Martin Sixsmith’s History of Russia: A Brief Review

I bought this book at the beginning of my first year at University, after spotting a friend reading it a few months before. I can’t really identify any other reason for buying this book, apart from having an interest in the history and politics of one of the biggest chunks of land on the Earth. With no political unrest or controversy in the news (they came later), I guess it was probably a spur of the moment thing.

Russia is one of those countries that no-one really knows, but then I suppose that can still apply to even our closest of allies. I remember when I was younger my mum said something about counting myself lucky, because Russian supermarket having nothing on their shelves apart from a few cans of tinned sardines. Following on from that I heard things about some blokes called Lenin and Stalin, the Communist party, and then Gorbachev (r.e the Berlin Wall) and finally President Putin. For some reason, I was never taught anything about Russia’s history. I think the curriculum had changed by the time I got to study GCSE History. Maybe it’s this fear of not knowing the TRUE state of Russia that prevents schools from teaching their students about it, how many people do you know that frequently holidays in St Petersburg or Moscow?

Anyway, one day I wandered into WHSmith’s and picked up Sixsmith’s book (Sixsmith has also written the novel behind ‘Philomena’ starring Dame Judy Dench and Steve Coogan) and began reading. Over a year later, I finished it. Don’t let the length of time put you off, the only reason I took so long was largely due to having to read other books for my course or just generally drifting onto other things.

The book itself actually isn’t that long (530 pages), considering it covers everything from Kievan Rus in 1054 to the Russia we are now familiar with. I found it very easy to read and understand; yes some of the names were a bit of a struggle; I admit sometimes I just made up or skipped over them just so I could continue reading. I think because the book is quite broad in subject matter, the vast majority of events do get mentioned for a few pages, but I would say it very rarely goes into in-depth detail and analysis. It does sometimes make reference to other authors who have written more detailed texts, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ that I bought to learn a bit more about what can only be described as the cull of millions of ‘radical’ people (in reality they were mostly people who had perhaps stolen some food to feed themselves or the first one to stop applauding after a speech from Stalin) from the cities of Russia to labour camps on the edge of the country that no-one dare speak about.

I think the most interesting part, probably because it’s still relevant today, is the way Sixsmith slyly makes a link between Stalin’s actions in government and Putin’s (i.e. ‘allegedly’ killing off anyone that spoke against them, like Litvinenko). Obviously this isn’t the sort of book that would make me say ‘yes I recommend this to anyone’, but I think for those who DO consider themselves to be a little bit interested in the political history of a country, namely Russia, then Martin Sixsmith is probably the writer for you. If nothing else, it’s a good starting point and arguably, covers everything you’d need to know (though maybe not remember) about Russian politics.
So on the subject of history, what did you find interesting in the history curriculum? Are there any historic texts you’ve enjoyed reading before?

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