Russia by Dmitri Trenin

The Blurb On The Back:

Over the past century alone, Russia has lived through great achievements and deepest misery; mass heroism and mass crime; over-blown ambition and near-hopeless despair – always emerging with its sovereignty and its fiercely independent spirit intact.

In this book, leading Russia scholar Dmitri Trenin accompanies readers on Russia’s rollercoaster journey from revolution to post-war devastation, perestroika to Putin’s stabilisation of post-Communist Russia.  Explaining the causes and the meaning of the numerous twists and turns in contemporary Russian history, he offers a vivid insider’s view of a country through one of its most trying and often tragic periods.  Today, he cautions, Russia stands at a turning point – politically, economically, and socially – its situation strikingly reminiscent of the Russian Empire in its final years.  For the Russian Federation to avoid a similar demise, it must learn the lessons of its own history.

You can order Russia by Dmitri Trenin from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Former Russian military intelligence officer Dmitri Trenin has a PHD in history and is currently the Director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.  This book offers a broad brush look at Russian history in the 20th and early 21st centuries and serves as a useful primer for key events and helps to explain national attitudes and concerns but it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) largely uncritical of Putin’s regime and the implications for Russia’s future.

The GCSE history course that I studied *coughcoughcough* years ago included sections on the causes and fall out of the Russian Revolution, Lenin’s consolidation of power and battle with Trotsky, and Stalin’s rise to power and his rule until the outbreak of World War II (including the campaign against the kulaks, his Five Year Plans, the famine and his pact with Hitler).  I mention this because it meant that coming into this book I was already familiar with a large portion of the history that Trenin’s is covering and because I remembered studying some of the events he discusses, I was able to engage with it more fully.  That’s not to say that the book is difficult to follow – Trenin writes clearly and although some of the sentence structures are a little awkward as he’s writing in a second language everything flows very well and I could track his arguments about recurring features in Russian history and why it’s past has made it suspicious of democratic rule as we perhaps understand it in the west.  

The book breaks Russian history into different periods:

– a very brief summary of the establishment of Russia and the rise of the Tsars up to 1900;

– 1900 – 1920;

– 1921 – 1938;

– 1939 – 1952;

– 1953 – 1984;

– 1985 – 1999; and

– 2000 – 2019.

What you largely get is a description of events rather than analysis or criticism of the consequences of certain actions.  That’s fine in as far as it goes – given that this is a short book, the format doesn’t allow itself to much more than an introduction to the topic.  Trenin’s account of certain events such as Stalin’s deal with Hitler did give me a different viewpoint to what I had been taught – namely he argues that Stalin knew that Hitler would turn on him and was surprised by the timing where as for my GCSE, I was taught that Stalin had no idea Hitler would turn on him, which is why when the blitzkrieg was launched, he fully expected the Party to arrest and execute him.  He also sets out some of the reasoning why Stalin turned against Britain and the USA (which I hadn’t realised had sent Stalin aid in the early stages of the war) and why Russia is so protective of its history in World War II (although again, Trenin doesn’t really address why some of that patriotism is misplaced or misused).

Where the book did start to fail, for me, was in the sections following Stalin’s death.  I know very little about Khrushchev or Brezhnev and Trenin’s writing does little to enlighten me.  I was interested by how dismissive he is of Gorbachev and how he regards him as the wrong person to be in charge of the USSR at that point of history and would have liked to have known more of this and who he thinks would have been better (this is where the lack of analysis really begins to show).  Having lived through the collapse of the USSR, it was interesting to get a Russian’s perspective on the Yeltsin regime and the rise of Putin but it’s when we get to Putin that Trenin seems to lose his nerve.  

While he is arguably correct in pointing out that Putin helped to stabilise a country that, at that point, was becoming a basket case, he is completely uncritical of the cost of this.  Indeed, while he mentions the rise of the oligarchs and the accompanying corruption and blandly asserts that the way this has contributed to inequality could threaten Russia’s future, he is completely silent on the extent to which Putin not only permits and benefits from it but is also trapped by that same lawlessness.  He makes little mention of Russia’s alleged interfering in the USA elections in 2016 and when he does, it is in the context of alleged Western interference in Russia.  He says nothing about Putin’s control over the press and use of the judiciary as a means of silencing the opposition – instead framing the failure of the opposition to take control as being down to Russia’s natural antipathy towards democracy.  Given that Trenin lives in Russia and bad things can happen to those who criticise the regime, I don’t blame him for his timidity on the subject but the mealy-mouthed way he deals with it is very unsatisfactory and undercuts the effectiveness of the book as a whole.

As someone who lives in the west and is subject to western views of Russia I fully acknowledge that I’m inevitably going to have some resistance to hearing pro-Russia/pro-Putin messages.  However, having read Trenin’s earlier excellent book WHAT IS RUSSIAN UP TO IN THE MIDDLE EAST? I was expecting a degree of balance that, for me, he fails to deliver on here.  Ultimately, I think that the book is worth a look if you’re looking for a primer on Russian history from 1900 up until the death of Stalin, but otherwise it’s just not a satisfactory read and, in places, needs to be viewed with a certain sense of skepticism.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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