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.
Sixsmith romps through the first 900 years of Russian history in a mere 150 pages. The Mongol domination of Russia, from 1240 to 1480, yanked the country off a ‘normal’ path of Western development and sowed the seeds of autocratic government. Democratic alternatives represented by the pluralist traditions