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

Book Review


Poe, Marshall T. The Russian Moment in World History (Princeton University Press, 2003).  116 pp, $17.95.

     In world history, Russia has played a unique part as a non-conformist state that defies traditional classification as a European/Western or Asian/Eastern unit of political organization.  Marshall Poe, a Russian historian who currently writes for the Atlantic Monthly, argues that Russia was the only state in Western Eurasia to defend itself from Western European imperialism and Western European-styled modernity because of its unique geographic, political, cultural, and economic circumstances.  Poe questions a common assumption that the Russian historical experience was deterministic:  that is, that the Russians were somehow genetically or culturally resistant to westernization a priori.  This book also situates Russia's role within world history as a state that was impacted by "outside" events and historical actors, but maintained a unique position as neither truly "Western" nor truly "Eastern." 1
     The Russian sonderweg (unique path) to modernity was a "result of myriad accidental and contingent events, none of which could have been predicted." (xiii)   Russian modernity was achieved independently rather than through direct coercion from nations to the west.  The Orthodox Church's censorship and labeling of European ideas as heretical was central to the development of this Russian resistance to Western ideas.  Fear of European invasions also contributed to the establishment and sustainability of autocratic political rule.  The Russian autocracy organized a highly effective military defensive structure which further facilitated Russia's unique path to modernity. 2
     This brief yet thorough treatment of Russian history is organized into nine chapters.  In the first chapter Poe argues that Russia does not—and should not—fit into categories or labels as a "European" or "Asian" society.  The second through eighth chapters detail the chronological story of Russia from the first migrations of Slavic peoples out of Central Europe in the sixth century to the conclusion of the "Russian Moment" in 1991.  Along the way, Poe identifies key turning points at which the Russians made decisions that usually tended to benefit Russia's progression down its own unique, albeit successful, path to modernity.  The final chapter, titled "Coda: What Might Have Been," does not add much to an otherwise very well-argued book.  In this last chapter Poe discusses possibilities for alternate outcomes of Russian history and plays the game of historical "what if."  A bibliographic essay at the end of the book provides further reading suggestions for those interested in learning more about specific topics of Russian history.  Poe also includes a brief chronology of major events in Russian history, organized by early, middle, and late parts of centuries, to help the reader more easily navigate the narrative.  The book is commendable for both its brevity (making it useful for assigning to undergraduates) and its successful summarizing of Russian history within a still complex framework. 3
     Although this book tackles some rather daunting philosophical and historical issues, it is also quite accessible and would be useful for teaching in a number of ways.    At the beginning of each chapter, a paragraph or two is devoted to wider philosophical issues involved in the study of history, such as the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy that often finds its way into some historians' arguments.  Poe weaves these larger historical issues into the Russian historical narrative.  Poe's linking of general historical/philosophical principles with Russian historical events makes for potentially valuable discussion material.  The maps are beneficial for situating Russia into a global context by showing key points of historical and cultural interactions, including the paths of the Slavic migrations, the Mongol invasions, and the path of major European attacks on Russia since premodern times 4
     Poe's book would work well as a supplementary reading book for world history university/college surveys (particularly those that deal with the post-1500 world) or in AP high school world history courses.  Russian Moment would ideally fit into courses in which the instructor wants to emphasize issues of modernity.  The Russian case could be contrasted with other societies that made the transition to modernity in other ways such as China, Japan, or the Western European nation-states.  The book is also well-suited for upper-level undergraduate courses in Russian History.  Poe's work makes a fine addition to both Russian and world historical scholarship, particularly for its ambitious attempts to summarize such a vast subject matter while still managing to maintain easily-followed and succinctly-proven points. 5

Discussion/Essay Ideas

1)    Discuss the concept of the Russian sonderweg as defined by Poe.  At what points in the chronology of Russian history did the Russian autocracy or the Orthodox Church act to deter Russia from following a more traditional path to modernity? 

2)    Poe makes the claim on page 47 that Russia "was the only extra-European empire to remain a powerful, independent world-historical state throughout the early modern period."  What reasons does he provide for this?  In what ways were other early modern societies (such as the Incas, Aztecs, Ottomans, Safavids, Moguls, and Qing) less able to withstand the western European onslaught?

3)    The author maintains in his conclusion that the process of modernity in Russia eventually brought a degree of prosperity to those within the Russian empire.  This was "a vast improvement over premodern life." (90)  Do you agree or disagree with Poe's conclusion, both on the concept of modernity itself, and in particular with regard to the uniquely Russian experience with this process?

Scott Bailey
University of Hawaii at Manoa

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 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