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Reviews of The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes

The Story of Russia

by Orlando Figes

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes X
The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2022, 368 pages

    Paperback:
    Sep 2023, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amanda Ellison
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About this Book

Book Summary

From "the great storyteller of Russian history" (Financial Times), a brilliant account of the national mythologies and imperial ideologies that have shaped Russia's past and politics - essential reading for understanding the country today.

The Story of Russia is a fresh approach to the thousand years of Russia's history, concerned as much with the ideas that have shaped how Russians think about their past as it is with the events and personalities comprising it. No other country has reimagined its own story so often, in a perpetual effort to stay in step with the shifts of ruling ideologies.

From the founding of Kievan Rus in the first millennium to Putin's war against Ukraine, Orlando Figes explores the ideas that have guided Russia's actions throughout its long and troubled existence. Whether he's describing the crowning of Ivan the Terrible in a candlelit cathedral or the dramatic upheaval of the peasant revolution, he reveals the impulses, often unappreciated or misunderstood by foreigners, that have driven Russian history: the medieval myth of Mother Russia's holy mission to the world; the imperial tendency toward autocratic rule; the popular belief in a paternal tsar dispensing truth and justice; the cult of sacrifice rooted in the idea of the "Russian soul"; and always, the nationalist myth of Russia's unjust treatment by the West.

How the Russians came to tell their story and to revise it so often as they went along is not only a vital aspect of their history; it is also our best means of understanding how the country thinks and acts today. Based on a lifetime of scholarship and enthrallingly written, The Story of Russia is quintessential Figes: sweeping, revelatory, and masterful.

1
ORIGINS


All countries have a story of their origin. Some invoke divine or classical mythologies, stories linking them to sacred acts of creation or ancient civilisations, but most, at least in Europe, have foundation myths generally invented in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This was a time when nationalist historians, philologists and archaeologists sought to trace their nations back to a primeval ethnos – homogeneous, immutable, containing all the seeds of the modern national character – which they saw reflected in whatever remnants they could find of the early peoples in their territories. The Celts, the Franks, the Gauls, the Goths, the Huns and the Serbs – all have served as the ur-people of a modern nationhood, although in truth they were complex social groups, formed over centuries of great migrations across the European continent.

The origins of Russia are a case in point. No other country has been so divided over its own beginnings. None has ...

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Reviews

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For the lay reader, The Story of Russia provides an informative historical overview, written in straightforward, measured prose. The scale of Figes' account means that it can be used as a springboard for more in-depth study of a discrete topic — for example, further reading about Ivan IV (better known in the West as Ivan the Terrible) may be triggered by a desire to learn more about Putin's motivations. Despite the book's merits, the sheer volume of detail that is jam-packed into it can seem a little intense and difficult to absorb, especially as some may find Figes' style on the dry side. A more novelistic exposition would have perhaps helped flesh out the "characters" and lent more engagement to the storytelling...continued

Full Review (694 words)

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(Reviewed by Amanda Ellison).

Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
An indispensable manual for making sense of Russia's present...The Story of Russia shows how myth and fact mix dangerously in the tales this crucial country tells about itself.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
An expert on Russia delivers a crucially relevant study of a country that has been continuously 'subjected to the vicissitudes of ruling ideologies'...A lucid, astute text that unpacks the myths of Russian history to help explain present-day motivations and actions.

Library Journal
A necessary addition to Russian history collections and required reading for those wanting to understand the dispute over Ukraine.

Publishers Weekly
[R]ich and immersive...Figes's fluid prose ('Nobles gave up Clicquot and Lafite for kvas and vodka, haute cuisine for cabbage soup,' he quips in describing how Russian aristocrats reacted to the French Revolution) keeps the jam-packed narrative from getting bogged down in intricate historical matters. Russophiles will savor this illuminating survey.

Author Blurb Antony Beevor, author of Stalingrad
If you really want to understand Putin's Russia today, anchored in its past of myths, then you simply have to read Figes's superb account in The Story of Russia.

Author Blurb Peter Morgan, creator of The Crown
Urgent and revelatory and brilliantly told, it's all the things you pray a book will be when you first pick it up.

Author Blurb Philippe Sands, author of East West Street
A book of singular power and significance and exquisite prose that takes us to the beating heart of history and culture and helps us to understand our own times as well as those past. A stunningly precise and affecting read, one that left me wanting even more from this brilliant writer.

Reader Reviews

Anthony Conty

So Much I Didn't Know
“The Story of Russia” by Orlando Figes has a wealth of information about Russian history and recognizes that it is more complex than most realize; for example, the book contains a lot of maps, and you will need them to describe the provinces at ...   Read More
Sandeep Yadav

The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes review – Vladimir Putin and the power of myth-making
Every nation has its founding myths and narratives, usually starring historical figures we know almost nothing about; absurd stories even to the schoolchildren to whom they are usually peddled. Think Alfred and the cakes or Robert the Bruce and his ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Bylina

Painting of bylina hero Sadko in underwater kingdom The bylina, an Old Russian form of epic poetry or song, is referenced in The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, in which the author notes its ideological significance.

The word "bylina" (plural: byliny) has its origins in the Russian "byl," translating as "that which happened." Byliny began to be printed and popularized in the 17th century, although they had been around since the 10th century as a form of oral verse, possibly having been established by court minstrels or peasant singers. Kiev, the capital city of Kievan Rus (a commonwealth-style East Slavic state founded in the 9th century) is generally believed to be where the bylina emerged, though scholars have also cited other possible places of origin, including the ...

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