A History of 20th-Century Russia, Warts and All

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By SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY Published: November 24, 2009

A new two-volume history of Russia’s turbulent 20th century is being hailed inside and outside the country as a landmark contribution to the swirling debate over Russia’s past and national identity.
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Written by 45 historians led by Andrei Zubov, a professor at the institute that serves as university to the Russian Foreign Ministry, the weighty history — almost 1,000 pages per volume — was published this year by AST Publishers and is already in its second printing of 10,000 copies. Retailing at the rough equivalent of $20 a volume and titled “History of Russia. XX Century,” the books try to rise above ideologically charged clashes over Russia’s historical memory. They are critical both of czarist and Communist Russia, and incorporate the history of Russian emigration and the Russian Orthodox Church into the big picture of a chaotic, violent century. While written from a clearly Christian perspective — one author is a Russian Orthodox priest — the history avoids overt nationalism or anti-Semitism.

“This is one of the most important books that came to us from Russia in the past 20 years.” Richard Pipes. wrote in an e-mail message. never aggressors. the Harvard UniversitySovietologist. Russians are fixated on the past. the wartime agreement between Hitler and Stalin. Medvedev.” a film by the director Pavel Lungin. and with society over all. Perhaps no issue today consumes Russians of all stripes like the debate about what Russia was. is and will be.” . it retells the 16th-century story of Ivan the Terrible and his conflict with a pious monk. and it has invited comparison to Stalin and his complicated relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.” said Andrzej Nowak. according to which the Russians were always the victims of aggression. the contradictions and violence of czarist and Communist rule. Dmitri A. In violent detail. Others offered similar praise. partisan discussion of history lauded its balance. “Nothing like it has ever been published in Russia. In an e-mail message. Poland. and on a quest to unite and explain. two journalists.Eminent historians in the United States and Poland who often take a critical view of Russia’s passionate. An unusual combination of two priests. the Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939. urges the need for modernization. a former governmentminister-turned-writer and a reality-television show host recently gathered in central Moscow to hash out opinions about “Tsar. noting that he was trying to raise money for a translation and publication in English. and the mass murder of Polish officers at Katyn. The latest manifestation of this came this month with the release of “Tsar. it has gotten away from the nationalism so common in Russian history books. Much as their president. “It is a remarkable work: remarkable not only for Russia but also for Western readers.” Mr. For one. a historian from Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Pipes noted that it made extensive use of Western sources — rare in Russia — and praised its attention to often overlooked questions of the role of morals and religious beliefs. he praised “the exemplary way” it treated sensitive topics like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. somehow.

has interviewed Father Mitrofanov and Mr. and suggested that the intensifying discussions of history bode fresh turbulent times. said a re-evaluation of history could not solve Russia’s problems. “It’s not necessary to wait for Putin. could serve as a “textbook for repentance. Complex dictatorial rulers like Ivan the Terrible. Ms. appeared after two of Russia’s top television executives. . Zubov said in an interview in his book-lined Moscow apartment. correspondingly.” he said. Zubov added that the book. We’re its main subject. Professor Zubov used a recent presentation of his work at a Roman Catholic cultural center to emphasize that Russians needed to make up their own minds about history. which he said had been financed by people who preferred not to be named. and not adopt the latest spoon-fed version. “This moment has come and we can no longer turn our back on it.” The two volumes.” Mr.” he suggested. Zubov on air. who died in 2008.” Georgy Mitrofanov. Sobchak said. Oleg Dobrodeyev and Aleksandr Kulistikov. Mr. an Orthodox priest and academic who wrote some sections of the book devoted to the Russian Orthodox Church. a television host and columnist for RIA Novosti. “The moment has come to say finally whether we are with the Soviet Union and all of its deeds.Ksenia Sobchak. with their hard truths. “We are too late. and generally succeeds. reject its deeds as alien to us. approached him at the recommendation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We’re the subject. a state news agency. Petersburg who oversaw its renaming from Leningrad in 1991. “because I think authority in our country always strives to deify itself. “We’re the citizens of this country. Aleksandr Arkhangelsky. We’re not an object.” By contrast. Medvedev and United Russia to make a decision to vote in the Duma. Peter the Great and Stalin have a seductive hold over Russians. embraced the role of political and religious affairs commentator with a gusto that underscored how the history debate touches many.” he said. or whether we are victims of the Communist regime and. the celebrity host of a Russian TV version of “Big Brother” and daughter of the mayor of St.

because in Russia historical mass consciousness becomes acute on the eve of major changes.” . Arkhangelsky said at the presentation.“Society is not satisfied. “It is looking for an answer to the question: Who were we? in the future. or to the question: Who will we be? in the past.” Mr. This means that very serious times await us.