Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East, By Martin Sixsmith<br />Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, By Rodric Braithwaite

Reviewed,Mary Dejevsky
Friday 27 May 2011 00:00 BST

In one respect, these two volumes represent opposite poles of historiography. Martin Sixsmith romps through 1,000 years of Russian history in just short of 550 pages. Rodric Braithwaite devotes his 330 pages of text to a bare decade, focusing on one recent chapter of Russia's foreign policy: its nine-year war in Afghanistan. Sixsmith's is a view through the wide-angle lens; Braithwaite's lens is a telephoto, through which he observes the minutiae of the decision-making, the experience, and the immediate aftermath. His title is the term Russians use for veterans of the Afghan campaign.

Sixsmith rehearses the big, but well-worn, ideas: Russia's dual – "Scythian" – nature between Europe and Asia and the "strong arm" rule that so often seems to define power there. Braithwaite examines and seeks to explain a single ill-judged military adventure.

Sixsmith, for all his varied career, writes as a journalist and – where he can - as an eye-witness, with a penchant for the sweeping generalisation and a touch of glibness. Braithwaite has the measured tone of the diplomat he was, and the thoroughness and sympathies of the military and diplomatic historian he has become.

Nonetheless, these two books have more in common than might be expected. Both authors write fluently and well, which makes reading more pleasure than pain. Both books would be accessible to a non-specialist, even Braithwaite's more close-up account. Both volumes are highly satisfactory products – something that cannot be taken for granted in times of pared publishers' budgets.

With Sixsmith's Russia, the paper quality, print and page design are particularly pleasing, although the maps disappoint. The photographs in both are excellent - in the selection as in the reproductive quality - and in both the text is blissfully, almost amazingly by today's standards, free of misprints. Congratulations to the proof-readers – and to publishers who realise that proof-reading is necessary if a book is to carry the authority that made it worth publishing. Both writers, too, make judicious and effective use of primary sources, quoting liberally from archives, interviews and artistic writings.

All that said, the two writers set out to do quite different things, and success – predictably, but cruelly - comes in inverse proportion to their ambitions. Sixsmith's history is essentially a survey, and an exercise in condensing a mass of information. It is a tie-in to his radio series – an admirable commitment on the part of the BBC – and the bite-sized chapters of early sections betray that. Russia has all the pluses and minuses of popularisation.

The first two parts – "Kiev and Proto-democracy", and "Expansion and Empire" - are highly derivative, though this is sometimes masked by the author's claim to have "found" or "discovered" some exhibit or relic actually on public display. This becomes an annoying device, though the need for a first-person presence in a particular setting may reflect the diktat of broadcasting. On the plus side, Sixsmith never quite loses a degree of scholarly scepticism, for instance towards the accounts in medieval chronicles, and shows a proper awareness of the uses and abuses that the writing of history invited even then.

Sixsmith seems far more at home in the middle sections – "Rise of the Revolution" and "Dictatorship (of the People?)". The chapters are longer; the writing settles into a stylish pace; the story-telling is more confident, as are the judgements.

His account of the 1917 revolutions and their aftermath is particularly taut and compelling, and would stand comparison with many more academic renditions. Among the strengths of these chapters is the way he keeps the many diverse strands in view and in proportion, including the successive waves of emigration, and the dissidents of the Brezhnev era.

Strangely, some of the later chapters, covering the epoch-making events that led up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union – events that Sixsmith witnessed and reported as Moscow correspondent for the BBC – seem less vivid and more formulaic than might be expected. And when he brings the story up to the Putin years, the narrative seems at times rushed and confused, almost as though he feels he is running out of time and space.

As someone who reported many of the same events, my memory – of the August 1991 coup, for instance – differs from his in some details. I also felt that the atmosphere of extreme political uncertainty could have been more strongly conveyed: the combination of ferment and discipline that marked the pro-democracy demonstrations and the sense, month after month, that the Soviet Union was nearing its end, but you simply did not know how it would happen.

I must also come clean that Sixsmith's very conventional, and mostly negative, reading of Vladimir Putin is not mine. The result is that, on balance, Sixsmith ends pretty much where he began, with the view that Russians have a problematic relationship with freedom and that even now Russia and democracy do not really mix. I am less pessimistic, and see a sharper contrast between the Soviet Union of three decades ago and the searching, seething, contradictory Russia of today.

Indeed, the biggest difference between Sixsmith's Russia and Braithwaite's Afgantsy, aside from scale and scope, comes down to this: taking a view. Sixsmith is critical, engaged, but ultimately disappointed and disapproving (chiefly of Putin and lost opportunities). Braithwaite takes Russia, and its doomed Afghan adventure, as he finds it. He does not seek to impose any pattern in advance, and he is not as critical, either of the enterprise or of Soviet officialdom, as many readers might expect him to be.

That is not his purpose. His is a classic historian's approach, and the criticism all comes through the voices of Russians: of the soldiers, the generals, the bureaucrats. Braithwaite is particularly absorbing when dealing with the country – the collapsing Soviet Union – to which the soldiers returned on their withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.

In his chapter, "A land fit for heroes", he exposes the betrayal many felt, and the soul-searching that the political splits in Moscow provoked in the returning soldiers, whose disenchantment became one of many factors contributing to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Bringing the account up to date, Braithwaite lightens his generally dark picture of the plight of Afghan vets when he writes about the charitable endeavours that sprang up, and the new lease of life the internet has given to veterans' networks.

Braithwaite will disappoint those who might have expected him to draw overt lessons for the US and Britain in Afghanistan today. He leaves the parallels mostly implicit, choosing rather to see Afghanistan as the Soviet Union's Vietnam. But Afgantsy is not a tract, it is history – history that needed to be told and deserves to be studied. As such, however, it also poses a question about the way US and British, but especially British, writers approach Russia.

Of course, taking an overarching view, a principled position, helps bring order to what often seems the chaos and contradictions of Russia. But not taking a view, at least not the patronising and condemnatory view that intrudes into so much writing about Russia, makes for a refreshing change – dare one hope, a change that might set a trend.

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