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The best books on Tsarist Russia

recommended by Andrei Maylunas

From the days it was known as Muscovy to the Russian Empire described by the great novelists of the 19th century, historian Andrei Maylunas recommends books that give a feel for the country. Two are works of history, one is notes from a visiting ambassador in the 16th century, two are novels. All are entertaining to read and key to understanding the present.

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Where shall we start?

I’ve chosen five books that let an English reader form an idea of what a Russian is like, all of which are packaged in an entertaining way. The first is called Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii, or Notes on Russia in English, and it’s from 1526, the days of Basil the Dark One.

If you speak of Russia altogether I think one has to start somewhere, and you can’t start at the age of Enlightenment. So, the author is called Sigismund von Herberstein, and he was an Austrian ambassador to Venice. Quite enlightened for his times – it’s the Renaissance – he’s a free spirit, and he ends up being Hapsburg ambassador to Moscow, which is a rarity already. He travels through Poland or whatever was the geography of the time, and he comes to Moscow. At the time it’s not even called Russia – it’s called Muscovy – and Herberstein spends years and years there and writes this book. Also, he has agents travelling all over Russia and all the way up to Siberia, and he tells you all the history and geographics of the country. I think the book is brilliant. First of all, it gives you complete, colourful, Western insight on living in Moscow. And he gives you, very probably, the best picture of 16th-century Russia.

Was it a memoir or was it a report to send home?

I’m sure he sent reports home like any ambassador but his notes became this book, which became an instantaneous bestseller, because Russia was very little known in those days. Actually, if you talk of the 16th century, most of the books were ‘how to do’, you know: how to tend your garden, look after the cow or whatever; there was great curiosity about the world. So he published it in 1549 in Vienna and it was one of the first historico-geographical bestsellers in Europe, with reprints in every language possible: Latin, German, Italian. And it’s wonderful. On top of it he is quite neutral and friendly – he doesn’t take sides, it’s not like a diplomatic book. And in order to understand the Russian national character, I think it’s a key book. Because when you read it you have an impression that the days of Basil the Dark One were just how Russia is now.

What sort of insights does he have into the national character?

I can give you an example: he has a neighbouring friend, a Russian nobleman, who is an enlightened man by Russian standards of that time. The neighbour even travelled once to Lithuania, so he’s full of wonderful ideas and ‘democratic’, as you would call it now. And he dies, this neighbour. And he had three or four hundred people working as his household staff. They were all serfs, they were enslaved – these are the real peak days of enslavement in Russia. And this neighbour lets his slaves go in his will, says that they are all free people, and that it’s his gift, and they get money too. And then Herberstein says: you know, the most amazing thing happened. They celebrated, and drank for one week non-stop, 24 hours a day, and then they all collectively went and voluntarily sold themselves to someone else. They sold themselves one week later, got more money and got drunk. And he says: that, I cannot understand. Because Herberstein is a free spirit – he’s very friendly towards Russia but he can’t understand how people prefer to be slaves. Anyway, if you have to start somewhere, this is a fantastic book. It’s not hard to read and it’s highly entertaining. You get the flavour of it: the ambience of Muscovite, pre-modern Russia. Which is the root of whatever comes out later.

Your next book?

We move to the age of Enlightenment: a very nice, well-written book by Simon Sebag Montefiore, and it’s called Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin (Editor’s note: this book has been updated and is now called Catherine the Great and Potemkin: The Imperial Love Affair). So what do we have? We’ve had the reforms of Peter the Great, cutting his ‘window on to Europe’, then we had – and the 18th century is a crucial one – Russia meeting the Enlightenment. Catherine the Great comes to power, and that’s where the biggest revolution I think takes place, from the point of view of civilising the country. She has a great court, of which Voltaire was a part, as well as Potemkin, and this is a wonderful book about these times and days: highly entertaining, informative, pleasant and it’s a very important period, it’s when Russia became a great power. The book is a biography of Prince Potemkin, one of the great characters of the Enlightenment altogether, internationally recognised. You meet all the most interesting people of that era: from the Austrian Emperor Josef, to the Prince de Ligne – they’re all characters in this book and this is already not Muscovite Russia, it’s something transformed.

Who was Potemkin? Where did he come from?

He was one of Catherine’s Praetorian Guard, I think, and he became a favourite. Actually he was a husband of Catherine. They most likely married secretly, and he became a minister and the man who ruled Russia together with her: who expanded Russia all the way East – Ukraine, Crimea – and built 140 cities I think, and made Russia great and glorious and the Russia we know already. The 19th century with its great literature –Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gogol – it all comes out of these liberal days, liberal in a certain way, of Potemkin, Catherine, Voltaire, and the Enlightenment, so definitely worth reading. The book is about a great cocktail of Russia and the Enlightenment, with Catherine the Great as the bartender, mixing.


Next we move to War and Peace. Which comes out of Potemkin and Catherine. I don’t know how objective it is. It’s a wonderful book on the first quarter – it ends I think just before the Decembrists’ Revolt of 1825, so just after the Vienna Congress – the first 20 or 30 years of Russia in the 19th century. One doesn’t have to invent the bicycle, there is one: it’s War and Peace. It’s about how Russia won the Napoleonic wars, and moved into the first row of nations who dealt with European history. It’s set during the peak of Russian culture, the age of Pushkin, who created the modern Russian language. It’s the peak. The high modern, the Golden Age of Russian history, literature, spirit, thought, freedom, and so on. Maybe historically not very exact, but brilliant, genius, great. Tolstoy invented probably 90 per cent of that Russia of the Napoleonic wars and afterwards. But it gives the flavour, it doesn’t matter whether it’s historically truthful or not – the flavour, the ambience is there. The only thing I would recommend to modern readers is to skip all those parts – which are completely separate from the other parts of the book – where Tolstoy is philosophising about the role of the individual in history. It’s maybe 15 per cent of the book, in separate chapters, and I would definitely recommend to skip those because they are not interesting today.

Your next book?

We’ll do Oblomov. Again it’s classic, so I’m not going to comment on the story. But to understand it, let’s say it’s, from my point of view, one of the best books where you get the feeling of what’s called the ‘Russian soul’. There is the lazy landowner Oblomov versus his friend, who’s extremely decent, a nice Russian-German chap, Stolz. And it’s the whole story of Oblomov’s impotence, of the Slavic Russian character. If you want to spend a life marooned on an island somewhere, I would rather choose Oblomov than many other people: he’s wonderful, but he’s not a bore. I would say this book is the key to a big compartment in the Russian heart or character. Oblomov’s laziness and his impotence when it comes to doing something, combined with the best intentions and the most wonderful soul, and heart, and mind: that’s typically Russian. It’s a complicated combination but it does explain the Russian national character in many ways.

Finally, we have Demons by another of the great Russian novelists, Fyodor Dostoevsky

You can’t retell the book, but it’s about Russia and what’s coming out of it. It’s the chaos of politics and morals and religion at the end of the imperial period, reflected in this mystical Russian national character. It sounds silly to speak of, but there is a certain mystical quality to the Russian soul.

The chaos is coming from outside?

Not necessarily. A lot of it is coming from outside, also Dostoevsky was not impartial, but for me in this book it’s coming from within. It’s all homegrown. It’s a strange mixture of Christianity, the industrial revolution, the Russian national character. But it is also about 20th-century Russia. It’s about what is coming. All we were talking about from the days of Basil the Dark One, the 18th-century age of Enlightenment, Pushkin, Gogol, Lermontov, the golden age of Russian culture: it all culminates in Demons. Demons is Russia’s future. It’s about what has happened, and what’s going to happen to Russia’s intelligentsia and nobility. It gives you a flavour of the nascent 20th century Russia with all its ups and downs: the literature, horrors, terrors, revolutions, bloodshed, the peaks, the depths – you already feel it. You smell it and you taste it in Demons. On top of it, for someone who’s a good reader, it’s extremely entertaining and horrifying. I think it’s a good book to finish off the imperial period.

May 8, 2010

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Andrei Maylunas

Andrei Maylunas

Andrei Maylunas is an eminent historian on pre-Soviet Russia with unique access to the Moscow archives. He has edited and compiled several books on the Romanovs.

Andrei Maylunas

Andrei Maylunas

Andrei Maylunas is an eminent historian on pre-Soviet Russia with unique access to the Moscow archives. He has edited and compiled several books on the Romanovs.