Saturday, August 25, 2007

Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin

Today I finished reading Russia: The Once and Future Empire From Pre-History to Putin by Philip Longsworth. It's a very quick history of Russia, focusing on the rise and fall of the 4 historical Russian empires (Kievan, Muscovite, Romanov and Soviet).

My main reason for reading the book was to get an introduction to Russian history, and this book was very good for that. It covers a lot of history in 326 pages. And it covers events in enough detail that I know which particular events I might want to read more about.

One is life after the breakup of the Soviet Union. You see Russians on the news who long for lives they knew under Communism. These people tend to be portrayed as dangerous extremists. Russia puts these views into perspective.

The woman who cuts my hair (Stella) considers herself Russia, though she is a Jew who moved to New York from Uzbekistan 14 years ago. Today, as she cut my hair, she told me about how she misses life in the USSR.

Her work shift was from 9am to 2pm. She never looked forward to the weekend because she had all the time she needed during the week. If you were sick you didn't go to work and you didn't worry about not getting paid. You didn't worry about growing old and not having a job. She didn't have problems with the government and secret police. Life was easy for her there.

The chapter that covers the collapse of the Soviet Union and the governments that followed describe the same things that Stella described.

I usually prefer more "popular history". To me, popular histories focus on the characters and personalities as much as the events and trends. This book gives important figures in Russian history an adjective or two at most. The actions of Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Stalin, etc. are documented but not their "motivation".

So what to read next? I have a stack of books on the desk to choose from.

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