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Robert Williams' Book Explores Roots of Russian History

R. Williams
Robert Williams

Cold warriors resigned to a lifetime of confrontation with the Soviet bear have been re-examining their assumptions about that part of the world during the past decade. Robert C. Williams, professor of history at Davidson College, has now published a book that helps put the fall of Communism into historical context.

In Ruling Russian Eurasia; Clans, Khans, And Tsars, Williams retraces centuries of history showing that the breakup of the Soviet Union into 15 new nations is not really so surprising, because that area of the world has always defied unification.

"The collapse of Soviet Union has forced us to reinterpret its history," said Williams, who brought 35 years of study and teaching to bear on this new 250-page book from Krieger Publishers. "When I was growing up, the Cold War was the end of Russian history, but now the nationalities within the empire, which we used to treat lightly, are of primary importance again."

Williams' book points out that Russian history now looks less autocratic than it previously seemed. But he explains that the nationalities and ethnic groups now staking their claims to independence have maintained some degree of local autonomy for centuries, despite repeated attempts by monarchies and the central Soviet regime to unify control of the subcontinent. "There have been many attempts to impose political unity on this diverse area, but in essence the continent of Eurasia hasn't changed much politically," he said. "The separate Eurasian political entities are still the focus of Russian history."

Williams said his interest in Russian history began about the time of the Sputnik launch in 1957, and grew out of the Cold War. "I wanted to understand who these people were who were giving our government fits," he explained.

The more he studied Russia, the deeper he delved into its history. Whereas many books of history look at isolated events, Williams was pulled toward an ambitious, sweeping look at the entire scope of Eurasian history. He argues in Ruling Russian Eurasia that Eurasian history has been defined by oligarchies rather than autocracy. It is the story of successive warfare states attempting to mobilize by force the clans and peoples they claimed to rule. "High politics and kinship politics were intertwined," he writes in the book. "The family was crucial to both Muscovite and Imperial Russian political cultures.... From the imperial throne to the peasant commune, families and relatives mattered."

The Mongols ruled for almost a century in the Middle Ages, then Muscovy expanded its influence to control the area for almost 400 years. Peter the Great created an empire in 1721 and initiated the era of the monarchy. That was overturned by the Russian Revolution of 1917 with its Communist agenda, and now Communism has also failed. The former Soviet Union's demise has once again revealed the differences and exacerbated tensions between the ethnic groups within the borders of the former Soviet Union.

"Empires are not nations," Williams writes. "Empires are multinational administrative structures ruled by an emperor. Nations are states grounded in a people claiming nationhood..."

Krieger Publishers has included Ruling Russian Eurasia as part of its longstanding "Anvil Series" of interpretive works of history. About half of the book comprises 30 primary documents that support Williams thesis. "That was most challenging part of project," explained Williams. "Which 30 documents in the whole of Russian history do you pick?"

He chose to include a wide array, from Herodotus' 415 B.C. account of on the Scythians, to Alexander II's 1861 edict emancipating the serfs, to Boris Yeltsin's remarks in 1998 at the reinterment of the bones of Tsar Nicholas II.

Williams dedicated this ambitious work to his students, colleagues, and family, because of his conviction that it only came together through a lively exchange of ideas over time. "This is an example of scholarship that grew out of teaching," he said. "The book very much developed from testing ideas on students in my course on 'Imperial Russia.'"

Williams earned his Ph.D. in Russian history from Harvard University. He came to Davidson in 1986 as vice president for academic affairs following teaching and administrative appointments at Williams College and Washington University.

He served as Davidson's vice president for academic affairs until 1998, when he joined the full-time faculty in the history department. Now that he has completed his book on Russian history, he is beginning an intellectual biography of Horace Greeley that focuses on that colorful 19th century publisher to explain how European ideas of liberty were transformed into the American idea of freedom. He has previously written, edited, or translated almost a dozen books, including works on the Bolsheviks, nuclear energy, espionage, Russian art, and linear algebra.

Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by "U.S. News and World Report" magazine.

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