The Blackwell History of Russia

General Editor: Simon M. Dixon

This series provides a provocative reinterpretation of fundamental questions in Russian history. Integrating the wave of new scholarship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, it focuses on Russia’s development from the mid - seventeenth century to the present day, exploring the interplay of continuity and change. Volumes in the series demonstrate how new sources of information have reshaped traditional debates and present clear, stimulating overviews for students, scholars and general readers.


Russia’s Age of Serfdom, 1649–1861

Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter

Across the Revolutionary Divide: Russia and the USSR, 1861–1945

Theodore R. Weeks


The Shadow of War: Russia and the USSR, 1941 to the present

Stephen Lovell


To my students: Past, present, and future


Mikhail Cheremnykh and Victor Deni, “Comrade Lenin Cleanses the Earth of Scum.”
Viktor Govorkov, “Stalin in the Kremlin Cares about Each One of Us.”
Russian Peasantry before the Revolution: A Village Council ca.1902 – 10.
Nikolai Mikhailov, “There Is No Room in Our Collective Farm for Priests and Kulaks.”
B ezprizornye (street orphans).
V. Elkin, “Long Live the Fraternal Union and Great Friendship of the Nations of the USSR!”
Konstantin Zotov, “Every Collective Farm Peasant or Individual Farmer Now Has the Opportunity to Live Like a Human Being.”
The Moscow Metro, one of the grand construction projects of the Stalin period.
Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
“Drunkenness on Holidays: A Survival of Religious Prejudices.”
Iraklii Toidze, “The Motherland Calls!” 1941.
Ilya Repin, Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.
Vasily Vereshchagin, An Allegory of the 1871 War.
Aleksei Radkov, “The Illiterate Is Just as Blind. Disaster Awaits Him Everywhere.”
Film poster for Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, 1925.
Russian Empire.
USSR in 1945.
USSR in 1923 (or post- Civil War but pre- 1945).
Expansion of Russian Empire, 1860s to 1914.
Russian Poland and the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

Series Editor’s Preface

The Blackwell History of Russia aims to present a wide readership with a fresh synthesis in which new approaches to Russian history stimulated by research in recently opened archives are integrated with fundamental information familiar to earlier generations. Whatever the period under review, new discoveries have thrown into question some persistent assumptions about the nature of Russian government and society. Censorship and surveillance remain important subjects for investigation. However, now that social activity in Russia is no longer instinctively conceived in terms of resistance to a repressive, centralized state, there is room not only to investigate the more normal contours of everyday life, but also to consider its kaleidoscopic variety in the thousands of provincial villages and towns that make up the multinational polity. Religion, gender, and culture (in its widest sense) are all more prominent in the writings of contemporary scholars than they were in the work of previous generations. Historians once preoccupied with pig-iron production are now more inclined to focus on pilgrimages, icon veneration, and incest. No longer so overwhelmingly materialist in their approach, they are more likely to take “the linguistic turn”; the changing meanings of imagery, ritual, and ceremonial are all being reinterpreted.

The challenge is to take account of “extra” dimensions of the subject such as these (the list could easily be extended), and, where appropriate, to allow them to reshape our understanding, without risking a descent into modishness and without neglecting fundamental questions of political economy. One way of squaring the circle is to adopt an unconventional chronological framework in which familiar subjects can be explored in less familiar contexts. Each of the three volumes in the series therefore crosses a significant caesura in Russian history. The first, examined by Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter in Russia’s Age of Serfdom, 1649-1861, is the physical and cultural move from Moscow to St Petersburg at the beginning of the eighteenth century; the last, explored by Stephen Lovell in The Shadow of War: Russia and the USSR, 1941 to the present, is the collapse of the USSR in 1991. In this middle volume, Ted Weeks ranges “across the revolutionary divide” of the year 1917.

For much of the twentieth century, 1917 seemed to mark the most significant of historical ruptures and there are naturally good reasons for continuing to regard the revolutionary cataclysm as a fracture between radically different worlds. Autocracy and Marxism - Leninism were ideological poles apart; so were the aims of their respective proponents. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the ambition of the Bolsheviks who came to power in October to transform the world in which they lived. They attempted not only to supplant the monarchy and to extend the dictatorship of the proletariat far beyond Russia’s borders, but also to forge a new civilization, ultimately to be peopled by a different sort of human being: New Soviet Man and New Soviet Woman.

For all these reasons, it is no surprise that the Soviet and tsarist periods should have tended until recently to attract historians of different backgrounds, different temperaments, and different preoccupations. While some were fascinated by the decline of an increasingly inflexible tsarist regime, whose attempts to strengthen the Romanov dynasty paradoxically served only to make its own government more brittle, others were drawn to explain why a Bolshevik vision apparently so suffused with optimism should have corrupted within less than a generation into the horrors of the Stalinist Terror. Even basic logistics militated against scholarly efforts to “cross the revolutionary divide,” for while the Soviet government stored its principal papers in Moscow, the richest archival collections relating to the late -imperial period remained in Leningrad.

Nearly 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, however, 1917 no longer seems quite such a total rupture. After all, as governors of a sprawling multiethnic state, the Bolsheviks faced many of the same geopolitical challenges as their tsarist predecessors. How were they to balance the security of multinational Rossiia against ethnic and cultural Rus’? Some of the most fertile research of the last generation has been devoted to precisely this question and to related dilemmas of imperial expansion. Himself an acclaimed authority on the history of the Polish- Lithuanian borderlands both before and after 1917, Weeks draws on this literature to offer a brilliant analysis of the nationalities question in one of the most striking chapters of his new book. Continuities are no less striking when one turns to the economy. The last three tsars and the early Soviet leaders were all struggling to manage the politics of industrialization in an overwhelmingly agrarian empire. All of them ran up against the risk - averse peasantry’s stubborn attachment to the small-scale communal organization that had helped them to survive for centuries. Peasant obstinacy was to prove just as exasperating to Stalin at the end of the 1920s as it had to Stolypin between 1906 and 1911. Their solutions, of course, were radically different. Whereas Stolypin hoped to foster a new generation of prosperous (and politically loyal) farmers by encouraging the wealthiest peasants (“kulaks”), Stalin set out to annihilate them. Nevertheless, it would be misleading to suppose that the Bolsheviks had a monopoly on state violence. In many ways, the key turning point was not 1917, but, rather, World War I, described with characteristic prescience by Norman Stone in 1975 as “a first experiment in Stalinist tactics for modernization.” More recently, Peter Holquist has traced the development of a wartime consensus in favor of planning that stretched across the political spectrum, including among liberals in government who regarded themselves as a supra - class elite with the best interests of the state at heart. And just as liberal planners’commitment to forcible state intervention in the food supply chain during World War I marked the first stage in a continuum of state violence that stretched beyond 1917, so Daniel Beer has demonstrated the ways in which psychiatrists and other liberal intellectuals anticipated some of the controlling instincts of the Soviet regime by seeking to combat a perceived threat of moral degeneration well before 1917.

Not that violence and surveillance were the only tools at the state’s disposal. Russia has always derived much of its stability and flexibility from time - honored ways of doing things. The sorts of informal patronage network that had overlain the tsarist bureaucracy for centuries at both central and local levels soon wove their way into a powerful Soviet nomenklatura. Nor should we confine our interest in continuity to matters of geopolitics and the state. Most aspects of the distinctive form of Soviet consumer society that emerged in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War - tourism, the cinema and so on - had their origins in the commercial explosion of late-imperial Russia. Many of the reformist impulses in Russian Orthodoxy that emerged in the first decade of the twentieth century found expression only after the October Revolution, when the nascent Soviet regime tried to exploit them as a way of splitting the church. There is no need to stress the virtues of writing cultural history “across the revolutionary divide”: it is the only way to write about Russian modernism, itself part of a European cultural movement with deep roots before World War I.

In other words, while no one would sensibly seek to minimize the impact of the October Revolution, the lived experience of Stalin’s generation only partly confirms the impression of 1917 as a fundamental caesura. Drawing on recent writings which have enriched our understanding of the 1920s and 1930s as never before, Ted Weeks explores a vital period in Russian history, culminating in the “Great Patriotic War” that served as the ultimate test of the nascent Soviet regime.

Simon M. Dixon

School of Slavonic and East European Studies

University College London


Writing a textbook is truly a case, as medieval writers liked to say, of a “dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants.” Among the giants among Russian historians that I have known and learned from over the years are my Doktorväter, Nicholas Riasanovsky and the too-soon departed and sorely missed Reggie Zelnik. My wonderful colleagues in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, here at Southern Illinois University, and throughout the world, have also been important teachers. Probably most vital of all for a textbook writer is the interaction with students who are constantly reminding me to be clear, precise, and concise.

Many people helped improve this book. My sincere thanks to colleagues who took time from their busy schedules to read and critique chapters: Peter Blitsein, Chris Chulos, Adrienne Edgar, Brian Horowitz, Stephen Lovell, Kevin O’Connor, David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye, and Christine Worobec. Brad Woodworth, Pierre Holquist, and Clayton Black helped with specific queries. Chapter 5 is much improved after the thorough critique provided by the Midwest Russian Historians Workshop. My sincere gratitude to all of these people and all others whom I have neglected to mention specifically. All remaining weaknesses, errors, and infelicities are entirely mea culpa.

A Note on Calendars

Unlike most European countries, which had adopted the Gregorian calendar (“new style”: “n.s.”) by the eighteenth century, imperial Russia continued to use the Julian calendar (“old style”: “o.s.”) well into the twentieth century. This meant that the calendar used in Russia was 12 days behind in the nineteenth century, 13 days behind in the twentieth. Thus October 1, 1901, in Russia was October 14 in, say, London. This fact is important in understanding why this book speaks of the “October” (old style) Revolution whereas a general European history would speak of the “November” (new style). This confusion was cleared up when the Bolsheviks adopted the Gregorian calendar in February 1918.


Why a New Russian History?

The Russia of today is an entirely different place than the one I read about in college textbooks and experienced as a college student in the 1980s. In the past generation Russia has gone from being, in the guise of the USSR, one of two superstates whose policies affected millions around the globe to a still powerful but insecure state no longer certain of its preeminence on the global scene. This enormous change took place almost literally overnight in the early 1990s and left millions of Russians baffled, frustrated, and angry. One cannot understand the politics and culture of the Russian Federation in the twenty-first century without a good grasp of the past–in particular of the crucial period between serf emancipation (1861) and victory in the second World War (1945). In that quite short period–essentially one long lifetime–Russia became a world power as it had never been before in history. Now, once again, Russia has returned more or less to its pre-World War I power status: important but not one of the two superpowers engaged in power projection around the globe. At the same time many Russians continue to feel that their country is not receiving proper respect in the world. The broad discrepancy between Russia’s actual military and economic power and the role that Russians think their country should play in world politics stems mainly from the memory of a powerful USSR–the country built in the years we will consider here.

Despite the transformations of the 1990s and the resulting reduction in Russian military might, Russia continues to aspire to a global role–to the great consternation of many of its European neighbors. With its large energy reserves, nuclear capabilities, and geographical sweep covering nearly half of the globe, Russia remains vitally important in world politics. One should also never forget that the Russian nuclear arsenal is still capable of ending all life on earth. So Russia continues to “matter,” just as Germany and Britain after 1945 remain significant in world politics, economy, and culture. Up to now, all histories of Russia written have consciously or unconsciously been histories of a world power. The challenge of a survey of Russian history in the twenty-first century is to present the history of a country whose importance can no longer be taken for granted.

Russian Empire.

Source: based on map in Dominic Lieven, Empire, Yale University Press, 2000, “The Russian Empire at its Greatest Extent, 1914.”



The present-day importance of Russia derives from geographical, military, cultural, and historical factors. The largest country in the world from the seventeenth century to the present day, its borders stretch from the European Union to China, from the Middle East (Iran) to Korea, from the Black and Baltic Seas to the Pacific. The huge oil and natural gas reserves located on its territory allow Russia to exert serious–and often much resented–influence in Europe where many countries are overwhelmingly dependent on energy delivered from the east. With its nuclear arms and new-found assertiveness under President Vladimir Putin and his successors, Russia cannot be dismissed as “yesterday’s news.” Of course, for a historian, the news of yesterday is vitally significant, even more so, perhaps, for Russia more than any other present–day country. While Germans or Japanese no longer regard their countries as world powers (and, crucially, have no great desire to take on that role) and the British Empire has been transformed into the Commonwealth that has relinquished any pretensions of a geopolitical role, the Russian Federation and Russian citizens in the early twenty-first century often regard their country in terms of world political power. Thus Russia expects to be respected as a power of the first rank; neither government nor populace is yet content to accept a reduced role on the international scene in the way that former world powers like Great Britain, France, or Japan have. This view, which clashes with many aspects of post-1992 political reality, can only be understood through a sympathetic examination of Russia’s past experience.

In the early twenty-first century, with the USSR a fading memory, the triumph of the Bolshevik party in 1917 remains an important historical event, but only one among many. In the past decades western historians have attempted to look across and beyond the revolutionary year, pointing to continuities before and afterwards rather than stressing the total break with tradition that the creation of the world’s first socialist state represented. This book will reflect that historiography. Nobody would deny the importance of the communist victory in October 1917 as a crucial event in world history. At the same time the Bolsheviks were building on an already–existing revolutionary tradition that dated from the Great Reforms of the 1860s and early 1870s. After the communist victory, moreover, Lenin and his party comrades had to deal with many of the same issues that had plagued pre-revolutionary Russian rulers: developing the economy, raising the education level, dealing with Russia’s multiethnic and multilingual population, defending Russia from internal and external threats, and justifying the revolution not just in practical but in moral terms. This volume’s narrative will be structured around some of these major themes.

The period covered in this book, from the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 to the victory over Hitler’s Germany in 1945, represents a critical and unique era in Russian history. Serf emancipation formed the cornerstone of the Great Reforms that aimed to modernize Russia, in effect, to preserve Russia’s great power status. The impressive industrial development of Russia that began approximately a generation after the Great Reforms appeared to prove that Russia was indeed successfully modernizing. But economic development could not prevent revolutions in 1905 and 1917, the final of which brought down the tsarist regime. The new communist government dedicated itself to creating an entirely new kind of state–modern, secular, socialist, and a model for the world. The social and economic convulsions of the 1930s shook the Soviet state to its foundations but also helped to pave the way to victory in 1945. Thus in a sense the defeat of Nazi Germany at the hands of the Red Army can be seen as the culmination of a modernizing process begun with the emancipation of serfs three generations earlier.

Main Events and Arguments

A common definition of history is “the study of change over time.” In this book we will certainly witness enormous changes as Russia went from being a politically conservative, peasant-dominated, religious country to the world’s first socialist state, officially atheist and dominated–at least in principle–by the industrial working class. Vastly more of the population lived in cities in 1945 than in 1861, and women occupied a far more prominent place in public life. Still, much remained of the past. Religion lived on in official and unofficial forms; women continued to raise children and carry out nearly all household work even while working outside the home; vodka still provided important tax revenues for the state as well as pleasure and pain for ordinary Russians. Certainly from 1861 to 1945 Russia became more modern: industrialized, literate, urban, secular.

We start in 1861 with the emancipation of the serfs, the most important act of the “Great Reforms” that would stretch into the 1870s. These reforms, as we will see, were a major step toward creating a modern Russia, at least on the social and economic planes. We end in 1945 with the Soviet victory against Nazi Germany not because the USSR was a truly modern and prosperous country by that date–the opposite was in many ways true–but because the peculiar path of modernization that had been followed since 1861 had proved itself in one vital respect successful: the USSR was able to take on a major military threat and emerge victorious. The role of World War II in legitimating the Soviet regime is so vital that this conflict will figure both here and in the next, final, volume of this history that will take the story up to our own days. Furthermore, in a sense the type of centrally planned, state-dominated modernization followed since 1917 reached its logical limits in the decade or two after 1945; the future economic difficulties of the USSR were thus a function of the structures set up in the first generation after 1917.

Major political developments will be treated in some detail in chapter 1, but a quick overview may be helpful. In 1861 Russia was ruled by an autocrat, without any parliament or even a cabinet of ministers, and its economic and social life was dominated by the institution of serfdom. The Great Reforms of 1861–76 abolished serfdom, set up institutions of limited local autonomy in cities and the countryside (the zemstva), modernized the legal system, and reformed the army. However, the Russian political system remained entirely dominated by the tsar, whose rule was unfettered by either a constitution or a legislature of any kind. Neither the peasantry nor educated society were satisfied with the reforms and this unhappiness–especially among young educated people–developed in a violent direction that culminated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881.

From 1881 until the end of the old regime in the midst of World War I, Russia’s rulers understood the need to modernize the empire to finance an army, but stubbornly assumed that they could do this without relinquishing autocratic authority. Without modernization, Russia would have fallen into the status of a second-rate power, something the Russian tsars refused to consider. Tsar Alexander III (reigned 1881–94) was relatively successful in allowing industrial development without conceding political reform. The failure of his unfortunate son, Nicholas II (reigned 1894–1917), can be seen in two revolutions, one in 1905 (which the tsarist regime survived, though after conceding a parliament, the Duma) and one in February 1917, which ended tsarist rule.

The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, took power in late 1917 and aimed at a complete transformation of Russia–and the world. Not only economic and political relations were to be transformed: social relations, spiritual beliefs, even the family and gender relations were to be completely changed. A new human being was to be created! The first years of communist rule coincided with a bloody civil war, which ended with a devastating famine in which millions perished. The shattering experience of the civil war convinced the communist leadership that some concession had to be made with the market and private property. During the 1920s this period of the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) saw economic recovery and cultural innovations, but no political liberalization. At decade’s end the NEP was eclipsed by a more radical–and more socialist–economic policy of the first Five Year Plan (for industrial growth) and agricultural collectivization (to neutralize the peasants as possible threats to Soviet power and to guarantee a reliable supply of grain to the industrial cities). This period of “socialist construction” which lasted at least until 1939 was brutal and inhumane, but also impressive: entire new industries and even new cities rose in the space of a decade. The 1930s also saw mass arrests, the so-called Great Terror, and enormous growth in the coercive labor camp system (the Gulag). The feeling of insecurity engendered by the dislocations of the “Great Terror”–thousands of military officers and the majority of the politburo were purged–may have contributed to Stalin’s decision to sign a pact with Adolf Hitler in August 1939. Thus when the Nazi invasion of Poland set off World War II, the USSR was Hitler’s ally (and quickly occupied the eastern half of Poland). The enormous ideological differences between the USSR and Nazi Germany made further conflict inevitable; the Nazi attack of 21/22 June 1941 should have come as no surprise to Stalin. Unfortunately Stalin had convinced himself that the Germans could not–yet–attack, a faulty judgment that would cost millions of Soviet lives. By fall 1941 German armies were on the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow and it appeared that the USSR’s last days had come. But appearances deceive: after four years of almost unbearable suffering the Red Army took Berlin. The Soviet Union, despite the huge devastation its western and southern territories had suffered, found its international prestige at an all-time high.

Why a Thematic Approach?

Such were some of the major events of this formative period in Russian history. Yet this quick sketch leaves out vast areas of human experience–family life, social identities, the ethnic diversity of Russia/USSR, urbanization, religion, foreign affairs, culture and education. Politics influences–in a sense provides the setting for–all of these things, but in a traditional history political events tend to overwhelm and “push out” social, cultural, and everyday developments. Here we will begin with a political overview and will then cover six other broad themes in separate chapters. In this way crucial issues like ethnic-national policy, everyday life, culture, and religious feeling can be considered in their own right rather than as a function of larger political trends.

In the past generation or two, professional historians and students have become increasingly impatient with traditional political narratives. Readers demand less emphasis on the inner workings of cabinets, diplomatic intrigue, and great men, and more focus on the lived experience of everyday people. This is not to say, obviously, that politics is entirely divorced from everyday life. For instance, censorship laws had a direct effect on literature and journalism. Laws in imperial Russia restricting the movement, educational opportunities, and professional rights of Jews influenced many younger Jews to oppose the old regime–sometimes violently. Marriage and divorce laws–utterly different before and after the October 1917 revolution–had profound consequences for family life, inheritance, and relations between the genders. Similarly the two World Wars had an enormous and devastating impact on culture, economics, and gender relations throughout Russia/USSR. Accordingly this book starts with the traditional theme of politics as a framework and context for the other chapters.

The themes we will cover are seven: Politics, Society, Nations, Modernization, Belief, World, and Culture. Politics is more or less self-explanatory: political events, wars, administrative and legal changes, revolutions, rulers. In the chapter on society we will consider how the Russians perceived their own social order and how both perceptions and social realities changed over the four generations of our study. In this context we will consider the term “intelligentsia” as the nucleus for a developing Russian civil society that would, eventually, include the entire nation. In 1861, to be sure, the vast majority of Russia’s population–the peasantry–still remained outside “society.” Thus an important part of our story examines how serfs became peasants and these later became collective farmers, while also tracing the path of millions of other peasants who left the countryside to become wage laborers in the growing cities.

Half of society is made up of women, but in the past they were rarely considered men’s intellectual or legal equals. The “Woman Question” was a fundamental social issue from the mid-nineteenth century into the Soviet period and challenged basic assumptions about society. If the peasantry and women often remained outside “society,” following the Russian use of the word, at least in the first part of our period, the state bureaucracy and the men (nearly all men) who worked in it were seen as society’s antithesis. In fact, of course, clerks and bureaucrats both formed part of society and–particularly in the Soviet period–helped mold the contours of a changing and newly developing social organism. Finally we will look at peripheral groups in society, including criminals, “deviants,” prostitutes, and homosexuals. These groups had little in common aside from the consternation they caused in “respectable” society both before and after the revolution.

The next chapter focuses on “nations” in Russian history. While the word “nation” in English is ambiguous, referring sometimes to a group of people and sometimes to a political entity (“our nation’s capital”), in Russian narod or natsiia can only be a group of people or ethnicity. Throughout the period of this textbook, ethnic Russians made up not quite half of the empire’s (or USSR’s) total population. What strategies were employed by tsarist and Soviet decision–makers to deal with such ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity? The great differences between so-called nationality policy before and after 1917 stem from the very different natures of the imperial and Soviet state. While imperial Russia could be very harsh in crushing rebellions and punishing rebel groups–including perceived “rebel nations” like the Poles–the empire was by its nature more likely to react than to act, was suspicious of change (even such a change as assimilation to Russian culture) while having no fundamental respect for ethnic or linguistic diversity. Thus Poles and Jews could be respected as the bearers of centuries-old cultures, while peasant or nomadic nations whose culture existed mainly in oral form (e.g., Ukrainians, Kyrgyz, Lithuanians) were not particularly esteemed.

Under Soviet rule, on the other hand, great efforts were expended to introduce alphabets, standardize languages, and to oblige each individual to adopt a single national identity (e.g., Russian, Uzbek, Jewish). One troubling nation for both imperial rulers and the Soviets were the Jews: Stalin initially denied them any status as a nation (in a pre–revolutionary theoretical work), but in the USSR Jews came to enjoy–if that is the word–the status of separate nation even as thousands of Jewish individuals migrated to the cities, brought their children up speaking Russian (not Yiddish), and abandoned the religious practices of their ancestors. Although official Judeophobia and legal restrictions of the imperial era were abolished in 1917, antisemitism did not die–despite Soviet laws forbidding it and remained a powerful social force throughout the Soviet period.

Modernization forms the focus of chapter 4. Here the main focus will be on economic development, industrialization, and urbanization. At the same time modernization also implies social transformation toward a mobile (both geographically and in class terms), flexible, and relatively homogenous society. Indeed Soviet society in 1945 was relatively–and that is a key word–more homogenous than Russian society in 1861. The industrial development of the generation or two before 1917 inadvertently helped put in place the preconditions for revolution by creating an industrial proletariat dissatisfied with long hours, dangerous work, and inadequate pay. Certainly the Bolsheviks wished to create a modern, prosperous, literate, and socialist country. To a great extent they succeeded. The gap between city and village remained important even in 1945, but education, improved transport, and new technologies such as the radio meant that Soviet citizens could perceive themselves as part of a greater whole by the 1930s in a way that subjects of the tsar could not 70 years earlier. Bolshevism (and Marxism) is all about modernity: we will weigh the positive and negative outcomes of the modernizing path taken in the generations between the rapid industrialization of the 1890s and the crash industrializing programs of the 1930s.

“Belief” is the title of chapter 5. I use this term in a broad sense, including organized religions, ideologies, and dissenting “sects,” but also belief in the sense of “worldviews,” such as anarchism or Marxist communism. In the Russian Empire the “ruling role” of the Russian Orthodox Church was part of Russian law: both the tsar and his wife had to be of that denomination (though born into Lutheran families, the Danish and German wives of the last three tsars all converted to Orthodoxy before marriage). However, other religions from Islam to Buddhism to Catholicism were tolerated within the Russian Empire. Jews (and, to a lesser extent, all non-Christians) were subject to a number of legal restrictions, but were never forbidden to follow their religions. Besides religious beliefs, political convictions were important in the imperial period, with liberals and socialists (of different parties) putting forth different arguments about the proper future of the Russian state. After the Bolshevik revolution the range of permitted opinions became considerably narrower, with liberals (and of course conservatives) deprived of a public voice. Within a few years of 1917 even non–Bolshevik socialists found their freedom of expression tightly circumscribed. Religious beliefs were even more directly attacked by the communist rulers and yet continued to exist both in legal and underground forms. Despite these attacks of the 1920s and 1930s, during World War II the Soviet state did not hesitate to use religious (and Russian patriotic) themes to bolster the war effort.

For generations Russian intellectuals have pondered to what extent Russia is part of Europe. In chapter 6 Russia’s role in the world is examined. Here we consider foreign policy, national prestige on the international scene, but also “mentality”: is Russia unique in world history or must she follow the same historical path as other countries? The country’s unique geographical position, stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, meant that the bulk of Russian territory was actually located in Asia, while the centers of Russian culture were in Europe. Perhaps Russia’s geography meant that it had a special role to play in world history? More prosaically the Russian Empire was vitally concerned in preserving its great power status–this had been, after all, one of the main motivations behind the Great Reforms. Concern for international prestige also explains Russia’s plunge into war in late July 1914 when Austria-Hungary appeared to threaten its ally and fellow Orthodox state, Serbia.

After 1917 the USSR promoted another kind of historical uniqueness as the world’s first socialist state and harbinger of world revolution. At the same time Russian é migr é communities from Kharbin (China) to Berlin to Los Angeles preserved customs and culture of the old regime intelligentsia. Just as the “capitalist world” was getting accustomed to the continued existence of the USSR, the world economic crisis occurred and Hitler’s Nazi party in German threatened to end communism (and, indeed, liberalism) once and for all. World War II nearly caused the collapse of the Soviet state, but the USSR’s eventual triumph–at enormous cost–gave it a prestige and importance on the world stage never enjoyed by the Russian Empire.

The last theme covered in this book will be culture, from education and scientific achievements to painting, popular entertainment, propaganda, and literature. The strains and upheavals in Russian society are well documented in the classic novels of Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy. At the same time new technologies and growing literacy were encouraging the publication of adventure stories for peasants as well as the adornment of the walls of rural dwellings with brightly colored lithographs of popular myths or fairytales. Russian realist painting glorified history and revealed present injustices. Russian scientists such as psychologist Ivan Pavlov and chemist Dmitry Mendeleev became world renowned for, respectively, drooling dogs and the periodic table of elements. Under Soviet rule many writers and artists emigrated, but many others continued their work in word, sound, and image to entertain and uplift their Soviet compatriots. Like everything else under communism, culture was to serve as a tool of revolution–informing, admonishing, and spreading enthusiasm for socialism. In the 1920s radical experiments were undertaken to “lift” proletarian culture and integrate it into Russian high culture. As the 1930s progressed, however, official views of culture became increasingly conservative, with poet Alexander Pushkin, composer Peter Tchaikovsky, and other old regime artists winning out over artistic experimentation. The Bolsheviks took culture seriously and used it in novel and exciting ways, from poster art to paintings to the so-called Agitprop (agitational propaganda) trains that brought music, visual arts, and speeches to the countryside.

Two Snapshots: 1861 and 1945

To set the stage for what will follow, let us consider two moments in time: the Russia of January 1861, just before the serf emancipation, and the USSR of June 1945, just after the end of World War II. These two snapshots will allow us to gauge the enormous differences that had taken place over the course of a long lifetime or, to put it another way, four short generations. Looking at the starting and end point of our narrative will also give the reader a framework to “fill in” with more details from the chapters that follow.

At the beginning of 1861, Tsar Alexander II ruled over an empire stretching from Finland to Alaska (which would be sold to the USA in 1867), the largest country in the world. In this enormous expanse lived hundreds of different peoples, from Poles and Jews to pagan Udmurts, Buddhist Kalmyks, and Muslim Tatars and Kazakhs. All were ruled from the capital of St Petersburg, in the extreme west of the empire, a city barely one and a half centuries old, having been founded by Peter the Great in the early eighteenth century on land taken from Sweden. But the tsar was always crowned in Moscow and traditional Russians looked upon St Petersburg with disdain and suspicion. The tsar ruled absolutely; there was no parliament of any kind and his word (in the form of an imperial order or ukaz) was literally law. At the same time laws and administrative practices differed hugely in various regions of the empire. The Finns had their own diet (legislature) and constitution, German elites dominated over Estonian and Latvian peasants in the Baltic provinces (today’s Estonia and Latvia), and in peripheral regions on the western, southern, and south-eastern frontiers, governors general ruled with a minimum of interference from the center.

Economically the empire rested on an agrarian economy supported by serfdom. Serfs made up nearly half of the Russian peasantry (44.5 percent of the total population around 1860) and generally lived in poverty. Their landlords, mainly of noble birth, were not much better off, often in debt to the government and without the means of incentives to modernize their estates. The primitive state of Russian agriculture was not just a problem for peasants and landlords: it also severely restricted the government’s ability to finance state expenditures, especially for the military. Serfdom and the primitive agricultural economy based on it had to be reformed if the Russian Empire was to afford the military outlays necessary to remain a major power.

Source: based on map in Dominic Lieven, Empire, Yale University Press, 2000, “Republics and Autonomous Regions of the Soviet Union, 1970.”


Perhaps the most obvious change between 1861 and 1945 could be seen in the cities. Cities like Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg), Moscow, Kiev, and Tashkent had grown enormously over those decades. Even more impressive was the growth in smaller cities and the number of completely new industrial cities like the steel center Magnitogorsk. While most Soviet citizens continued to live in the countryside (only in the 1960s would the majority of Soviet citizens be urban dwellers), by 1945 over a third of the population lived in cities. And the countryside had also been transformed: gone were the landowner’s estate houses and peasant villages of 1861, replaced by collective farms. Still, while some modernization of agricultural methods had occurred over these generations, Soviet peasants–now known as kolkhozniki, collective farmers–remained much poorer, less educated, and more isolated (they could not leave the collective farm without special permission) than other Soviet citizens.

Society had also changed dramatically. Soviet power had educated vast numbers of engineers, technological experts, doctors, and teachers. Thus the educated middle class of 1945 was far larger than its counterpart of 1861. The industrial working class had also grown enormously. Some groups, on the other hand, had disappeared nearly completely: landowners had been expropriated decades before, no shopkeepers or capitalists remained–except perhaps as managers in the enterprises they once owned, and the clerical estate had shrunk radically. Tens of thousands of educated middle-class Russians–the flower of the intelligentsia had fled or been forced out of the country in the first decade of Soviet power and a new, rawer but more numerous educated class had taken their place. Some members of the old intelligentsia had remained, like scientist Ivan Pavlov who had died not ten years earlier in Leningrad, but thousands of others now lived as é migr é s in Paris, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

Culturally the USSR had made enormous strides. By 1945 over 80 percent of Soviet citizens were literate, millions of books were published yearly in dozens of languages, and Soviet citizens could choose among thousands of periodicals (or would be able to, once wartime shortages ended, freeing up paper and journalists). Still, one cannot point to any novel of 1945–or probably of the entire decade of the 1940s–that would be recognizable to western readers in the way that Tolstoy’s major novels (e.g., Anna Karenina, War and Peace) were and are. Censorship had certainly existed under the tsars, but since the early 1930s Soviet censors not only prohibited certain topics; they also demanded that Soviet writers present reality in a positive, progressive way. Similarly in the visual and even musical arts, Soviet artists operated in a far more constricted intellectual climate than the artists of 1861. Experiments like atonal music or abstract art were simply not allowed. With the Soviet state as the sole employer, artists or writers whose works were not deemed suitable had to find another way of earning their living. On the other hand, the expansion of literacy and publications meant that Soviet citizens could enjoy translations of works of world literature (in Russian and dozens of other languages from Ukrainian to Kazakh, many of which had lacked a standard written form in 1861), educate themselves and their children about the world and the latest scientific discoveries, and keep abreast of developments around the world.

We have seen here some of the major transformations that occurred over the nine decades from 1861 to 1945 and have also noticed certain continuing problems and continuities. In the chapters that follow we will examine in more detail how these changes came about over time, who caused or suffered them, who won and who lost. It is a story at once exhilarating and melancholy, fascinating and repugnant, full of glorious deeds and terrible crimes, development and destruction. Let us embark.