History of Modern Russia – Robert Service

Somehow, despite the call of the summer, the World Cup and several other perfectly acceptable distractions, we had our second Slow Read for X Non Fiction Book meeting. This time we read and talked about a heavy hitter – ‘History of Modern Russia’ by Robert Service.

Photo – one of Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’ in Moscow. Hate it or love it, but you certainly can’t ignore it. 

I chose this book because I wanted to find out how power can influence human behavior and society.

Over a century of history in a book is no feat. We learnt about the Russian Empire, the revolution, the fall of the provisional government, civil war, the launch of Soviet Union (which in many ways sounded like Lenin and his cronies were making it up as they went along.) From launch to its deployment, the Soviet Union transformed significantly – the five year plan, the rise of terror, the elimination of alternate powers, Stalin, glastnost and perestorika. Then the USSR fell, unraveling.

Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky and Gorbachev were curious personalities and the obsession with their thinking even more so. Sample what they did with Lenin after his death:
‘An Institute of the Brain was founded where 30,000 slices were made of his cerebral tissue by researchers seeking the origins of his ‘genius’.’

Discussion highlight -‘The Tsar sounded like he just wanted to have a quiet time with his family in the countryside. That is the strange thing about monarchy. On the other hand, people like Lenin and Stalin who worked hard to get to the top were clear about their aspirations.’

What fascinated us the most was the Cultural Revolution and the daily lives of people.
‘By the end of the 1930s the USSR had 28,000 cinemas. 5 Football, ice-hockey, athletics and gymnastics were turned into major sports for both participants and spectators. All-Union, republican, regional and local competitions proliferated across the country. For persons who wanted quieter forms of recreation, ‘houses of culture’ were available with their own reading-rooms, notice-boards, stages and seating.’

Writers, composers and artists struggled to get work out but found unique ways to express themselves alive or dead. Tarkovsky’s analysis of soviet realities ran deep. Yevgeni Zamyatin’s We was finally published posthumously and inspired Orwell’s 1984. Shostakovich persevered with his music.

In daily life, people were motivated by rewards the system put into place – beach vacations in Crimea, Georgia, a roll of honour for good workers, chauffer driven cars for scientists.

We would have liked to learn more about Chechnya, USSR’s rise as a super power, and other regions but as one member remarked, this was a book about Russia not the rest of the Soviet.

The world changed beyond imagination after the Wars, and several rules and borders were rewritten. In retrospect, it does seem like timing and context were key in the USSR being sustained for as long as it was. There is no doubt that it changed the course of many countries, served as an example for many others, and left an impact.

2 thoughts on “History of Modern Russia – Robert Service

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  1. I’ve been getting more and more interested in Russian history lately (pretty much ever since I read Crime & Punishment, and *shock* didn’t hate it!) – this sounds like it might be a good one to add to that list. Thanks!!


    1. Haha, that’s amazing, I’m reading Crime and Punishment now and ALSO not hating it 😀 We did a sort of telepathic book swap 😉 Thank you for commenting, Sheree!


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