Daniel Beer

The Great Bear

Russia: A 1,000-Year Chronicle of the Wild East


BBC Books 611pp £25 order from our bookshop

Prominent in Stalinist propaganda of the 1930s, the metaphor of the path features heavily in Martin Sixsmith’s 1,000-year history of Russia. Presiding over a sprawling Eurasian landmass unsecured by natural borders, surrounded by enemies and struggling for unified control over an unruly, multi-ethnic population, successive Russian rulers opted for a powerful, centralised service state that marshalled its natural and human resources for defence and international competition. This overriding raison d’état explains why at ‘moments of unruly destiny’, Russia chose its ‘Asiatic heritage’ over an alternative European path of liberalism and democracy. Sixsmith sees Russian history as a battleground between the forces of dark, autocratic traditions on the one hand and enlightened, civilised, Western, democratic values on the other. This is captivating stuff. It is also, however, deeply problematic and simplistic.

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