No nation is a stranger to war, but for Russians war is a central part of who they are. Their “motherland” has been the battlefield where some of the largest armies have clashed, the most savage battles have been fought, the highest death tolls paid. Having prevailed over Mongol hordes and vanquished Napoleon and Hitler, many Russians believe no other nation has sacrificed so much for the world. In Russia: The Story of War Gregory Carleton explores how this belief has produced a myth of exceptionalism that pervades Russian culture and politics and has helped forge a national identity rooted in war.
While outsiders view Russia as an aggressor, Russians themselves see a country surrounded by enemies, poised in a permanent defensive crouch as it fights one invader after another. Time and again, history has called upon Russia to play the savior—of Europe, of Christianity, of civilization itself—and its victories, especially over the Nazis in World War II, have come at immense cost. In this telling, even defeats lose their sting. Isolation becomes a virtuous destiny and the whole of its bloody history a point of pride.
War is the unifying thread of Russia’s national epic, one that transcends its wrenching ideological transformations from the archconservative empire to the radical-totalitarian Soviet Union to the resurgent nationalism of the country today. As Putin’s Russia asserts itself in ever bolder ways, knowing how the story of its war-torn past shapes the present is essential to understanding its self-image and worldview.
Examine[s] Russia's self-image in detail, providing the kind of context and nuance that is badly needed in the current climate of hysteria and conspiracy theories. Looking back eight centuries, Carleton traces an epic tale of war and redemption, of a Russia that finds itself constantly at risk of barbarian invasion and annihilation and yet manages, time and again, to save both itself and its neighbors…Russia: The Story of War…make[s] clear why Russia has been so infuriated by U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Georgia.
Gregory Carleton’s book is a salutary reminder of the narratives and images which capture Russians’ imagination.
Carleton explores elements of Russian self-image as they appear not only in official narratives but also in literature and film: the endurance and bravery of the solitary soldier, a people rising to defend the Motherland, the ever-present threat of war and the unspeakable toll it takes. To understand Russia in the Putin era, Carleton argues in this spare, original book, one must recognize the mental and emotional outlook that near-constant war has produced.
Provides a fascinating cultural history of the evolution of what [Carleton] calls Russia’s ‘civil religion,’ a ‘grand narrative of war’ that reaches back to the Mongol experience in the 13th through 15th centuries and the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century.
The key ingredients of the Russian war myth are invasion, resistance, self-reliance, and self-sacrifice. It is a narrative that appears repeatedly throughout Russian history, literature, art, and film, and is a current staple of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political rhetoric.
The worsening of relations between Russia and the West…makes Carleton’s book essential to understanding how and why Russia sees itself as it does.
Vividly written and clearly argued, Russia: The Story of War is scholarship at its best. Carleton offers the most accessible work available that explains how memories of wars have occupied a preeminent part of the Russian national mythology. Provocative in the best sense and convincing in its interpretations, this timely book is packed full of insights.
Carleton makes an important contribution to understanding post-Soviet Russian nationalism, both at the elite level and in popular culture, by surveying speeches, films, novels, television, and architectural and monumental representations of war and their place in shaping what he calls Russia’s civic religion. He shows how Russia’s contemporary ‘narrative of war’ reaches back to the Mongol conquest of the twelfth century and forward to Russia’s wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and even to today’s conflict with Ukraine.
- 304 pages
- 1-1/16 x 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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