World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Barbara Alpern Engel and Janet Martin, Russia in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xiii +156. Bibliography and Index. $19.95 (paper).


     In this concise but wide-ranging book, Barbara Alpern Engel and Janet Martin provide a useful and engaging account of the course of Russian history from the earliest days of Slavic tribes down to the present. As part of the New Oxford World History series, the work is composed with a special emphasis on Russia's role in the world, but is equally useful for those simply seeking a short overview of the history of the world's largest country by area. While the book is eminently employable as an introduction to Russian history, it attempts to frame this history in a global context, but this is done so subtly that the reader may not notice. This does not mean that the work fails in this regard; rather, it is done effortlessly and in no way feels forced, although not all aspects of global history receive the same treatment. In spite of its brevity, the work does not lack depth nor does it overly simplify Russia in its complexities and contradictions. Instead, it offers a sound foundation to anyone who is learning about Russian history for the first time.

     The work recommends itself to a variety of audiences, including high-school history teachers and those teaching an introductory world history or European history class at the college level if their specialty is not Russia. Even if an instructor is not planning on teaching about Russia in depth, the succinctness of the work would make it easy for the non-expert to gain a rudimentary outline of Russia's role in European history. The book's focus on Russia in a world framework will make it easy for the reader to see where ignoring Russia's role hampers our ability to understand broader regional and world history. For example, Engel and Martin's description of Russia in the first half of the 19th century make it clear that it is difficult to fully explain the contradictions and complexities of post-Napoleonic Europe without understanding the situation within Russia. The decline of the Ottoman Empire, the role of enlightened despotism, and the effects of the French Revolution outside of Europe are all given greater context, and grow in importance when understood as part of Russian history as well. Therefore, college professors as well as high school teachers, especially those teaching Advanced Placement European History courses, might find this book especially useful in helping their students understand history as more complex and nuanced than is often told in most textbooks, which tend to focus on Britain, Germany, and France. What is more, this easy introduction to Russian history—as well as its well-chosen suggested reading list at the end of the work—will hopefully encourage more non-specialist history instructors to learn more about the fascinating history of Russia. However, those with a basic understanding of Russian history will find little new here in terms of information or arguments, aside from a greater emphasis on Russia's role in Europe.

     While the work succeeds in placing Russia in a European context, and allows readers to understand Russia as part of global trends of world commerce, industrialization, and the rise of the nation state, it is less successful in its treatment of world history themes that are not centered on Europe. This is an unfortunate shortcoming, albeit one that is understandable given the limited length of the work. While the work does discuss Russian territorial expansion into Siberia and Central Asia, it only lightly touches on the important global themes of imperialism and colonization, especially outside Russia's current borders. What is more, it fails to make explicit the similarities and differences between Russian imperialism and that of other European countries. Similarly, while Engel and Martin do an admirable job of discussing Russia's diplomatic relationship with the Ottoman Empire, and how this interaction was just as important as developments in Europe, there is very little in the work on relations between Russia and Central or East Asian polities. Instead, most of the diplomatic history covered in the work centers on European powers, and later, the United States. For the work to fully succeed in its claims of telling a global history of Russia, more attention should have been paid to Russia's role in Asia, instead of prioritizing its role in Europe. However, the fact that the work gives more attention to these regions than many previous histories—in that the authors mention them at all—is to be commended. Additionally, the authors' treatment of Russia's relations with the Ottoman Empire is a good example of how showing Russia's engagement with non-Western powers can give important context and complexity to Russian history.

     The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter One covers a huge swath of history from the earliest days of Slavic tribes through the Christianization of Rus and the early Grand Princes. Chapter Two (1240–1462) discusses the vitally important two century history of the consolidation of lands under Muscovy and the development of the Russian Orthodox Church and its interdependence with the state. Chapter Three (1462–1698) continues these same themes and raises the important issue of the pre-Peter the Great roots of "Westernization" in Russia. Chapter Four (1689–1725) describes the reforms, or what the authors term the "revolution," of Peter the Great and place special emphasis on the role of Russia as a full participant in European affairs. Chapter Five (1725–1855) discusses the important reign of Catherine the Great and the role of Russia in the Napoleonic era, and ends with Russia's embarrassing defeat in the Crimean War. Chapter Six (1855–1905) covers a period of only fifty years in the second half of the 19th century. However, it is a vital period as it saw the enactment of the Great Reforms that ended serfdom and also the rise of revolutionary ideologies that played a crucial role in the next century. Chapter Seven (1905–1945) begins after the Revolution of 1905 and covers the last years of the empire when it was a constitutional monarchy as well as the devastation and defeat of the First World War and the revolutions of 1917. It also describes the Civil War, industrialization and collectivization, as well as the Terror under Stalin, and ends with Soviet victory in the Second World War. The final chapter (1945–present) covers the Cold War and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the post-Soviet developments in Russia up to the present day. These chapters work quite well, and in spite of their brevity cover the major events satisfactorily.

     While the book's conciseness is its major strength and accomplishment, readers should not expect that this means that it is a boring and broad summary. In fact, Engel and Martin pepper the work with interesting and enlightening examples. In addition to humanizing anecdotes about rulers and famous figures such as the poet, Pushkin, the authors also utilized stories about ordinary Russians to construct an interesting and compelling narrative about two centuries of Russian history. For example, Engel and Martin opened their description of the end of serfdom with the story of how peasants in 1857 in the Moscow region led by the peasant Egor Pankratyev resisted both their noble master and the police who came to arrest them for their defiance. This example shows how the Great Reforms were not only the product of top-down legislation but also how serfdom and autocracy did not equate to total control. While Martin and Engel were not specific in connecting their examples to world historical themes such as modernity and resistance to government control, these themes are present for those who are willing to look for them. Furthermore, it is through examples like this that Engel and Martin have constructed a narrative with interesting stories and actors that—in addition to its brevity—make the work a useful, informative, and enjoyable read.

Jack Seitz is a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University in the Rural, Agricultural, Technological, and Environmental History program and can be reached at

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2016 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use