The Russians

I finished a great book yesterday that gives a brief overview of the history of Russia. It is "The Russian Moment in World History" by Marshall Poe. I took away some remarkable insights and I've concluded I definitely love world history.  Agi and I've been discussing how Russia is a dramatically unique nation with values that are very different from Europeans and Americans.  (And there are still bullet holes in many downtown Budapest buildings from Hungary's efforts to liberate itself from the Soviets back in 1956).  I also understand now much better what motivates Putin and all the other post-communist leaders.  Here's a few highlights from the book I want to remember:

- It's better to view the last several hundred years of Russian history not as much as a big failure, but as a big success... for the Russian state.  Russia has been ruled by rich, powerful autocrats for centuries and they designed a system to keep themselves in power.  They succeeded better in this than any other nation--for their own benefit--and for the very limited benefit of the majority of poor people.

- Western Europe over the last four centuries became incredibly powerful and basically conquered the entire world (which resulted in much suffering, disease and slaughter it is true.  Guns, Germs and Steel is next on the list.)  One of the key places the Western European powers were unable to conquer was Russia.  There were many attempts to do so, and this contributes to the continual vigilance/paranoia of the Russian government today regarding Europe's intentions.  Russia's military strength is also a big source of pride for the country as a whole.

- The Russians don't have a history of individual freedom that Europeans and Americans understand intuitively.  Instead, the Russian autocrats--hundreds of years before communism!--already made a habit of nationalizing economic interests and closing borders and the free interchange of ideas so that Europeans (and their ideas) couldn't get in and Russians couldn't get out.   This unfortunately speaks to the difficulty that democracy has, and will continue to have, in taking root in Russia and also in Iraq.  (Note: it is actually a fairly unique European/American thing to have self-organizing groups--e.g. putting on fundraisers or drives to clean up trash--take the initiative rather than waiting for the state to step in and do something.)

- The communist government's modus operandi after World War II was modeled largely by Russian leaders on war-time Germany both economically & socially.  The Russian people basically lived with a war-time siege mentality--and on minimal rations--for forty years.

Great book.  I'm going to look for shorter history books like this one.  You can cover more ground without having to trudge through 1000 page treatises and still get a pretty good sense of what happened.

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