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A Synoptic History

Anuradha Chenoy

By Ian Barnes
Belknap Press, London, 2015, pp. 222, $35.00


For an accurate, quick, synoptic as well as visual history of Russia, there could not have been a better book than Ian Barnes’s Historical Atlas of Russia. Barnes explains the diversity and complexity of Russia from the origins of Russian statehood to the contemporary Russian Federation under the Putin regime with all its pluralities and enigmas. Critics might question such a work for being unable to do justice to such a long period. But Barnes has been able to synthesize this by developing four themes that run through the book in historical time. He explains these with relevant maps and texts and occasional photographs that define Russia from its earliest period to the current map of the country. The first theme in this Atlas is the history of power and state politics in Russia/ Soviet Union/ Russian Federation. Barnes begins with the origins and evolution of the Slavs, their relation to both the Byzantine empire to their West and the Central Asian Scythians to the East. He shows the formation of the group called the Rus, who were traders and raiders. The homeland of the Slavs from c. 800-200 BCE is illustrated by maps. Several maps and accompanying text then show the control of nomadic power and the conquests of the Mongols, then the rise of Moscovy that protected people from Mongol raiders and developed the principality of Moscow and a dynasty that predated the Tsars. Barnes goes through the Tsarist dynasties and brings out the essence of each of these. Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible’s photographs bring the period to life and maps show the expanding Russian empire, the rise of the Romonovs and Catherine II. Besides the domestic politics of the period, the deep roots and linkages with East Europe, especially Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine, unfold. Barnes shows the internal consolidation and centralization of power that took place. At the same time this book shows how a liberal ruler like Catherine II sowed the early seeds of civil society, local autonomous governing institutions, dance, drama etc., all of which were so easily reversed by her own conservative son who adored Prussian militarism and ended all these institutional reforms and replaced them with nationalist militarism, followed by Tsar Alexander and the exigencies he felt to initiate systemic changes to keep up with Europe. The political upheavals of 1905–1906 in the background of the First World War ...

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