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Russia’s People of Empire

Life Stories from Eurasia, ?1500 to the Present
Stephen M. Norris and Willard Sunderland, eds. (Indiana University Press, $35)

Should you find yourself so unlucky to be in the company of someone arguing for a “Russia for Russians” or similar nationalistic nonsense, you would do well to have this book in your arsenal. Not for flinging at the fool, of course, but for citation and reasoned argument. As if that gets one very far these days…

In any event, as this book makes patently clear in its 31 biographical essays, Russia is a complex, multi-ethnic state founded, shaped and expanded by rulers, leaders, thinkers and artists who came from a wide variety of nations, confessions and traditions. Yes, we all know about Catherine the Great (German) and Stalin (Georgian), but there have been a broad variety of souls, from Lomonosov, Gogol and Borodin, to Bagration, Shamil and Mannerheim, who have influenced all aspects of Russian culture, science and politics by injecting influences from other cultures and traditions.

The objective of this collection is to use the personal, microhistoric approach allowed by biography to “open up a view on the long-running effects of what it meant to live in a densely multicultural neighborhood.” That the volume begins with biographies of Ermak Timofeyevich – the Cossack who opened up Siberia, and Simeon Bekbulatovich – the Tatar prince that Ivan IV installed on the Kremlin throne for a year, and ends with the writer Boris Akunin and the Kremlin puppeteer Vladislav Surkov, gives a sense of the breadth of its coverage.

It would be silly to expect that the fullness of Russian cultural diversity could be expressed in a single 350-page book, and the editors well admit they have no such pretensions. But it is an invaluable start down the road to grasping the often sadly overlooked diversity that Russians will joke about (“scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar”) but rarely embrace (contrast the continued discrimination against Tatars with the reality that Tatar princes and descendants of the Mongols were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian empire under Ivan IV).

Each biography here opens a door onto unknown pages of history. Yes, there are biographies of the sort of better-known luminaries enumerated above. But the strength of this book is how these are balanced by biographies of unknown souls who had great influence or whose lives signified the times they lived in, from a fake Circassian princess, to a Central Asian poet, to an itinerant pretender to the Russian throne.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2013