation either expected or fought so hard to achieve. In these circumstances it is easier to understand why Pussy Riot chose a church as a focus for their demonstration.

The creation of the sturctures, laws and specialist surveillance units, however small at their inception, and the disproportionate repsonse to a campaign of bombings and murder in the 1880' s led to the embryonic police state that was so fully exploited after 1917. This coupled with the traditional role of denunciation in peasent life as the result of communal tax collection on behalf of the state (if somebody absconded,everyone else paid their liability) made fear and subservience a continuing norm. Pipes writes that 'lacking a genuine bourgeoisie to emulate, this new elite (bolsheviks) instinctively modelled itself on the village strong man, the kulak. To this day it has not been able to shake off its rural past.'

Given that this book runs to just over 300 pages, it contains a wealth of information, is clear, easy to read and very thought provoking. As a broad introduction to the history of this massive country I recommend it very highly.
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on 8 February 2005
This book is probably the best primer on Pre-revolutionary Russian history I've come across. If you've read all the narrative histories and are still confused about what the actual dynamics of tsarist Russia were, and how the path of it's development differed from that of Western Europe then this is a good place to orient yourself. Although I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, the author has attempted to answer some of the main questions which other historians have neglected or only superficially dealt with, such as how, in spite of it's outward appearance, did the Russian nobility differ from that of it's European counterpart? Why did Russia fail to develop a bourgeoisie? What was the legal basis of property relations in Russia? In a strange way, the methodology of this book owes more to Marx than I think Pipes would care to admit.
I only gave it four stars because the author has an annoying way drawing too many tenuous historical analogies between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary events and individuals which have no bearing on the theme under discussion.
That said, it's well structured and relatively easy to read.
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on 17 November 2003
I came across this book during my AS Level course, although I wasn't expecting this book to be a thrilling adventure, it seemed to be quite dull. Despite its rather lengthy details into aspects of Russia that, to be honest, you would never had thought twice about, it actually has some very good information and is ideal for research, and it also introduces new and interesting theories.
In conclusion, this book is ideal for in depth research and for a greater understanding of Russia's history, but there are more interesting routes to this sort of enlightenment. Buy this book if you have a long weekend free, and nothing much else to do!
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on 26 February 2015
Fresh perspective on the Russian history, good language, focus on demonstration of relationships and dependencies vs. simply listing boring facts. Great read! I didn't like the edition through - the font is small and packed on the page, which makes the process of reading less pleasant.
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on 29 December 2005
What is interesting about this book is that it offers explanations for how it was that by the time of the revolution (and for that matter since except for Yeltsin's experiments) Russia completely failed to develop any kind of democracy. Pipes argues that the main reasons were:
1) Geographical. Russia has limited good soil and most of this only became part of a Russian state after the middle ages. Russia also has a short growing season and no natural borders. All these factors led to a lot of migration and a difficulty for any government in maintaining authority and getting taxes.
2) The influence of the Mongols whose occupation of the steppes in the middle ages and their repressive approach to government and tax collection provided a harsh but effective model for future Russian governments.
3) The influence of the Orthodox church which never challenged the state in any way through ten centuries
4) The fact that until quite recently in Russia's history there was no such thing as private property, everything belonged to the state. As a method of controlling the population the government also forbade citizens to move around freely. All movement of persons, all use of land was under the aegis of the state and continually monitored. This was the system the state developed of maintaining its authority and by the time of the Revolution it still had not been dismantled.
Pipes' book is incredibly well researched and he continually compares Russian development to western states to highlight the peculiar features of Russian society.
Anyone who has read about Russia in the twentieth century and wants to understand why Lenin and Stalin opted so readily for an authoritarian state, and why even after Gorbachev it has been so hard for Russians to embrace democracy might feel that in some way the Russians have a predilection for authoritarianism. Pipes traces the background, and it sheds a lot of light on the dilemmas of the Russian people.
Having said that it is not an easy book to read as it is full of facts and details about taxes, land ownership and class distinctions, but equally it is full of subtle and even blinding insights.
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on 21 October 2010
Pipes has execelled himself by producing a well written and structured tome of immense interest, depth and scope.
The minutea of detail left me breathless at times and the knowledge and information imparted by the author is impressive..
This book will also serve as a future reference tool and can best be appreciated if the reader has more than an elementary understanding and insight into Kievan Rus, emerging Tsarist-state apparatus, the peasant condition and boyar history.
I'm not at all surprised that the AS level reviewer was unable to fully apreciate this book. It is quite demanding and requires more study and re reading than is perhaps the case for some other books on this subject. However, it is also very rewarding if you have the focus and prior grounding necessary to undertake a journey of this nature with Mr Pipes.
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on 7 June 2008
The other reviews here have covered the ground pretty well, so I just want to add a few points additionally.

As far as I am aware Prof. Richard Pipes is the only Western historian of Russia to begin his book with a detailed and persuasive description of Russian climate and geography and how this affects her agriculture. It is an astonishing eye-opener. And it makes his thesis about Russian authoritarian government very plausible indeed.

Prof. Pipes was born in Poland and apparently emmigrated to the USA in 1939-40. Wikipedia has some interesting backgound on him. Solzhenitsyn apparently once called his work 'a Polish version of Russian history'.

It is an impressive and original work and deserves and rewards careful reading.
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on 12 February 2011
My boyfriend and I have arranged a trip along the transmongolian for April this year. We're independant travellers and I like to have an idea about the place I'm going to, to better appreciate the experiences I have. This book (whilst the 1st chapter was slightly over my head)continued to demonstrate to me insights that I might never have had. I found it throroughly enetertaining and could scarcely keep myself from its pages. I feel a deeper comprehension of the state which is Russia, based upon Mr Pipes' description and analysis of the state that was Russia. Thank you very much for a book well written, inspiringly narrated lines of thought and cross reference of concepts and taking me from ignoramous to appreciator-of-all-there-is-yet to know. Christelle
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