by Pengyu Chen
Dmitri Trenin declares in his preface that Russia is a book intended for readers who are unfamiliar with Russia’s history. As such, Trenin aims to present Russian history in a way which differs from the West’s understanding of Russia as “negative and controversial” (vii). In doing so, Russia takes the reader on a 200-page excursion of 120 years of Russian history, detailing the historical and political development, which explains much of Russia’s contemporary behaviour. Trenin treats Russia as having its own “version of exceptionalism,” which makes it distinct from other nations (8). He suggests that there is a “bedrock” underneath Russia that continues to strengthen the “core features of the nation’s existence, its self-image, and its worldview” and that the reader can only understand these changes by examining the “collective experience” of the Russian people (3). The book’s central thesis holds that, while Russia has experienced changes to its ruler and government, it nonetheless remains a “succession of states and represents the continuity of a country” precisely because Russian society has retained the core features which make it exceptional (9). Trenin presents two momentous and recurring features which have shaped the last 120 years of Russia’s political development. First, Russia’s strong rejection of foreign domination persists alongside her acquiescence toward domestic authoritarianism (9). Second, Russia’s “essentially lonely” nature (despite having a high degree of contact with other countries) (9). And Russia’s frequent contact with foreign countries is often the source of external threats and modernization (9). While his analysis of Russia’s ‘loneliness’ is a noteworthy observation, the reader should pay more attention to how Trenin imagines the boundary of Russia, as well as what he means by being Russian.
Russia gives the reader a quick survey of Russia’s 20th century, presenting important themes such as culture, economy, society, and ideology. The reader will learn about the ‘Silver Age’ of Russian arts, the New Soviet Man, refugees escaping Communist Russia, the GULAG, economic developments and policies, protest movements, state-society relations, and much more. Trenin’s discussion of the state and its leaders, foreign relations, and elite politics is the most emphasized component. By giving a brief historical account of Russian history—from the 1917 Russian civil war to Putin’s 21st-century ascension—through which he illuminates the causes of critical events, Trenin highlights the persistent and significant role of a strong state and authoritarian leader in providing stability during times of upheaval in Russia’s history. Further, Trenin asserts that evil consequences often ensue after state collapse (179).
Tracing the collective experience of the Russian people, Trenin makes the case that while leaders of Russia had extraordinary agency in shaping the country’s political trajectory, it is the enduring feature of the people’s will to reject foreign domination of Russia at the expense of their “own domestic sovereignty vis-a-vis [the state]” that prevented the breakdown of Russia in challenging times (9). Trenin believes that this forfeiture of individual autonomy to the authoritarian rule at home is the “supreme national value” and is deeply embedded in the “Russian psyche” (7, 9). However, while there is much evidence one can point to, such as the 1812 Napoleonic War, or the Great Patriotic War, there is also ample evidence that challenges the reading that Russians see their submission to authority as a “supreme national value.” Notably, Trenin himself remarks that the 1905 and 1917 peasant revolutions in Tsarist Russia were a key pretext for the rise of the Bolsheviks (26-34). Also, he notes that many Russians fled to Europe to escape Communist rule (125). Furthermore, considering Pyotr Stolypin’s implementation of martial law, Lenin’s Cheka, Stalin’s Purge, and the tradition of the Russian security agency, all to maintain social stability, fearing uprising and unrest from societal groups, the reader should seriously question the merit of Trenin’s argument that there has been a consensus, tacit or explicit, between the ruled and the ruler on the “supreme national value,” even in times of crisis (9).
Moreover, the reader is left wondering, by the end of the book, whether Trenin’s claim about the recurring core feature of Russian’s acquiescence toward authoritarianism (and the persistent pattern of authoritarianism itself) will continue to be a ‘recurring’ feature. Indeed, Trenin himself points to the possibility that generational change and existing political conditions could lead to a state that is less authoritarian in nature (163). Even though Putin and the state are authoritarian, the establishment of democratic electoral institutions and a growing middle class in Russia could one day transform this core recurring feature.
To be more charitable, the reader can concede that Trenin is suggesting an account that Russian exceptionalism derives from a transcendental conception of Russia as a nation that conceives an amorphous territory and a population that inheres Russia’s millennium-long history and the two core recurring features as its national mentality and traits. However, it is equally important to examine who are the “Russian people” and what Russia is as an “unbroken whole” (9, 11). While Trenin explains what Russia is not—that today’s Russia is not a different country from the USSR and the Russian Empire—he fails to give an affirmative account of what Russia is. Indeed, there is not a definitive answer to this, and expecting Trenin to answer it persuasively in a 200-page book is unreasonable. Nevertheless, this absence should make the reader (re)consider his formulation of Russia as an “unbroken whole.” The fact that Russia’s territory has been reduced substantially after the collapse of the Russian Empire and again after the dissolution of the USSR has central implications for the conception of Russia. This geopolitical decline seriously challenges his conception of Russia as a whole, given that many of the populations formerly belonging to the Russian Empire and USSR are not a part of contemporary Russia. It is also questionable to claim the population who were once within the territory of the Russian Empire and the USSR as “Russians.” According to NKVD records, “half-million Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Belarusians fought the Soviets in rural areas” (Colton 53). Also, anti-Soviet ethnonationalist movements during and after the Soviet rule also challenge Tenin’s reading of Russia as an “unbroken whole” (153-154).
Trenin’s account of the second core feature is more compelling and conforms to the charitable reading of Russia as a nation that persistently embodies “a Russian psyche” In the last 120 years, Russia has been lonely and exceptional in its vain search for national security amidst an unfriendly, modernizing world. Japan challenged Russia’s presence in the Far East, leading to a major defeat in 1905 for the Russian Empire (25-26). In 1917 Russia was forced to fight against Germany but was never invited to the 1919 Versailles peace conference and the League of Nations (46). In the 1930s, Britain and France had little concern for the fate of the USSR, so Russia, relying on itself, was pressured into signing a non-aggression pact with Germany (78-79). Trenin argues that Russia had to rely on itself in challenging times and thus often finds itself isolated. Indeed, increased connectivity with China, Britain, and the U.S. in the 1940s ended soon thereafter upon the rise of the Cold War. Meaningful and friendly engagement with the West since then never occurred, despite the disintegration of the Union and the introduction of capitalism and electoral democracy in the 1990s (145-146). Confrontation with the U.S. and NATO became more real after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria (173-174). However, its relationship with China grew closer (174). Russia, Trenin argues, has been estranged from the West but is “by no means isolated” (173-174). Indeed, current events support Trenin’s analysis: the ongoing Russian-Ukraine War has deteriorated US-Russia and EU-Russia relationship while Russia has become closer to China.
The reader can strengthen Trenin’s account of Russia’s relative isolation by arguing that Russia’s geography and historical legacies played a deterministic role in shaping the political attitude and choices of the Russian elites. Russia is vast, remote, and difficult to access by sea. While this geographical limit prevented Russia from naval invasions, it also foreclosed the reach of sea merchants and the exchange of ideas (Poe 49). The centrality of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s closed borders also stifled any intellectual and cultural exchange with the West (Poe 41). Moreover, the relative proximity with Western Europe—and the extraordinary technological and military ascendance of the former circa 1500-1600—threatened Russia and agitated its reform process, eventually producing a distinctly Russian form of social organization (Poe 38-57).
Even if the reader rejects the persistent “bedrock” underneath Russia, Trenin’s analysis of Russia’s political pattern—1) authoritarian rule as a persistent feature and 2) relative isolation—offers a good measure by which the reader can judge Russia’s contemporary political development. When the authoritarian state is absent, Russia will likely reverse into political instability (9). Trenin suspects that “a political crisis following Putin’s final departure is virtually pre-programmed” (162). And, while Trenin makes clear in Russia’s conclusion that post-Putin Russia might not embrace liberal capitalism and conform partially to the West, his analysis of Russia’s relative isolation gives freshness and trenchancy to his interpretation of a “Russian’s Russia” and provide the non-specialist reader with a good historical account of where “Russia is coming from.”
Colton, Timothy J. Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York, Oxford University Press, 2016.
Poe, Marshall T. The Russian Moment in World History. New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2003.
Trenin, Dmitri. Russia. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.