Hafsa Ammar is a student of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the National Defence University, Islamabad. Her areas of expertise are hybrid warfare, narrative building, and nuclear deterrence in South Asia.
Rodric Braithwaite’s “Russia: Myths and Realities” consists of nine chapters alongside an epilogue and prologue, and the events of the chapter move in a chronological trend. Most of his works revolve around the former Soviet Empire; these include ‘Across the Moscow River’, ‘Moscow 1941’, ‘Afghansty’, and ‘Armageddon and Paranoia’.
Prologue: Nation, Myth & History
It talks about the self-perceived narrative that Russia and its citizens hold close to their hearts. One of glory, honor, and grit. According to the author, this narrative has been spun over centuries and keeps the coals of patriotism warm in the hearts of the Russians. They are participants in the construction through the concept of ‘Vranyo.’ Vranyo refers to lying boldly in the face of another and not being called out on it.
It meant that the Russian government and citizens alike would reword the contents of history to portray Russia in a better image and no one would call out the blatant distortion of horrific facts into flowery glory. The contents of the book can be viewed within four major themes as deduced below.
Chapters 1, 3, and 4: The Russian Identity
Identity is a multi-faceted concept that is not limited solely to ethnicity, race, or religion. It can include various political and cultural ideologies, which it did for the Russian Empire. Russia had great ties with Byzantium at the latter’s prime. They were allies in trade, and Byzantium culture had a great influence on Russia. Their Cyrillic alphabet and Christian religion settled their roots in Russia.
‘Vladimir the Great’ was the leader of Kievan Rus at the time (987) and he came to the conclusion that if he had to rule an empire of such enormity – there needed to be something unifying the masses and hence he decided to use religion to achieve this goal. He rejected Islam due to their abstinence from alcohol and pork. He discarded Judaism as an option due to the fact that their own God had once shunned them.
Christianity, however, held great appeal; the festivals and celebrations of Christmas were seen by Vladimir as an excellent way to bring together the people. Therefore, following the lead of the Byzantine, Russia became an Orthodox Christian state. This act cemented Russian identity in two ways: first, Russians got a religious distinctiveness and second, they automatically became an opponent to the Roman Catholic West.
Chapters 2 and 5: The Bloody Wars and Revolutions
Russian history is littered with revolutions, rebellions, massacres, and wars. As it would be impossible to quote all, the author focuses on the major four eras of war. These are the Mongolian or the Tartar invasions, the rise and fall of Tsardom, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and finally the Gorbachev era. In Russia: Myths and Realities, Braithwaite focuses on the missteps made by rulers in each era which led to furthering the fragility of the Empire.
The Mongols invaded Kievan Rus in the late 1230s; their reputation preceded them as the tales of their brutality and love for bloodshed were famous around the world. A big mistake made by ‘Mstislav the Bold’, the commander of Muscovy armies, was that he ordered the execution of the ambassadors sent by the Mongols not once but twice.
In return, Mongolian armies overran Russian towns and villages and massacred them without thought or regret. This kept escalating the conflict until finally at the start of the 16th century, Ivan the Great/Ivan III managed to free Russia from the Mongolian Yoke.
Ivan IV/ Ivan the Terrible was the one who initiated Tsardom in Russia. His was a truly dreadful reign. It was known that the poisoning of his wife led him to near psychosis which he then took out on his people. He had lost his sanity to the extent that he murdered his own son. Eventually, he passed away from a stroke not long after the filicide. His rule was full of executions, hangings, and even drownings.
The tsar whose legacy starts and ends this era of Russian history is Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov. The Romanov Dynasty lasted three centuries. There came a lot of socio-political and cultural changes during this time span as some of the greatest leaders of Russia came into power during these three centuries such as Peter the Great and Catherine the Great who revolutionized Russia into becoming a world power.
By the mid-1850s, the West, specifically Britain and France, started to collide with Russia. The West defeated Russia, headed by Tsar Nicholas II, in the Crimean War. Then comes the infamous Russian Revolution. Marked by the end of the Romanov dynasty, the Revolution revoked the rule and post of Tsardom. The October Revolution was the leeway Vladimir Lenin needed to take over Russia and he did.
Chapters 6 and 7: The Industrial and Cultural Evolution of Russia
Following the civil war, the entire governmental structure was reformed. Lenin’s rule helped Russia evolve out of the ‘backward character’ the West always presumed it to have. It was he who after so many centuries gave another dimension to the Russian identity by introducing communism into governmental policymaking. He brought the Russian Empire to the modern world as the USSR and transformed the world order with his power politics. The Cold War along with globalization and bloc politics expanded Russian influence across the globe – be it ideologically or economically.
Chapters 8 and 9: Geopolitics
These chapters bring the book to a close by stepping into the socio-political quagmire that is the comparative politics of Russia and the US supported by the role of Putin. The USSR saw many significant figures following Lenin, like Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin. However, none of their successive policies and reforms were able to stop the inevitable collapse of the USSR.
Vladimir Putin has played a massive role in bringing some semblance of an Empire back to the Russian identity. Belonging to a middle-class family, Putin studied law and went on to become a member of the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti) better known as the cutthroat Russian Intelligence. From there, he underwent a meteoric rise, and by 1998, he was heading the FSB (Federal Security Service), a morphed humane version of the KGB.
The two major weapons wielded by the current Russian premier were corruption and swift violence. The former helped create a class of wealthy supporters within the state, and the latter helped eliminate adversaries outside the state. He first became president of the state in 1999 for two terms, then again in 2012 till the current date.
His brutal decisions seem impulsive and poor to the naked eye. However, this sharp scythe of decision-making is keeping Russia afloat in an America-centric international system.
Epilogue: Rewriting History
This part brings us to the contemporary realities of the current international system. Russian retaliation to NATO’s aggressive expansion has once again shone a spotlight on the ‘imperial itch’. Vladimir Putin, the current premier of Russia, has aroused another side of the identity of the Russian people and that is persistence.
His refusal to back down, despite global pressures and sanctions has shown the world yet again that Russia is an entity that cannot be budged, no matter how strong or relentless the opponent’s strike is.
The author was very thorough in his research and was able to trace rulers back to the 10th century without any significant gaps. His ability to narrate the revolutions while simultaneously presenting the sentiments of the people is brilliant. The analysis presented for each of those leaders included their strengths, weaknesses, victories, delusions, and whatever it was that ultimately felled them.
His writing happened to have a dramatic flair which is helpful in keeping readers engaged with the material. However, where his storytelling is dramatic, it is also dry at certain points. There aren’t enough unhinged rulers in the Russian past as were needed for the book to be scintillating throughout.
The issue that arose repeatedly is that the Russian conquests and defeats often occurred with the same opponents: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, etcetera. The author was unable to mention them in a way that didn’t confuse the reader.
The book does not live up to its title, Russia; Myths and Realities, which suggests deconstructing false popular narratives about Russia. Instead, the book is essentially a history book with events, rulers, revolutions, and bloodshed.
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