Excerpt from The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

The Story of Russia

by Orlando Figes

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes X
The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • Published:
    Sep 2022, 368 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
Buy This Book

About this Book

Print Excerpt

In it Müller summarised the findings of other German scholars, who had concluded from their reading of the Primary Chronicle that Russia owed its origins to the Vikings. The Rus, he said, were Scandinavians, whose tribal name derived from Ruotsi, a term used by the Finns to describe the Swedes from Roslagen. But this was not the moment to suggest that Russia was created by the Swedes, or any other foreigners. Russia's victory in the recent war against Sweden (1741–3) had bolstered patriotic sentiments, which extended to the country's past. Müller's lecture was roundly criticised at the Academy. A scrutiny committee was appointed to decide whether it could be delivered – if not on the empress's name day on 5 September then on the seventh anniversary of her coronation on 25 November – without bringing Russia 'into disrepute'. Mikhail Lomonosov, Russia's first great polymath, led the attack on the German, accusing him of setting out to denigrate the Slavs by depicting them as savages, incapable of organising themselves as a state. The Rus, he insisted, were not Swedes but Baltic Slavs, descendants of the Iranian Roxolani tribe, whose history went back to the Trojan Wars. National pride coloured Lomonosov's criticisms, along with a personal dislike of the German. He wrongly claimed that Müller was unable to read Russian documents, that he made gross errors as a consequence and that, like all foreigners, he could not really know the country's history because he was not Russian.

Six months of academic arguments ensued. On 8 March 1750, the scrutiny committee banned Müller's lecture and confiscated all the printed copies of it in both Russian and Latin. Lomonosov took part in the raid. The German was demoted to a junior post and barred from working in the state archive, supposedly to defend the Russian Empire from his attempts to 'besmirch' its history. Müller's academic career never fully recovered, but he published many books, including Origines gentis et nominis Russorum (1761), which developed the ideas of his lecture. Published first in Germany, Origines did not appear in Russian until 1773, a decade after Lomonosov's Ancient Russian History, a book written as a refutation of Müller's argument.

The debate on Russia's origins has continued to this day. Known as the Normanist Controversy (because the Vikings were Normans), it is highly charged with politics and ideology. The question at its heart is whether Russia was created by the Russians or by foreigners.

In the final decades of the eighteenth century, Müller's 'Norman theory' gained acceptance in the St Petersburg Academy, where German-born historians were dominant. They propagated the theory that Riurik had belonged to a Germanic tribe of Scandinavia and that Russia as a state and culture had thus been founded by Germans. Catherine the Great (herself German-born) supported their position, because it suggested that the Russians were of European stock, a viewpoint she promoted in her many works. In German hands the Normanist position entailed sometimes racist attitudes towards the Slavs. Typical is this passage from a study of the Primary Chronicle by August Ludwig von Schlözer in 1802:

Of course there were people there [in Russia], God knows for how long and from where they came, but they were people without any leadership, living like wild beasts and birds in their vast forests … No enlightened European had noticed them or had written about them. There was not a single real town in the whole of the North … Wild, boorish and isolated Slavs began to be socially acceptable only thanks to the Germans, whose mission, decreed by fate, was to sow the first seeds of civilization among them.

The Norman theory appealed to defenders of autocracy, supposing as it did that the warring Slavic tribes were incapable of governing themselves. Foremost among them was Nikolai Karamzin, Russia's first great writer and historian, who leaned heavily on Schlözer's work in his History of the Russian State (published in twelve volumes between 1818 and 1829). Before the establishment of foreign princely rule, Karamzin declared, Russia had been nothing but an 'empty space' with 'wild and warring tribes, living on a level with the beasts and birds'.

Excerpted from The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes. Copyright © 2022 by Orlando Figes. Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $45 for 12 months or $15 for 3 months.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  The Bylina

Become a Member

Join BookBrowse today to start discovering exceptional books!

Find out more

Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: A Mystery of Mysteries
    A Mystery of Mysteries
    by Mark Dawidziak
    Edgar Allan Poe biographers have an advantage over other writers because they don't have to come up ...
  • Book Jacket: Moonrise Over New Jessup
    Moonrise Over New Jessup
    by Jamila Minnicks
    Jamila Minnicks' debut novel Moonrise Over New Jessup received the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially...
  • Book Jacket
    The Magician's Daughter
    by H.G. Parry
    "Magic isn't there to be hoarded like dragon's treasure. Magic is kind. It comes into ...
  • Book Jacket: The Great Displacement
    The Great Displacement
    by Jake Bittle
    On August 4, 2021, California's largest single wildfire to date torched through the small mountain ...

Book Club Discussion

Book Jacket
The Nurse's Secret
by Amanda Skenandore
A fascinating historical novel based on the little-known story of America's first nursing school.

Members Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Once We Were Home
    by Jennifer Rosner

    From the author of The Yellow Bird Sings, a novel based on the true stories of children stolen in the wake of World War II.

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Russian Doll
    by Kristen Loesch

    A haunting epic of betrayal, revenge, and redemption following three generations of Russian women.

Who Said...

Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!


Solve this clue:

R Peter T P P

and be entered to win..

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.