Down in the gutter looking up at the Tsars

RUSSIA, PEOPLE AND EMPIRE 1552-1917 by Geoffrey Hosking, HarperCollins pounds 20
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Recently, we have heard much about the nations which have liberated themselves from Soviet empire, but far less about the problems of nation- building, as opposed to alarming manifestations of nationalism, in Russia herself. In this brilliant dual study of Russia's people and empire under the Tsars, Geoffrey Hosking seeks to correct this "optical illusion", thus implicitly explaining why Russia's current problems are not reducible to the birth pangs of democracy and free markets - mad political parties, mafiosi and nouveaux riches - following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The result is neither a Simon Schama-style picaresque narrative, nor desiccated social "science" tract, but rather an elegantly written, humane and rigorous work of empirical history, with considerable relevance to the problems of what, in the light of the author's arguments, we should optimistically call another emergent nation.

Hosking shows how the state-building needs of a multinational empire which straddled Europe and Asia overstretched and debilitated this economically and institutionally backward country, inhibiting the growth of civil society and a broadly based nation-state. Obliterating rival centres of power, and periodically murdering one another, the rulers of Muscovy adopted the rhetoric of Christian rulership, while acting as if Russia herself was conquered territory, and they its Christianised khans. Under Peter the Great, Russia lurched in another direction, importing the western technology and administrative systems needed to wage war on more advanced powers such as Poland, Sweden, Ottoman Turkey. The peasants were tied to the land to provide conscripts and taxes, while the nobility were pressed into state service.

The gulf between "service people" and "taxable people" was reinforced on a cultural level, as the Russian elite shaved off their beards in the western fashion, learning French manners and German science from imported experts. By the late 18th century, Russian was confined to communication with servants, children and serfs. The nobles inhabited a world at once cosmo- politan, competitive and hierarchical, while the peasant majority lived in a benighted rural ghetto, based on mutual responsibility. The army alone held this society together, with 25-year conscription used to break down the parochial loyalties of the peasants. Many Tsars only felt at ease inspecting their soldiers. By the Napoleonic Wars, even the soldiers were disaffected.

Young aristocratic army officers became keenly aware of the relative freedoms enjoyed elsewhere, but which Russia lacked, namely representative institutions which integrated ruler and people. The ensuing Decembrist coup in 1825 ended in hangings and exile to Siberia, but also with some sections of the elite realigning themselves with the idealistic and frustrated products of the education system in a compound "intelligentsia". With no meaningful institutions to hone the habits of compromise and negotiation, these people often confused gnostic intransigence with critical thinking, adopting any gimcrack philosophy on offer, and condescending to "the people". Only the great 19th-century writers, especially Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, succeeded in constructing an imaginary community encompassing the whole nation, identifying a national mission and justifying the suffering of her people in terms of it.

The fatal weaknesses revealed by the 1853-56 Crimean War, when the erstwhile "gendarme of Europe" failed to defend its own homeland against poor British and French armies, prompted two imperial versions of reform designed to make Russia more like the nation-states of Europe.

The first, essayed by Alexander II, involved the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the creation between 1864-1870 of a network of elective local-government assemblies. Emancipation fell far short of the peasants' expectations, while the new organs of local government were soon subject to central government veto.

The second version of reform, associated with Alexander III, involved forging an identity between empire and people on the basis of Russification. To this end, rebellious Poland became simply "the Vistula region" of Russia, while the Ukraine was known as "Little Russia" and its language treated as a dialect. Other heavy-handed policies resulted in disaffection in both Finland and the relatively privileged Baltic, and among the Georgians and Armenians. Jews replaced Germans as the popular bete noir, with the vital difference that pogroms in 1903 and 1905-06 were officially condoned. These were the stratagems of desperate men.

Widespread unrest resurfaced during Russia's dismal war with Japan. On Sunday 9 January 1905, a huge crowd of workers and their families, dressed in their Sunday best and carrying icons, portraits of the Tsar, and a petition, marched to the Winter Palace under the leadership of Father Gapon. This was part religious procession and part trade union march, with a priest trying to mediate between regime and people. Troops opened fire, leaving 200 dead. Strikes broke out in the industrial centres, with the communal experience of these erstwhile peasants manifesting itself in the creation of urban soviets. A wave of violence swept the countryside, with the glowing manor houses known as "red cockerels".

Deciding to deal with what he optimistically called "the best people", on 27 April 1906 the Tsar met with deputies to the newly created First State Duma, the first gathering of its kind since the 17th century. Peasants in long boots and coarse clothes eyed up resplendent courtiers and generals. "In watching the deputies I was surprised," wrote the American ambassador, "that many of them did not even return the bows of His Majesty, some of them giving an awkward nod, others staring him coldly in the face, showing no enthusiasm and even almost sullen indifference."

This attempt to manufacture in months the broadly-based constitutional monarchy that had grown elsewhere in Europe over centuries was bound to fail. Matters were not helped by Nicholas II's insistence that this was still an autocracy. The isolation of the monarchy continued, as Nicholas tried to recreate a personal link with the nation through church and army. He spent his time inspecting parades of Guards or with Rasputin, the Siberian surrogate for the millions of his peasant subjects. Stolypin, the minister whose crash legislative programme offered the best chance to modernise the empire, fell victim to a jealous Tsar.

The First World War saw the last chance to bridge the gap between empire and people. As elsewhere, all social classes were initially prepared to suspend internal hostilities. During a munitions crisis, local and municipal councils took over the care of the sick and wounded, the production of munitions and the recruitment of labour; the workers were represented on officially recognised public bodies for the first time. This found an echo in the demands for "a government enjoying public confidence" by a new Progressive Bloc in the Duma. But there was no corresponding reformation of the central government.

Rejecting a modern, civic concept of nationhood and reverting to a medieval role, Nicholas foolishly took personal command of the army. The possibility of the Progressive Bloc invoking patriotism against an incompetent and isolated regime was swept aside by the stark confrontation of 1917. The Provisional Government tried to reform Russia in the middle of war, attempting to redefine the purposes for which that war was being fought, assuming the mantle of empire without the empire's power of coercion. This resulted in such anomalies as conceding soldiers the right to administer their own regiments, while maintaining conventional hierarchies during combat.

The Bolsheviks rode the tide of mass discontent, promising peace, land, bread, worker control and national self-determination. Once in power, they plunged Russia into civil war, created hunger not seen for three centuries, denied the peasants land, and established a one-party dictatorship. The last stirrings of popular utopia, in the form of peasant risings, the Kronstadt mutiny, and the 1920-21 general strike in Petrograd, were snuffed out by a new Red empire which shot dissidents rather than exiling them to Siberia. Hosking concludes: "As before, between the people and the empire there was no room for the nation."

Under Communism, Russian national institutions were dissolved in Soviet imperial institutions, while non-Russian nationalities were encouraged to form ethnically-based units run by ethnic cadres. The latter were duly purged by Stalin, described here as the "most successful (non-)Russian nationalist ever". The Party apparatus was russianised and the trappings of the imperial past revived, partly in order to fend off invading Germans. However, the Russian nation was reduced to complete prostration. Millions of Russians were dumped in "melting-pot" towns in the middle of nowhere; millions of others joined the sub-world of the zeks, experiencing "proletarian internationalism" in thousands of concentration camps; and the best of Russian art, literature and music was replaced by conformist hack-work.

Emerging from Communism into a world of nation-states and globalmarket forces, a world in which their neighbours often regard them as vanquished bullies across a poorly defined cultural divide, the Russians desperately need both civil society and national identity. Hosking's conclusion, in favour of an enhanced Russian national identity, may not reassure some of her neighbours, but, as he says, the alternatives are far less comforting.