The Russian Revolution, 1917-1945

By Anthony D’Agostino | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
Land and People

The Russian revolution can be said to have its origin at the confluence of two historical streams: the rising power of the imperial Russian state and the idealism of the Western socialist movement. We begin our inquiry with a consideration of the first stream, that is, of the peculiar character of Russia’s political institutions and the unique features of its imperial expansion.

The greatest and best loved of the prerevolutionary Russian historians, Vasilii Kliuchevskii, called Russian history a tale of peoples in movement, which he told in terms of an alternance of invasion, defeat, victory, and finally expansion. Kliuchevskii was generalizing about the settlement of Russia and of the movement of Turko-Mongol tribes across Russia’s inviting steppe roads (actually not so different from the movement of barbarian tribes across Western Europe, 300–800 A.D.). He was also taking note of Russia’s later interaction with settled and civilized states such as Sweden and Poland, whose invasions were each repelled by a Russian national rally. The story of Napoleon and Hitler in Russia thus fits a certain well-worn pattern.

Geographic factors have usually been cited to help explain this Russian vulnerability to invasion, particularly that Russia had no large mountain barriers such as the Alps or the Pyrenees. The Urals, considered the boundary between Europe and Asia since the time of Peter the Great, have always been easily crossed. Scholars who study prehistory tell us that, in general, cultural diffusion takes place more easily along an east-west axis than a north-south. Movement along similar latitudes is more likely than movement into different ones. Russia has four distinct latitudinal zones of climate and vegetation. At the extremes of north and south are tundra and desert. The two

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