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Rulers and Victims: Russians in the Soviet Union by Geoffrey Hosking

13 September 2007

When I studied modern Russian history during my undergraduate days, the professor assigned a hefty book by Geoffrey Hosking as the class’s general text. I found it to be quite well-written and a very good general history book all round, so when I heard that Hosking had written a new book about Russian history I thought it worth purchasing. The title alone was enough to intrigue me, because it touched on a thought that I’d had but never truly examined during some of my Cold War history classes: To what extent were ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’ truly interchangeable terms?

Rulers and Victims: Russians in the Soviet Union by Geoffrey Hosking

To the outside (read: Western) world, the Soviet Union and Russia were the same thing, QED. But the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was in a sense precisely that — a union of republics, most of which did not actually have a majority of native Russians as a proportion of their populations. It was true that natives of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) had certain advantages that other citizens of the USSR did not. People outside the RSFSR tended to send their children to Russian-language schools to ensure that the children would stand a better chance of finding good jobs or getting higher education. Even quite a few Russians believed that Russia was and had to be the dominant partner, the strong force that had driven back the Nazis and liberated the European continent from the grip of fascism. And yet this sense of mastery went hand-in-hand with a sense of victimisation and near-helplessness — the unpopularity of Russia and Russians in the non-RSFSR republics only increased with each passing year as the republics chafed under the rule from Moscow. Just before the latent conflict between Russians and non-Russians came to a head in the last days of the Cold War, Russian writer Valentin Rasputin lashed out in response to the anger of non-Russian critics during a meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies in May 1989:

Perhaps it is Russia that should secede from the Union, since you accuse her of all your misfortunes and since our backwardness and awkwardness obstruct your progressive aspirations?…We could then pronounce the word ‘Russian’ without fear of being rebuked for nationalism, we could talk openly about our national idenitity. We could set up at last our own Academy of Sciences….Believe me, we’re fed up with being scapegoats, with being mocked and spat upon.

Russians in the Soviet Union were in an odd predicament: they were both rulers and victims. And Rulers and Victims sets out to pick apart this strange juxtaposition of sentiments, looking at precisely where the splits occurred — and describing how the tensions between Russian mastery and Russian victimhood eventually struck the fatal blow for Soviet Communism and the USSR in the years between 1989 and 1991. Soviet leaders knew full well that Russian nationalism — in other words, the Russian people asserting an identity that distinctly separated Russia from the Soviet Union — was the biggest internal threat that the USSR could face. And while quite a lot of work has been done on the status of Ukranians or Balts or native inhabitants of the Muslim SSRs (the Central Asian republics, nowadays) in the Soviet Union as a whole, Rulers and Victims focuses specifically on the Russian identity separate from the Soviet identity that was supposed to replace it.

To be best enjoyed, Hosking’s book does require some background knowledge of twentieth-century Russian history. It won’t do much good without a general sense of why this topic is often overlooked in terms of nationality studies. The book charts the ways in which the Soviet system attempted to suppress or take over Russian national identity, from severely curtailing the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church to attempting to mush Imperial Russian and Soviet history together into some great grand unified theory of the traditional underpinnings of Soviet power. I do wish Hosking had devoted a little more space to Russian nationalism’s significant contribution the end of the Soviet Union (in the person of Boris Yeltsin, for one, or at least how he used Russian nationalism to further his political ends). The ending felt a little bit rushed in contrast to the rest of the book’s sedate pace. But I’m always fond of a book that gives me a new way of looking at history that is less ‘revisionist’ (if we are to consider it a dirty word) than it is a slight shift in perspective. If Hosking writes another book on Russian history in the near future, I’d definitely be interested in reading it.

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