Books on Russian/French history in the 1800s?
April 26, 2007 10:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some books on European history during the 1800s. I'm specifically interested in Russia from the Decemberists to the 1917 revolution, and the French student revolution of 1848.

I saw Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia last week and was blown away by it. I'm now looking for some context to put it in. It's about Russian intellectuals trying to reform Russia in the 1800s (specifically, Belinsky, Bakunin, and Herzen, as well as a bunch of other historical figures), and a significant chunk of the second play takes place during the student uprisings of 1848. Having seen it, I now realize I don't know much of Russian history or French history after the revolution. If you could recommend some books to cure my ignorance I'd be most appreciative.

I have no problem with scholarly works so long as they're not too dry. I'm contemplating reading Herzen's memoirs, but I figure I'd better do some background reading first!
posted by pombe to Grab Bag (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This might be a little general, and I am not a librarian (*flashes MeFibrarian signal*), but the armchair historian in me really likes Norman Davies' "Europe: A History" from a few years back, because it is succinct enough to not overwhelm me, yet deep enough to show links between movements and cultures across the whole continent - not just France and Spain and England but Kievan Rus' and Poland-Lithuania too. The maps and charts in the back are superb and fascinatingly themed, and he also sprinkles in some "capsules," which pick up on the quirkier, smaller bits of history that often get left out of big histories like this. It'll be a reference for years to come, and it's written in a pretty engaging style, too.
posted by mdonley at 11:32 PM on April 26, 2007

I would be careful of Davies, since he's actually a nationalist historian posing as a cosmopolitan Europhile; for him, Poland leads the world in historical development and just about everything else.

In these particular cases, he isn't bad, though not especially informative.

I would recommend Marx's 1850 essay "The Class Struggles In France"--probably the most famous analysis of the French events. It jumps right in without much of an introduction, but it's pretty easy to figure out who's who.

Some mid-19th century Russian thinkers besides Herzen you should consider reading:
Pyotr Chaadaev, a philosopher of history hugely influential in the Russia of that period.

Nikolai Fedorov, who built an entire philosophical system around immortality for the human race, to be achieved by raising the dead ("resurrection of the fathers") and using them to colonize space. He also developed a theory of environmental sustainability.

Vladimir Solovyov, a mystical philosopher and theologian who started a brief intellectual renaissance in 19th century Russia.
posted by nasreddin at 11:58 PM on April 26, 2007

David Thomson's 'Europe Since Napoleon' is a very good text which I used for A-level history (a few years ago now - but the main topic area was 19th century European history). It covers all the main political, social, economic and intellectual currents of that period in a way that's intelligent but not too 'technical' (it's intended for 16-18 year olds studying history, after all, not professional historians).
posted by plep at 4:40 AM on April 27, 2007

For specifically French history from the same period, Alfred Cobban's 'History of Modern France' is also very good and aimed at the same level. This includes the 1830 and 1848 'revolutions' as well as the Paris Commune.
posted by plep at 4:43 AM on April 27, 2007

There's a fair bit of good literature on the Nihilist movement in Russia (Herzen has been called "the father of the Nihilists") - in particular the essays of Nikolai Dobrolyubov, Ronald Hingley's Nihilists, and Franco Venturi's Roots of Revolution should provide a good overview.

Quite a few fascinating characters there as well - terrorist Sergei Nechaev has been written of numerous times (see Philip Pomper's Sergei Nechaev and Michael Prawdin's The Unmentionable Nechaev) - he was a close friend of Bakunin's and eventually married Herzen's daughter.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 5:58 AM on April 27, 2007

Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station - The first section has some neat stuff on pre-Marx & Engels socialist thinkers in France, Russia, and (to a lesser extent) the US. The second section is mostly on M & E, but also touches on some other contemporary socialists (Bakunin among them).

The third section (on Lenin and Trotsky) should be taken with a grain of salt. Wilson wrote in the forward to a later edition that he had been taken in by state historians glowing, heroic accounts of Lenin's childhood, benevolent leadership, etc.
posted by clockwork at 9:36 AM on April 27, 2007

Best answer: I second what nasreddin said about Davies, though his own choices are a little... specialized. (Nikolai Fedorov?! How would you even read him? The only English translation is "Currently unavailable. We don't know when or if this title will be in stock again.") My recommendations for Russia (I'll let someone else handle 1848 France, except to urge you to read Flaubert's magnificent Sentimental Education):

The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, by James Billington. It doesn't get to the Decembrist period until almost halfway through, but if you have any interest in Russian history and culture, this is indispensable: brilliantly written and delving into all sorts of obscure corners (for instance, it's where I found out about Fedorov, who "returned periodically to the idea that the assertive, artificial world of men contains less wisdom than that of animals, and that of animals less than that of the composed and earth-bound vegetable world"—more on this lovable, wacky thinker at this LH post).

Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917
, by Geoffrey Hosking. He takes over a hundred pages to get to the Decembrists, but again, all the information he presents is vital for understanding what the hell Imperial Russia was all about and how it worked. Here's a quote to give you an idea about the insights he provides: "Significantly, criminal bands often adopted Cossack customs, organizing themselves in arteli, who would take decisions in common, share out their booty and observe a strict code of conduct — which, however, in their case excluded any collaboration with the state. This has made the criminal world in Russia remarkably tenacious and durable, through numerous changes of regime, right into the late twentieth century."

Russia, by Donald Mackenzie Wallace (there were three editions, in 1877, 1905, and 1912; you can cheaply buy an abridgment of the last, but the 1905 is online here and here); Wallace was a very interesting guy (lost both parents before he was ten, studied metaphysics and ethics at Glasgow and Edinburgh, then went to the École de Droit at Paris and the universities of Berlin and Heidelberg, where he studied Roman law and modern jurisprudence, taking a degree in 1867; then he conceived a desire to study the Ossetes and got himself invited to Russia, where he learned Russian—extremely unusual for a Western European in those days—and got interested in the Russians themselves, traveling all over the country and hanging out with princes and paupers alike; he became a foreign correspondent for The Times and went to Egypt and India before... but I digress) and his book is a treasure trove of anecdotes and hard-won understanding of how things actually worked.

Russian Thinkers
by Isaiah Berlin. Berlin is your guy for Herzen & Co.; nobody who's written in English has devoted more time and thought to that generation and its influence, or written so well about them. If I could be someone other than languagehat, I'd be Isaiah Berlin. Well, him or Nabokov.

In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia's Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825-1861
by Bruce W. Lincoln. OK, this is pretty specialized, and I know it sounds boring as hell, but it's not! Lincoln's one of those rare historians who can actually write, and he tells the neglected story of the liberals who didn't go into exile or blow shit up, but tried to work within the system. They mostly failed, of course, but they laid the groundwork for the abolition of serfdom, and by the time you've finished this short book you'll understand why the system was so hard to change and why so many people gave up and supported the men with the bombs. Lincoln also wrote a trilogy of books about the period from the 1890s through the Civil War (In war's dark shadow: the Russians before the Great War; Passage through Armageddon: the Russians in war and revolution, 1914-1918; and Red victory: a history of the Russian Civil War) and a fine history of the imperial capital, Sunlight at midnight: St. Petersburg and the rise of modern Russia.

A people's tragedy: the Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. Incorporates recent research, very well written. Figes also wrote the well-regarded Natasha's dance: a cultural history of Russia; I own it but haven't read it yet.

Black night, white snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 by Harrison Salisbury. Salisbury was a great reporter who spent many years in Russia and did a tremendous amount of research; the book's thirty years old and you wouldn't want to use it as your primary source, but nobody tells a story like Salisbury, and you get tremendously caught up in the rush of events as you follow the characters from one crisis to the next. He doesn't just tell you about the troops defending the Winter Palace, he shows you the huge piles of firewood stacked in front of it for the palace fireplaces. Well worth the penny you'll spend on it at Amazon Marketplace.

OK, I'd better get some actual work done, but I've got plenty more recommendations—write me if you want to discuss this stuff, about which I've been reading obsessively for some time (in case you couldn't tell).
posted by languagehat at 11:40 AM on April 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Awesome! Thanks all and thanks for the long exposition languagehat. I'm heading to the library tomorrow!
posted by pombe at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2007

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