Sunday, June 29, 2008

Russian History

What do American children think of Russia today? What image do Americans hold of this fascinating country? Those of us born before the 1980's have a hard image to shake. The future of Russia seems unclear and our memory of it before the fall of the Berlin wall is of a dour, cement-clad country with terrible potential power to wreak destruction yet unable to provide for its own people; of Krushchev banging the UN table with his shoe; of the beetle-browed Leonid Brezhnev. Red Russia. Communist Russia.

For all that 1917 held out the dream of ordering the affairs of humanity in a better and more rational way, the dream that seduced many of the best-intentioned and brightest in the West - the Revolution was just one more terrible chapter that would close, leaving the Russian people to move on - resilient in the face of hardship and tragedy in a way rarely sustained by any other peoples.

The 20th century was one of immense loss and suffering for Russia and its peoples. Seventy odd years were lost to a political system that was fated to collapse under its own inadequacies, despite all the hope and dreams attached to it. Two World Wars were fought on her territory at immense cost. Self-inflicted tragedies such as the famines of the 1930's sustained the long run of destruction. In this new century, Russia launches itself haltingly on a new and unknown path of resurrection. We can only hope that it is a path more successful than any so far undertaken.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it is all too easy to dismiss Russia as a spent force, a footnote to history. That conclusion ignores the history of the country; a history of sustained potential and repeated resurrection from catastrophe. It also ignores that it is a country of 145 million people, one of the top ten countries in size, population, economy, etc. Just as it has been an important player on the world stage in the past, I suspect Russia will be as important to us in the future. With any luck, though, our children will be dealing with a happier, more prosperous and engaged player.

If you want to expose your children to the fascinating currents of Russian history and the Russian peoples, there is unfortunately - and surprisingly, - little out there, particularly at the picture book and independent reader level. This is odd given that we had in America an acquisition of Russian territory (Alaska in 1867), immigration of some three million Russians between 1890 and the beginning of World War I, and that we have approximately a million Russian immigrants of recent years.

So what is that history? Russian written history is founded on the Primary Chronicle (also known as Tale of Bygone Years), a text written in 1113 in Kiev by a monk, named Nestor. It chronicles the period 850 -1110 and is the first record of the history of the East Slavic people. There is no known homeland for the Slavs as a people. They just show up in the records in the eight hundreds, eventually occupying the core areas we now know as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine.

Russian history is wonderfully diverse. America may be the modern melting pot of the world, but Russia beat us to that early championship by a millennium owing in part to the number of ethnic groups that kept roaming through Russia on the way to somewhere else, some of whom stopped and ended up being absorbed in the process. The Rus (also known as Varangians), were raiders, traders and settlers out of Scandinavia (part of the Viking excursions) who settled in what is now Northern Russia. They established a form of rule over the region in the eight and ninth centuries, integrated with the local Slavic population and later spawned states such as the Kievan Rus which were the antecedents to the modern state of Russia.

The Kievan Rus adopted Christianity in 988 AD from the Byzantine Empire, establishing one of the key differences between Russia and the rest of Europe. With the fall of the Kievan state in the 11th century, Russia fragmented into a number of duchies and principalities, the most powerful of which was the Duchy of Moscow.

Russia has had a peculiar relationship with the West - neither party knowing quite what to make of the other. Western Europe has long had a view of Russia reflected in Ambrose Bierce's definition of Russian: A person with a Caucasian body and a Mongolian soul. Russia, for many, was a place of mystery, romance, barbarism, and tyranny all wrapped up as an enigma. It was an intermediate point between the truly different countries of Asia and the reasonably familiar ones of the West. Russia was always, in religion, in art and architecture, in multi-ethnicity, one step beyond different; on the way to being "Other."

It is understandable that there should be such ambiguity. Russia, flat and far reaching, the Russia of the Steppes, has always been both a place and also a point of transit. For Westerners, it mattered little that the Alans, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Huns, the Magyars, and the Mongols were not Russian. They came through Russia to attack Poland, Austria, Germany and other countries of eastern Europe..

We also easily forget that Russia not only suffered invasions from the East but also from the West. Russia was harassed and invaded by Vikings in the 10th century. Crusades were launched not only to recover the lost Christian lands of the Middle East but also to subjugate pagan lands in the north east as well. German, Danish, Swedish and Polish knights fought all along the Baltic and into Novgorod in the Northern (or Baltic) Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the duchies and principalities of Russia, for a period of some two hundred and forty years were vassal states to the Mongol Empire. The opening clash between the Russians and the Golden Horde of the Mongols occurred in 1223 at the Battle of the Kalka River and was a defeat for the Russians. Over the next seventeen years there was intermittent warfare with the various Russian principalities banding together to fight the Mongols when they appeared and then continuing their own intra-mural fights in the interims before the Mongolians finally defeated the Russians in 1240. It has been estimated that up 30-50% of the Russian population died in these invasions.

The reconquest of all the Russian territories by the Russians, usually led by the Duchy of Muscovy, was not completed until 1480. There are parallels, not frequently commented on, to the Spanish reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula occurring in the same period and which had somewhat similar consequences. Just as the Spanish conquistadors rolled from their reconquest of Granada in 1492 into the conquest of new lands discovered by Columbus in the New World, so it was in Russia. Having reconquered the Russian lands, the Russians then rolled onto to conquer most of Central Asia and the Caucasus countries over the next three hundred years, laying the groundwork for the current troubles in Chechnya.

The next four hundred years were marked by numerous memorable leaders including Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Romanov dynasty. Most of them tried to slowly transition the country from a deep entrenched feudalism to some sort of state that could mimic the vitality of the West without incurring liberty, democracy and capitalism. They attempted this feat while expanding to the south and east through conquest and while maintaining absolute monarchical powers internally

The Crimean War, the Russo-Japanese war, Nicholas and Alexandra, Faberge Eggs, Rasputin, the Winter Palace - there is so much fascinating history here. It is a pity that we don't have that much that is accessible to our youngest readers. Young Adults are well served by some cross-over literature such as Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra.

Because there are not many stories from Russian history in Picture Book form, we have instead included beautifully illustrated folktales in the hope that they will provide young readers with a taste of Russia and, perhaps, inspire a desire to know more. Or maybe we have simply overlooked good titles that are out there. What are your recommendations?

Picture Books

The Mitten by Jan Brett Recommended

The Firebird by Demi Suggested

When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest and illustrated by P. J. Lynch Recommended

Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave by Marianna Mayer and illustrated by Kinuko Craft Suggested

The Kingfisher Book of Tales from Russia by James Mayhew Suggested

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco Recommended

Peter And The Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev and illustrated by Peter Malone and Janet Schulman Suggested

The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship by Arthur Ransome and illustrated by Uri Shulevitz Suggested

The Tale of the Firebird by Gennadii Spirin and Tatiana Popova Recommended

Peter the Great by Diane Stanley Suggested

The Firebird by Jane Yolen and Vladimir Vasilevich Vagin Suggested

Colors of Russia by Shannon Zemlicka and illustrated by Jeni Reeves Suggested

Independent Readers

Russian Fairy Tales by Aleksandr Nikolaevicher Afanasyev Suggested

Russian Fairy Tales by Gillian Avery and illustrated by Ivan Iakovlevich Bilibin Suggested

Letters from Rifka by Karen Hesse Suggested

Russia by Kathleen Berton Murrell and illustrated by Andy Crawford Suggested

Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan Suggested

Catherine The Great by Nancy Whitelaw

Young Adult

The Devil's Horsemen by James Chambers

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Suggested

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser Recommended

Flashman in the Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser Recommended

The Great Game by Peter Hopkirk Recommended

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie Recommended

Peter the Great by Robert K. Massie Suggested

Russia's War by Richard Overy Suggested

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn Suggested

War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy Recommended

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy Recommended

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