- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Lots of nonsense has been written about Russia over the last decade. Much of it has come from journalists trying to cram Russian events into American stereotypes, either because they underestimate their readers cognitive abilities or they themselves are unable to grasp Russian subtleties.
Thus, a president whose refusal to negotiate led to a mini-civil war in Moscow in 1993 and the Chechen debacle in 1994 was repeatedly dubbed a "democrat" and men who never built or invested in their countrys future, but gained obscene fortunes by carving up state assets, were compared to John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
The U.S. government also has added to the confusion Clinton administration officials chirped happily about the new Russias bright economic future, among other things, right up until the ruble meltdown of August 1998.
There also seems to be a general failure to understand Russians on their own terms as people who, on one hand, are no different than the foreigners trying to analyze them and, on the other hand, think and act in ways that baffle outsiders. In other words, Russians behave just like us, except when they dont.
Those seeking answers to these mysteries will welcome Geoffrey Hoskings latest work, "Russia and the Russians: A History," a massive survey that begins with the Kievan Rus in the ninth century and ends with Vladimir Putins arrival in the Kremlin in 2000.
Mr. Hosking, professor of Russian history at the University of London, set out to write a book useful both to newcomers to Russian history and to those already familiar with it. He has scored on both counts. The book is well-organized, clearly written and flows logically. Sections are organized by theme, so questions about, say, the origins of the Cossacks or the Bolsheviks ideas about culture and family are easy to find. Of course, any history that covers more than 1,000 years must sacrifice detail if it is to stay manageable. The book moves fast, but provides copious end notes for readers who wish to delve into specific areas.
The books title also hides one of its most impressive qualities or maybe not, depending on how you define the words Russia and Russians. Mr. Hosking emphasizes the rolls played by dozens of ethnic minorities whether citizens within Russian or Soviet borders, or foreigners on the frontiers, from the Vikings to the Chechens. Much of the book concerns how Russians experiences with their baffling assortment of neighbors has shaped their views of themselves and the world.
Unlike many observers who see Russias current crises primarily as the result of 70 years of communist rule, Mr. Hosking emphasizes that todays Russia is the product of 1,000 years of history, much of it pretty tough. Modern Russians also face age-old questions about national identity: the tug between Asia and Europe, between empire and state, and whether citizenship should be civic or ethnic-based.
"Politically, socially, and economically, Russia is still best understood as a network of interlocking patron-client relationships. This is one reason why post-Soviet Russia has such difficulty in generating its own sense of community," Mr. Hosking writes in the opening pages. It is a theme he visits repeatedly, following it like a trail through a Russian forest. While Mikhail Gorbachev struck many foreigners as "un-Russian," Mr. Hosking sees a direct link to Alexander I, who was czar during the first quarter of the 19th century.
"Gorbachevs enthusiastic, at times almost reckless pursuit of this vision was in a thoroughly Russian tradition of peacemaking tsars and foreign ministers, conscious of their countrys poverty and vulnerability, trying to build pan-European structures of peace." Mr. Hosking touches on just about everything, blending information about economics, politics, religion, military developments, and the arts and culture, in a way likely to spur further inquiry into specifics, as a good overview should. Aspects of daily life are not forgotten. He writes about the impact of communal apartments on Russian citizens like someone who has actually spent time in one. And lest anyone think this book was written in a library in England, there are several anecdotes from Mr. Hoskings experiences in the USSR and Russia.
Russias current crises have convinced some that it is finished as a great power. But, as Mr. Hosking writes, Russia is one of historys "great survivors." We ignore or remain ignorant of it at our own peril. Mr. Hosking has made an important contribution to those seeking to better understand a country and its people.

Ron Laurenzo is a former editor of Defense Week and was a reporter in Russia from 1991 to 1996.


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